10 key combine battles
Quote:Inside draft position: 10 key combine battles
By Chad Reuter
The Sports Xchange/CBSSports.com
Feb. 23, 2011
From a player's perspective, the NFL Scouting Combine is all about separating from the competition.
Beyond running the fastest 40-yard dash or throwing up the most reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, it's up to each prospect to do something to separate himself from players at his position who have similar draft value in the minds of the NFL's 32 decision-makers.
Coaches and scouts view game film as the single-best tool for player evaluation. But because prospects play different schedules against widely varying levels of competition, teams cannot only rely on tape when trying to project players to the next level.
Relative athleticism is an important part of the equation when deciding between two nearly equally productive, durable and coachable players.
This year's draft class has several very close positional races that could be decided by combine workout numbers, interviews and physical and psychological evaluation.
Here are a few of those battles to watch this week:
Brandon Harris (Miami, Fla.) vs. Jimmy Smith (Colorado) vs. Aaron Williams (Texas)
Smith has the inside track behind Patrick Peterson (LSU) and Prince Amukamara (Nebraska) because of his size, length and aggression in run support. But Williams is similar in stature, and although Harris will measure 1-2 inches shorter than the two 6-footers, he's likely to be the fastest of the three. He's capable of making plays against ball carriers on the outside.
Scouts also want to see the prospects make plays on the ball in position drills.
Top-rated defensive end:
Da'Quan Bowers (Clemson) vs. Robert Quinn (North Carolina)
Quinn's medical issue (surgery on benign spinal tumor in high school) aside, both players have top-five talent but must display the athleticism necessary to be feared pass rushers in the NFL.
Bowers needs to be fast and agile in testing to get rid of the "not explosive" label, while Quinn looks to refresh teams' memory of his prowess chasing quarterbacks after sitting out all of the 2010 season due to NCAA suspension for accepting benefits from an agent.
First-round offensive guards:
Rodney Hudson (Florida State) vs. Mike Pouncey (Florida) vs. Danny Watkins (Baylor)
In most drafts, one or two interior offensive linemen go in the first round, so this battle could change the way draft Thursday plays out.
Pouncey played guard and center like brother Maurkice, but must prove he is as tough and competitive. Watkins will turn 27 next fall, but could be the top guard taken if he proves the athleticism to also start at tackle, as he did for two seasons at Baylor. Hudson's smallish frame turns some scouts off, or leads them to grade him as a center, but testing better than expected at about 300 pounds could tip the scales in his direction.
Second-tier 3-4 outside linebacker:
Sam Acho (Texas) vs. Jeremy Beal (Oklahoma) vs. Brooks Reed (Arizona) vs. Jabaal Sheard (Pittsburgh)
Teams using 3-4 schemes looking for pass rush help in the late first or second round may be evaluating these four college defensive ends.
Acho's strength and character will endear him to some teams, and an excellent combine could really push him up boards. Reed's pass-rush moves, long hair, and hustle will remind scouts of Green Bay star OLB Clay Matthews III, but he'll need to show his athleticism before making the comparison truly valid.
After an unimpressive Senior Bowl week, Beal really needs a big combine to have any chance at being a second-round pick. Sheard had a shoulder injury that prevented him from participating in Pitt's bowl game, as well as the Senior Bowl, but teams hope he'll be able to perform linebacker drills to see his fluidity in space.
Top offensive tackles:
Anthony Castonzo (Boston College) vs. Derek Sherrod (Mississippi State) vs. Tyron Smith (Southern Cal) vs. Nate Solder (Colorado)
The top spot among offensive tackle rankings has been fluid for a full year because these top four all have had moments in which they look exceptional -- and all have looked very ordinary. Testing could help determine the ranking order, but team and scheme preference might still dictate that five teams could rank them five different ways.
To earn the top grade on NFL teams' final draft boards, Castonzo needs to look like a left tackle in agility testing and pass-protection drills, Smith must come in over 300 pounds -- he played last season at around 285 -- and meet high expectations in testing, while both Sherrod and Solder need to prove stronger and more flexible than expected.
No. 3 quarterback:
Jake Locker (Washington) vs. Ryan Mallett (Arkansas) vs. Christian Ponder (Florida State)
Unfortunately, most top quarterback prospects decide not to throw at the combine because they prefer to pass to familiar receivers in their scripted pro day. However, the second-tier prospects could really help themselves with a strong performance.
Locker has the most to gain by throwing and needs to make up ground after a lackluster career and Senior Bowl week. Mallett's ability to sling the ball is much less in doubt than his agility, so solid testing there, as well as in interviews, could have his stock on the rise. And a strong medical check could satisfy teams' worries about Ponder's throwing (right) arm, which underwent multiple surgeries over the past two years.
Second-tier running backs:
Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma State) vs. DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma) vs. Jacquizz Rodgers (Oregon State) vs. Daniel Thomas (Kansas State) vs. Shane Vereen (Cal)
There is an absolute logjam of running backs with second- and third-round value. The group ranges in size from diminutive but tough 'Quizz Rodgers (5-7, 190) to big Daniel Thomas (6-2, 225), and the other three are all legitimate rushing/receiving threats who may only be separated by team preference.
Any back exceeding expectations with a hot 40-yard dash (as well as the 10- and 20-yard splits) or agility tests could break away from the rest of the group and follow likely first-rounders Mark Ingram and Mikel LeShoure off the draft board.
No. 1 safety:
Quinton Carter (Oklahoma) vs. DeAndre McDaniel (Clemson) vs. Rahim Moore (UCLA)
Moore was considered the favorite to be the first safety picked this season, but scouts aren't sure he has the instincts or tackling ability to be a first-round pick.
If the bigger, stronger Carter and/or McDaniel can prove nearly as fast and agile as Moore, or display exceptional hands in drills, they cannot only close the gap but surpass the former Bruin on teams' boards.
No. 1 wide receiver:
A.J. Green (Georgia) vs. Julio Jones (Alabama)
Comparisons between these two receivers have been hot and heavy since Green returned from suspension in October. Green's superior agility and big-play ability wowed scouts over the past three years, but Jones' physicality may give him an advantage over the lanky Bulldog at the next level.
If there is little difference between the two receivers in the various tests, Jones' size could push him over the top (if teams can put aside his occasional drops).
First-round wide receivers (pick No. 22-32 range):
Jon Baldwin (Pittsburgh) vs. Leonard Hankerson (Miami, Fla.) vs. Torrey Smith (Maryland)
Baldwin and Hankerson are the sort of tall or big-bodied receivers teams seem to covet late in the first (Dwayne Bowe, Kenny Britt, Michael Jenkins). A better-than-expected 40-yard dash time, or even excellent work in the gauntlet or other receiving drills, could help them gain comparisons to Britt or Jenkins, and not second-round disappointments Dwayne Jarrett, Malcolm Kelly and Limas Sweed.
Smith's after-the-catch ability challenges defenses in other ways, but without the size to match Baldwin and Hankerson -- he's expected to measure around 6-foot, 205 pounds -- he needs to prove he can separate from NFL corners with exceptional speed and short area quickness. Thus his agility tests, not just his 40-yard dash time, must be top-notch to earn a first-round slot
What battles will be most interesting to the Falcons?