Thursday, February 28, 2013

What We Learned from the NFL Combine

By Joe Parello

The NFL Scouting Combine has come and gone, and one thing is becoming more and more apparent in this draft: The difference between pick No.1 and pick No. 21 isn't very large.

There is no "can't miss" quarterback this year, nor is there an explosive running back or receiver that has everybody's attention. This year's draft is, ugh, strong on both the offensive and defensive lines. Still, there were some standout performers this weekend in Nap Town, and some guys that turned in terrible performances that are sure to sink them down draft boards across the league.

So, without further ado, here are my top-6 takeaways from the 2013 Combine. Why top-6? Because I put in that extra effort.

Strongest Position in this Year's Draft?

This has to be defensive tackle, where as many as six players could go in the first round. Despite a newly discovered heart condition, Utah's Star Lotulelei is still a top-15 pick, and Florida's Sharrif Floyd turned in a performance at the Combine that could shoot him into the draft's top-5 picks.

Behind those two, Missouri's Sheldon Richardson ran in the 4.6 range in the forty at nearly 300 lbs., and North Carolina's Sylvester Williams projects in the top-15-20. Add in Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins and Purdue's Kawann Short on the fringe of the first round, and this position is by far the deepest in the 2013 class.

Weakest Position in this Year's Draft?

There's been a lot of talk about the lack of a top flight quarterback prospect but the running back crop in this year's draft is, perhaps, more depressing. Things started poorly for backs heading into the Combine when top rated running back Eddie Lacy from Alabama tore a hamstring and could not participate. Then, big name back Montee Ball had a pretty poor workout all around, and Kenjon Barner, a back known entirely for speed, ran a "pretty good" 4.52 forty.

In this mediocre class, Arkansas' Knile Davis and Auburn's Onterio McCalebb rose to the top with blazing forty times. But, Davis hasn't had a healthy season since high school, and McCalebb's best year at Auburn included less than 600 yards rushing. With Lacy hurt, a big workout from UCLA's Johnathan Franklin put the former Bruin in the conversation of first running back selected, but it likely won't be until the second round.

What About Quarterbacks, Yo?

Oh yeah, they kinda stink too. Geno Smith, at this point, looks like the only quarterback worthy of going in the first round. Smith has exceptional arm strength, great accuracy, and he's the best athlete at the position in this class to boot.

But, you know some dumb team will talk themselves into a Matt Barkley or a Mike Glennon way too early. Heck, E.J. Manuel could go in the first round, and he's the worst FSU quarterback since Christian Ponder.

If I were a betting man, I would bet the Jets do something especially dumb, like trade back into the first round to take Barkley. Or, as I like to call him, the white Mark Sanchez. Everyone keeps saying that Syracuse's Ryan Nassib could be a sleeper, and that's a distinct possibility, but he just looked ineffective at times, and that was in the Big East. If you struggle against the Pitt Panthers, I have little faith you can do much against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Players Who Boosted Their Stock the Most?

Boy, how many teams are drooling over adding West Virginia's Tavon Austin to their roster now? We knew the Mountaineer receiver/returner/space player had speed, but his 4.34 forty showed us he has elite NFL receiver speed. Combine that with his amazing production in Morgantown and it's now hard to see Austin lasting past pick No. 20.

Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah could have the distinct honor of being the second dude with the nickname Ziggy picked in the first round since 2009 when the Steelers drafted Evander "Ziggy" Hood out of Missouri.

I have not been able to confirm if a player with the nickname "Ziggy" had ever been selected before then, but it's a pretty funny nickname to assign to NFL legends. Joe "Ziggy" Montana, Mike "Ziggy" Ditka, Ray "Ziggy" Nitschke, "Mean" Joe "Ziggy" Greene, etc.

Ok, I had too much fun with that.

Anyways, this year's Ziggy is a raw pass rusher out of BYU that has the potential to be a perennial double-digit sack producer. At 6'5'' and 270 lbs. with a 4.6 forty and 35 inch vertical, Ansah is an athletic freak. Still, Ansah only has one year of starting under his belt. A native of Ghana, Ansah walked onto the BYU hoops team twice, but didn't make the cut in either his freshman or sophomore seasons.

Well, the basketball team's trash became the football team's treasure, as Ansah switched sports and recorded 13 tackles for a loss his senior year. He's going to take some development, but all the tools are there.

Players Who Stunk it Up?

What a couple of months it has been for Notre Dame's Manti Te'o. After nearly becoming the first exclusively defensive player to win the Heisman, it was uncovered that Te'o was either the dumbest and most gullible person on Earth, or he was in on a hoax that created a fictional girlfriend for himself, who ended up dying of leukemia.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the Irish (actually, he's Hawaiian) linebacker turned in a terrible 4.81 forty time, and failed to impress in any other drills. Another player who saw his stock plummet was Texas A&M defensive end Damontre Moore. Many thought Moore was a top-10-15 pick, but after a pathetic 12 reps of 225 lbs. on the bench press and a nearly 5 second forty yard dash, everyone is questioning whether he has the strength or speed to excel in the league.

Team with Trickiest Pick in the Top-5?

After trading for Alex Smith, Kansas City's pick seems pretty obvious at No.1. They need to take a left tackle and with A&M's Luke Joeckel sitting there, that seems like a done deal. But, right after the Chiefs are the Jacksonville Jaguars, who have more needs than any team in football. Also, their defense was the worst in the league in terms of getting after the passer in 2012.

There are many intriguing options to fix that problem, including defensive tackles Floyd and Lotulelei, but they could also add the draft's best edge player in Georgia's Jarvis Jones, or his LSU rival Barkevious Mingo. Heck, Alabama's Dee Milliner looks like the shutdown corner you can build a defense around and, with Jacksonville's secondary aging, that might be a great pick too. The important thing is the Jaguars simply cannot afford to miss on this pick, and it needs to help them generate pressure on opposing quarterbacks.