Few traits are coveted by the NFL more than pure athleticism. The combination of tools by which athleticism derives is more complex than just determining the fastest players. Speed is definitely a common attribute for the superior athlete, but there's so much more to be considered.
A dominant athlete needs to have a high degree of body control and coordination in addition to explosive muscle fibers, agility and flexibility. The best athletes possess these qualities at an elite level. Furthermore, these traits must be observable on a football field and not just be known by way of a stopwatch in shorts and a T-shirt.
Through both watching film and considering a prospect's general versatility, I attempt to isolate some of this year's most promising athletes.
These are the guys who often have NFL scouts drooling all over their stopwatches. After all, every general manager and coach knows athleticism cannot be taught or learned; you either have it or you don't. The more athletic you are, the more the NFL desires your services.
In order to represent a wide range of positions in this slideshow, athleticism is relative to body mass. This gives us the opportunity to talk about some of the more athletic big men in the country.
The intrigue surrounding Dion Jordan is easily understood once you watch a few of his plays. The 6'6", 243-pound Jordan is lean and fluid. He displays rare flexibility and can change direction far too quickly for a man of his size.
Jordan was routinely utilized in press man coverage against slot receivers, where he was expected to remain hip-to-hip with some of the game's most explosive players. This feat may be hard for the casual fan to appreciate, but rarely, if ever, is this matchup favored or dictated by the defense.
Expect Jordan to finish in the top five in his position on nearly every test at the combine, minus the bench press.
Lane Johnson is a former quarterback turned tight end, turned defensive end, turned right tackle, and is now projected to play left tackle in the NFL. Clearly, the athleticism to play each one of those positions is a rarity against college-level competition. And yes, he played each of these positions either at junior college or during his time at Oklahoma.
Johnson is also expected to run one of the fastest 40 times in the history of the scouting combine for an offensive lineman. In a television interview on the NFL Network during Senior Bowl week, Johnson claimed he has run the 40-yard dash in the 4.7 range several times.
During the actual Senior Bowl game, Johnson's quarterback threw an interception to cornerback Jordan Poyer, a guy who also happens to be a deadly return man.
Poyer proceeded to jet down the sideline headed for an uncontested defensive touchdown when all of a sudden, Johnson jets onto the screen out of nowhere, cutting off Poyer's running lane before hitting him out of bounds and saving a touchdown.
It is plays such as these which illustrate the unique athletic ability of this highly versatile offensive tackle.
When you think of rare athleticism, few players are more deserving of this title than Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson. Robinson is saturated with raw, natural athletic ability, which has made him one of the nation's most dangerous offensive weapons over the last three years.
In high school, Robinson ran track and could complete the 100-meter dash in 10.44 seconds.
During his senior year at Michigan, Robinson was asked to show off his versatility by playing running back and receiver in addition to his normal stint at quarterback.
It's projected that Robinson's NFL future will likely be as a receiver and possibly as a return man with some spot duty in a read-option package.
One of Chance Warmack's primary assets is his rare athleticism for such a big physical presence.
Warmack is the complete package for an offensive guard. He can run like a fullback and hit like a tractor.
When you have an athlete such as Warmack in the trenches, it opens up the running game by enabling you to pull this 320-pound ball of mass around a corner and into the second level of the defense. His agility and body control make it fairly easy for him to lock onto defenders while driving them back and out of the play.
Warmack is one of the most complete players in this year's draft. He is, by far, the best athlete over 320 pounds.
Many might know Collin Klein as a tough, gritty quarterback, but he's also an impressive athlete.
Klein briefly played wide receiver and special teams as a redshirt freshman while at Kansas State. He has good speed and is surprisingly elusive. Many evaluators I've talked with believe Klein may have more potential as a receiver than a quarterback.
This speaks favorably to his athleticism and not so positively for his arm. In 2011, Klein accounted for 27 touchdowns on the ground alone, setting an FBS record for rushing touchdowns by a quarterback.
Klein may not be an elite quarterback prospect, but his athleticism should give him a decent shot at a productive NFL career in some capacity should he be willing to make a switch.
The 2013 draft class may have linebackers faster than Alec Ogletree and players more agile, quicker and with better change of direction. But few linebackers, if any, will be amongst the top in each category when tested at the combine.
Ogletree is one of the backers whose name will frequent the leaderboards throughout the scouting combine this February.
Ogletree moves like a free safety, using his agility to weave in between blockers to make a play on the ball.
Though he may struggle anchoring against blockers, Ogletree is a dominant force in open space. He's rarely juked by ball-carriers and has the speed to chase receivers down from behind. This helps him in coverage and makes him a valuable addition to the passing game—a skill highly desired in the NFL.
Pure, unadulterated athletic ability is best embodied in one man heading into this draft: Barkevious Mingo.
This lanky specimen is much more than just an enormous wingspan in a football uniform. His explosive quickness and ability to cover ground is undeniable. He also possesses impeccable balance, body lean and grace.
Mingo might be raw, but he still possesses the physical tools impressive enough to attract the attention of any scout looking for elite potential in a pass-rusher.
If Mingo can put his tools to good use, his ceiling in the NFL is nearly unlimited. All he needs is the right coach in the right system, and he can be something truly special.
Last year, the media went crazy for Memphis defensive tackle Dontari Poe after he ran a sub-5 40-yard dash while weighing 330 pounds. But Poe's impressive 40 time is not the only consideration for athleticism.
His times in change-of-direction drills were marginal at best, indicating that he's merely a straight-line guy without much ability to move laterally. The real athlete of the interior line that year was Fletcher Cox, who was drafted by the Philadelphia Eagles with the 12th overall selection.
This year, Sheldon Richardson is the true athlete amongst the hogs who occupy the space between the tackles. Richardson is very similar in build and style to Cox and may end up testing even better in several categories at the NFL Scouting Combine.
No. 34 made a name for himself using his speed and agility to slip past would-be blockers. Few big men possess the physical tools necessary to disrupt offenses the way Richardson does, and few blockers can keep up with his dizzying tempo.
Expect Richardson to come off the board early on draft day.
Tyler Eifert may not be the fastest tight end of the group, but he definitely is the best athlete. Eifert, in many ways, resembles a stronger, more physical version of Jeremy Shockey.
Eifert displays fantastic body control and moves with a silky-smooth grace, fully capable of transitioning into power when need be.
He has excellent leaping ability and can distort his body mid-air while tapping a foot in-bounds as he falls to the ground. This skill is usually reserved for only the most talented and athletic wide receivers, and Eifert displays this on par with the best of them.
If Zach Ertz is drafted ahead of Eifert, it would be one of the bigger mistakes a team could make this April—a mistake most evaluators are projecting to happen.
Few prospects are more dangerous with the ball in their hands than Cordarrelle Patterson. Despite playing only one season at the University of Tennessee, Patterson managed to score at least one touchdown running, receiving and returning both punts and kicks.
Patterson's elusiveness can be directly attributed to his combination of elite size and athleticism. At 6'3" and just over 200 pounds, Patterson can outrun defenders while breaking through arm tackles with strength and body control.
Once free of defenders, he can often be spotted prancing into the end zone in a similar manner to an antelope in its prime, displaying health and vigor to all potential predators.
Note: Ezekiel "Ziggy" Ansah and Margus Hunt are overrated athletes from my observations, and their abilities fail to translate on film. Therefore, against popular opinion, these two prospects did not make the list.