NFL

Top eight storylines for NFL Scouting Combine

Leonard Fournette
Vincent Frank
Written by Vincent Frank

It’s the week of the NFL Scouting Combine. An annual event that started without much fanfare some 35 years ago has now turned into a media sensation. Two different major outlets, ESPN and NFL Network, cover the event. It’s the biggest date on the NFL off-season calendar outside of the draft itself. It draws ratings unlike anything before it.

There’s a simple reason for this. We’re interested in the annual dog-and-pony show. We want to see prospects run fast, jump high and catch footballs. We need our gridiron.

This year will be no different. With a wide-open crop of quarterback prospects, interest might be spiked even more. Can Deshaun Watson separate himself from the pack at quarterback? How will Pat Mahomes perform after playing in a college-style offense at Texas Tech? These are two of the biggest stories head into to the combine in Indianapolis this week.

Outside of that, we’re definitely interested in seeing what the most-talented recent crop of pass rushers have to show at the combine. Those names include Tim Williams from Alabama and Stanford product Solomon Thomas. The backdrop here are those who were not invited to the annual event due to off-field issues. What does that mean for their draft prospects?

These are among the top-eight storylines heading into the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.

1. Separating from the pack at quarterback

Can Deshaun Watson separate himself from the pack at the combine?

There are legitimately three quarterbacks in the 2017 NFL Draft that could be the first at that position off the board. This list includes the likes of Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky and DeShone Kizer. After that, Pat Mahomes of Texas Tech is sitting there as a potential Day 2 pick. Heck, he could even sneak into Round 1. It surely is an interesting dynamic to look at with such a wide open class at this position.

The good news here is that these quarterbacks are actually taking part in the combine. After years of top-end signal callers deciding against throwing, that won’t be the issue in Indianapolis at this year’s combine. It gives these four young men an opportunity to prove they can make every throw on the field in an environment adjusted for specific NFL-caliber arm talent.

Arm strength won’t be an issue for any of these quarterbacks. Instead, it’s going to be interesting to see how they handle three, five and seven step drops while being tasked with throwing the route tree. This will give us a clear indication of which quarterbacks can actually hit pro-level passes at efficient clips. It’s been an issue for other top-end prospects at this position in recent years.

More than anything, we really want to see how Watson performs in Indianapolis. He’s the most accomplished of this group. However, the Clemson product has failed to separate himself from the pack as of yet. He will surely have that opportunity in Indianapolis.

2. Those not invited

The NFL has made it clear. This annual dog-and-pony show is a reward for college football players that have made themselves viable draft prospects. That includes off-field situations.

Among the names passed over for an invite due to off-field issues, Oklahoma’s Joe Mixon heads the list. Considered a potential first-round prospect prior to the release of a video depicting him punching a woman, there was legitimate debate about just how high Mixon might go. That’s no longer in question. In fact, there’s a scenario in play here that suggests Mixon won’t be drafted at all (more on that here).

Mississippi teammates Chad Kelly and Damore’ea Stringfellow were also not invited to the combine due to off-field issues. Neither one was projected to be a top-round pick, but their absence could lead to each one going undrafted completely.

None of this is without drama. While the NFL has clearly indicated that its combine is a privilege, it really does place teams behind the proverbial eight-ball. Sure they will have an opportunity to see these three up close at their school’s pro days and in interviews, but that’s not the same.

The question now becomes whether a majority of NFL teams will simply pass up on talented prospects because the league itself viewed said players not worthy of a combine invite. Add in the recent focus on off-field issues, and that’s magnified even further.

3. The interviews

This is a relatively big deal for all potential NFL draft picks. How will they handle individual team interviews? What questions will be thrown their way? How will that translate to where said player might be selected? More than anything, it’s a paramount theme for quarterbacks. That’s only magnified in what promises to be a wide-open draft at this position.

Teams will give us the company line when it comes to interviews. From that perspective, nothing will break officially at the combine in Indianapolis. But as we saw back in 2014 when reports broke that Teddy Bridgewater didn’t give the best of interviews, there will surely be leaks here. That’s important to focus on as the events get going this week.

Outside of quarterback, one of the biggest questions will be how Alabama pass rusher Tim Williams handles the interview process. Despite being arrested in-season, Williams will take part in the combine. That’s primarily due to the fact that charges against him were eventually dropped. Despite this, there’s some widespread concern over Williams’ character.

“He (Williams) doesn’t get enough credit for his edge-setting ability either,” an unnamed scout told MMQB’s Albert Breer back in December. “But off-field stuff will drop him in the draft.”

Coming off a senior season that saw him record 16 tackles for loss and nine sacks, the 6-foot-4 EDGE rusher will absolutely dominate the individual drills at the combine. That’s not really in question. It’s how he answers to the gun incident that will heavily impact Williams’ stock. Talent-wise, we’re looking at a top-five pick. With off-field concerns, there’s a chance Williams could fall to Day 2. That’s where the interview process will be big here.

We can go up and down the list here, but the primary focus should be on quarterbacks and Williams himself. Sure teams will want to know why Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey skipped their bowl games. That will definitely come up. But it’s really about off-field issues and how those tasked with playing football’s most-important position handle the process.

4. The wide receivers

Mike Williams (Clemson) and Corey Davis (Western Michigan) appear to be atop the 2017 NFL Draft class at wide receiver. Both have been projected to go as high as the top 10 with one or the other being seen as the top receiver in the class. They will surely be on display in Indianapolis this week.

Though, we’re definitely going to want to see how lesser-known receivers handle the spotlight in front of the league’s 32 teams. This list includes small-school product Cooper Kupp from Eastern Washington as well as CAL’s Chad Hansen.

“Catches passes like his idol, Larry Fitzgerald. Plucks it away from his body and immediately tucks it away. Utilizes route speed variances to create deep-ball opportunities,” NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein said about Kupp recently. “Extremely confident and competitive. Bodies up cornerbacks to win contested catches. Believes he can catch every throw and is able to make the circus grab look easy at times. Excellent ball-tracker.”

This is where it gets interesting. Receivers run a drill called the Gauntlet, which allows scouts to focus on who can run the best route tree and track the ball. Should Kupp succeed here, it’s possible he could find himself selected at the end of the first round.

Considered a lesser prospect by some, Hansen was absolutely dominant for CAL this past season. He recorded 92 receptions for 1,249 yards in a pass-centric offense led by then Bears head coach Sonny Dykes. Like everything in that type of offense, stats are to be taken with a grain of salt. See: Davis Webb.

On the field and on tape, Hansen has the speed and size to be a boundary receiver in the NFL. More than individual position drills, we’re going to want to see how the 6-foot-2 receiver performs in the generic aspects of combine. Will his straight-line speed show up in the three-cone drill? Is he as fast as his 40 might seem to suggest? This will tell us a lot about where the talented youngster lands in the upcoming draft.

Overall, the NFL is now a pass-first league. This much cannot be denied. That will surely place value on talented receivers heading into the draft. Outside of the big two here, whoever shows the most in Indianapolis could climb up the board big time.

5. Understanding the importance of drills

There’s definitely a train of thought out there that these drills don’t amount to a hill of beans from an evaluation standpoint. That would be a foolish sentiment based on surface-based thinking. Some drills are more important than others. Some really shouldn’t be conducted when it comes to specific positions.

These are the generic drills, which every position takes part in. Then, when looking at the specific drills, there’s surely some that should take precedence over others.

When looking at the generic drills, why do we really care what 40-yard dash time an offensive lineman runs? Sure it can give us somewhat of an understanding whether a prospect will be more of the bullish variety or boasts plus-level athleticism. But 40-yard dash time isn’t necessarily going to impact where an offensive lineman goes.

What we’re going to want to look at here is the three-cone drill. How is said prospect able to change direction in a whim? This is equally important when it comes to the EDGE rush position on defense.

Jul 15, 2016; Hollywood, CA, USA; Stanford Cardinal defensive end Solomon Thomas takes a selfie during Pac-12 media day at Hollywood & Highland. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett is considered the top overall prospect in the draft. He should cement that status at the combine. But it’s how Stanford’s Solomon Thomas and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett perform that should tell us who else goes in the top 10 at that position.

As to where Thomas might need to show where he will play at the next level, Barnett’s primary motivation will be to show he has the athleticism to be considered a top-end pass-rushing prospect.

“He’s damn good. I don’t think he gets drafted as early as you do because he’s not big enough for inside and he’s not as long as you like on the outside,” an unnamed scout said about Thomas recently, via NFL.com. “You have to figure out where you will play him, but he won’t stop. He’s going to be really productive.”

This makes the position-specific drills important for Thomas. How does he perform against opposing offensive linemen? Can he show the ability to get to the quarterback from a hands-down position? Does he have the pass-rush arsenal to perform from the linebacker position?

Staying on defense, one of this scribe’s favorite drills is in the secondary. Ability to show fluid hip movement and ball-tracking skills. These are not two things that can be measured when it comes to the generic drills.

Instead, the ball reacting and catching drill should give us a tremendous understanding of where the likes of Malik Hooker and Budda Baker stand as center-fielders at free safety. Hooker is a potential top-five pick and could cement that status. Meanwhile, Baker could push his way into the first round with a solid performance here.

6. Trades in Indy

Most of the non-draft talk at the combine will surround quarterbacks. It won’t be about impending free agents. Instead, the rumors and potential talk in Indy will be all about trades. Jimmy Garoppolo, Kirk Cousins, Tony Romo and Jay Cutler could all be on the trade block. With the league’s 32 teams and their front offices in attendance, we’re sure to get a ton of trade conversations here.

A recent report suggests that the Cleveland Browns might be willing to part ways with the 12th pick in a deal for Garoppolo. Is this a trade the New England Patriots would accept without hesitation or will Bill Belichick and Co. try to squeeze more out of the quarterback-needy Browns?

It’s a bit more convoluted when we look at Cousins. The Redskins have franchised their Pro Bowl quarterback, meaning any team attempting to sign him would have to fork over two first-round picks.Kirk Cousins' future in Washington is up in the air

Of course, that changes if the Redskins are able to work out a trade with another team. Enter into the equation Cousins’ former offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan and the San Francisco 49ers.

They will reportedly talk quarterback trades in Indianapolis with Cousins being the primary topic of conversations (more on that here).

It was just a few short years ago that these 49ers worked out a deal at the combine that eventually sent Alex Smith to the Kansas City Chiefs. Could another trade be in the cards?

The backdrop when it comes to these other two quarterbacks is more interesting. Let’s say prospects at this position fail to impress in Indianapolis.

Would that force a couple teams to potentially look to offer draft picks for Romo and/or Cutler? At this point, it seems likely both will be released, but that could change on a dime depending on what happens at the combine itself.

Outside of quarterback, look for talks to heat up surrounding New York Jets defensive lineman Sheldon Richardson. The Jets are surely going to gauge the market for his services, and talks should take place in Indianapolis this week.

7. Workout warriors

Will anyone break Chris Johnson’s 40-yard dash record? Who will be the workout warrior closely linked to what we saw from Tavon Austin a few years back? How will that impact where teams have prospects who show themselves to be elite athletes? Is it all fool’s gold? So many questions, yet so few answers.

This is the quandary teams have found themselves in over the course of the combine. It’s hard to ignore elite-level individual performances in Indianapolis. But front offices need to find a way to balance the two. That is to say, balance what they see in generic drills with what they see on tape.

We primarily focus on running backs and wide receivers as those who could be the next workout warriors at the combine. This year is no different, but there’s also some other players to check out as well. Remember Shamarko Thomas’ otherworldly combine performance back in 2013? Despite face-planting on his 4o-yard dash, Thomas did enough in the other drills to warrant a fourth-round selection from Pittsburgh. He finished in the top five among all participants in the broad and vertical jumps while absolutely dominating in the weight room.

That same year saw Texas product Marquise Goodwin top all prospects with a 4.27 40-yard dash. An Olympic caliber athlete, this helped Goodwin land in the third round with the Buffalo Bills.

In looking at this year’s class, one player from each of these three positions has an opportunity to hold the title of workout warrior as the NFL draft process continues.

At 6-foot and 210 pounds, former South Florida star Marlon Mack has an opportunity to dominate the landscape in Indianapolis. He might not challenge Johnson’s combine record in the 40-yard dash, but Mack’s breakaway speed is something we should definitely focus on in other drills. I’m personally interested in seeing how his three-cone performance goes. Mack has an opportunity to find himself among the top second-tier running backs of the class, and a good showing in Indianapolis would go a long way here.

Florida State’s Kermit Whitfield didn’t necessarily impress on the stat sheet with the Seminoles in 2016, putting up just 34 receptions for 395 yards. He also stands at just 5-foot-8 and weighs a hair more than 180. Not exactly precursors to NFL relevance. That’s until we realize Whitfield himself is the only real threat to break Johnson’s 40-yard dash record.

Here’s a dude that broke the Florida high school record in the 100-yard dash. He has speed, and a lot of it. Projected as an un-drafted free agent, a tremendous athletic performance at the combine could change that big time.

Adoree’ Jackson is being projected as a late Day 2 pick by most experts right now. This, despite his electric play-making ability at Southern California and a skill-set that should translate to the NFL level. The issue with the former Trojans cornerback is that he stands under 6-foot — a big red flag for talent evaluators. He also has a penchant for jumping routes too often, which could lead to big plays the other way.

As athletic as they come, we’re definitely going to want to see how Jackson does in the broad and vertical jumps. This could quiet those who don’t believe his frame will allow him to play outside at the next level. Equally as important, it will be interesting to see how Jackson performs in the position-specific drills.

8. Players to watch

NFL Draft, Corey Davis

Leonard Fournette and Corey Davis on offense. Solomon Thomas and Reuben Foster on defense. These are the four players I will be paying close attention to at the combine.

All are seen as first-round picks. But with solid performances here, an argument could be made that these will be four of the first five players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft with No. 1 overall prospect Myles Garrett added in.

Fournette seems to be the true wild card here. There’s some who project him as high as No. 2 overall to San Francisco. While that might be a bit of a reach, a performance similar to what we saw from Derrick Henry in Indianapolis last year could push him into the top five.

This is how dominating the physical specimen might be at the combine. He has the size and the speed to absolutely dominate the position-specific drills. Though, Fournette’s 40-yard dash and three-cone times will go a long way in determining whether he’s a prospect up to the level of an Ezekiel Elliott.

Speaking of having a lot to prove, Corey Davis has an opportunity to show his worth among prospects that played at better-known programs. Coming off three consecutive 1,400-plus yard seasons at Western Michigan, Davis has the past history of success. At 6-foot-3 and 213, he also has the frame to be a No. 1 receiver at the next level. It’s going to be interesting to see what Davis does in Indy and how that might translate to his draft stock.

As mentioned above, we should really be paying attention to Stanford’s Solomon Thomas this week as well. An athletic freak from the EDGE rush position, Thomas has an opportunity to prove his worth among the top-10 prospects in the draft. How he goes about utilizing multiple pass-rush moves while showing his elite-level athleticism will play a huge role in where Thomas is selected.

Though, the one defensive player everyone is going to be paying attention to is Alabama’s Reuben Foster, who could very well go as high as No. 2 overall.

“Foster is a vicious hitter with elite playmaking range and an ability to toggle between 225 and 240 pounds. Athleticism gives him cover ability that former teammate Reggie Ragland never possessed,” NFL Media’s Lance Zierlein said about Foster, via NFL.com. “Has Pro Bowl potential as a 3-4 inside linebacker or a 4-3 weak-side linebacker, but concerns over his medical history could be a consideration, according to some teams.”

Sure the drills are going to be important here, but Foster’s medicals will tell us a story. If he does check out, there’s no reason why the former Crimson Tide standout can’t be a top-five pick. He’ll surely show that on the field in Indy.

About the author

Vincent Frank

Vincent Frank

Editor-at-large, Sportsnaut.

“You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?” Rumi