NFL general managers, scouts and media flocked to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis this past weekend to watch the top 300 NFL prospects compete in a series of athletic tests, interviews, medical exams, and interviews. The annual NFL Scouting combine began last Thursday, as the top collegiate athletes began the long NFL job interview process.
The NFL Draft is not until May, so the combine is the first opportunity for all NFL teams to meet players and watch them workout before their pro days (combine-style workout on their college campus) and private workouts. However, the NFL is a media spectacle and prospects’ ability to handle the media attention while having a great on-field performance is an indicator of how prospects will transition from being amateurs in the NCAA to professionals in the NFL.
South Carolina Gamecock defensive end Jadeveon Clowney added to scouts’ concerns by opting out of position drills and agility drills. However, Clowney did run his 40 yard dash in 4.53 seconds which was enough for scouts to warrant selecting him in the top three picks. At 266 pounds, Clowney’s 40-yard dash time was faster than average times for many wide receivers. Clowney’s type of athleticism only comes around once in a generation and every draft room is considering him, including the Texans who hold the first pick in the draft.
The wide receiving corps in the 2014 draft class has been labeled one of the best in years. Several receivers increased their draft stock in Indianapolis.
USC Trojan wideout Marqise Lee cemented himself as a first round pick amongst a deep receiving class. His 4.52 40-yard dash underwhelmed teams questioning his ability to stretch the field on deep routes, but the consensus is Lee has more game speed than straight line speed. His other numbers were impressive, including his 38’ broad jump, showcasing his explosiveness. Lee’s solid combine put an injury-limited senior season at USC behind him, and showed the junior’s ability to make plays on Sundays.
Louisiana State Tigers wide reciever Odell Beckham Jr. was on the bubble between the second round and late first round. Scouts were impressed with his position drill performance as he did not drop a pass, which should increase his draft value. He has the speed and versatility to contribute from the slot position, outside, or on special teams.
Oregon State Beaver’s wide receiver Brandin Cooks had the fastest short shuttle since 2006. The former Biletnikoff winner (award for best receiver in NCAA) was considered undersized at 5’11. Any questions about his short stature were quieted by the explosiveness and athleticism displayed at the combine’s agility tests. Teams are going to want his explosive playmaking ability enough to warrant a high first round selection. He has the speed and agility NFL offenses desire in the open field.
Texas A&M Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel made headlines before he even hit the field in Indianapolis. The 2012 Heisman Trophy winner has never been shy towards the media, and the combine was no different. After being measured a quarter of an inch shorter than six feet, Manziel addressed concerns about his height to the media. His bravado made headlines when Manziel said, “I play like I’m 10 feet tall,” in a press conference at the combine.
Another player who made headlines off of the field was Michael Sam of the Missouri Tigers. The Associated Press SEC Defensive Player of the Year announced he is gay on Feb. 9, and the ensuing media attention has been somewhat of a distraction following his announcement.
It is no surprise two players who made headlines off the field could not carry that momentum into the on-field drills, and consequently hurt their draft status.
Manziel’s decision to opt out of the position drills raised concerns about his willingness to compete with the best prospects. Not to mention, teams wanted to see him make NFL-quality throws, but Manziel will have to answer those questions at his pro day at Texas A&M in late March. Combined with his own media-craving personality, and teams are questioning if he is worthy of being the face of a franchise. ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said he would not draft Manziel in the first 3 rounds after the combine.
Sam did participate in the entire combine, but he looked stiff and under too much pressure in position drills and his 40-yard dash. He had only 17 reps in the 225 pound bench press which added to scouts concerns about his strength. His 4.9 second 40-yard dash made scouts question how explosive he really is as a pass rusher. Sam was projected to be a third round draft pick at the season’s end, and now he could be looking at a fifth round selection or later. His unspectacular performance may also cause controversy, as a fall in the NFL draft may be explained by teams because of a poor combine, rather than his announcement and potential media distraction he may bring to an NFL locker room.
UCLA Bruin linebacker Anthony Barr was climbing up draft boards since the end of the season. Barr was supposed to be the fastest linebacker in the draft, but was bested in the 40-yard dash by fellow linebacker Khalil Mack of Buffalo University. Barr’s bench press did not answer any questions about his strength, as he underwhelmed scouts with only 15 reps of 225 pounds. The low number of repetitions was bested by many players at traditionally weaker positions such as wide receiver, running back, and even quarterback. Combined with the converted tight end’s limited experience as a linebacker, it is questionable whether Barr has the strength or experience to fight off blockers in the NFL. Barr was looking at a top-5 selection in May, but he could fall as far as the late first round.