Combine preview: What to watch for at Indy show
By Chad Reuter
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
Most NFL fans know what the combine (officially known as the National Invitation Camp) is all about. Hundreds of NFL personnel ascend on Indianapolis to poke, prod and pry into the lives of more than 100 players partaking in what amounts to a four-day job interview.
Players arrive in Indy on a staggered schedule dictated mostly by their position group. First to arrive will be kicking specialists, offensive linemen and tight ends on Feb. 24. Skill-position players (QB/RB/WR) arrive on Day Two, while front seven defenders (DE/DT/LB) show up the next day. The defensive backs turn off the lights on their way out on March 2.
On their first couple of days, they are checked both medically and mentally with rigorous physical tests and intelligence and personality exams (the infamous Wonderlic test).
Every prospect is measured by a height strip affixed on a wall, weighed on a scale and closely studied under the skeptical eyes of scouts.
Prospects also have meetings with NFL Players Association staff and up to 60 individual interviews with teams -- mostly before athletic testing begins.
Forty-yard dash times and bench-press reps of 225 pounds make the headlines. And although teams will downplay the usefulness of the "track meet" with "guys in shorts," every general manager, coach and scout in the stadium pulls out their own stopwatch when the running starts.
For the most part, teams arrive knowing which players will perform well. Evaluators have access to college weightlifting records and junior testing day performances that provide a general guide for who has already shown top strength and/or speed.
Because underclassmen do not have the on-field or off-field track record of most seniors in the draft, many of the top storylines entering the 2010 combine involve players who declared early.
Risers and Fallers: Players to watch at combine
RB Toby Gerhart, Stanford: The Heisman Trophy finalist has been a bullish runner for the Cardinal, but will surprise some with his straight-line speed and agility to prove himself a better athlete than most believe.
TE Jimmy Graham, Miami (Fla.): The former "U" basketball player should feel comfortable running and jumping in shorts. Teams will be more comfortable taking him in the late second round if he catches everything thrown his way and runs well in Indy's on-field sessions.
DT Lamarr Houston, Texas: It's surprising how he's flying under the radar a bit despite playing for a high-profile Longhorns squad, but if he runs in the 4.9 range at over 300 pounds and lifts well, teams looking for a penetrating three-technique tackle -- or 3-4 defensive end -- will leave Indianapolis intrigued.
OLB Koa Misi, Utah: Called one of the most athletic Utes by his coaches, Misi's underappreciated agility and speed at 6-3, 244 pounds will put him in the spotlight.
WR Carlton Mitchell, South Florida: The 6-4, 200-pound receiver has better speed and footwork than most have credited him for and, as long as his hands are solid in the gauntlet, look for him to start getting second-round grades.
CB Joshua Moore, Kansas State: Not many paid attention to KSU in 2009. Moore could fly up draft boards if he runs in the 4.4 range, as expected, and displays his fluidity in drills.
OT Jared Veldheer, Hillsdale: Scouts at the Texas vs. the Nation practices said Veldheer could become an NFL player if given some time to develop. If he runs a sub-5.0 in the 40 and lifts as well as expected, teams will also accept him as an elite athlete worth drafting early.
Battling for position
Draft boards are set up before the combine, but there are debates among scouts as to how the positional pecking order should go are ongoing in April.
A number of teams don't have either of these signal callers in their top 20 prospects. They aren't looking for franchise quarterbacks. Bradford's shoulder and Clausen's lack of height (word is he'll measure at 6-1 or less) are issues, and might decide which player teams rate higher.
Teams might not see either player throw this week as many top quarterbacks wait until their pro day to throw in a familiar environment to familiar receivers.
QB Colt McCoy (Texas)/Dan LeFevour (Central Michigan)/Tony Pike (Cincinnati)/Tim Tebow (Florida)
Who's No. 3? It stands to reason there is great debate behind Bradford and Clausen.
McCoy's moxie and athleticism could earn him the spot, but Tebow's character and value as a draw might cause a team to take a chance on him. LeFevour and Pike have their fans and interesting physical tools with which to work. Unlike Bradford and Clausen, these guys should be throwing to convince scouts of their accuracy on the run and that they can consistently deliver tight spirals. Jonathan Crompton (Tennessee) could possibly be in the conversation, but wasn't invited to Indianapolis.
CB Dominique Franks (Oklahoma)/Kareem Jackson (Alabama)/Amari Spievey (Iowa)/Donovan Warren (Michigan)
Which CB will stand out and separate himself from the others?
Safeties Morgan Burnett (Georgia Tech)/Reshad Jones (Georgia)/Major Wright (Florida)
Which round will they be drafted? Definitely could depend on their Combine workout.
Irish wide receiver Golden Tate must showcase his deep speed to justify being drafted in the first round.
After Florida's Joe Haden and Eric Berry and Earl Thomas -- teams will have to decide if these players fit at cornerback or free safety -- there is a group of defensive backs looking to separate themselves into top 50 or top 75 prospects.
You'll be hearing a lot about backpedals, transitions, and plant-and-drive capability with these guys as they try to prove they can mirror NFL receivers. There are also seniors in the fight, like corners Chris Cook (Virginia), Perrish Cox (Oklahoma State) and Devin McCourty (Rutgers), as well as South Florida teammates FS Nate Allen and CB Jerome Murphy.
OLB Sergio Kindle (Texas)/Ricky Sapp (Clemson)
The battle to be the top 3-4 pass-rushing linebacker is far from over. Kindle's name is better known to college football fans because of Texas' recent success, but don't be surprised if Sapp runs a faster 40 and puts up more bench-press reps. Their movement in drills could be crucial in teams' grading, especially since Sapp played with his hand down more often than Kindle in 2009.
OT Bryan Bulaga (Iowa)/Anthony Davis (Rutgers)/Trent Williams (Oklahoma)
Each team will rank Bulaga, Davis and Williams in a different order, depending upon if they view the player as a left or right tackle for a specific offensive scheme. Williams is solid but is best suited to the strong side. Davis is agile for his size but has maturity issues and may also be best at RT. Bulaga is probably a left tackle but had a thyroid issue this season, which might scare some teams from taking him in the top 10.
DE/OLB Brandon Graham (Michigan)/Jerry Hughes (TCU)/Jason Worilds (Virginia Tech)
Comparisons to former Wolverine and current Pittsburgh Steelers' starting OLB LaMarr Woodley are inevitable for Graham. Forty-yard dash times will be less important than shuttle times and agility drills for these guys as another undersized college defensive end converted to a 3-4 rush specialist, Larry English, showed with a 4.85 40 last year.
WR Golden Tate (Notre Dame)/Demaryius Thomas (Georgia Tech)/Damian Williams (Southern Cal)
Teams are divided on the value of the junior receivers coming into the combine. Tate must prove he has elite speed to be considered a first-round lock because he measured under 6 feet tall.
The 6-3 Thomas has the opposite issue, looking to put scouts' doubts about his top-end speed to rest. Williams falls in between the two, and if he runs in the mid 4.4's at around 200 pounds, he could be the first player from the troika picked because of his return skills.
Speed to burn
Tennessee Titans running back Chris Johnson and Raiders wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey were two of the recent prospects who have broken the 4.3-second barrier in the 40-yard dash at Indianapolis. These are the top candidates to be the fastest runners in Indy this year, listed in alphabetical order:
WR Brandon Banks, Kansas State
FS Eric Berry, Tennessee
RB Jahvid Best, California
WR Marcus Easley, Connecticut
WR Jacoby Ford, Clemson
CB Joe Haden, Florida
WR Trindon Holliday, LSU
RB/WR Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss
WR Taylor Price, Ohio
CB Patrick Robinson, Florida State
RB C.J. Spiller, Clemson
Questions to answer
Whether in interviews with teams or on the Lucas Oil Dome turf, these players have a lot to prove to NFL teams.
RB LeGarrette Blount, Oregon: His transgression against Boise State and tough running at the Senior Bowl give teams the good and the bad of Blount. Scouts are here to find out which version is closer to the real Blount.
WR Dez Bryant, Oklahoma State: The NCAA suspension is an obvious interview topic, but Bryant also has to answer questions about his top-end speed. If he decides to not run until the pro day, teams will wonder what he has to hide.
QB Armanti Edwards, Appalachian State: The two-time Walter Payton Award winner as the FCS' top player should get a shot to throw and work with receivers at the combine. As a quarterback, he might remind scouts of 2009 second-round pick Pat White. Nobody knows how he'll perform in another role, but it's clear from his open-field running as a scrambler he can make things happen.
DE Greg Hardy, Ole Miss: His inability to stay healthy and questions about his maturity and work ethic make the combine a crucial event for Hardy.
SS Myron Rolle, Florida State: The Rhodes Scholar looked strong and more fluid than scouts expected at the Senior Bowl after being out of football for a year studying at Oxford. He could also impress them with his overall workout in Indy. In addition, he's still trying to convince teams he really wants to play football.
ILB Brandon Spikes, Florida: Spikes has to answer questions about his speed on the Lucas Oil Dome turf and more than a few teams will want an explanation for an ugly eye-gouging incident this season.
QB Tim Tebow, Florida: Scouts believe Tebow showed improvement during Senior Bowl week practices, but he regressed during the game. Throwing better at the combine could improve his standing. As far as his team interviews go, he'll knock it out of the park.
WR Mike Williams, Syracuse: After missing a year serving an academic suspension, Williams returned for a few games in 2009, being very productive before leaving the team under somewhat mysterious circumstances. Good interviews and strong hands could earn him an early second-round selection.
Cal running back Jahvid Best needs to prove he's healthy after his ugly landing during a leap into the end zone. (Getty Images) Teams will be very interested in what examinations performed reveal before these players hit the interview room and/or football field.
WR Demaryius Thomas, Georgia Tech: Thomas broke his foot while working out Feb. 16, and his agent told the NFL Network that his client will be sidelined 4-6 weeks. Thomas won't be able to work out at the combine, and his ability to do any on-field work in front of scouts before the draft is in question. It's a significant setback for Thomas, who was primed to jump into the top 20 spots with a strong showing in the 40-yard dash and position drills in Indianapolis.
RB Jahvid Best, Cal: Everyone has seen the unsettling video of Best's concussion, suffered upon landing on his back and neck after a leap into the end zone.
CB Nolan Carroll, Maryland: He started the first two games of the year before breaking his leg. If healthy, he could be on the risers list as he's likely to run sub-4.4 40 and have a 40-inch vertical.
DE/OLB Jermaine Cunningham, Florida: A minor shoulder procedure kept Cunningham out of the Senior Bowl, but if that checks out and he looks as good as some expect in linebacker drills and testing, 3-4 teams will consider him in the top two rounds.
WR Eric Decker, Minnesota: The Gopher was potentially on his way to a second-round slot before tearing ligaments in his left foot.
WR Danario Alexander, Missouri: Alexander will miss the Combine following surgery to repair cartilage in his left knee Feb. 18, according to SI.com. Itís the fourth knee surgery for Alexander, who will miss an opportunity to impress NFL scouts who have questions about his straight-line speed and ability to get open against press coverage. Alexander played in the Senior Bowl last month despite some swelling in the knee during the week of practice, according to the SI.com report.
TE Jermaine Gresham, Oklahoma/Rob Gronkowski, Arizona: The top two tight ends in the draft have medical concerns to address. Gresham missed last season following surgery to repair cartilage in his right knee (he also had a torn ACL in his left knee as a high school senior). Gronkowski's back issues might be a bigger long-term concern, but he is a better all-around player when healthy.
DT Arthur Jones, Syracuse: A knee injury kept the stout Jones out for each of Syracuse's last three games, and he tore a left pectoral muscle in February 2009 while lifting weights.
CB Akwasi Owusu-Ansah, Indiana (Pa.): The FCS All-American cornerback and returner had shoulder surgery on an injury suffered in season finale.
RB Charles Scott, LSU/Keiland Williams, LSU: Scott broke his collarbone during the season, and then failed his physical at the Senior Bowl. Williams stood out at times in Scott's absence, but then broke his ankle against Ole Miss.
RB James Starks, Buffalo: Injured before the season, Starks spent the entire year rehabbing a torn labrum in his left shoulder.
CB Walter Thurmond III, Oregon: Looked like the next defensive back from the Ducks pipeline to the NFL before tearing the ACL in his right knee.
DE Corey Wootton, Northwestern: The 6-7, 280-pound end tore his ACL in the bowl game after his junior year and looked more comfortable as the season progressed. A fully healthy knee at the combine could earn him a late first-round slot.
Other prospects and their injury questions
OG Jon Asamoah, Illinois: Shoulder injury suffered at Senior Bowl practice
OT Jason Fox, Miami (Fla.): Left knee
RB/KR Brandon James, Florida: Right foot
ILB Micah Johnson, Kentucky: Knee
DE Erik Lorig, Stanford: Groin
TE Jeron Mastrud, Kansas State: Stress fracture in right foot
RB Brandon Minor, Michigan: Torn left rotator cuff
OG Dace Richardson, Iowa: Broken left ankle, past knee reconstruction
OLB O'Brien Schofield, Wisconsin: Torn ACL at Senior Bowl practice
WR Ryan Wolfe, UNLV: broken left foot
Be cautious of great 40 times and flashy workouts from players whose performance on the field wasn't consistently good enough to be rated as a surefire NFL star of tomorrow.
Inconsistent play and a DUI arrest are serious concerns when evaluating Florida defensive end Carlos Dunlap.
OT Bruce Campbell, Maryland: Looks the part of an NFL tackle and will run well, but Campbell is undisciplined and his pass protection technique needs work.
WR Riley Cooper, Florida: Scouts will remember Cooper's half-hearted efforts on the Senior Bowl practice field -- even if Cooper looks every bit the two-sport athlete he is during testing.
DE Carlos Dunlap, Florida: NFL scouts were not happy about Dunlap's uneven play last season, and they already know he'll put up freakish numbers at 6-6, 290 pounds. He'll also have questions to answer about his December DUI arrest.
DE Everson Griffen, Southern Cal: He'll run 4.6 at 280 pounds and wow NFL personnel men with his physique, but a quick film review unveils only flashes of brilliance.
SS Chad Jones, LSU: Word is that Jones is ready to light up the combine with sub 4.5-speed at 230-plus pounds. If he and fellow linebacker-sized Southern Cal safety Taylor Mays perform that feat and look fluid in defensive back drills, they could be considered "risers" by some -- and "workout warriors" by others because they weren't consistent playmakers.
RB Joe McKnight, Southern Cal: The comparisons to Reggie Bush will continue during the combine, especially if he runs in the low-4.4's or high 4.3's and looks fluid in drills. His limitations as a back and inconsistent hands as a receiver will make him only a second- or third-round pick.
DE Jason Pierre-Paul, South Florida: He'll run and jump with the best of them, and occasionally look like a superstar pass rusher. But concerns about his inexperience, multiple transfers and inconsistency defending the run or chasing down plays might trump his athleticism for some teams.
DT D'Anthony Smith, Louisiana Tech: Scouts marvel at his athleticism. However, Smith is unable to consistently get off blocks and once inside, doesn't make many plays. It's possible he could thrive as a 3-4 defensive end, but teams shouldn't bank a top-50 pick on it no matter how he works out in Indy.
Chad Reuter is a Senior Analyst for NFLDraftScout.com, distributed by The Sports Xchange.