The 2018 NFL Scouting Combine features tantalizing prospects who have unbelievable talent, but many players will have some huge question marks, too.
It’s hard to get people to agree about what we should expect from these types of players going forward at the NFL level, though some are more of a sure thing than others. Two Heisman Trophy winners fit this mold in 2018, along with some small-school prospects and a one-handed warrior who has defied the odds ever since he was in grade school.
These are the most intriguing prospects you’ll see at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine.
Shaquem Griffin, outside linebacker, UCF
The dude has one hand. It doesn’t get more intriguing than that. In fact, he wasn’t originally invited to the combine and was a late addition because of his unique situation.
Shaquem Griffin lost his hand as a four-year-old kid after his mom caught him trying to cut it off — he was born with amniotic band syndrome, which caused the fingers on his left hand not to fully develop, and which caused him a ton of pain.
Griffin hasn’t let his circumstances dictate what he can and cannot do in life, however. And that includes being a veritable demon on the gridiron. He racked up 18.5 sacks and 33.5 tackles for a loss the past two seasons and was a key member of UCF’s undefeated squad in 2017.
What Griffin does this week at Lucas Oil Stadium — both in drills and during meetings — will have a lot to do with when he’s drafted.
Rashaad Penny, running back, San Diego State
If you dig through running back rankings around the web, one of the players who stands out for being inconspicuous is Penny. After leading the FBS in rushing last year with 2,248 yards, he’s being viewed as a Day 2 or early Day 3 guy by most of the top draft writers on the big sites.
The big reason for this is that, on tape, Penny just doesn’t display the home-run abilities of some of the other top backs in a very deep field in 2018. He also didn’t go up against top competition very often. And when he did face the best of the Mountain West conference — Boise State and Fresno State — he didn’t have a huge impact, gaining 122 yards on 36 carries in those two games last year.
Still, Penny is a very intriguing prospect. He’s not exactly small, coming in at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, and reminds this scribe of Maurice Jones-Drew. It’s going to be fascinating to see how he compares to the other top backs in the drills at the combine.
Arden Key, EDGE, LSU
Talent wise, there’s not a lot of question marks surrounding this LSU star. He has everything you’re looking for on the edge — size (6-foot-6 and 265 pounds), length, quickness, strength and production. While his 2017 season left something to be desired (more on that momentarily), he still racked up 140 pressures, 21 sacks and 33 hits on the quarterback and 86 pressures in three seasons at LSU, per Pro Football Focus.
The thing is, he does have some red flags. He wasn’t healthy last season and left the Tigers for a personal reason, which NFL teams will surely grill him about at the combine. Along with making sure to answer those questions honestly, Key can do a lot for himself by testing well during the drills this upcoming week. If he can show up well, then it’s likely Key will work his way into the first round of the 2018 NFL Draft.
Josh Allen, quarterback, Wyoming
Perhaps no other player in this draft is as polarizing as Allen, who is being talked about by some as the most likely player to go No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Browns.
This kid is fascinating. That’s undeniable. He’s got the strongest arm of anyone coming into the league this year, but you’ll have to forgive me if all that does is make me think about Kyle Boller, Jake Locker and JaMarcus Russell.
For every unbelievable throw that has scouts and coaches drooling (like these), there are a bunch of others on tape that make you want to run the other way. He’s terribly inaccurate at times and, to my eyes, has the look of a turnover machine at the next level.
It’s worth pointing out that Allen has a career completion rate of 56.2 percent in three seasons at Wyoming. History tells us that those numbers don’t typically improve at the NFL level, so it’s going to be fascinating to see how his game translates.
Josey Jewell, linebacker, Iowa
During his four years at Iowa, Jewell was Mr. Do-it-All. He was a leader, a reliable workhorse and a tackling machine. He racked up 433 tackles, including 28 for a loss, brought down opposing quarterbacks 10 times, reeled in six interceptions, forced three fumbles and scored a defensive touchdown.
Jewell is an instinctual player who always knows where to be. His football IQ is off the charts — he often knows what’s going to happen before it does, and when he diagnoses plays his response is immediate. Yet despite all that, there’s a good chance Jewell won’t be drafted until Day 3 in April.
With all that in mind, Jewell needs to show up in a big way at the combine. He needs to show he’s got the quickness and speed teams need from their starters. He needs to blow teams away during interviews and prove he’s they guy they need to have on their squad.
Chukwuma Okorafor, offensive tackle, Western Michigan
Raw, untapped potential.
Measuring in at 6-foot-6 and 330 pounds, this young man has the physique and athleticism to evolve into a dominant left tackle at the NFL level. But coming out of Western Michigan, Okorafor has a long way to go before he’ll reach that level of play on the gridiron.
He got started playing football later than most young men, growing up playing soccer in Nigeria. But the way he moves his huge body is going to be garner some big-time interest from NFL teams, who will believe they can coach him up to reach his untapped potential. If he wows during the combine, he will likely cement himself as an early Round 2 guy with immense upside.
Baker Mayfield, quarterback, Oklahoma
To some, Mayfield is the top quarterback in this draft class. He shows an uncanny ability to deliver passes on time into tight windows, despite his short stature. He doesn’t get many passes tipped at the line of scrimmage and has a natural ability to anticipate, which reminds this scribe of Russell Wilson.
But Mayfield is short. He’s about 6-foot. He’s also not going to burn up the track, because, although he’s athletic enough, he’s just not a speed guy. Another knock on Mayfield by his detractors is that he comes from a spread system, and typically spread quarterbacks struggle when operating under center.
Mayfield could go No. 1 overall. He could also slide out of Round 1 altogether. It’s that crazy disparity between viewpoints which makes his decision not to attend the draft so smart. He’ll land where he lands, and then he can get to work proving all his doubters wrong, wherever that may be.
Malik Jefferson, linebacker, Texas
When you draw up what an NFL linebacker should look like from a physical standpoint, Jefferson is darn close to the prototype. He’s 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds and can fly. Unfortunately, he’s not the most instinctual guy and gets fooled easily at times.
Essentially, he’s like the exact opposite of Josey Jewell, who is all instinct and lacks the athleticism that top linebackers possess today.
This past season at Texas, Jefferson really came on strong for the Longhorns under defensive coordinator Todd Orlando. He racked up 110 tackles, 10 for a loss and four sacks, thanks to a more attacking style of defense that suits his skill set to a T.
Likely, Jefferson is going to post some jaw-dropping numbers at the combine. If he does, then certain teams that feature more of an attacking approach will be tempted to take him early in the draft, likely in Round 2.
Kyle Lauletta, quarterback, Richmond
If you were tuned into Senior Bowl week and then the game that Saturday, then you’re already aware of who Kyle Lauletta is. He — not Baker Mayfield or Josh Allen — was the quarterback who made the most noise that week. He won MVP honors and was the most impressive quarterback during the actual Senior Bowl.
In addition to the way he shined against top competition, Lauletta has some other things going for him that will intrigue NFL scouts. He’s got size (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds) and made a name for himself at Richmond as a two-time captain and team leader. He also put up great numbers this past season, completing 64.9 percent of his passes for 3,737 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
Arm strength isn’t his forte, but he does all the little things right and could be one of those late-round guys who shocks at the NFL level due to his attention to detail.
Marcus Davenport, EDGE, UTSA
Looking at Davenport, it’s clear he has elite potential as an NFL pass rusher. But just how much will teams bank on that potential? That’s the big question.
The pass rusher possesses an ideal frame, coming in at 6-foot-6 and 255 pounds, that will certainly add bulk in the coming years once he gets into an NFL weight room. He has the long arms teams covet from edge rushers, too, and showed up extremely well during Senior Bowl week. That was a key test for this Texas-San Antonio product, as it was unknown how he’d perform against top competition.
If Davenport puts on a show during the combine, his already-hot stock will shoot through the roof. He’s one of the players we’re most excited to watch, and you should definitely tune in when he and the other defensive linemen put their skills to the test on Sunday, March 4.
Auden Tate, wide receiver, Florida State
We’ve already talked a bit about guys who have a prototypical frame for their position at the NFL level. Here’s another player who just LOOKS like an NFL receiver. Tate comes in at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds, and he is a load to handle, especially in the red zone. Just look at this touchdown catch he made over one of the draft’s top players, Minkah Fitzpatrick, in the first week of last season before Deondre Francois was injured.
Tate’s ability to high-point balls, in addition to his amazing frame, makes him one of the most intriguing receivers in this year’s draft. He only caught 65 passes for 967 yards the past two years at Florida State. But he also hauled in 16 touchdowns, 10 of them coming last year, and nine of those coming after Francois was injured.
If Tate busts out some sweet speed this week at the combine, then teams are going to take a long, hard look at what he brings to the table otherwise as a potential early-round pick.
Tremaine Edmunds, linebacker, Virginia Tech
Some of the players we’ve highlighted thus far, aside from the quarterbacks, are players who could be found later in the draft. Edwards, on the other hand, is being highly touted as a top-10 pick by almost every draft guru out there, and it’s not hard to understand why.
Edwards is a throwback to Brian Urlacher — he comes in at 6-foot-5 and 250 pounds. You just don’t see many inside linebackers that size any more. And when you do, they don’t run like Edwards runs. With that in mind, we cannot wait to see how he runs during the 40, and also what kind of agility he shows during the three-cone drill.
On tape, Edmunds shines. His natural athleticism is a sight to behold. And while he’s not quite as explosive as Roquan Smith, many see him as this draft’s top linebacker due to the entire package he brings to the table.
Dallas Goedert, tight end, South Dakota State
Another small-school kid, Goedert has the look of an NFL star.
A natural pass catcher, Goedert reeled in 164 passes for 2,404 yards and 18 touchdowns the past two seasons playing for the Jackrabbits. He’s 6-foot-5 and weighs around 260 pounds, yet he moves with the fluidity of a much leaner man. He’s exactly the kind of receiving tight end NFL teams covet these days, cut from the same cloth as Zach Ertz and Evan Engram, who have both thrived early in their careers.
Should Goedert test reasonably well, showing some functional speed and proving he’s capable of handling the physicality of the NFL, he could be a late first-round pick in April.
Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker, Boise State
Vander Esch only started one year at Boise State, and there’s always a bit of risk when assessing players who don’t have as much experience. But he certainly checks all the boxes. In that one year (2017), he was a monster for the Broncos, piling up 141 tackles, four sacks and three interceptions.
Even better than the raw stats, Vander Esch just looks like a natural. Here’s how Lance Zierlen of NFL.com describes this young player in his draft profile: “Vander Esch is a loose-hipped, instinctive linebacker who played in 2017 like he had a GPS tracker on the football.”
Coming in at 6-foot-4 and 240 pounds, Vander Esch has excellent size. It’s going to be really interesting to see how he stacks up numbers-wise in the drills against Roquan Smith and Tramaine Edmunds, both of whom are rated higher than he is heading into the combine.
Kalen Ballage, running back, Arizona State
Another player who really shined during Senior Bowl week, and during that game, Ballage is a tank. He’s 6-foot-2 and 227 pounds, yet he really has some wiggle to his step that makes him yet another very intriguing running back in an absolutely loaded class.
What’s fascinating is that Ballage wasn’t heavily utilized at Arizona State. In four years he ran the ball just 450 times, gaining 1,984 yards and 27 touchdowns. So, it stands to reason that he might have actually benefited from that light usage now that he’s entering the professional ranks. Running backs have typically short shelf lives, as you’re likely aware.
If Ballage puts up some impressive numbers during the combine, he’ll be a player to keep an eye on late on Day 2 or early Day 3 during the draft this upcoming April.
Lamar Jackson, quarterback, Louisville
You didn’t think we’d forget about Lamar Jackson, did you?
Is he an NFL quarterback, or should he go ahead and become a wide receiver? Seriously, that’s a question that’s being asked an awful lot about one of the most prolific college football quarterbacks in history.
For what it’s worth, Jackson sees himself as a quarterback, and if it were up to me he wouldn’t even run a 40 at Lucas Oil Stadium, just to prove that point. One of the most athletically gifted kids to come into the NFL draft in ages, Jackson is a freak of nature. He has the kind of moves you hardly ever see from top-end running backs when he’s toting the rock (like this), but he can also throw the ball a country mile, and with no small degree of accuracy, too.
It’s going to be interesting to hear the reports coming out of Indy this week after teams have gotten a chance to get into a meeting room with Jackson.