print 2010 Combine Review

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by Matt Brown, Senior Writer

Published, 3/2/11 

We’re at an odd point in the NFL, as we’re in the midst of contentious labor talks, but NFL Draft season has also kicked into full gear. The 2011 draft is less than two months away, and prospects spent the last week in Indianapolis at the combine going through position drills, physical tests, and interviews.
 
There is obviously some value to the combine, as scouts get an up-close look at prospects, and perhaps most important, teams get to have one-on-one conversations with them. Still, it is always important to have perspective and not judge someone too harshly or get carried away with a good performance. Cam Newton and Jake Locker both ran well, but we already knew they would. Ryan Mallett was impressive throwing the ball without a defense in a workout situation, but we already knew he had a cannon. What’s most important is the game film. Still, the combine can certainly help raise concerns or alleviate some of them, and positive surprises can help separate a prospect from the pack. With that said, let’s take a look at where the skill positions stand as we head into the March Pro Day stage of draft season.
 
Quarterbacks
 
As usual, all eyes are on the quarterbacks, but it seems especially true this year because of the uncertainty both with the prospects and with numerous NFL teams at the position. Had Stanford’s Andrew Luck elected to go pro, he was almost a lock for the #1 pick overall. Instead, we’re left with a bunch of players vying for consideration in the first few rounds, with Auburn’s Cam Newton and Missouri’s Blaine Gabbert appearing to be the only two first-round locks and possible top-10 picks.
 
Newton, the 2010 Heisman winner, ran a 4.59 40-yard dash at 6’5”, 248 pounds, and while that’s certainly impressive, this isn’t exactly new information. We knew he was an athletic freak for his size. The biggest question for Newton is how raw he is and how he’ll have to adjust from an Auburn offense that saw him operate out of the shotgun, often making one read and running. He has a very strong arm but struggled with accuracy in his combine workout, so we’re still left with an unclear picture of how his skills translate into the NFL. It’s unlikely he’ll be able to play right away, yet it’s possible that a team will fall in love with his athletic ability very early in the draft – even as early as the top 3. While we didn’t learn much new about Newton, we learned even less about Gabbert, who measured 6’4”, 234 pounds, ran the 40 in an impressive 4.62 seconds, but didn’t participate in passing drills. Instead, he’ll throw at the Missouri Pro Day.
 
Perhaps no quarterback has helped himself more in the off-season than Nevada’s Colin Kaepernick, an athletic prospect who spent most of his college career operating out of the half-shotgun Pistol offense. Our guy Adam Caplan described Kaepernick’s combine throws as “effortless,” and the 6’5”, 233-pound QB also impressed with a 4.53 40 – 2nd fastest among QBs. He has the tools, but like Newton, he must adjust from an unconventional college offense.
 
Two of the most embattled QBs throughout the draft process have been and will continue to be Ryan Mallett of Arkansas and Jake Locker of Washington. Both entered the 2010 season as likely first round picks – with Locker earning praise as a potential future #1 overall pick for a few years now – but both have major question marks. The good news is that both threw well in drills on Sunday. Mallett, who has had his character called into question, is a 6’7”, 253-pound pocket passer with arguably the strongest arm in the class. He struggles to throw on the move and has really shaky footwork, but he impressed scouts with his effortless throws. Of course, that’s without a defense out there, and Mallett still faces questions about his decision making. As for Locker, he’s always looked the part, and he checked in a 6’3”, 231 pounds with a 4.59 40. He also helped himself with much better accuracy than he showed in the Senior Bowl and in his college career as a whole. He’s never been able to put it all together though, and his consistency remains an issue.
 
Another player who helped his stock was Florida State’s Christian Ponder, who had a disappointing senior season as he dealt with nagging elbow problems. He’ll likely be a third round pick, with his durability standing out as the biggest question mark. At 6'2", 229 pounds, Ponder ran the 40 in 4.65 seconds, and he impressed with his arm strength and release.  Behind that group, the middle rounds have several prospects with TCU’s Andy Dalton leading the charge as a technically sound passer who doesn’t have a lot of upside but will find a home as an experienced quarterback who doesn’t make a lot of mistakes. Delaware’s Pat Devlin is also in the mix and didn’t hurt his stock at the combine, while Iowa’s Ricky Stanzi is like Dalton with limited upside, but he didn’t help his stock with a shaky throwing session.
 
Running Backs
 
There continues to be very little hype surrounding the running back position, as Alabama’s Mark Ingram appears to be the only first-round prospect, with the class getting much deeper in Rounds 2-4. Contributing to the small amount of fanfare is the fact that none of the top backs ran fast 40 times, with Ingram at 4.62, Virginia Tech’s Ryan Williams at 4.61, and Illinois’ Mikel Leshoure at 4.59. The top 40 time among RBs belonged to Maryland’s Da’Rel Scott, who is far from the elite RB discussion, despite his blistering 4.34 40 time.
 
Ingram’s 40 time shouldn’t be a concern, as he’s frequently been compared to Emmitt Smith because of his running style and 5’9”, 215-pound frame. Many people have had him projected to go to Miami with the #15 pick, which makes a lot of sense, given the free agent status of Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. At 6’1, 207 pounds, Leshoure has seen his stock rise faster than anyone at RB since the middle of the 2010 college season, and despite his lack of breakaway speed, he’s a good all-around back who placed in the top 5 among RBs in broad jump and vertical jump. Williams bested Leshoure in both of those categories, including a 40-inch vertical leap, and at 5’9”, 212 pounds, he actually has a lot of similarities to Ingram.
 
Two other backs in the mix right behind those three are a pair of Big-12 backs in Oklahoma’s DeMarco Murray and Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas. While Thomas did not work out as he recovers from a hamstring injury (he should work out in a few weeks at the Kansas State Pro Day), the versatile Murray impressed by running a bit faster than expected. A talented receiver out of the backfield, Murray posted a 4.41 40, which is a pleasant surprise, given that top speed has been a question for him throughout his college career.
 
There’s another group of smaller backs trying to establish themselves from a pack of potential mid-round picks. Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter, Connecticut’s Jordan Todman, California’s Shane Vereen, Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers, Pittsburgh’s Dion Lewis, Syracuse’s Delone Carter, and Kentucky’s Derrick Locke are all somewhat similar in size, at under 6’ tall and around the 200-pound range. In this group, Todman and Locke (4.40) turned in the fastest 40 times, and Vereen ran the 40 in 4.8 seconds and put up 25 reps in the bench press. When a group of players has a lot of similarities, standing out in combine workouts can only help a prospect gain an edge. Hunter is still probably at the top of this group, with Todman and Vereen behind him.
 
Overall, the running back position appears to be moving along quietly. Very little ground was gained or lost – at least in drills – and it still looks like Ingram will go in the first round before we see a run on backs in the middle rounds. One of the players to watch will be Thomas, who could greatly benefit from a solid 40 time if he can get healthy for his pro day. Joining Thomas is West Virginia’s Noel Devine, who didn’t work out at the combine because of an ankle injury and could be a Darren Sproles-like player in the NFL.
 
Wide Receivers
 
It’s one thing for a prospect to become one of the talks of the combine by putting up really impressive numbers. It’s another thing for that prospect to accomplish that while running on a fractured foot that will require surgery. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Alabama WR Julio Jones. Jones and Georgia’s A.J. Green entered the combine as the only two locks for the first round at WR, with Green likely going in the top 10. Well, Jones, who has a knack for making highlight-reel catches and has outstanding size at 6’3”, 220 pounds, put up one of the most surprising numbers by running a 4.39 40-yard dash, placing him 3rd among WRs. He also recorded the best broad jump at more than 11 feet. At 6’4”, 211 pounds, Green ran a solid 4.5 40 and did nothing to hurt his stock, and he should still hold a slight lead over Jones, although both could be selected in the top 10. The big question now is the health of Jones, as he was revealed to have a fractured foot, and he’ll need eight weeks to recover after surgery. Any injury is going to be a concern, but because of his impressive combine showing, his stock shouldn’t take a hit if he recovers properly.
 
Behind them, several WRs made a move up on draft boards during the combine, including Miami’s Leonard Hankerson, Kentucky’s Randall Cobb, and a sleeper player, Abilene Christian’s Edmond Gates. Hankerson and Cobb both ran faster than expected, with Hankerson clocking in at 4.43 and Cobb at 4.46. Hankerson is thought to be more of a possession receiver, but the fast 40 time further boosts his stock after he impressed during Senior Bowl practices. As for Cobb, he’s a versatile jack-of-all-trades threat who can be used all over the field and frequently ran the ball for Kentucky. His 40 time should keep him in the second round range with guys like Hankerson, Maryland’s Torrey Smith, Troy’s Jerrel Jernigan, and Boise State’s Titus Young. As for Gates, he’s an under-the-radar prospect from the same small school alma mater as Johnny Knox. He tied for the best 40 time among WRs at 4.37 and is a great all-around athlete, which could push him into the mid-round range.
 
On the negative side, borderline first-round prospect Jonathan Baldwin of Pittsburgh saw his stock take a bit of a hit. Baldwin struggles to get separation at times, and while he is 6’ 4”, 228 pounds and had the top vertical leap among WRs (42”), he struggled with route-running in combine drills and continues to face consistency questions. He has the size and athletic ability, but he’s still a bit raw technically.
 
The WR position took a huge hit in early January, as despite a record number of early entries into the draft, several potential first-round picks opted to return to school. That leaves us with a pretty solid group of receivers in terms of depth, but only two guys stand out as elite prospects. Still, despite the injury to Jones, he and Green both have a good chance at going in the top 10, with Green possibly going in the top 6 to the Bengals or Browns. Depending on where Green goes, it’s hard to imagine Jones slipping past St. Louis at #14.
 
Tight Ends
 
If the running back position has been fairly quiet, what do we call the tight end position? There are no elite tight ends in the draft, and the closest one to being elite – Notre Dame’s Kyle Rudolph – has been out since October because of hamstring surgery. Rudolph was in attendance in Indianapolis and measured 6’6”, 259 pounds, and the good news is he’s expected to work out at the Notre Dame Pro Day.
 
With Rudolph sidelined, the talk of the combine at tight end was Nevada’s Virgil Green, who joined QB Colin Kaepernick in former Wolf Pack players having impressive weeks. Green has solid size at 6’3”, 249 pounds, and he stood out with a 4.64 40 and a 42.5-inch vertical leap. He showed off that athleticism in receiving drills, and it appears as if he helped his stock as much as anyone and really established himself on the radar as a potential H-back.
 
Aside from Rudolph, two of the more established tight ends are Arkansas’ D.J. Williams and Wisconsin’s Lance Kendricks, and both had concerns about their size. Williams stands just 6’2”, 245 pounds, and Kendricks is 6’3”, 243 pounds. Despite the size limitations, they are two of the best athletes at the position and are proven receivers, so they should be among the first TEs off the board.

The most negative news comes from South Carolina’s Weslye Saunders, who needs a good off-season after missing the entire 2010 season because of rules violations. A big prospect at 6’5”, 270 pounds, Saunders re-injured a broken bone in his foot and was forced to sit out most of the workouts. Scouts will have major questions about him, considering he hasn’t taken the field in more than a year and has renewed health concerns as we head into March, but he still shouldn’t have much of a problem finding a home because of his all-around talent and size.

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