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NFL Scouting Combine: Players to Watch

Posted Feb 21, 2013

West Virginia WR Tavon Austin figures to make a strong impression in Indy. (Photo courtesy of AP Images)


By Matt Feminis
Special to Stlouisrams.com

A position-by-position look at draft prospects who could significantly help or hurt themselves at the NFL Scouting Combine, as well as others who bring interesting story lines or might make waves in Indianapolis:

-Quarterback

Matt Barkley, USC — At the conclusion of his junior season, Barkley looked like a potential No. 1 overall pick, but that momentum is a distant memory now, as the Trojans staggered their way to a disappointingly mediocre 7-6 season. Barkley, who completed 69 percent of his passes with a 39:7 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 2011, was picked off 15 times (in 59 fewer attempts) in 2012. He also missed the Trojans’ final two games and the Senior Bowl while nursing a shoulder injury. In a year devoid of an elite, franchise quarterback prospect, all eyes will be on Barkley — gauging his arm strength and mobility on the field, and his leadership traits in the interview room. The underlying question about Barkley’s pro potential isn’t, “Boom or Bust?” Rather, teams have to determine if Barkley is a franchise centerpiece or a serviceable, system/supporting cast-reliant starter. The answer will determine his draft standing, and his Combine performance will factor heavily. UPDATE: Citing the shoulder injury, Barkley informed teams he will not throw or participate in on-field drills. He’ll be poked and prodded by NFL doctors in Indianapolis, but assuming he leaves unscathed medically (reportedly the shoulder is 85-90 percent recovered), he’ll have until March 27th to shake the rust off and air it out in the controlled environment of USC’s pro day.

Matt Scott, Arizona — Scott is relatively raw and inexperienced, but he’s one of the few truly athletic quarterback prospects available, exhibiting intriguing arm strength, foot speed and escapability. Offense in the NFL has gradually undergone a collegiate facelift, and the emergence of Colin Kaepernick, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson means someone like Scott could be evaluated differently than he might’ve been in years gone by. He’s a good bet to shine in a Combine environment where he can show off his raw physical ability. If he does, he’ll certainly have developmental value, perhaps to someone like new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly, who values athleticism at the quarterback position.

Others to watch: Mike Glennon (North Carolina St.), E.J. Manuel (Florida St.), Ryan Nassib (Syracuse), Geno Smith (West Virginia), Tyler Wilson (Arkansas)

-Running back

Michael Ford, LSU — The LSU Tigers have stockpiled four- and five-star running back recruits in recent years, enabling them to pound defenses in waves with a variety of ballcarriers. Effective for the Tigers, but limiting for some of the individuals involved with NFL potential. Ford, for example, would’ve been a featured back at many schools, but carried just 71 times for the Tigers in 2012. His longest run was 22 yards, he caught just two passes and his blocking is an unknown, so Ford, who looked fairly monotone on tape, stands to help himself with better exposure. Like Davis, Ford is expected to test exceptionally well in the strength, speed and explosion categories.

Knile Davis, Arkansas — The Combine could be Davis’ life preserver, as both his medical and athletic testing are critical to his draft standing. Davis looked like an impact back in 2010, but has not been able to stay healthy since, and when he was on the field, he fumbled and looked like a shell of his former self. However, Davis’ spring testing numbers (always taken with a grain of salt) — 4.33 40-yard dash, 415-pound bench press, 570-pound squat — indicate he could raise eyebrows in Indianapolis.

Others to watch: Montee Ball (Wisconsin), Le’Veon Bell (Michigan St.), Giovanni Bernard (North Carolina), Andre Ellington (Clemson), Christine Michael (Texas A&M), Cierre Wood (Notre Dame)

Note: Alabama’s Eddie Lacy will not participate (hamstring).

-Receiver

Tavon Austin, West Virginia — Austin’s playmaking exploits are widely known. The Paul Hornung Award (Most Versatile Player) winner’s production was exceptional and the exciting manner in which he accumulated yards and touchdowns makes him one of the draft’s most intriguing prospects. He comes with one obvious caveat, however: his size. Historically, Austin’s height (likely a shade under 5-9) would be enough to push him into the second round. You have to go all the way back to the 2001 to find a comparable player selected in the first round: Miami WR/RS Santana Moss, who measured 5-9 ½, 181 pounds and ran in the 4.3s. Also worth noting that year was the drafting of Wisconsin CB Jamar Fletcher (5-8, 7/8, 180 pounds), the last player drafted in the first round who measured below 5-9. A cautionary tale? Perhaps, but Austin is a superior athlete with eminently better transferrable skills which make for a more confident NFL projection. Back to the upcoming Combine. . .With Moss as a precedent, Austin could very well display the rare speed (4.3?), agility and explosion to make a team overlook his dimensions and pull the trigger in the first round.

Denard Robinson, Michigan — Like Austin, Robinson was a college record setter— his 4,495 career rushing yards are No. 1 all-time by a quarterback. However, his marginal passing skills mean he’ll have to transition to receiver to stick in the NFL. He has ample speed and athleticism to attempt the conversion, and by all accounts the requisite makeup, too. Robinson is likeable, hardworking and coachable, the type you want to see succeed. To do so, he’ll have to prove he can catch consistently by NFL receiver standards, and to this point, his hands are an unknown. Accordingly, Robinson’s performance at the Combine could directly affect his draft stock. The unsuccessful Armanti Edwards (another highly athletic college QB-turned-WR) experiment in Carolina doesn’t help Robinson’s cause, either. 

Others to watch: Keenan Allen (Cal), Marcus Davis (Virginia Tech), Corey Fuller (Virginia Tech), Tyrone Goard (Eastern Kentucky), Marquise Goodwin (Texas), Chris Harper (Kansas St.), Justin Hunter (Tennessee), T.J. Moe (Missouri), Cordarrelle Patterson (Tennessee), Da’Rick Rogers (Tennessee Tech/ex-Tennessee), Ace Sanders (South Carolina), Markus Wheaton (Oregon State), Terrance Williams (Baylor), Robert Woods (USC)

-Tight end

Philip Lutzenkirchen, Auburn — The Tigers were dreadful in 2012, and Lutzenkirchen’s season ended in October when a hip injury became too difficult to play through. He had surgery to repair a torn labrum and three bone spurs. He did not participate at the Senior Bowl, but if he’s able to shake off the rust in Indianapolis, Lutzenkirchen could make a favorable impression by showing off his reliable hands, impressing in interviews, and perhaps most importantly, earning a clean bill of health. He isn’t flashy, but he could prove one of the more underrated prospects in the draft, a mid-round pick with longevity potential thanks to his versatility, hands, blocking and intangibles.

Dion Sims, Michigan State — Sims’ size, athletic ability and strength after the catch are visible on tape, but NFL decision makers will be just as interested in sitting Sims down and getting a handle on his intangible dependability. Sims will face questions about his 2010 felony receiving and concealing stolen property incident (since expunged as part of probation), and he’ll have to convince executives he worth investing in. Despite entering the draft as an underclassman, Sims doesn’t yet play to his size as a blocker, nor is he a polished receiver.

Others to watch: Tyler Eifert (Notre Dame), Zach Ertz (Stanford), Gavin Escobar (San Diego St.), D.C. Jefferson (Rutgers), Nick Kasa (Colorado), Travis Kelce (Cincinnati), Vance McDonald (Rice), Ryan Otten (San Jose St.), Jordan Reed (Florida), Leivne Toilolo (Stanford)

-Offensive tackle

Menelik Watson, Florida State — Watson tops the list of highly anticipated performances, and figures to leave Indianapolis as a Combine darling. He’ll turn heads in his form-fitting Under Armour gear, and he’ll showcase explosive movement in drills, likely earning his “freak” designation — that much is expected. But decision makers will want to get a feel for his maturity and football IQ in order to weigh his rawness vs. his upside.

Lane Johnson, Oklahoma — Johnson’s gradual transformation from high-school quarterback to junior-college QB/tight end to OU dead-end defensive lineman was bumpy, but his ascent as an offensive tackle has been steadier. After gaining valuable experience on the right side in 2011, Johnson won the left-tackle job in the summer and took off, displaying an elevated level of consistent play. With intriguing size, long arms, projectable growth potential, terrific athleticism and blind-side pass-blocking ability, the Combine could cement Johnson’s place in the first round.

Others to watch: Terron Armstead (Arkansas-Pine Bluff), Eric Fisher (Central Michigan), D.J. Fluker (Alabama), Reid Fragel (Ohio St.), Luke Joeckel (Texas A&M)

-Offensive guard/center

Travis Frederick, Wisconsin — Frederick, a massive interior blocker who squats a small house, has ample base strength and will show out pumping 225. His maturity and football IQ will shine through in interviews, as well. He’s an ideal target for man-blocking, power teams, but the extent of his versatility needs to be determined in positional drills. Frederick would be one of the largest centers in the NFL, and has to prove he possesses the foot, hand and hip quickness to man the pivot.

Barrett Jones, Alabama — Jones’ laurels are more impressive than his physical traits to begin with, but his draft stock could slide for medical reasons. He won’t participate at the Combine because of the Lisfranc injury (torn ligaments) in his left foot suffered early in the SEC championship game against Georgia.

Others to watch: Jonathan Cooper (North Carolina), Kyle Long (Oregon), Brian Schwenke (Cal), Chance Warmack (Alabama)

-Defensive end

Barkevious Mingo, LSU — Mingo has made it known that he’s packed on bulk since the season concluded (reportedly in the 245 range now). If he’s able to display the same degree of speed, explosion, flexibility and change of direction, he appeals as a defensive end or outside linebacker and solidifies himself as a no-brainer investment given his tremendous upside.

Bjoern Werner, Florida State — Werner has been consistently disruptive the last two seasons, and his name has shot up media draft boards, but I question whether he possesses the elite athleticism and flexibility to be viewed as a bona fide right defensive end pass rushing ace. On the spectrum, is he closer to Chris Long, Ryan Kerrigan or Rob Ninkovich? It will be interesting to see how Werner’s numbers compare to some of the other highly rated rushers. If he’s good, not great, he could slip out of lottery range.

Others to watch: Ezekiel Ansah (Boise St.), David Bass (Missouri Western St.), Lavar Edwards (LSU), William Gholston (Michigan St.), Datone Jones (UCLA), Dion Jordan (Oregon), Sam Montgomery (LSU), Damontre Moore (Texas A&M), John Simon (Ohio St.), Trevardo Williams (UCONN)

-Defensive tackle

Bennie Logan, LSU — Logan received headlines when he earned LSU’s valued No. 18 jersey prior to the season, but his play didn’t garner Glenn Dorsey-type hype or Tyson Jackson-type draft projection. Meanwhile, rising junior Anthony Johnson’s upside tends to overshadow Logan, but No. 18 is a prospect whose arrow is pointing up. He could elevate his stock by showing surprising athleticism and strength at 300-plus pounds, and his SEC experience and solid intangibles increase his value.

Jesse Williams, Alabama — Williams, an inked up Aussie who grew up playing rugby, is one of the more interesting prospects this year for a variety of reasons, including his background, physical strength, national championship pedigree and varying draft opinions. The 320-pounder expects to put on a show in the bench press and raise eyebrows with his 40 time, but in a year with solid defensive tackle depth, his overall skill set isn’t as diverse as some others. He’ll also have to convince NFL people he’s dedicated to football long-term, though a standout performance in Indy could lure a team into overdrafting him.

Others to watch: Sharrif Floyd (Florida), Johnathan Hankins (Ohio St.), John Jenkins (Georgia), Star Lotulelei (Utah), Sheldon Richardson (Missouri), Kawann Short (Purdue), Brandon Williams (Missouri Southern St.)

-Linebacker

Zaviar Gooden, Missouri — Consistency has eluded the Tiger football program, but from an individual standpoint, it’s certainly produced a handful of highly athletic prospects, including Justin Smith, Jeremy Maclin, Sean Weatherspoon and Aldon Smith. Gooden’s career performance isn’t up to par with the aforementioned MU products, and his short arms are worrisome, but his sheer, pound-for-pound combination of strength, speed and athleticism will be on display in Indianapolis. He could be the fastest linebacker.

Alec Ogletree, Georgia — Ogletree was a bit of a wild card before the revelation of his recent DUI, but now his first-round standing could be in jeopardy. If he’s not one of the best athletes at the Combine, it’ll be an upset, as his physical gifts jump out on tape. However, as if concerns over his durability and inconsistency weren’t enough to raise the red flag, he’ll now have to answer to a rap sheet that includes a failed drug test and a DUI arrest.

Note: Notre Dame ILB Manti Te’o will obviously have the spotlight on him for a variety of reasons, but off-the-field baggage aside, his athletic ability has been overrated and it will be interesting to see if his workout numbers reflect the lofty draft hype bandied about during the fall.

Others to watch: Kiko Alonso (Oregon), Arthur Brown (Kansas St.), Jamie Collins (Southern Miss), Khaseem Greene (Rutgers), Jelani Jenkins (Florida), Jarvis Jones (Georgia), Sean Porter (Texas A&M), Keith Pough (Howard)

-Cornerback

Nickell Robey, USC — Listed at 5-8, 168 pounds, Robey is undersized even by undersized cornerback standards, but the feisty DB doubles as a sprinter/long jumper and is one of the most explosive prospects in the draft. He has potential to run in the 4.4 range and post a 40-inch vertical leap, though his size, strength and growth potential will help determine if he can be more than a nickel/special-teams player. For comparison sake, Bears Pro Bowler Tim Jennings, a rare 5-foot-8 cornerback who starts on the outside, weighed 185, bench-pressed 225 pounds 17 times and ran in the 4.3s coming out of Georgia in 2006.

Brandon McGee, Miami — McGee was viewed as an underachiever prior to his senior season, but he started all 12 games in 2012, tallying 54 tackles, seven pass breakups and two interceptions. Reportedly the fastest player on the Canes, he could boost his draft stock by lighting up stopwatches. If he does, you can bet at 5-11, 195 pounds, he’ll be viewed as a prospect with developmental value (a la Sam Shields) and immediate special-teams utility. McGee also figures to help himself in interviews, as the senior has persevered through personal and football adversity, emerging as a motivated, coachable player with leadership traits.

Others to watch: Robert Alford (Southeastern Louisiana), David Amerson (North Carolina St.), Johnthan Banks (Mississippi St.), Will Davis (Utah St.), Derek Hayden (Houston), Tyrann Mathieu (LSU), Leon McFadden (San Diego St.), Dee Milliner (Alabama), Greg Reid (ex-Florida St.), Xavier Rhodes (Florida St.), Logan Ryan (Rutgers), Jamar Taylor (Boise St.), B.W. Webb (William & Mary)

-Safety

Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse — Thomas is an example of why short isn’t necessarily synonymous with small. Listed at just 5-9, Thomas has a compact, rocked up physique chiseled by countless hours off work off the field. The Virginia Beach, Va. native is praised and respected by teammates and coaches, and his play is characterized by speed, physicality, intensity and toughness. He plays with the abandon of a strong safety, but don’t be surprised if he tests like a free safety and posts an impressive vertical — you can bet he’ll be on a mission to open eyes in Indianapolis.

Tony Jefferson, Oklahoma — Whether it’s convincing an underclassman to stay another season or sharing criticism of departing players with NFL people, Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops’ staff has a history of exercising influence. If internet reports are to be believed, Jefferson’s practice habits and strength and conditioning habits frustrated coaches. We speculated earlier this year that Jefferson could slide based on deficient size and speed, and questionable football character certainly wouldn’t help. Neither would the underwhelming list of OU defensive backs drafted under Stoops’ watch: William Bartee, Roy Williams, Andre Woolfolk, Derrick Strait, Michael Hawkins, Donte Nicholson, Antonio Perkins, Brodney Pool, Reggie Smith, Nic Harris, Dominique Franks, Jonathan Nelson, Quinton Carter and Jamell Fleming.

Others to watch: Johnathan Cyprien (Florida International), Matt Elam (Florida), Zeke Motta (Notre Dame), Bacarri Rambo (Georgia), Eric Reid (LSU), D.J. Swearinger (South Carolina), Philip Thomas (Fresno St.), Kenny Vaccaro (Texas), J.J. Wilcox (Georgia Southern)

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