Ranking the Top Performances from the 2013 NFL Combine

Alex Dunlap@AlexDunlapNFLContributor IFebruary 27, 2013

Ranking the Top Performances from the 2013 NFL Combine

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    Some people say the NFL Scouting Combine means nothing. 

    Tell that to these guys—the 2013 NFL draft prospects who set Indianapolis on fire with their performances. 

    Furthermore, tell that to the 32 NFL teams that approve travel budgets for scouts, coaches, team executives and representatives to be in attendance at the event.

    Tell that to Packers GM Ted Thompson, who sits at the 40-yard line annually in Lucas Oil Stadium's lower level with his own personal stopwatch and clipboard full of frantically scribbled notes. 

    The tape doesn't lie. Everyone knows that there is no replacement for on-field evaluation and film study. The combine is not for "scouting" players. It is for affirming an evaluator's initial assessment with a great showing, or raising questions with a bad one. For some prospects, it's simply about getting noticed. 

    The combine is where weakness in movement skills are exposed, change-of-direction acumen is recognized, strength is evaluated and opinions are further shaped. 

    The combine means the world to certain prospects. 

    Here we rank 2013's top performances.

    (All stats courtesy NFL.com, all quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.) 

17. Matt Scott, QB, Arizona

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    Geno Smith seemed to cement his status as the No. 1 QB in the draft during drills, but Matt Scott did a lot of great things to implant his name firmly in the same sentence as players who were previously more heralded such as Tyler Wilson, Mike Glennon, Ryan Nassib and Tyler Bray.

    Scott is an amazing athlete who can hurt an opponent with his feet and playmaking ability. That alone will not get a player by in the NFL, but as the league shifts more toward read-option and zone-spread attacks, it sure helps if you can throw the ball, too.

    During drills, Scott put a great spin on the ball with a clean follow-through that was consistent at each level of route tested.

    The best throw of Scott's workout day came from him. It was a beautiful, perfectly arching zinger that went 50-plus yards in the air to a streaking Ace Sanders in the post-corner drill.

    You can only learn so much watching players throw against the air, but many members of the media left the viewing box Sunday and went right to their laptops to search for more Scott film to analyze. A director of one independent scouting agency texted me saying he could see Scott as a "Colin Kaepernick-lite."

16. Conner Vernon, WR, Duke

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    Conner Vernon is a smart route-runner, and it's not just because he has a degree from Duke.

    It was no real surprise to see Vernon flourish in receiver drills after seeing him at the Senior Bowl, but it certainly served to cement the opinion of many that he will make one NFL team and fanbase very happy.

    Vernon has the best inside-breaking move of any wide receiver in the draft outside of Tavon Austin, but Austin has the cleanest, most decisive breaks I have ever seen every time he plants his foot and changes direction.

    Vernon also has soft hands and displays great understanding of route landmarks and positioning against defenders in space. He is fearless, smart, smooth and fluid. While receivers such as Cordarrelle Patterson were busy not paying attention to instructions, Vernon was already acting like a professional. 

15. Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame

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    Nothing was more impressive than the way Te'o handled what must have been a horrifying experience in his first time facing the national media.

    He got up on the podium in front of the largest mob of reporters I have ever seen at the combine. It would be hard to imagine a crowd bigger than the groups that swarmed around players like Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, but Te'o's audience dwarfed theirs as you can see in this video.

    Te'o addressed the situation about the scandal that has no doubt shaped the last two months of his life, but quickly got the topic back to business—that business, of course, being football. Te'o was contrite.

    Whatever led to the situation that blew so far out of control, and whatever role he had in it, he seems truly sorry for it. According to Te'o, he's more sorry for the sake of his family members and their good name than anything else.

    The sentiment in the room was basically the same from every media member I spoke with. It's squashed. Time to move on to football. 

13. (Tie) Brandon Williams, DT, Missouri Southern, and Margus Hunt, DE/OLB, SMU

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    Brandon Williams was only notable in the bench press, a drill in which he and Margus Hunt took top combine honors, logging 38 reps.

    Williams was also a monster during Senior Bowl practices, but Margus Hunt was not.

    While Hunt was a freak across many combine drills, he played with consistently high pad level at the Senior Bowl and on film. Hunt was the tallest player of the defensive line group by far at 6'8", but half of the DL field of 58 prospects had longer arms.

    This is important when thinking about separation at the point of attack and true football "length."  

    Hunt showed many of the same characteristics in position drills. Hunt is a very intriguing edge prospect that needs developing while Williams will serve as a more immediate high-motor plugger at nose tackle. 

12. D.J. Hayden, CB, University of Houston

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    The biggest part of D.J. Hayden's combine performance was actually getting to Indianapolis, regardless of any test results or post-combine hype for his DB counterparts.

    Hayden said at his media session that he met with 20 teams regarding his NFL future.

    The craziest part? Hayden only had a five percent chance of having a "future" in any sense after suffering a brutal injury at practice in November.

    During a routine drill, Hayden ran into a teammate and took a knee to the chest. When he had trouble catching his breath, he visited team trainers who had him rushed to the hospital. It turns out what Hayden had done was tear his inferior vena cava.

    The inferior vena cava is the large vein that carries the blood between the body's lower half and the heart, and tearing it is almost always fatal. Hayden was in critical condition, requiring a surgery that is similar to what is required for a heart transplant.

    He recovered in the hospital for six days and was very lucky to live.

    Hayden started the 2012 season on the Jim Thorpe Award watch list. At the time of the injury he was truly making a name for himself in draft circles as a playmaking, ball-hawking cornerback.

    Hayden's combine "performance" by just being there for interviews puts the importance of any given drill in true perspective. 

11. Vance McDonald, TE, Rice

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    Vance McDonald made a bunch of terrific catches at Senior Bowl practices, and might have actually made the best one of the combine week on Tuesday with a ridiculous one-handed snag.

    If you look at the numbers alone, McDonald was clearly the best tight end in Indy this month. Only six tight ends who measured at the combine had bigger hands than McDonald. Even though McDonald had the second-longest arms of any of the combine's 19 tight ends, he blew the competition away in the bench press, putting up 31 reps.

    Short arms make the bench press much easier, but McDonald's nearest competition only put up 24 reps.

    McDonald was the second-heaviest tight end who took part in drills at 267 pounds. Still, only five tight ends had 40-yard dash times faster than his 4.69, only two tight ends outdid his 9'10" broad jump, and only two beat his 7.08-second three-cone drill time. 

10. Ty Powell, LB, Harding

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    When Arthur Brown of Kansas State was not cleared to participate in the Senior Bowl, Ty Powell was a late add as his replacement.

    Powell had previously been scheduled to play in the Texas vs. the Nation game, but was not a well-known prospect coming into Senior Bowl week. The minute I saw him in drills, I called the Harding University sports information department to request film and was pleasantly surprised.

    Powell looked like a man amongst boys at times in college. He showed during combine testing on Monday exactly why.

    Powell was recruited to Harding as a safety, showing really good feet and lateral agility. It almost seems unfair to have him work out with the defensive linemen when he is clearly a linebacker prospect, but his numbers were still eye-popping and his attention to detail and athletic ability in position drills (especially conversion drills) were evident.

    Powell had the second-highest vertical of all 54 defensive line prospects, and only five players in this group had faster 40 times. Powell got up 28 reps on bench as a 248-pound prospect, seven more than the 271-pound Ezekiel Ansah.

    Only three of the 54 players in the group outshined Powell in the broad jump.

    There are not many players who have come out of nowhere in the last month like Powell, and NFL draft fans should be prepared to hear his name more often. He is a smart and charming person who exhibits the physical attributes to be a great NFL player. 

9. Markus Wheaton, WR, Oregon State

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    The gauntlet drill at the NFL combine consists of a rapid-fire array of passes that must be caught by a receiver as he crosses the field horizontally.

    Seven balls are thrown across the 53-yard distance covered. Two come at the start—which occur on the sideline before the drill really "begins"—and five take place coming from alternating sides of the field as the receiver crosses.

    Once the seventh ball is caught (or dropped in some cases) the receiver must turn upfield, show a good first step after catch and finish the drill. There are a lot of factors that make the gauntlet extremely difficult:

    1. A receiver must show the ability to catch one ball quickly, then flip his hips to position himself for the next ball coming from the other direction. To make a good hands catch takes positioning.  

    2. In doing this, the receiver must remain running in a straight line forward to show boundary awareness.

    3. The speed, velocity and spin of each ball is drastically different because these are seven balls thrown by seven different men. 

    Markus Wheaton must have decided he wasn't going to hold anything back, because he was clearly the drill's best participant of either group.

    Most know Wheaton is a track athlete who loves the "over-the-top" 9-route more than any other, but his functional speed in executing the drill was evident to all in attendance as being the best.

    Wheaton attacked the drill in a dead sprint, and showed no hesitation the way others do when "getting spooked" by how different each ball coming at them looks and feels. He looked natural, fluid and smooth in a receiving situation that simulates on-field duress. 

8. Zaviar Gooden, OB, Missouri

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    It couldn't have been a huge shock to anyone in attendance at the Senior Bowl that Zaviar Gooden would be the fastest linebacker at the 2013 combine, but the 4.47 time he turned in Monday was absolutely blazing.

    As hard as it may be to believe to those not watching, the run actually looked faster than that. In a shallow linebacker draft, Gooden is seen by many as one of the top cover linebackers, although he certainly loves to blow up plays with his speed and acceleration.

    He can turns his hips and run with smaller, quicker players, and he "flashes" laterally in pursuit much more like a safety typically would than a linebacker. Gooden was voted as the most outstanding linebacker prospect at the Senior Bowl, and his showing at the combine obviously added a feather into his cap as draft evaluations begin entering fever-pitch in March and April.

7. Cornelius Washington, DE/OLB, Georgia

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    Washington played all over at Georgia in 2012, but he just looks like a 4-3 defensive end.

    Georgia plays an attacking 3-4 base defense that suits the skills of players like Jarvis Jones, but Washington is the kind of player many teams come to the combine to "discover." Washington was not noticed by many in the media during Senior Bowl week, but Senior Bowl director Phil Savage saw something, naming him the South roster's best defensive lineman.

    After tallying only one-half sack at Georgia in 2012, Washington lined up as a 4-3 DE at the Senior Bowl and showed an impact almost immediately. Washington continued his momentum at the combine with an absolutely dominating workout.

    Washington is 6'4", 265 pounds, making him the heaviest linebacker in the group of 35 players by 15 pounds. Washington had the longest arms of the group and still managed to put up an absolutely ridiculous 36 reps in the 225-pound bench press.

    That number represents a greater feat than all but two players in the defensive line group of 54. Only Margus Hunt and Brandon Williams were better, each putting up 38 reps.

    Washington had the second-highest vertical of the linebacking group at 39 inches, a number that would have landed him tied for second among all 39 wide receiver prospects.

    That is absurd. What's more—Washington ran a 4.55-second 40-yard dash. That was good enough for second among linebackers, and the best time of any defensive lineman who tested for the drill. 

6. Dion Jordan, OLB, Oregon

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    If there were analysts or scouts that Dion Jordan hadn't "grown on" prior to the combine, he certainly had by the time it was over. The most common question mark regarding Jordan was just how much his "versatility" would be worth at the NFL level.

    At Oregon, Jordan played everywhere. He started out as a receiver, then a tight end, then moved to the defensive side of the ball and played a position that no one has ever really even seen before. Jordan lined up everywhere on the defensive line, sometimes standing up, sometimes with his hand in the dirt.

    He would blitz, knife in, drop into coverage, stunt, cover running backs in the flat and line up in man-press coverage against small, speedy slot receivers. At 6'6" and 250 pounds, that versatility is ridiculous and seems impossible, even at the college level.

    To think Jordan could play the same role at the NFL level would be borderline lunacy. I asked Jordan about this at the podium, and his answer to me was very simple.

    In the NFL, he wants to rush the passer.

    No more spreading himself thin by concentrating on so many aspects of the defense. He said he will be an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense, and that his experience playing as a jack of all trades has done nothing but help his understanding of how the defense functions as a whole.

    Jordan was amazing in position drills and basically looked like a how-to video for future prospects.

    What made it even more impressive was that he wanted to compete. Although he will need surgery immediately after the combine to repair a torn labrum, he still took part in all drills besides the bench press because he wanted to show he was a competitor.

    Jordan made scouts forget about the labrum injury that will be fully healed by the time rookie minicamps start and shook up many an NFL draft big board.

4. (Tie) Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama, and Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington

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    These two needed to come in and prove they were fast. They did.

    Milliner blazed a 4.37 40 time and erased any doubts detractors could have about his straight-line speed. Milliner was another player who competed through a torn labrum injury like Dion Jordan.

    Also like Jordan, Milliner will be having surgery after the combine and should be good to start activity by rookie minicamps and OTAs.

    Desmond Trufant was one of the Senior Bowl's biggest stars, and he is a player who has seen his draft stock rise steadily throughout the beginning of the 2013 NFL draft process.

    Trufant plays with an awareness that matches his bright personality off the field, and a mean streak that clearly doesn't.

    I asked USC WR Robert Woods during his press conference who the toughest DB he ever faced in college was. Woods said it was a tie between Richard Sherman and Trufant.

    Trufant's 4.38 40 time was enough to vault his stock into first-round consideration. He looked a bit "stiff" in his change of direction out of the backpedal drills, but is a supremely fluid athlete on tape. The part of his game that needed to be quantified, his speed, was. 

3. Ryan Swope, WR Texas A&M

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    The amount of stock an evaluator should put into the 40-yard dash is a subject of constant debate in NFL draft circles.

    The one thing that cannot be debated is that the 40 is a definite indicator of speed. That almost seems too obvious, but the 40 is an obvious drill.

    Scouts say "fast guys run fast." What that means is that it isn't necessarily a huge surprise or "eye-opener" when a world-class track athlete such as Marquise Goodwin runs a 4.27. It is certainly impressive, but isn't unexpected.

    When a player like Ryan Swope runs a 4.34, the reaction is distinctly different. Every scout in the building at Lucas Oil made a big note on his clipboard to go back and watch more Ryan Swope film.

    As an inside possession receiver at Texas A&M, Swope is much further along as a wide receiver than Goodwin, a player who never seemed to fully make the track-to-football transition while at Texas. 

2. Shamarko Thomas, S, Syracuse

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    Shamarko Thomas is so athletic that he ran his 4.42 on a run in which he got "turf-monstered" and ate it.

    Only two of 60 DBs had better broad jump numbers. Thomas threw up 28 reps on the bench press when over one half of his competition put up 15 or less.

    There is only one "strength" worth mentioning in any DB, however. That strength as it translates to football is in reading, reacting and sometimes taking plays head on. It also means the ability to match up in coverage against all sorts of of players in all kinds of different situations—sometimes physically.

    It is the life of an NFL safety. Thomas showed he has a clear, huge potential in this way to add onto his tape. 

1. Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma

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    Mike Mayock gave the media still in attendance at Lucas Oil Stadium late Sunday afternoon an amazing statistic regarding Oklahoma LT Lane Johnson. 

    Johnson is a player who has been trending upward all season. He continued his ascension through the Senior Bowl, and solidified himself as at least the third-best tackle prospect in the draft following a great week in Mobile. Johnson told me that most people think of him as a pass-blocker, but he feels like he has a mean streak in the run game that gets overlooked. 

    These were some of Johnson's numbers at the combine:

    40-yard dash: 4.72 seconds

    Vertical leap: 34"

    Broad jump: 9'10"

    What does that mean, exactly? Johnson, a 6'6", 303-pound monster, ran a faster 40-yard dash than Ravens WR Anquan Boldin. He tied Bengals' high-flying WR A.J. Green in the vertical leap and put up the same broad jump number as Patriots RB Stevan Ridley.

    That amount of athleticism at the left tackle position is just silly.