Here we go again. The 2016 season ended earlier this month, but it’s time for draft season to kick into full swing, starting with the NFL Combine in Indianapolis from Feb. 28 to Mar. 6. At the Combine, we narrow our focus down to the skill-position players. This is a fantasy site, and while we publish an extensive IDP Rookie Report during the summer, it makes sense for us to really hone in on the key skill guys at this time of year. As such, we don’t dabble in mock drafts or “big boards,” and we don’t take into account consensus rankings when we order our players, both pre- and post-draft. Make no mistake, we will never try to paint ourselves as “draft experts,” but merely as fantasy writers trying to take the ideal snapshot of the incoming class for our purposes. Our job is to lay out the players we think have the best chance to become impact fantasy players sooner rather than later.
As always, our own research combined with the knowledge of our contributors, including Greg Cosell, who has been studying these players intensely for months, will make up our big rookie reports. We already have an idea of where we’re leaning, but the Combine will provide some hard data we need to feel truly good about our rankings.
Here’s what to look for at the skill positions in Indianapolis. After the Combine, we’ll have a similar column up reviewing some of the top performers at each position.
In 2016, we had several interesting rookie QBs. Obviously, Dak Prescott of the Cowboys was thrust into a starting role because of two injuries, and ended up having an all-time great rookie campaign. Carson Wentz of the Eagles started 16 games and showed promise, while Paxton Lynch of the Broncos started just two games and mostly struggled. Then, #1 overall pick Jared Goff started seven games, lost all of them, and generally was terrible (he played roughly one good half of football). As you’d expect from most rookie QB classes these days, it was an up-and-down class in 2016.
This incoming QB class has a lot of interesting players in it, but it’s already garnering a wide range of opinions in the draft and NFL scouting communities. Some believe it to be far better and deeper than last year’s class, while others believe each “top” QB has a staggering flaw that must be corrected or minimized in some way. At the top of the board – in no particular order – are Clemson’s Deshaun Watson, Notre Dame’s DeShone Kizer, North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky, and Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes.
Other interesting names include Cal’s Davis Webb and Pitt’s Nate Peterman, who may be the two best senior QBs in the class. Miami’s Brad Kaaya, Virginia Tech’s talented Jerod Evans (he should test very well), and Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs are also likely to be closely monitored.
In this day and age, the vast majority of top QB prospects will choose to throw at the Combine; in the past, it was more hit or miss. However, the last “big name” QB prospect we can remember who didn’t throw was Geno Smith – in recent years, all of Wentz, Goff, Lynch, Jameis Winston, and Marcus Mariota threw in Indianapolis. We’d be surprised if any of this year’s top prospects choose to bow out, given they all have something to lose by not participating, though it’s only Watson who has confirmed he is throwing as of now (among the top prospects).
Among the Combine drills, the most important thing to look for in QBs is official height, weight, and hand size. While testing well in strength and agility drills is certainly nice, it matters the least at the QB position of just about any position testing in Indianapolis. Instead, look for some of the QBs to cross basic thresholds – ideally, teams will want an NFL QB to be at least 6’3” or just a hair under. Trubisky is a guy who comes to mind who may have the spotlight of the scouting world shining on him in this particular aspect. He’s listed at 6’3” by UNC, but if he’s an inch below, he will have to blow away in other areas. Hand size is also important – a basic threshold is 9 ¼” at the lowest (above 10” is considered very good). While small hands doesn’t necessarily doom a QB prospect, it’s important to note especially if the player had struggles with fumbles or wobbly throws on film, and/or if the player had issues in bad weather (watch for Watson’s hand size). Goff had very small hands at last year’s Combine, and his rookie season won’t assuage any concerns about the threshold for the position.
Then, you want to make sure these guys look good throwing the ball in shorts and a t-shirt. While it’s a controlled environment and has nothing on actually watching the guys on film, if they don’t look good throwing in this environment, they aren’t likely to look good when the heat is on them in the NFL. Making sure the ball comes out of their hands well and their feet work in conjunction with their upper body are the most important aspects to look for.
But (unfortunately for us) the most important “drills” at the Combine for the QB position come in areas we can’t see on TV. Interviews could well make-or-break these prospects, especially if teams are very concerned about one particular aspect they see on film. Trubisky, for instance, will need to answer questions about his inexperience, given he started just one year at UNC (we’re sure Wentz was grilled on this last year).
In all, we’re not sure any QB can really help himself at the Combine (aside from a breakthrough interview), but any QB can sure as hell hurt himself. We just might not be able to see it on TV.
Fantasy players should be nothing short of stoked for this year’s running back draft class. From top to bottom, it’s a better class than we saw in 2016, and of course, 2016 featured two RBs (Ezekiel Elliott and Jordan Howard) who finished in the top 10 in total PPR fantasy points as rookies. It may well be hard to top that, but we could also see more rookie RBs making a fantasy impact than just two stars and a bunch of guys, as we saw in 2016.
First of all, it’s important to outline what drills matter most for the RB position. We really like to focus on the agility drills: three-cone drill and the shuttle run. Then, the broad jump and vertical jump can indicate how much power a back has in his legs. While the 40-yard dash is always the most publicized Combine drill, it doesn’t matter as much for a running back, who is going to be doing most of his work in a confined area, as it does for a wide receiver or cornerback. Instead, the 10-yard split may be a better metric – how fast a RB does the first 10 yards of his 40-yard dash. The logic is simple. Most of a back’s work will come in this first 10 yards. If the offensive line gives them enough space to run 40 yards unimpeded, most of these backs will likely score in a game situation anyway.
Let’s start with the stars at the position who are appearing at the Combine: LSU’s Leonard Fournette, Florida State’s Dalvin Cook, and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey. It’s possible all three of these guys end up in the first round in April. Though he’s the biggest name of the group, Fournette may actually be the most polarizing. He sat out significant time this season with an ankle injury, and also skipped his bowl game to prepare for the Combine/Draft (as did McCaffrey). And though he’s huge, Fournette’s detractors will note he’s a one-cut, downhill, power guy. Fournette’s supporters – and many of them are voracious – will argue he’s far more talented than that. Fournette stands a lot to gain from the Combine. If he tests well in the agility drills, he could be reclassified by an all-around megatalent, even by his biggest detractors. Of course, medical tests from team doctors at the Combine will be massively important for Fournette.
We don’t think the Combine will prove much a challenge for either Cook or McCaffrey. We expect both players to absolutely annihilate the drills, as both showed diverse, explosive skill sets in college (get an up-close-and-personal look at McCaffrey here), though hand size will be looked at closely for Cook, as he fumbled 12 times in three years at FSU. Both players appear to be ready to contribute in three-down roles in the NFL, and McCaffrey especially was used in a variety of ways at Stanford to exploit mismatches. Cook, on the other hand, will have to answer questions in interviews about a 2015 arrest in which he was accused of punching a woman in the face outside of a bar, though he maintained he was merely keeping peace, and was later fully acquitted in a court of law (he was suspended following the arrest, a suspension that was lifted following his acquittal). Since the arrest, Cook has been clean as a whistle off the field, though he has had shoulder problems as well. Both players will be in the mix with Fournette to be the first RB taken in April.
Two Big 12 backs who will be watched closely are two of the biggest RBs in this class – Texas’ D’Onta Foreman and Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. Foreman was ultra-productive on a bad Texas team in 2016, running for over 2000 yards and declaring for the draft. But despite his size, Foreman seemed unwilling at times to really lower his shoulder and hit it up in there, and NFL.com reports some scouts were extremely worried about how poor he was in pass protection. Foreman may test surprisingly well in agility drills given his size, but his lower-body strength drills will be important. He also fumbled 6 times in 2016, though he carried it a ton. On the flip side, Perine wasn’t as productive (he had to share time with Joe Mixon), but was extremely physical and was better at breaking tackles than Foreman. Perine will have a chance to boost his draft stock with positive agility drills (for a guy as big as he is). For those who continue to follow an inspiring story, put Pitt’s James Conner, a cancer survivor, in this category as well (in terms of size, not conference).
A player getting a lot of hype in recent weeks – perhaps because of the performance of backs like James White and Tevin Coleman in the playoffs – is Tennessee’s Alvin Kamara. Kamara spent only two seasons at Tennessee after playing at a JUCO for his freshman year, after he spent a suspension-riddled redshirt season at Alabama (he was arrested once for driving with a suspended license, among other charges). At Tennessee, Kamara had just 284 touches in 24 games (11.8 per game), but he showed explosive third-down ability. More importantly, Kamara dedicated himself to his craft and cleaned up his behavior, and was even a captain as a junior. Kamara has shown no traits of a true feature back, but he could be an immediate impact player in a rotation. An impressive Combine will just push him up boards. Though a different kind of player than Kamara, Clemson’s national champion back Wayne Gallman could also continue to impress coaches at the Combine. Gallman is a solid pass catcher, and one of the most willing blockers in the entire class. That opens up instant third-down value.
A couple of Big Ten prospects who can push themselves of draft boards with good showings are Michigan’s De’Veon Smith and Wisconsin’s Corey Clement. However, those who like the film on both players likely won’t be swayed by a poor combine showing. Smith is a personal favorite of our guy Fran Duffy of PhiladelphiaEagles.com for his physical game and understanding of the subtleties of the position. And Clement, another productive Wisconsin back in a long line of them, was kind of flying under the radar until he blew up at the Senior Bowl, and testing well would be a huge boost to his draft stock.
While the class is being dominated by big names from big schools, some smaller programs have guys to watch very closely. BYU’s Jamaal Williams has been among our favorites to watch because of pure physicality, but may drop down boards if he tests poorly. Toledo’s Kareem Hunt may have the most “riser” potential given his great production in college and the potential he times extremely well, and he’s also one of our favorites to watch. However, Hunt’s measurements will be under a lot of scrutiny – Toledo listed him at 225, he played that big on film, but weighed in at just 209 at the Senior Bowl. He will have to answer some questions in interviews.
South Florida’s Marlon Mack should test extremely well in agility drills but lacked power in college and had too many negative runs. And the Combine’s wild card is San Diego State’s Donnel Pumphrey. The NCAA’s all-time leading rusher with 6405 yards, Pumphrey is a determined, agile runner who is tough as nails… but is extremely small at 5’8” and just around 170 pounds. He may need to totally blow up the Combine to be anything more than a late-round flyer for a team.
The college ranks have done a great job of pumping out good WR prospects in recent years, but this year’s class could be the weakest at the top since 2013 when only three WRs went in the first round (Tavon Austin, DeAndre Hopkins, and Cordarrelle Patterson). Clemson’s Mike Williams and Western Michigan’s Corey Davis are they only locks to go in the first round, while Washington’s John Ross is a near lock to go in the first 32 picks as well. Still, there are plenty of current Day 2 WRs who could potentially sneak into the first round with excellent Combine performances, and the class is fairly deep overall.
Mike Williams is a huge target at 6’3”, 225 pounds, and he can create separation and dominate with his size as an underneath target or over the top. He suffered a serious neck injury in the 2015 opener and missed the rest of season, but he came back in 2016 to post 98/1361/11, scoring 11 TDs in his final 12 games. Interested teams will obviously want to check in on his medicals to see if there are any lingering issues with his neck. Williams is not going to impress at the Combine with a 40-time likely to be in the 4.5s. But he’ll be in good company with other big WRs who ran slower times who went on to succeed – Michael Thomas (4.57), Alshon Jeffery (4.48), Dez Bryant (4.52), Jordy Nelson (4.51). Williams shouldn’t really do much to hurt or help his top-15 status this week unless he really surprises everyone with a great or poor showing.
Corey Davis, everyone’s favorite small-school prospect, will be at the Combine but won’t be able to test or participate in drills. Davis underwent minor ankle surgery after injuring himself while training in January, and he won’t be able to run at the Combine. ESPN’s Adam Schefter reported that he should be ready to go by rookie minicamp, and if he can participate in his Pro Day, he could run in the 4.4s. He has great size at 6’3”, 213 pounds and moves a little better than Williams, who he is obviously a little smaller than. Davis dominated lesser competition in the MAC with 332/5285/52 receiving in four seasons.
John Ross is set to light the Combine ablaze with his lightning speed. He told the MMQB that he ran a laser-timed 4.3 40-yard dash earlier this month. Ross has been compared to DeSean Jackson because of his size (5’11”, 190 pounds) and speed, and he’ll look to better D-Jax’s 4.35 time at the 2008 Combine. In fact, the two even struck up a relationship last summer when they worked out together in Los Angeles. Ross did miss the entire 2015 season with a torn ACL, but he came back with a vengeance to lead all Power-5 conference receivers with 17 TDs in 2016. Over his three seasons of action, Ross scored on an absolutely remarkable 17.9% of his touches – 24 TDs on 134 touches. He will need shoulder surgery after the Combine to repair a damaged labrum, but the speedster is still expected to go in the first round, as long as his medicals check out.
The draft’s next best vertical threat is Oklahoma’s DeDe Westbrook, a play-making WR who snuck in as a Heisman finalist because of his nation-leading 26 catches of 20+ yards. He’s got a tiny frame at 5’11”, 175 pounds, but he’s got legit deep speed and could run around a 4.4 flat this week. However, Westbrook’s biggest challenge at the Combine will be in the interviews and the medical checks with teams. He was arrested twice for domestic violence situations but never convicted before he arrived at Oklahoma. He also missed his senior year in high school because of a ruptured small intestine, so teams will want to check to see if there are any lingering issues.
The Senior Bowl helped a pair of WRs who are knocking on the door of the first round in Eastern Washington’s Cooper Kupp and East Carolina’s Zay Jones. Kupp impressed down in Mobile with his reliable hands and above-average speed to get past defenders. He should check in around 6’2”, 198 pounds, and he actually operated primary as a big slot in college, but he should be able to work outside with his size. Kupp posted an astounding 428/6464/73 receiving against lesser competition. He also ripped top CB Marcus Peters for 2 TDs on his way to 8/145/3 against Washington back 2014. He’ll look to keep his momentum going at the Combine to lock himself in as a second-round pick or better.
With little fanfare, Zay Jones owns FBS records for catches in a single season (158 in 2016) and for a career (399). Scouts had questions about his vertical speed, but he consistently beat defenders over the top during the Senior Bowl week. He’s dangerous in the short to intermediate areas out of the slot as well, but he can also work on the outside. He has above average size (6’2”, 202 pounds), speed, and hands. His athleticism doesn’t always show up on the field, and he probably won’t blow anybody away with his tests this week
Once thought of as a first-round player before the 2016 season, USC WR JuJu Smith-Schuster is receiving little pre-Combine buzz. He’s a big, physical receiver at 6’2”, 220 pounds, but he has trouble separating and reaching top speed. There are some whispers about his effort off the field, which will certainly come up in interviews. Smith-Schuster should still do well in the drills because he’s a smooth athlete, but he’s unlikely to impress during tests.
Western Kentucky WR Taywan Taylor broke onto the national scene when he posted 9/121 receiving against Alabama in 2016. He proved to be explosive as both a route runner and with the ball in his hands. Taylor is best built to operate out of the slot, but he worked all over the field with success in college. Teams could fall in love with him during the interview processes because he approaches route running like an art form, manipulating defenders with a number of different moves. Taylor is a touch small at 5’11”, 198 pounds, but he’s a natural athlete who should do well in the jumps.
LSU’s Malachi Dupre should do quite well in the jumping tests at the Combine as a former Louisiana state champion in the long, triple, and high jumps. He’s long and lanky at 6’3”, 195 pounds, and he’s obviously a good leaper, but he didn’t show a second gear as a downfield threat at LSU. However, the Tigers were a complete mess at quarterback, so the former five-star recruit rarely got to showcase his abilities, even as the Tigers leading receiver the last two seasons with a combined 84/1291/9. If Dupre shows well in the 40-yard dash and in the agility tests, he could quell some of the worries about his explosiveness.
Alabama WR ArDarius Stewart looks like he could play running back at 6’1”, 204 pounds. And he plays like one too, doing his best work with the ball in his hands by racking yards after the catch. He also served as an occasional deep threat in the Crimson Tide offense, finishing with 54/864/8 receiving. He can be able to be deployed all over the field as a receiver, but his home is likely in the slot. He’s unlikely to dominate in any of the tests at the Combine, but he just needs to avoid having a bad showing in any of the tests.
Penn State WR Chris Godwin is arguably the best WR in this year’s class with the ball in the air, so we’ll see how that translates to the jumps at the Combine. Godwin, who checks in at 6’1”, 205 pounds, is an absolute force in jump-ball situations in the red zone and downfield. He might not necessarily light it up in the tests, but he should do well in drills. He was extremely productive in 2016, posting 59/92/11 receiving, including an impressive 9/187/2 in his final game against USC in the Rose Bowl.
Virginia Tech WR Isaiah Ford is a long, lanky outside WR at 6’2”, 195 pounds, who posted an impressive 154/2258/18 receiving the last two seasons. He’s a pretty polished WR and a solid athlete, but he won’t blow anybody away at the Combine. He actually averaged 37 points per game as a senior basketball player in high school, so he’s no stiff. He did put on some weight while at Virginia Tech, but he still needs to get stronger and could struggle in the lifts.
Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel is another speedster who could run around 4.4 flat. Samuel should check in around 5’11, 197 pounds, and he did just about everything for the Buckeyes. He was the only player in the country with 700+ rushing yards and 800+ receiving yards last season, and finished with 17 plays of 20+ yards. He projects best as a WR, but he’ll need to land in the right offense that has a plan to take advantage of his versatility. It will be interesting to see how he does in the drills because he’s not a natural receiver or route runner.
California WR Chad Hansen came out of pretty much nowhere to post 92/1249/11 receiving despite missing two games with an ankle injury. He’s been rising up draft boards recently because there wasn’t much tape on him before this season. He has a nice combination of size (6’2”, 205 pounds) and speed that teams are looking for in perimeter receivers.
Ohio State WR Noah Brown will be one of the more intriguing prospects to watch this week. He moves fairly well for his huge frame (6’2”, 218 pounds), and a great week could really help his stock. The Buckeyes didn’t take advantage of him last year and he had an underwhelming 2016 campaign with just 32/402 receiving, but he did secure 7 TD catches because of his size.
Louisiana Tech WR Carlos Henderson and Miami WR Stacy Coley are two additional players to keep tabs on this week. They are a couple lesser-known prospects who are expected to help themselves with good 40 times.
It’s been a tough run for the tight end position in recent drafts. This year’s class has the potential to be the best group since 2013 when Tyler Eifert, Zach Ertz, Travis Kelce, and Jordan Reed all went in the first 85 picks - as well as Vance McDonald and Gavin Escobar. In the last six NFL drafts, only two tight ends (Tyler Eifert in 2013 and Eric Ebron in 2014) have gone in the first round. And the last draft to feature multiple TEs in the first round was in 2006, when Vernon Davis and Marcedes Lewis came off the board. There’s a very strong possibility that streak ends this year, with Alabama’s O.J. Howard and Miami’s David Njoku primed to go in the first round.
Howard blew away most scouts away at the Senior Bowl by looking like a man among boys, which likely solidified his status as a first-round pick. The Crimson Tide criminally underused him as a receiver the last two years, but he shined the brightest in the last two national championship games. When they needed him the most in two shootouts against Clemson, Howard posted 5/208/2 receiving in 2015 and 4/106/1 in 2016. He could thrive in a more pass-heavy system, and the right OC could use him as a mismatch nightmare. Howard should check in around 6’6”, 249 pounds with long arms and good hands in drills. He accelerates like a receiver, and he’s more of a speed guy than a power guy at this point.
Njoku is the most intriguing TE prospect in this year’s draft because he’s incredibly raw but a freakish athlete. He’s been rising into the first round in many industry mock drafts, and a great showing at the Combine won’t slow his momentum. He’ll check in around 6’4”, 245 pounds and he could run in the 4.5s in the 40. For perspective, Jerell Adams had the best 40-time for the position at 4.64 at last year’s Combine. In high school, Njoku played wide receiver and was a national high jump champion with a 6’11” leap, so he should light up the tests among the TEs. It’s no surprise that he can go up and get the ball in jump-ball situations, and he’s explosive, averaging 16.2 YPC and scoring on 18.6% of his receptions (8 of 43). He needs plenty of polish with just 9 starts under his belt as a redshirt sophomore, but he could easily develop into a better pro because of his talent.
Virginia Tech TE Bucky Hodges looks more like a huge WR, and the Hokies essentially used him like a WR split-out wide most of the time. He’s a converted dual-threat QB out of high school and he played a lot out on the perimeter, so he’s a bit raw but expected to impress at the Combine. He has a huge catch radius and has good build-up speed as he’s expected to check in around 6’7”, 245 pounds. Hodges also has been a big-play/red-zone type, with 20 TDs in three seasons. There’s a chance he could run in the 4.4s at the Combine, which is downright ridiculous for a player of his size.
It’s tough to find many TE prospects who were more productive than Clemson TE Jordan Leggett the last two seasons. He posted 86/1261/15 receiving last two seasons, including 12/173/1 against Alabama in the last two national championship games. He has soft hands and ideal size for the position (6’5”, 250 pounds), but he’s unlikely to set the Combine on fire because he’s just an above average athlete who excels all over the field. He did earn the nickname “Lazy Leggett” early in his Clemson career, but a focused performance in the drills at the Combine will help his draft stock.
Mississippi TE Evan Engram should rank up there with Njoku as one of the more impressive TE performers at the Combine. Engram might be more of a move TE or an H-back with his smaller frame (6’3”, 236 pounds), but he can separate from defenders with his speed and he’s quite athletic for the position. He’s already drawn some Jordan Reed comparisons in the draft process, and he should do well in the receiving drills and the tests this week.
A couple small-school guys to watch will be South Alabama’s Gerald Everett and tiny Ashland’s Adam Shaheen. Everett started football as a high school senior and went to community college for a year. But he played well against much tougher competition at the Senior Bowl and against Mississippi State during the 2016 season. He’s a little smaller for the position at 6’4”, 240 pounds and he could be an H-back type, but he should do well in the tests as a former high school basketball athlete.
Shaheen has come out of nowhere to become an intriguing prospect, starting his college athletic career as a basketball player at Division II Pitt-Johnstown. He eventually transferred to Ashland for football, and he set Division II TE records for catches in a season (70 in 2015) and TD catches in a season (16 in 2016). Shaheen is absolutely massive at 6’6”, 277 pounds – that’s huge even for the position – and he looks like an above-average athlete on film, albeit against extremely weak competition. How his athleticism and strength translates in Indy will be intriguing to follow this week.
A noticeable absentee at the Combine workouts will be Michigan TE Jake Butt. He may have been the third TE off the board before he tore his ACL in the Orange Bowl against Florida State. He won’t be working out, but plenty of teams will be checking in on his medicals to see how he’s progressing and to see if he could get on the field in 2017. He has great size (6’5”, 250 pounds) and soft hands, which helped him to be incredibly productive last two years with 97/1200/7 receiving, but he’s certainly not a burner and is more of a traditional in-line guy.