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40 takeaways from the NFL Combine

Don’t overreact on Leonard Fournette, how the quarterbacks rate, and more to close out the combine.

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL Scouting Combine can be an information overload where you’re interviewing players, head coaches and team executives, tracking workout sessions, and getting as much information from teams as possible.

With that in mind, in honor of the 40-yard dash, here are 40 takeaways and things we learned at the combine leading up to the 2017 NFL draft.

1. The talk early in the week at the combine was all about LSU running back Leonard Fournette. When he jumped 28.5 inches, everyone began to question his play. Is he out of shape? Is 240 pounds too big? Is he overrated? Then when he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.51 seconds, those questions mostly went away.

2. The treatment of Fournette really illustrates the absurdity of the combine. Look, teams do the combine drills for a reason, so Fournette’s lack of a vertical jump can be concerning. But based on how he plays, should we really expect him to be some athletic marvel? No. He’s a bruising runner who is more prone to throwing defenders aside than running around them.

3. Florida State running back Dalvin Cook would probably admit the combine didn’t go how he expected. He also had a relatively short vertical, and didn’t put up a great number in the broad jump, three-cone, or shuttle drills. But that doesn’t erase his incredible play at Florida State where he looked all the part of being a first-round lock and the best running back in the draft.

4. The point is, value the combine and what it offers but don’t overvalue it. Are there winners and losers of the event? Of course, but the opinion on a player shouldn’t change 180 degrees based on what they did working out.

5. Really the biggest rule of the combine should be don’t say stupid things. Malik McDowell said something NFL teams will think is stupid. McDowell answered one question by saying his work ethic “is not a problem at all.” But when asked what teams are saying he needs to work on, McDowell answered by saying “just playing hard every down.” Those two things don’t line up.

6. From a physical standpoint, McDowell might be the most singularly gifted player in this year’s draft. At 6’6 and 295 pounds, McDowell can line up all over the place and he has the athleticism to be a star. It’s just a question of whether or not he’ll work to actualize his obvious talent.

7. Here’s the situation NFL teams will consider when the draft happens. Do you take McDowell because you love his size and potential? Or do you wait a round or two and see if you can get Villanova’s Tanoh Kpassagnon, who has nearly identical size and athleticism, but comes from a small school and is maybe a little less refined of a player? The question about effort may be the tiebreaker.

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8. My opinion on the top quarterbacks in the draft didn’t change after the combine.

9. Even with his issues throwing over the middle of the field, Deshaun Watson of Clemson has been my favorite player at the position. If one of the top quarterbacks helped himself, it was Watson.

10. Mitch Trubisky of North Carolina isn’t far behind, and the feeling I got from teams is that he’s ahead of Watson.

11. DeShone Kizer is the most purely talented of the bunch, but his accuracy is inconsistent and that showed at the combine.

12. The order the three will go in the draft is still completely up in the air. The feelings 49ers general manager John Lynch had — where there are things you like about each — probably holds true for most teams.

13. Watson and Kizer are my top two, and then a gap before Kizer and Patrick Mahomes of Texas Tech. Mahomes is impressive, and the rating between he and Kizer is minimal.

14. During his media session, it was apparent that Mahomes knows the technique issues he has as a quarterback. Mahomes has the best arm talent in the draft, but his footwork is messy and he has a tendency to just throw the ball anywhere. If he can truly be developed in a situation where he sits a season, he could be a franchise quarterback.

15. The consensus among NFL teams in Indianapolis was that after those four, Davis Webb of California is the next-best quarterback. Because there are so many teams needing quarterbacks, he could get picked much higher than expected.

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16. There haven’t been five tight ends taken in the first two rounds of the draft since 2006, but that may change. That was the year that featured two in the first round in Vernon Davis going sixth overall to the 49ers and Marcedes Lewis being picked 28 by the Jaguars. That could happen again this year.

17. Alabama’s O.J. Howard locked up a spot in the first round long before the combine. Coming off an impressive Senior Bowl, Howard had exceptional timing numbers with the fastest three-cone drill (6.85 seconds) and 20-yard shuttle (4.16 seconds) for a tight end. Oh, and he ran a 4.51 40-yard dash at 6’6 and 251 pounds.

18. Howard came in as a first-round pick and now it’s just figuring out how high he goes. At the worst, his draft range starts at No. 12 and the Browns and the furthest he’ll probably drop is the Giants at No. 23.

19. There is a chance we get to five tight ends in the first two rounds like in 2006. Miami’s David Njoku may not have had an overly impressive showing, but the big-play receiver who averaged 16.2 yards per catch last season should find a spot in the first round. Teams looking for their version of Jordan Reed could go after a player like Bucky Hodges of Virginia Tech or Evan Engram of Ole Miss as well.

20. That fifth tight end could be any number of players. Jake Butt of Michigan couldn’t work out, but he can be just as good as Howard when he’s healthy. George Kittle of Iowa surprised a lot of people with his blazing 40 of 4.52 seconds and a 35-inch vertical.

21. After the top three wide receivers — Mike Williams of Clemson, Corey Davis of Western Michigan, and John Ross of Washington — it’s a take-your-pick group at the position. Chris Godwin of Penn State and Zay Jones of East Carolina helped themselves the most among wide receivers, and should be in the discussion for the second round.

22. JuJu Smith-Schuster of USC should have a spot in the second round. He did good enough in drills to not drop draft placement. Taywan Taylor of Western Kentucky followed up a solid Senior Bowl with an equally solid combine, and he could also be in play for the first 64 picks.

23. Ohio State’s Curtis Samuel is in there as well, and he could even be in contention for the first round. His workout was overshadowed by Ross, but his 40 for 4.31 seconds was impressive, as were his 18 bench press reps and 37-inch vertical leap. Samuel, who works at receiver and running back, may not be for everybody, but a creative team will know how to utilize him.

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24. Speaking of versatile players, Jabrill Peppers of Michigan put to rest what his NFL position should be.

25. “What do I look like? I’m a safety. I’m a safety. Yes, I’m a safety,” Peppers said on Saturday.

26. Fans will continue to have questions about Peppers because they didn’t see him making a lot of splashy plays at Michigan last season. His talent and attitude alone will make him a success in the NFL. He hasn’t been in the first round of the last two mock drafts I’ve done solely because I’m still trying to gauge exactly how teams feel about him and where he should go. Teams are still deciding his best position and how to use him best, and some are even asking Peppers about playing on offense.

27. Now, that’s the extreme of versatility, but one of the themes of the draft this year will be how safeties can create mismatches for defenses. Because of that, safety value is up in the draft this year and that’s a good thing for someone like Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut.

28. He helped himself at the Senior Bowl, showing off his versatility to play in man and drop in zone. At almost 6’4 and 224 pounds, he also has the size to come up and play the run. At the combine his 4.4 40-yard dash speed was a little faster than some may have thought, and his 44-inch vertical is proof that he should be able to go up and high point the ball against the biggest of tight ends.

29. Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim stressed the importance of having versatile players on defense. He should know best considering how his team utilizes safeties Deone Bucannon and Tyrann Mathieu.

30. “I think it's important to have hybrid players at all levels,” Keim said. “Because when you do things like we do, multiple fronts, multiple coverages, you have that position flexibility where you can play inside, you can play outside. You've got Deone from a matchup standpoint who can potentially cover tight ends, can cover at times slot receivers to an extent. To have a guy like Tyrann Mathieu who can invert, play in the slot, play in the nickel for you, the more flexibility you have, the more you can do. Those guys have become so valuable, because this game has become a matchup situation.”

31. Melifonwu could be this year’s version of Byron Jones. In 2015 he destroyed the combine, setting a world record for the standing long jump at 12’3. He worked himself into the back half of the first round, and Melifonwu could find his way in there as well.

32. If teams miss out on Melifonwu, Josh Jones of North Carolina State isn’t a bad fallback option. He’s a little smaller than Melifonwu, but at 6’1 and 220 pounds he’s easily big enough for the NFL and athleticism was shown plenty with a 4.41 40-yard dash and 37.5-inch vertical jump. He should have a spot in the top 100.

33. Teams are going to covet versatile players on offense as well. With that in mind, players like Samuel and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford did exactly what they needed to do in workouts.

34. Both of those players should be taken in the first 50 picks. McCaffrey in particular excites teams as a receiving option.

35. When the 40-yard dash time of Washington wide receiver John Ross was posted, there was a collective moan in the media room. It was creepier than it sounds.

36. Every year, teams talk about not drafting for need and going for value. That’s why this frank quote from Seattle Seahawks general manager John Schneider was my favorite of the week: “You push with ‘We’re not going to draft for need.’ Well, in this day, you kind of have to.” That will explain why those quarterbacks will go higher than you think they should.

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37. Now we look toward pro days, and a few of them are critical.

38. Joe Mixon wasn’t invited to the combine, and he’ll have his pro day today. On a talent level, Mixon is a first-round player. His off-field issues, though, will keep him off some teams’ draft boards.

39. Some team will draft Mixon, take a public relations hit, and hope for the best.

40. Alabama’s Reuben Foster will have his pro day today as well. After being sent home from the combine, he’ll likely do a full workout and answer a lot of questions teams will have about his attitude.