The NFL Scouting Combine starts this week in Indianapolis with players going through medical checks, testing drills, team interviews, and meeting with the media. These are the eight most interesting storylines to follow during the week:
1. Can the quarterbacks separate themselves?
There is no agreement on the quarterbacks in this year’s draft. Some like Josh Rosen of UCLA, while others like his crosstown rival Sam Darnold of USC. Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield has his fans, including Pro Football Focus, which asserts he should be the first pick in the draft. Some, like ESPN’s Mel Kiper, give the nod to Josh Allen of Wyoming (for some reason). Then there’s Lamar Jackson of Louisville, who let’s just say opinions vary on.
The point is that one of the top quarterbacks hasn’t separated himself from the pack. From a combine testing standpoint, a clear favorite shouldn’t emerge. But the rumors and speculation that always emerge in Indianapolis could give an indication on which of these quarterbacks the NFL prefers.
2. Jackson answering that question
When Jackson faces the media on Friday, he will undoubtedly be asked if teams are talking to him about converting to wide receiver. That is not to say Jackson should, but it will help determine if this position switch talk is just the construct of an old football guy or if teams legitimately think he should switch positions. The wide receiver stuff with Jackson isn’t about what we think; it’s about what teams think.
3. The single most important measurement
The point of the combine is finding out medical information and the official measurements of underclassmen. Both remain important, and there are some serious curiosities with the latter. Some teams set thresholds, whether it’s arm length for offensive linemen or height for a cornerback.
With the cornerbacks this year, teams will closely be watching Ohio State’s Denzel Ward. The junior is the draft’s top corner, and by some margin. The main question, however, is about his size. If he measures shorter than the 5’10 Ohio State lists him at, his draft stock could go down. The same thing happened to Jason Verrett in the 2014 draft. He came in under 5’10 and dropped to the Chargers at 25th overall.
4. Follow these medical checks
Shaun Dion Hamilton should have been the next great Alabama linebacker. He started alongside Reuben Foster in 2016 before a knee injury in the Sugar Bowl ended his season. Last season he was hurt against LSU in the ninth game of the season. If there are concerns about the long-term health of his knees, teams will be hesitant using a pick on Hamilton.
There were moments at Florida State when defensive end Josh Sweat looked like he could’ve been a first-round pick. But it’s hard to ignore his injury history. Before Sweat even got to FSU, he suffered a torn left ACL and dislocated knee cap in high school. He tore the meniscus in the same knee in 2016. A 6’5, 250-pound pass rusher should be a high pick. But the injuries hurt Sweat, and if his medical check isn’t clean, teams may shy away.
Another Florida State player, Derwin James, faces an important hurdle with the medical checks. A meniscus injury cost him the majority of the 2016 and last season he just looked a step slower and less impactful. Could injury concerns keep him out of the top 20 picks?
5. Predicting a post-combine riser
Going into last year’s combine, quarterback Patrick Mahomes was not considered by many as a high first-round pick. But he excelled in Indianapolis and became the 10th overall pick. Kevin King also had a good showing and jumped a few cornerbacks to become the 33rd overall pick by the Packers. In 2016, the same thing happened with players like wide receiver Will Fuller and cornerback Artie Burns. Who could be a draft riser after the combine this year?
How about Georgia pass rusher Lorenzo Carter? NFL teams are going to love Carter because of his sheer athleticism and 6’6 frame. He often lined up on the edge for Georgia to use his quickness and was considered by many in the program as the team’s best athlete. If he puts up big testing numbers teams might overlook his ordinary 21.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks in four seasons with the Bulldogs.
6. Sam Darnold’s hand size
Darnold has become sort of infamous for the amount of turnovers he had at USC. It wasn’t just the 22 interceptions in two seasons, though. Darnold also had 20 fumbles over that time. That could be due to Darnold’s throwing motion, where he’s often pulling his arm down in his release. But you have to wonder if Darnold has trouble holding onto the ball because of his hand size.
Hand size doesn’t always matter. Tony Romo’s hands were measured at 8 7/8 inches, and he had a successful pro career. But part of the draft process is about eliminating outliers, and hand size could explain Darnold’s turnover problems.
7. Donte Jackson going for the 40-yard dash record
Just a year ago a new record in the 40-yard dash was set at the combine with John Ross running it in 4.22 seconds. That partly helped propel him into the top 10 of the draft. This year there are a few players who could challenge Ross’ record run.
If there’s a player who can break that record, it’s Jackson, a LSU cornerback. Jackson isn’t shy about his speed, once saying he ran the 100 meters in 10.1 seconds and that he’s the fastest player in college football.
8. Finding the next Alvin Kamara or Kareem Hunt
As a rookie, Kamara took the NFL by storm. He ran for 728 yards, averaging 7.5 yards per carry, and caught 82 passes for 826 yards. He was a sensation despite being the 67th pick in the draft last year. Hunt, of the Kansas City Chiefs, was the league leader in rushing yards with 1,327 after being taken 86th overall. Two third-round backs outplayed the running backs taken higher in the draft. With another deep running back class, that could happen again, and we could figure out who those players could be during the combine.
One of those players could be Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson. He’s much closer to being a Hunt-type than an all-around back like Kamara. Johnson runs with power, and if his testing numbers look good he could be an attractive choice. It’s much harder to find a Kamara clone because he’s such an electric athlete rushing and receiving. Tennessee’s John Kelly might come to the closest. He ran for 778 yards at Tennessee last season, and caught 37 passes for 299 yards. He has power and enough wiggle. His stock is right in that third-round range.