When they take the field at the scouting combine, some prospects will rocket up NFL draft boards based on their physical gifts.
From watching games, scouts already have a sense of which players are physical freaks with the tools not just to play on Sundays but to thrive at the next level. At the combine, all the artifice is stripped away, and those tools are on full display, allowing scouts not just to confirm or deny their perceptions but to quantify them.
Excelling at the bench press or the 40-yard dash could be the difference between an otherwise unheralded player becoming a combine darling and garnering first-round consideration—not to mention the substantial uptick in pay that comes with that earlier pick.
We'll know for sure who those guys are when the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine kicks off February 22. For now, we still have a sense of who will break out.
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
Baylor is better known for its passing attack than its ground game, but Lache Seastrunk did everything in his power to change that.
It was practically a formality that Seastrunk came out of the backfield and took handoffs for the Bears; he had the size, strength, speed and leaping ability to play anywhere on the field. Scouts looking for the next do-everything offensive threat will drool over him.
At 5'10", 210 pounds, he's staunch enough to shake off tacklers and pick up chunks of yards after contact, but he's also quick enough to run past defensive backs and even beat them for jump balls if given the opportunity.
The array of drills in which Seastrunk will impress is staggering. He's a player who can fill a dozen different roles at the next level, and flashing that potential will make him a combine star.
De'Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
On the other hand, De'Anthony Thomas isn't nearly as layered and nuanced a player as Seastrunk is. Thomas cuts quicker than you and runs faster than you. That's it.
Of course, he has to hope he's at least one of the few fastest guys in the draft class because his NFL future does not look promising otherwise.
Thomas doesn't have the strength to power through even a defensive back, but he'll put on such a show in the agility drills that it won't matter. He'll burn through the cones, making him look like a perfect return man and inspiring Darren Sproles comparisons as a scatback in space.
As dazzling as Seastrunk will be, Thomas' combine performance will make the Baylor back look sluggish. Very few men are capable of that feat.
Troy Niklas, TE, Notre Dame
Eric Ebron, standing 6'4", 245 pounds, is the toast of the tight end class of 2014 because of his wide receiver speed and leaping ability. Yet scouts looking for a guy who can catch with a more traditional build for the position will love Troy Niklas.
He won't match Ebron's 40 time, but Niklas is 6'7", 270 pounds, and his college stats belie sure hands over the middle of the field. On top of his physicality as a receiver, he'll also bring to the table strength in the trenches as a true blocking tight end, not just a tall guy who lines up in the slot.
Especially if the TE-WR hybrid hopefuls fall short in the speed and hands drills, Niklas will shine. He's already got enough speed and route-running skill to find enough space to make plays, so if he can outmuscle them and compete with them as receivers, Niklas' stock will soar.
Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin
He's barely 6'0", and his arms are stubby, which makes it seem like Chris Borland is going to grade out as an all-intangibles prospect as he tries to become an NFL linebacker.
It's not that simple with him, though. Borland certainly does have an innate knack for finding the ball-carrier and making plays, but he's able to do those things because he has the power and agility to guide his compact frame past blockers to make bone-crunching hits.
Borland also is able to shadow receivers over the middle of the field, and not just because of his IQ and his motor; the guy he's matched against might have better straight-line speed, but Borland is quick enough to match up step for step with precise inside routes.
No one expects a guy who looks like Borland to wow in drills, and that's exactly what will make his performance so impressive.