What: NFL Scouting Combine
Where: Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis
When: Feb 22-28, 2012 (click here for day-to-day schedule)
The NFL combine allows top prospects, through a series of workouts and drills, to solidify their draft status. A strong performance can help players climb up several spots—a bad one has the reverse effect, even sliding some all the way out of the draft.
For other participants, however, the combine is exposure that few have ever received at this point in their young careers. A mere 88 of the 300-plus total invitees to this year's event are from non-BCS schools, with an even smaller amount hailing from NAIA and FSC programs. Even those from acclaimed universities are often overshadowed by their blue-chip teammates.
For these lesser known athletes, their futures hinge on what occurs this upcoming week inside Lucas Oil Stadium.
Scouts from each NFL team will be in attendance ready to scrutinize, dissect and peruse every facet of every prospect. Not a single inch will escape the microscope they are to perform under.
Here are five relatively unknown prospects destined to fade out of obscurity and into the San Francisco 49ers' radar.
Akiem Hicks, Regina
6'5", 324 lbs.
Hicks has great movement for someone his size. He has the speed to get by blockers and the strength to plow through them. Starred at a small school in Canada (after initially signing with LSU), and recently impressed at the East-West Shrine Game. Has an 84-inch wingspan and employs every inch of them to dominate would-be blockers.
He is a project who could be a budding star in the NFL. The reward is far greater than the risk.
Amidst controversy, Hicks transferred from LSU (before ever playing a game for the Tigers) to north of the border Regina. There's no denying the talent, but he may need a few years to continue development. His mechanics (tends to be a bit stiff and upright) need rectifying and coaching is a must to attain success at the next level.
Where exactly is the University of Regina? Good Question.
Regina is actually located between Winnipeg and Calgary, in the southern region of Canada above Montana. Geographic specifications aside, Regina is home to one of the more intriguing small-school prospects in this year's NFL draft.
Akiem Hicks has the ideal blend of size, speed and strength to play the defensive tackle position. He has the versatility to play both a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme, though he may be better suited in the middle of the 3-4. His frame and wingspan eats up blockers and his surprising athleticism allows him to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The 49ers already have the underrated Isaac Sopoaga manning the tackle position for the next few seasons. Hicks could be added for depth purposes and be groomed as the eventual successor. Sopoaga is great in stopping the run, but does little in terms of pass rush. Hicks has the potential to do both at an exceptional rate.
Projected Round: 4-7
Ty Hilton, Florida International
5'10", 185 lbs.
Played at a smaller program, but stepped up against tougher competition. Torched Louisville for 201 yards and two scores. On the season, the receiver totaled 72 receptions for 1,038 yards and seven touchdowns. Hilton also contributed as a runner (four more touchdowns) and on special teams as a return man.
Speed is his biggest asset along with the elusiveness to make plays in the open field. Runs fairly crisp routes, and is a willing blocker.
Hilton, generously listed at 185 pounds, will need to add to his frame once he enters the NFL. Durability may be a concern as he has already dealt with hamstring issues. Has straight-line speed, but his burst off the line seems slower than it should be. Fails to get quick separation from defenders. Hilton's hands may scare teams away as he struggles with catches away from his body.
Doesn't have that ability to snatch the ball out of the air, but can be coached more on that. His weaknesses can all be fixed with the proper combination of work ethic and coaching.
In order to bolster their benign offense, the 49ers may look at multiple receivers in this year's draft. Fans are clamoring for a proven talent via free agency, but the price-tag may be too high for their thinning wallets. Rookies, specifically late-round prospects, are significantly cheaper and can produce at bargain rates.
The selection of Hilton depends on how the 49ers use their early round draft picks. In an earlier mock draft, I had them going with wide receiver Joe Adams in the third round. If they fail to land Adams, look for the 49ers to pursue the similarly talented Hilton.
Realistically, San Francisco should target two different receivers for two different purposes. One, like the soon-to-be mentioned Brian Quick, as a big-bodied red-zone weapon and the other to stretch the field with blazing speed. Ty Hilton fulfills the latter requirement.
Projected to run a 4.4 forty, he has the wheels to be a deep threat which opens things up for the 49ers to work their magic underneath.
Projected Round: 3-4
Asa Jackson, Cal Poly
5'11", 190 lbs.
Speed, has been clocked in the 4.4 range for the forty-yard dash. Fluid in the hips and accelerates out of breaks. Possesses exceptional ball awareness. Can contribute in special teams coverage and as a return man. Mechanically sound as a tackler. Committed to stopping the run game. Jackson is an interesting small-school prospect who may prove well worth the gamble.
Often played off his man and struggles in press coverage. Needs to add strength to his frame. Success may be a result of inferior competition. Will find it much more difficult to cover NFL-quality receivers. Techniques need tweaking, but will be fixed with the proper coaching.
Haven't heard of him, huh?
Neither had I before I stumbled upon some televised Cal Poly games. I've been following him since and see a young corner with a skill set that translates into success at the next level. His illustrious collegiate career earned him an invite to the Senior Bowl, where Jackson impressed in practices leading up the game.
He eventually started for the North team and will get an extended NFL job interview in Indianapolis.
Asa Jackson is a physical corner who fits the 49ers defensive scheme. He has the speed to cover on the outside, the quickness in the slot and is a sure tackler. Jackson could step in and contribute on special teams while easing into the defensive rotation. You can never have too many corners nowadays with NFL teams devoted to throwing 50-plus times a game.
Carlos Rogers' return is not guaranteed, so the 49ers must be prepared should he leave. Asa Jackson is well worth a seventh-round pick.
Projected Round: 6-7
Brian Quick, Appalachian State
6'5", 220 lbs.
Tall, chiseled frame that scouts covet. Has the size and leaping ability to become a legit red-zone threat. Possesses a surprising amount of speed (40-yard dash timed at 4.5) and fluidity when running routes. Is a former basketball player yet to reach his full potential on the gridiron. Has great hands and is capable of making acrobatic catches.
Played for small school, but impressed during Senior Bowl week against top competition.
Loaded with upside, but remains unrefined at this point. Faced weak competition. Quick, despite the name, lacks quickness to get separation off the line. Still learning the position and may become a long-term project. Must improve as a blocker.
Here's a player whose stock could soar or crash depending on next week's combine. A solid exhibition can catapult Quick as high as the second round, but a weak showing would sink him as low as the sixth round.
It doesn't take an expert to identify the receiver position as the 49ers' weakest link and possibly the missing piece of a championship puzzle. Remember, the team did fall one game short of advancing to this year's Super Bowl.
Fans, sorry for the reminder.
The 49ers lack a big-bodied receiver and red-zone threat for Alex Smith to utilize. Quick is that guy, the ideal alley-oop target. He has the rare gift of catching even the most inaccurate throws delivered his way. Quick will need to work on his blocking skills, but there is no better place to learn that than in San Francisco.
Projected Round: 3-5
John Cullen, University of Utah
6'4", 292 lbs.
Cullen is athletic and quick enough to cover most speed rushers. Plays with an edge and mean streak that is necessary at the position. Had a successful college career (named to the All Pac-12 Second Team) and still has plenty of upside. Won 82 percent of his assignments while starting for the Utes.
The potential to improve is apparent, and the work ethic is there to make it possible.
Inconsistency plagued him throughout college. Will need to improve strength in order to succeed at the NFL level. Competitor who sometimes lets his frustrations lead to silly penalties. Is suited to play tackle, but lacks versatility to line up elsewhere.
Never quite reached his potential for the Utes, so doubts remain that he'll be able to reach it at the next level.
While Cullen did play for a BCS program, he remains an unknown to the average college football fan. He has the skill-set and passion to dominate, but inconsistencies are an issue. The moments of brilliance were often over-shadowed by foolish mistakes. The potential, however, is undeniable. Cullen has a solid frame and the athleticism to make an impact on an NFL team.
The 49ers enjoyed a great season, but will spend the offseason addressing areas of concern. The tackle position is one that currently needs attention. Joe Staley is entrenched as the starting left tackle, but has had his fair share of injuries. On the other side, Anthony Davis continues to experience growing pains since being drafted 11th overall in 2010.
Cullen could prove valuable if still available in the seventh round. He would be a solid backup and, if needed, could step in as a future starter.
Projected Round: 7-Free Agency