NEPD Contributor: Peter Bukowski
Fans and sports media tend to get more excited about the NFL Combine than the average NFL team. Sure, teams still fall victim to so-called workout warriors (See: Poe, Dontari 2012), but the reality is most teams rely more heavily on what they see on the field than in this workouts.
What makes the combine great is players will surprise you. We knew Chris Johnson was fast at East Carolina, but all-time fast? His workout took him from a second round pick into the first with his explosiveness.
Workouts, whether outstanding or underwhelming, will usually make teams go back and look at the tape. You want the workout to underscore what you’re seeing on film.
The combine gives players a chance to show they have better speed than their film indicates, or perhaps they’ve gotten stronger and put on weight since they were playing.
While it isn’t the be all and end all, the combine does mean a lot at stake for the 300 or so college prospects who are lucky enough to attend. We took a look at prospects with the most to gain and the most to lose with their performance at the combine starting next week.
Manti Te’o LB Notre Dame
There are reasons for Te’o being on this list beyond the fake girlfriend controversy. Te’o was able to go sideline to sideline in college, but teams will want to see him run at an elite level in Indianapolis to prove he has the range and cover skills he flashed at Notre Dame. Obviously, the interviews will also be a big part of what is to come for Te’o because teams will want to know this kid is a straight-shooter who may have just got caught up in something a little strange. Te’o will be a dichotomous prospect for teams, as some will still believe he’s a top 10 player, while others may take him off their board completely. Impress at the combine, and suddenly he’s a top 20 lock once again.
Jarvis Jones LB Georgia
Another prospect that has some teams stumped, Jones’ football career was nearly ended by a serious spinal condition, but the doctors at Georgia cleared him and he had a monster career for the Bulldogs. Beyond having to assure teams he will be cleared medically to play, the issue for Jones is that he’s a ‘tweener. At just 240 pounds, there are questions as to whether or not he’s big enough to be a 3-4 outside linebacker, but rushing the passer is his specialty. Can he transition to outside linebacker in a 4-3? His workout will go a long way to determining whether or not he has the speed and agility to play in coverage. Unlike any 3-4 outside linebackers, Jones definitely isn’t big enough to play end in a 3-4 if he doesn’t show enough agility to play linebacker. That means his workouts will go a long way in determining how scheme-versatile he is, something that will have a serious impact in his value.
Matt Barkley QB USC
Barkley has said he’ll do everything at the combine, despite coming off a major shoulder injury. Some have suggested it would be smarter to simply wait for his pro day, give his arm the extra time to heal and try to win scouts over that way. I’m not sure that’s his best option. If Barkley feels like he’s healthy, then throw at the combine. If he underwhelms, then he has his pro day as a do-over of sorts. The senior won’t win any contests for arm strength, but his accuracy and timing are his greatest strengths, two things that are hard to show at the combine when you’re not throwing your routes with your receivers. It’s a risk for any top-tier quarterback to throw at the combine for this reason, but if he throws and throws well, he could be solidly back into the first round mix, particularly given how smart and charismatic he will be in interviews.
Robert Woods WR USC
Another Trojan on this list, Woods will have to show he’s more athletic than his film would indicate. Woods isn’t the athlete some of his peers at this position are, relying instead on impeccable route-running and play design to get open. Woods also benefitted from Barkley’s ability to make bucket throws on deep balls because Woods isn’t a burner like his teammate Marquise Lee. A bad 40 time could have Woods tumbling as teams will question whether or not he can separate at the next level with more talented defenders and better defensive schemes. Add on the fact that Woods dropped way too many passes, a poor showing at the combine could push Woods into the second or even third round for a player who once was a top 20 lock.
Matt Elam S Florida
Elam stands on a precipice of sorts heading into the combine. If he can show the ability to flip his hips and cover, along with a solid 40 time, he is looking at the potential of being a first round pick. If he doesn’t do one or both of those things, this is a talented safety class and Elam could drop like a rock. The Florida safety is a thumper, who plays with a surliness and aggressiveness that defensive coordinators love. But in the NFL today, there’s no such thing as a strong safety whose main job is to play in the box, unless you’re playing Adrian Peterson. Safeties are not interchangeable pieces and must be able to cover tight ends, play the middle and blitz in the dog and robber schemes defensive coordinators love to use. If Elam can show he has NFL safety range, he will be in play for teams like Green Bay and New England at the end of the first. If not, teams will wonder if Elam is more a sub-package or special teams player and see him slide.