Tuesday, February 24, 2015

What We Learned from the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine

Georgia receiver Chris Conley jumps very high and makes a funny face at the Combine.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

The NFL Scouting Combine has come and gone, but NFL Draft season is just kicking in.

With 40 times, vertical leaps and bench press numbers for (most of) the biggest prospects, NFL teams, particularly those at the top of the draft board, now have two months to digest all that information and combine it with game film to decide which player is the next big thing.

History, however, has shown that finding a future Hall of Famer on NFL Draft day is more about luck than skill, but that won't stop analysts and bloggers alike from claiming the future greatness of some college standout today.

So, if they can do it, why can't I? Without further ado, here is everything we learned from the 2015 NFL Scouting Combine.

Pass Rushers Should Rule Draft Day

We knew coming into the Combine that there were plenty of quality pass rushers in the class of 2015, but nearly all put up eye-popping numbers and surely moved even further up scouts' draft boards.

Clemson's Vic Beasley and Florida's Dante Fowler probably helped their stocks the most, as Beasley ran a blazing 4.53 second 40-yard dash (the fastest among front-7 defenders) and led all defensive players at the Combine with 35 reps of 225 lbs on the bench press.

Fowler, who is known as a more versatile player and better run defender than Beasley, ran a 4.6 in the 40, and weighed in a full 15 lbs heavier than Beasley at 261.

With extra weight, blazing speed and the ability to play the run and the pass from both defensive end and outside linebacker, Fowler looks like the most complete edge rusher in the class, but Beasley's upside is undeniable. He has the most potential of any pass rusher this year.

Outside of those two, Nebraska's Rand Gregory should provide value to somebody a bit down the draft board. He weighed in at a disappointing 235 lbs and ran in the 4.64 range, but at 6'5'' with 34 inch arms, Gregory's length and power should make him an effective pass rusher at the next level.

His lack of bulk will need to be addressed, but as of now he looks like a 3-4 outside linebacker, but one that could potentially put his hand in the dirt and play end on third down. He's a project both in terms of his technique and bulk, but Gregory's frame, strength and explosive first step make him a fascinating prospect.

Outside of the Top-3, Kentucky's Bud Dupree left his mark Sunday, running a 4.56 second 40 and posting a freakish 42 inch vertical. That kind of explosion, especially at his size of 6'4'', 270 lbs make him a rare specimen, but his lack of instincts and production will probably knock him down a few pegs.

Missouri defensive end Shane Ray was unable to participate in workouts due to a toe injury, but scouts have him ranked among the best pass rushers in the class due to his massive production in the SEC (14 sacks a season ago).

Still, Ray is a bit undersized for defensive end at 6'3, 245 lbs, so he will likely need to make a move to outside linebacker at the next level. It will be an interesting case study, because Ray posted slightly better numbers than his former openly-gay teammate Michael Sam (14 sacks to 11.5, and 22.5 TFL to 19), but in a less competitive SEC. Both are 6'3 and Sam is actually 10 lbs heavier…

If Ray goes in the first round after Sam went in the 7th last year, that will certainly turn some heads.

Teams are Talking Themselves into All Quarterbacks

And we're already beginning to hear all the great things about Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota. This is, of course, and annual affair, since teams want to make every quarterback prospect sound great, so that when they inevitably pick a terrible one, they can always say "well everyone else thought he was going to be good."

I'm not shocked it's happening, but I am a little shocked at how strong the Jameis love is coming on. Suddenly he's gone from "arrogant" and "entitled," to "confident" and "strong-willed." The immense change in interpretation of Winston's personality leads me to believe that he's going to be the first quarterback off the board, and will probably go No. 1 overall to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Bucs and Titans scouts/officials are certainly doing their part to get the good news about Jameis out, but Mike Mayock at NFL Network is pitching in as well. Perhaps the NFL is trying to fix Winston's image as a crab leg-stealing, alleged rapist before he ever takes a snap. I wouldn't put it past them, especially with all the flak the league has taken over the past year due to its horrendous record on domestic violence.

Either way, everyone is gushing over Winston, calling him a winner, leader and competitor. Everyone is similarly singing the praises of Mariota, who is a special athlete, but lacks many skills as basic as calling a play in the huddle.

Now, Mariota can certainly learn to throw more than five routes, and hold the ball for more than a three-step drop, and read zone coverage, but this is an incomplete prospect, and I feel like that fact is glossed over quite frequently.

Both have tremendous upside, but both are flawed as well. It will be interesting to see where each ends up and how they adjust, but neither one of them is a slam dunk the way Andrew Luck was in 2012.

The U Wasted Some Serious Talent

The Combine told us the same thing the Senior Bowl did, and something Miami fans already knew: The U wasted some real talent this season.

Despite going 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the ACC, and losing an incredibly boring bowl game to South Carolina, the Hurricanes have some studs in this draft class.

Ereck Flowers comes in as one of the top offensive tackle prospects in the class, and led the Combine with 37 reps of 225 lbs on the bench press, while receiver Phillip Dorsett ran a ridiculous 4.33 40 and jumped 37 inches. Both of these rank Dorsett among the most athletic players in the class, regardless of position.

Defensive end Anthony Chickillo has been rising up draft boards since a stellar performance at the East-West Shrine Game in which he was finally given the chance to work his way up field as a 4-3 end. Chickillo implied that his talents were wasted in Miami's 3-4, where he was asked more to occupy blocks than disrupt things in the backfield.

Duke Johnson was a known commodity coming into the Combine, but he didn't disappoint, running a 4.54 second 40 and posting a 34 inch vertical. Johnson is crammed into a loaded running back class, but there's no doubt he was one of the NCAA's best backs when healthy the last few years.

Inside linebacker Denzel Perryman was a beast on the bench, pumping out 27 reps, and his sub-4.8 40 and 32 inch vertical show that he's more than just a tough guy. With an old-school nastiness in the middle, Perryman is jumping up the draft boards of 4-3 and 3-4 teams alike.

When you add in workout warrior tight end Clive Walford and solid corner Ladarius Gunter it becomes abundantly clear why fans in Coral Gables are growing weary of head coach Al Golden. With as much talent as the Hurricanes had last year, 6-7 is unacceptable, to say the least.

Georgia's Chris Conley is Your Workout Warrior

If you're looking for this year's workout warrior, look no further than Georgia wide receiver Chris Conley. The speedy Bulldog ran the 40 in a blazing 4.35 seconds, measured in at 6'2'' and 215 lbs, blew away the field with a 45 inch vertical leap and 139 inch broad jump, and even held his own with 18 reps on the bench press.

Now, Conley's production and film are far from flawless. The freakish athlete only caught 36 balls for 657 yards and eight touchdowns last season, but it should be noted that Georgia's offense revolved around its incredible stable of running backs and is very ground heavy.

When Conley did get his hands on the ball, he averaged a fantastic 18.3 yards per catch, and grabbed a touchdown every 4.5 times he caught the ball.

Basically, he made the most of his touches.

He compares favorably to one of last year's workout warriors, Clemson's Martavis Bryant, who was drafted by the Steelers in the fourth round. Bryant was slightly more productive (42 receptions for 828 yards, 19.7 avg. 7 TDs), but he also played in a pass happy offense with an experienced quarterback, and next to an All American receiver in Sammy Watkins. Plus, Conley's workout measurable are more impressive (His 40 is 0.07 seconds faster, his vertical 6 inches higher, his broad jump 15 inches longer and he cranked out two extra reps on the bench), though Bryant is two inches taller.

Both Conley and Bryant come into the league as raw projects, but each has a unique skill set that can't be coached. If the right teams gets a hold of Conley, he could develop into a feared play maker by the end of his rookie campaign, just like Bryant.

The Top-5 Picks in the Draft Just Became Very Interesting

The number one pick is always interesting, and this year it seems the Bucs have a pair of quarterbacks to choose between in Florida State's Jameis Winston and Oregon's Marcus Mariota. Or, Tampa Bay could decide it doesn't have enough faith in either of those guys, and add USC defensive lineman Leonard Williams.

The beastly Williams has been compared to J.J. Watt for his defensive tackle size (over 300 lbs), but defensive end athleticism (though I was less than impressed with his 4.97 40). Will he be the next Watt? Almost certainly not, but he is as "safe" a pick as the Bucs can make, and would pair very nicely with Gerald McCoy to further strengthen Tampa Bay's defensive line.

After the Bucs, Tennessee could scoop up Williams (most likely if he's still on the board), or grab a quarterback, or even dip into the edge rusher market. The Titans can't be particularly sold on Zach Mettenberger after last season, and if they believe Mariota or Winston is a significant upgrade (not exactly a stretch to think so), they may pull the trigger on a QB at No. 2.

The Jaguars at No. 3 are tied to second-year quarterback Blake Bortles and seem set to pick a pass rusher. Jacksonville runs a 4-3, so Dante Fowler would make a ton of sense, given his versatility, but the newly bulked up Vic Beasley could end up being a perfect fit as a 4-3 end, assuming he can play with the added weight.

At number four the Raiders have so many needs, but they need to start surrounding second year QB Derek Carr with some weapons. Alabama receiver Amari Cooper would make some sense here, as would West Virginia receiver Kevin White. Both have the requisite size and speed to be Raiders first round picks, but, unlike past Raider first round receivers, each can actually play.

Rounding out the top five is always interesting Washington, another team with a ton of needs. Obviously, the most entertaining outcome would be for the Redskins to take Winston or Mariota if they're still on the board, throwing the future of Robert Griffin III into flux, but that probably isn't going to happen. After that, Washinton seems to always be in the market for pass rushers, and Randy Gregory would appear to be a good fit in their 3-4.

Of course, the Redskins have been all over the place the last few years, so who really knows what to expect from them, but one thing is for sure, it's going to be fun.

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