February is the time of year in the NFL where 40 times and bench press repetitions seem to trump one’s play on the football field.

I think the NFL Scouting Combine is one of the most misunderstood events in sports. It has been labeled as a somewhat meaningless event, because of some of the famous inconsistent results it has produced over the years.  Every year there are Combine Warriors that end up being busts and Combine Duds that go on to become Hall of Famers.   That leads many people to think of the Combine as an exercise in futility.

The poster child for the Combine Warrior that busted is All-Big East Boston College DE Mike Mamula.  Back in 1995, most players did not specifically train for the drills at the NFL Combine and Mamula was one of the first to do just that.   He ran a 4.58 40-yard dash, did 28 reps on the 225-pound bench press, had a 38.5-inch vertical leap and recorded 10-feet, 5-inches on the broad jump.  He then hit the books and scored a 49 out of 50 on the Wonderlic Test, which was the second-highest score ever recorded by an NFL player. 

As a result, he shot up the draft boards and was taken eighth overall in the NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.  In six seasons, he recorded 31.5 sacks and was out of the league by 2000, at the age of 27-years old.  He was not a terrible player and his career was cut short by injury, but he never lived up to that gaudy combine performance. 

Conversely, Michigan Wolverines QB Tom Brady was not a Combine Warrior.  In 2000, he ran one of the slowest 40s for a quarterback in the history of the combine at 5.23 seconds.  He also recorded a 24½-inch vertical jump.   That and splitting time with freshman QB Drew Henson caused him to slip to end of the sixth round.   However, Brady is still a MVP caliber quarterback that went on to post a Hall of Fame resume. He has appeared in five Super Bowls with the New England Patriots, winning three of them, despite his historically bad combine showing.

Those inconsistent results have caused some to view the NFL Combine as a waste of time.  I do not view it that way.  The NFL Combine is a tool to evaluate players; it is not the only tool.   The fact is that the Combine confirms what we should think about 95 percent of the players that pass through there. 

Keep in mind that most people thought Florida State Deion Sanders was one of the most gifted athletes the world had ever seen.  That was confirmed when he recorded a 4.17 second (hand-timed) 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine.  He went on to become a Hall of Fame cornerback.  In 2006, many people thought that Maryland TE Vernon Davis was too small to play tight end.  He recorded a 4.38 second 40-yard dash and pumped out 33 reps in the 225 lb. bench.   He ended up skyrocketing to the sixth pick and has been one of the best tight ends in the NFL, justifying that selection.

Where teams end up burning themselves is when they do not use the combine results in conjunction with game film or measurables.  People focused too much on Brady’s combine numbers and not enough on his 2,217 passing yards, 16 passing touchdowns, six interceptions and come from behind wins at Michigan in 1999.  Conversely, even though Mamula had 17 sacks at Boston College in 1994, the Eagles ignored what many teams feared about Mamula before the combine; he was an undersized, pass-rushing defensive end that probably was never going to translate into a dominant NFL player.  They made a rash decision based on combine numbers without considering how a player of his size would translate to the NFL and what his durability and longevity would be at that size.

Keep that in mind when reading through my notes.  I am not saying that these players are going to be busts or Hall of Famers.  The Combine is an inexact science, but these are some of my thoughts about what some of the various prospects did to improve or hurt their draft stock.

Saturday – Offensive Lineman & Tight Ends

  • Texas A & M Offensive Lineman Jake Matthews showed well for himself.  He comes from a strong NFL pedigree, as he is the son of Hall of Fame OL Bruce Matthews.  He can play all five positions on the line, which makes him an incredibly safe pick.  He ran a 5.07 40-yard dash and did nothing to hurt himself at the combine.   Expect him to go somewhere in the Top 15; CBS Sports Pete Prisco has him as high as anyone, going second to the St. Louis Rams.
  • Auburn OT Greg Robinson had a big day at the combine.  Again, he was viewed as a Top 10 selection headed into the combine.  At 6’ 5” and 335 lbs., he is a great athletic talent that has only started 25 games in college.  He blew away the NFL Combine, running a 4.92 40-yard dash.  He also benched 32 repetitions in the 225 lb. bench press.  I think with a good Pro Day, he could have played his way into the Top-6.  The St. Louis Rams, Atlanta Falcons both need offensive line help.  If they pass, he will not fall past the Buffalo Bills at ninth. 
  • The third elite first-round tackle prospect was Michigan T Taylor Lewan.  He ran a ridiculous 4.87 40-yard dash.  To be able to run that fast at 6’ 7” and 309 lbs. is mind-boggling.  The one thing that hurts all three offensive tackles is that all three put on their A-game at the combine.  Still, I cannot see any of these guys falling past the Buffalo Bills at the ninth spot.  Left tackle is the most important position on the offensive line; all three appear to be elite prospects.  It is hard to call someone a loser of the NFL Draft process if they fall to the ninth pick.
  • The big loser on Saturday was Alabama T Chris Kouandjio.  NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport has reported that several NFL teams have Kouandjio on his physical because of an arthritic knee.  He did nothing at the combine to ease those concerns by running a 5.53 40-yard time at the Combine.   He followed that up by only posting 21 repetitions on the bench press.  He had been considered a first-round talent by many heading into the combine.  That is not likely to be the case after this combine, even if he does rebound at his Pro Day.
  • North Carolina TE Eric Ebron showed well at the Combine.   He was the consensus top tight end in the 2014 NFL Draft Class and some think he could be the first tight end to go in the Top 10 since San Francisco 49ers TE Vernon Davis went sixth in 2006.  This is a name you will have to know in fantasy drafts come August.  He ran a 4.50 40-yard dash, despite tweaking his hamstring.  When a player is drawing comparisons to Davis and New Orleans Saints TE Jimmy Graham before stepping on a NFL; you know Ebron possesses some rare physical gifts.
  • The other tight end to keep an eye on is Texas Tech TE Jace Amaro.  At 6’ 5” and 260 lbs., he was able to run a 4.62 second 40-yard dash and bench 28 reps of 225 lbs.  He played in a pass friendly offense, tallying 106 receptions for 1,352 yards and seven touchdowns.  The 1,352 yards was a NCAA single-season record for receiving yards by a tight end.  His fantasy value will depend on his landing spot, but he is likely to go in the first round and could be fantasy relevant in 2014.
  • Keep an eye on Tennessee State TE A. C. Leonard.  He started his career at Florida, but transferred after he plead no contest to misdemeanor battery against his girlfriend.  However, he can also run very fast.  Leonard ran his 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds.  It was the fastest for tight ends and the third fastest for a tight end since 2006, according to Pro Football Talk’s Michael David Smith.  At 6’ 2” and 252 lbs. teams are going to have to decide if the fast 40-yard time outweighs the domestic assault issue.   He is worth keeping an eye on as a sleeper fantasy player, depending on where he lands in the NFL Draft.

Sunday – Running Backs, Quarterbacks & Wide Receivers

  • There was nothing earth-shattering that happened at the quarterback position.  Some people made a big production out of Texas A & M QB Johnny Manziel coming in a shade under 6’ 0”.   Others were ecstatic that Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater weighed 214 lbs.   Some praised UCF QB Blake Bortles for participating in all the Combine drills and then ripped the pocket passer for running a slow 40-yard time.  Bottom line is the Combine is not for those guys; they are going to be Top 10 picks.  People that thought Manziel was too short or Bridgewater too small are not going to be swayed by their numbers at the Combine.  No prospect in this class is an Andrew Luck type name; people are going to continue to have strong opinions about these guys.  I personally would draft Bridgewater out of the three players.  Bortles is pretty raw and I am not a fan of taking raw quarterbacks in the Top 10.   I am not sure Manziel’s game will translate to the NFL level.  Bridgewater is the one I think has the best chance for a long NFL career.
  • Alabama QB AJ McCarron was asked for a pro comparison to his game.  I personally would have thrown out Matt Cassel or Christian Ponder, but he said this, “”The last time I made a comment like that I got criticized. I don’t think you can compare anybody to anybody,” McCarron said. “When it comes to similarities I think from body build to how we were talked about coming out of college, I think Tom Brady. I think we play the game the same way.”  We’ll see, there is no denying that the guy was a winner at the college level, but I am not sure he has the arm strength and skill set to be like Brady at the NFL level.  He will probably be drafted and have a chance to prove everyone wrong, but nobody had a bigger chip on his shoulder than McCarron this weekend.  
  • This is good running back class, but there is no Adrian Peterson type prospect at the top.  I would be shocked if anyone is taken in the first round. The prospect that had the best college season was Boston College RB Andre Williams.  Williams tallied 2,177 rushing yards and 17 rushing touchdowns. However, he was dinged up to close the season and missed the Senior Bowl.  A bad Combine performance could have caused him to slide further.  Instead, he came in at 5’ 11” and 231 lbs., but still ran a 4.54 in his 40-yard dash.  Considering he is a power back, that was a great time.  He also scored a 38.0” on the vertical jump (4th among backs), and 10’9” on the broad jump (3rd).  If he has an impressive Pro Day, he may start creeping back up the draft boards.  
  • Georgia Southern RB Jerick McKinnin was the overall star of the running backs at the combine.  He ran the second fastest 40-yard dash at 4.41 seconds, bench pressed 225 lbs. 32 times and finished in the top 3 in the vertical and broad jump. That does not mean he will be top pick at running back though.  McKinnin was a quarterback and running back in an option offense.  There is even talk that he could play defensive back in the NFL.   Who knows where he plays in 2014, but he was a Combine Warrior this weekend.  
  • Auburn RB Tre Mason thought that he was being disrespected heading into the Combine.  “I’ve seen a couple of things saying I run a 4.5 or 4.6 (in the 40-yard dash),” Mason said Saturday. “I don’t think I’ve run that since eighth grade, seventh grade.”  That is what he ran on Sunday, posting a 4.50 40-yard time.  He made up for that time in his other events though, tallying 38.5” in his vertical jump and 126” in his broad jump; both were Top-5 totals.   He is a great talent, but I do not think he did anything to elevate him into the first round.  He is likely going to be a late second or third round selection.  
  • The guy that tore up the combine from a speed standpoint was Kent State RB Dri Archer.  At 5’ 8” and 173 lbs., he is unlikely to draw a lot of interest as a starting running back.  However, he is likely to be compared to New Orleans Saints RB Darren Sproles, just like every white receiver is compared to WR Wes Welker and every gun slinging quarterback is compared to Brett Favre.  What there is no denying is that Archer ran a 4.26 40-yard dash; he has the ability to be a burner in the return game and in passing situations at the NFL level. 
  • A rookie receiver you are going to want to keep an eye on for your 2014 fantasy leagues is Clemson WR Sammy Watkins.   He has been viewed as the best pro prospect in this draft and he was credited with an official time of 4.43 in his 40-yard dash. He could go as high as the second pick to the St. Louis Rams; I do not expect him to make it out of the Top 10.  He has the look of a special talent. 
  • Another name you will need to know for your fantasy drafts is USC Marqise Lee.  He is not quite the prospect that Watkins is at this point, but he should still go in the Top 15.   Lee ran a 4.44 40-yard dash and has all the skills to be a dominant NFL receiver.  In the right situation, he could be an impact fantasy player in 2014. 
  • One receiver that did not have a good Combine was LSU WR Jarvis Landry.  He is viewed as more of a possession receiver and was not expected to clock a sub 4.50 40-yard dash, but he pulled his hamstring according to a tweet by Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Ravens.  Landry finished with a 4.77 time.  Everyone knows he can run faster than that and will have a chance to show that at his Pro Day.  Still, Landry is a late first round prospect; it is never good to suffer a hamstring injury at the Combine.  
  • Florida State WR Kelvin Benjamin is going to be a prospect to watch between now and May.  This guy is a monster at 6’ 5” and 240 lbs.  He does not have burner speed, but he is fast enough and had an unofficial 4.53 40-yard dash time.   Big receivers are very valuable in the red zone and Benjamin has enough speed to be more than a red zone target.  Somebody is probably going to fall in love with this guy’s raw talent and draft him in the first round.   

Monday – Defensive Lineman and Linebackers

  • Overall, I think South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney had an impressive combine.  His official forty time was 4.53 seconds, but he had two unofficial times were 4.47 and 4.48 seconds with 10 yard splits of 1.56 and 1.59 seconds. To put that speed into perspective, Carolina Panthers QB Cam Newton ran his 40-yard dash in 4.58 seconds and San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick completed his in 4.53 seconds.  It is amazing that a guy who is 6′ 6″ and 265 lbs. can move that fast.  Clowney also recorded a 10-foot-4 broad jump and his vertical jump was 37 and 1/2 inches.  The only disappointing number was his bench press number, which was 21 reps of 225 lbs.  Some people are still questioning his work ethic, but if I were the Houston Texans, I would take him with the first overall pick.  This guy has too much talent that the risk of him not having a high motor pales in comparison to the risk of not selecting him.
  • Buffalo OLB Khalil Mack is one of the other big name pass rushers in the NFL Draft.  Mack had 10.5 sacks and 19 tackles for a loss last year and he had stellar performances against Baylor, Connecticut and Ohio State that caught scouts’ eye.   Despite being 6′ 2 5/8″ and 251 pounds, he was able to post a 4.65 second 40 time, a vertical jump of 40″ and a broad jump of 10′ 8″.   He appears to be a lock for a Top 10 selection and his stock should continue to rise after a solid Combine performance.  It backed up all the wonderful things he did on game film in 2013.
  • Missouri DL Michael Sam made big news before the Combine for revealing his sexual orientation.  I think the pressure he has been under in recent weeks caught up to him at the Combine.  His official forty time at the Combine was 4.91 seconds, which is horrific for a guy who wants to rush the passer at the NFL level.  The knock on him is that at 6′ 2″ and 261 lbs., he is too small to be a 4-3 end, but not flexible and athletic enough to play an outside 3-4 linebacker.  This performance does nothing to squash those concerns.  The good news is that San Diego Chargers MLB Manti Te’o had his own media circus over his fake dead girlfriend last year, had a terrible Combine, rebounded at his Pro Day and had a solid rookie season.  If Sam does not rebound at his Pro Day though, expect him to go from a 3-5 round selection to a 5-7 round selection.  
  • Auburn Tigers Dee Ford had a great season with 14.5 sacks and is projected as a late first round to early second round selection. His stock has been shooting up, due to a strong showing at the Senior Bowl. He then proceeded to start talking smack about Clowney, saying that he is the better player.  However, he never was able to show his stuff at the Combine, pulling out for medical reasons.  Steve Wyche of the NFL Network reported the reason was for a procedure back in 2011 on a herniated disc that was not major, but due to this injury he was advised not to compete.  This is not a major concern if he has a good Pro Day, but expect NFL teams to do their due diligence on Ford.  If this condition is preventing him from competing at the Combine, NFL teams are going to want to make sure this is not going to be an issue for practice or NFL games.
  • A prospect that is starting to make a name for himself is Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald.  At 6′ 1″ and 285 lbs., he is undersized for a defensive tackle.  However, he absolutely wowed at the NFL Combine.  He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.68 seconds, which is linebacker fast.  He also had a 32-inch vertical jump and benched 225 lbs. 35 times.  Somebody is going to fall in love with his Combine numbers and he had a solid season to back the physical abilities.  He had 11 sacks on the season and a staggering 28.5 tackles for a loss.  He is going to help someone’s pass rush significantly in 2014.

Tuesday – Defensive Backs

  • Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert has widely been viewed as a first round pick and the top cornerback in the NFL Draft.  At 6′ 0″ and 202 lbs., he has the size to be a corner and on Tuesday, he showed he has elite speed.  Gilbert ran his 40-yard dashes in an unofficial 4.35 and 4.38 seconds.  He also showed well with 20 reps in the 225-pound bench press.  When you consider that he also has return skills, there is no reason to believe that he will be anything other than a first round pick in May’s NFL Draft.
  • The other cornerback that people think will go off the board in the first round is Virginia Tech CB Kyle Fuller.  Fuller was a four-year starter for Virginia Tech.  He was a Walter Camp second-team selection. However, he was limited as a senior with a sports hernia surgery.  He looked ready to go at the Combine, tallying a 4.49 second 40-yard time officially that was 4.40 unofficially.   That speed should be good enough to earn him a look in the first round.  
  • Utah CB Keith McGill may benefit from the success of Seattle Seahawks CB Richard Sherman.  The league is going to be looking for bigger cornerbacks in the Sherman mold and McGill is 6′ 3″ and 211 lbs.  He was initially a safety in college and switched to cornerback. He ran a 4.51 second 40-yard dash and had a 39-inch vertical.  That is going to catch the eye of a NFL team that is looking to become bigger in the secondary.
  • Alabama S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix is my favorite name in the NFL Draft this year.   He and Louisville S Calvin Pryor have been labeled as the top two safety prospects that will be available in the NFL draft this May. Neither really did anything to separate himself from the other.  Both ran identical 4.58 40-yard dashes at the Combine.  Furthermore, that is not a great number for a safety.  If one can separate from the other at the Pro Day or in individual workouts; that may separate one from the other.  I personally think Pryor is the slightly better prospect, but that is going to be a great debate between now and the NFL Draft in May.
  • Florida CB Loucheiz Purifoy was praised as being an elite athlete in the SEC, but it did not show at the Combine.  Superior athletes do not post a 4.61 second time in the 40 yard dash.  The knock on him were poor instincts and tackling, but that he had the athletic ability to make up for some of those concerns.  This time is going to have NFL Front Offices reevaluating the tape. He could ease some of those concerns by having a solid Pro Day, but this was not a good showing to help his draft stock.
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