The 2011 NFL season is just about in the books. There are a few loose ends to be tied up - the Giants parade, a few coaching/assistant vacancies, retirements, etc, - but for all intents and purposes we are ready to kick off the 2012 offseason. For many of us (especially those of us reading an NFL-draft themed website) the offseason is nearly (equally?) as exciting as the regular season. The first stop is the NFL Scouting Combine in just over two weeks. While some of us will be watching each and every drill and keeping our eyes and ears open for draft-related rumblings, others will just pay attention to the big daily headlines. Here are some things to watch:
1. The top of the DL class. Unlike in some recent years, there is no consensus Top 5 pick DL on the board. There are two guys - LSU's Michael Brockers and North Carolina's Quinton Coples - who have very high upside but question marks. Brockers, a redshirt sophomore, is thought to have elite upside but is very raw. Coples is a bit of an enigma, flashing top-end skills at times and disappearing at other times. In a draft class short on 5-techniques, and a league shifting more and more to 3-4 base schemes, both Coples and Brockers could draw a lot of interest early. It's possible 4-3 teams take an interest in both guys, Brockers is probably atop the list of 3-techniques in the draft and Coples could play DE in some 4-3 schemes. After those guys, Devon Still, Dontari Poe, and others are looking to jump into the top half of the 1st round.
2. The WR class in general. If there's a position which has a lot of moving and shaking in terms of draft stock at the combine, it's the receivers. Can Alshon Jeffery run well and prove some of his naysayers wrong about his athleticism and speed? Can Michael Floyd interview well and show better-than-expected fluidity in drills? Is Kendall Wright really as impressive athletically as a lot of people are starting to think? Moving beyond the top tier of receivers, the Combine could help shape the 2nd tier of WR's. This draft is loaded with speedy, dynamic playmakers: Jarius Wright, Joe Adams, T.Y. Hilton to name a few. Not to mention some bigger guys who could boost their stock with good 40 times: Juron Criner, Rueben Randle, Mohamed Sanu. This is a class which will be very deep in WR prospects and a superlative Combine showing can theoretically make a WR a lot of money. Conversely, with so many good prospects, a bad combine could cause a WR to slip a lot.
3. The "other" QB's: Kirk Cousins, Ryan Tannehill, Nick Foles, Brandon Weeden. Like with the WR's, there is a bit of a muddle after the first tier of WR's. Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are obviously the #1 and #2 guys. After that, there isn't much of a consensus on anyone. Seeing how some of these guys do in drills and how they interview will probably cause one or two to shoot up the board and possibly one or two to slide into Day 3 territory.
4. Smaller school guys. Guys like Appalachian State WR Brian Quick, Midwestern State OT Amini Silatolu, Louisiana-Lafayette TE Ladarius Green, Cal Poly DB Asa Jackson and Montana DB Trumaine Johnson are among the lesser known prospects (to many) who the casual draft follower or college football fan might not know about. There are usually one or two such players who see a boost in their stock by performing well in the drills or interview process.
5. Character or injury guys. How does Ryan Broyles' knee check out? Is Alshon Jeffery's work ethic bad or just a myth? This portion of the process goes largely unseen until the draft itself when you hear cryptic comments from a so-called expert about how "from what I understand, Player X didn't do well in the interviews" or "Player Y apparently has some drug issues in his past" or "Player Z's injury is more worrisome than many thought". However, as we have seen in the case of Aaron Hernandez (drugs) or Rob Gronkowski (spinal injury), sometimes these red flags can be too highly considered on draft day. We all remember the hoopla about Cam Newton's comments ("I'm an entertainer and an icon"). Many labeled him a diva or character risk based on those comments and his issues at Auburn. Luckily, Carolina was smart enough to trust their own interview process and make him their franchise QB.
6. Position conversion projects. WIth the increase of 3-4 teams in the NFL, but no real increase in college, there are more and more teams looking to convert college DT's to 5-techniques and college DE's to OLBs. In many cases, teams project these conversions with very little tape to go on. The drills at the combine (and pro days) can go a long way. Guys like Whitney Mercilus, Melvin Ingram, Vinny Curry, Cam Johnson, Andre Branch and the like will need to show well in LB drills to be considered by 3-4 clubs. Some DB drills could also help scouts identify CB's who could flip to safety (especially important in this weak safety class).
All in all, it should be an interesting kickoff to a 6 month offseason.
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