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The 4 kinds of prospects to watch at this year’s NFL Combine

From Tua Tagovailoa’s medical evaluation to must-see workouts, these are the player storylines to follow at the combine.

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NFL: Combine Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Here’s the thing about the NFL Scouting Combine: It is the single strangest event on the sports calendar. There is nothing normal about this job interview process. Still, it’s a major part of the lead up to the NFL Draft.

Players will be interviewed by the media and teams — you decide which is more laborious. They’ll be poked and prodded by medical staffs, and their medical information will get put online. They’ll take the Wonderlic test, and that too will find its way online. Finally, the players will work out in their underpants where anything can happen.

Mostly, though, it’s about the prospects themselves. Here are a few key things to watch for at the 2020 NFL Combine:

The players who have the most important medical tests

The combine started as a way for NFL teams to get medical information on the players they might draft. Here are a few players with injury pasts that will be worth watching — none more paramount than the first name on this list.

1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama

Tagovailoa, who fractured his hip in November, said his doctors are expected to fully clear him by March 9. The greater issue, though, is the quarterback’s long-term health.

If teams are concerned that Tagovailoa can easily re-injure his hip, they will check him off their draft list. There’s also Tagovailoa’s ankles. He underwent a procedure called tightrope surgery on both ankles in different years following sprains. That is not normal. Tagovailoa’s health report will be fully scrutinized this week.

2. Netane Muti, OG, Fresno State

In 2017, Muti had the look of a future first-round player at a position that typically doesn’t get taken that highly. He manhandled defenders with ease. Then injuries set in. In 2018, he ruptured his left Achilles. In 2019, had Lisfranc foot surgery. He’s still recovering and will not participate in drills:

3. Antoine Winfield Jr., S, Minnesota

There is a lot to like about Winfield. He was an All-American last season after finishing the year with seven interceptions and 83 tackles. He plays physically and will wallop the ball carrier from his safety position. Despite going pro after his redshirt sophomore season, Winfield was in college for four years after playing in just four games in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons. He he had a serious hamstring injury in 2017 and tore a ligament in his foot the next year.

4. Trey Adams, OT, Washington

Like Muti, Adams looked like a first-round pick early in his college career until injuries hit. A torn ACL cost Adams part of his 2017 season and back surgery shortened his 2018 season. Both are serious injuries, and teams might be wary of Adams because of his health.

5. Lucas Niang, OT, TCU

Niang has an outside chance of being taken in the top 64. The medical evaluation process will be critical for him. He tore his hip labrum as a junior and played through it. However, the injury caused him to end his senior season early for surgery. When he was healthy, Niang projected as a first-round player.

The players who could impress during workouts

With the combine workouts moving to primetime, the NFL has to be expecting some insane numbers. These are a few guys who could put on a show.

1. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama

The 40-yard dash is the most popular combine event, and this year some players will get close to John Ross’ record of 4.22 seconds. Texas receiver Devin Duvernay should time well, but Ruggs probably has the best chance of breaking Ross’ mark. Ruggs ran a 4.26-second 40 at Alabama’s junior pro day last year, and has spent the run up to the combine working on his times.

2. Neville Gallimore, DT, Oklahoma

The combine’s most impressive workout should belong to Gallimore. At 300 pounds, Gallimore is a crazy athlete, and there are some expectations he could get below 4.75 seconds in the 40. Gallimore was second on Bruce Feldman’s annual freaks list for good reason. As Feldman pointed out, Gallimore can bench press 500 pounds and squat 800 pounds.

3. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa

Just ahead of Gallimore on the freaks list was Wirfs. The first true freshman offensive tackle to start for Kirk Ferentz was a star at Iowa. Wirfs, who is my top offensive tackle in the draft, has everything you want in a blocker. He’s a good athlete, has incredible strength, and stands 6’5 and 320 pounds. He could blow people away with his workout. He’s already penciled in as a top-10 pick. A big week in Indianapolis could make him him the consensus No. 1 at his position.

The players who could break out

Every year, there’s at least one prospect whose draft stock shoots through the roof. Who could it be this year?

1. Albert Okwuegbunam, TE, Missouri

This draft is begging for someone to step up in an otherwise dull tight end class. Notre Dame’s Cole Kmet is the top tight end in the draft, but he might not be the best athletic tester. That could open things up for a player like Okwuegbunam, whose name I had to look up the spelling on twice while writing this portion. Okwuegbunam had just 26 receptions for 306 yards and six touchdowns this past season, which is nothing special. But in 2017, he had 11 touchdowns and averaged 14.3 yards per catch. If he can test well, he should rise.

2. Colby Parkinson, TE, Stanford

Parkinson is another tight end who could make a big leap this week. At just over 6’7, he’s the tallest tight end at the combine this year. He’s not some lumbering buffoon, either. Parkinson glides around the field and stretches the seam. Stanford’s quarterback play has been suspect, so Parkinson could be a classic “better as a pro” type of prospect.

3. Jacob Eason, QB, Washington

How sold are you really on Utah State’s Jordan Love or Oregon’s Justin Herbert? After Joe Burrow and Tagovailoa, those two are considered by many to be the next two quarterbacks taken in the draft. But Eason could squeeze into the discussion. I had him going to the Patriots in a recent mock draft, and the next week ESPN’s Mel Kiper did too.

Eason’s college career was less than straightforward. He played his first two seasons at Georgia and lost his job to Jake Fromm his sophomore season when he sprained his knee. Eason then sat out 2018 as a transfer and played just one season at Washington. Eason’s 2019 stats (3,132 yards and 23 touchdowns) didn’t wow, but it’s hard to quit a massive 6’6 quarterback with an even more massive arm. It only takes one team to love Eason, and he could catch someone’s eye in his workout session.

The players who most need a good combine

Some prospects need a strong performance at the combine to show teams who they really are. Here are four such players this year:

1. Cam Akers, RB, Florida State

The Seminoles have just two players at the combine this year: Akers and cornerback Stanford Samuels, both juniors. That should tell you something about the state of the football program in Tallahassee. Akers was a blue-chip recruit for Florida State, but the team’s offensive line was so bad he never dominated as expected. That makes him somewhat hard to judge. He’s also not the best pass catcher, so teams will be watching how he catches the ball.

2. Raekwon Davis, DE, Alabama

Was Davis asked to not get after the quarterback, or was he just not that good at it? That’s what teams will be trying to find out at the combine. Despite playing in 12 games and finishing sixth on Alabama in tackles in 2019, Davis had just a half a sack on the season. Sure, sack totals can be misleading, but he just didn’t get into the backfield. Davis is good playing the run, and will be decent enough in three-man fronts. But he can help fix his draft stock with good timing numbers.

3. Jeff Thomas, WR, Miami

If you value high school football ratings, you probably expected big things out of Thomas. He was rated higher by 247 Sports than players like Ruggs and Jalen Reagor in the 2017 class. But his career at Miami didn’t go as planned. Thomas was suspended multiple times at Miami and had just 1,316 yards in three seasons. That includes only 379 in 2019. Still, he’s at the combine because teams are intrigued by his athleticism, even though they do have questions about his maturity.

4. Jauan Jennings, WR, Tennessee

Jennings is a complex case. On the surface, he’s the complete package at receiver. He has size, measuring in at 6’3 and 215 pounds, and had good stats in 2019 with 59 receptions for 969 yards and eight touchdowns. Most incredibly, on those 59 receptions, Pro Football Focus says he had 30 broken tackles. And he has a penchant for wild catches, like this one against Florida. The problem is that there are some character questions Jennings will have to answer. He was temporarily kicked off the team in 2017 and suspended for part of a bowl game after planting his foot into the face of a Vanderbilt player.