With the NFL Draft starting later than ever this year, teams have more time to analyze and dissect the available players. However, with that additional time comes the opportunity for more questions to arise about the top prospects—players expected to immediately be impact performers for their clubs.
For a team to invest millions in a player, they must be sure of that player's capabilities, both on and off the field. As is the case with any draft class, there are elite talents with lingering question marks that must be answered.
While every player has concerns to deal with to an extent, there are players who will be under more intense scrutiny than others during their combine workouts and/or their college's pro days, as they attempt to impress their possible future employers.
We've seen players with doubts in the past—Mario Williams and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie come to mind—prove themselves to scouts as the draft gets closer and closer. Who are the players this year that will have to do the same to avoid falling in the first round, or possibly even later?
Anthony Barr-OLB, UCLA
Barr had a tremendous senior year for the Bruins, totaling 66 tackles and 10 sacks. However, he has been going down in scouts' eyes since the season ended. According to ESPN.com's Todd McShay, who has Barr at No. 16 in his latest Big Board, Barr's impressive stats don't tell his whole story:
"Barr was once as high as No. 2 in these rankings this season, but we've continued to drop him in the last couple of weeks. The reason? He hasn't looked as explosive in the 2013 tape we've studied as we'd expected based on his production. However, we still have more tape to study, and he remains a naturally gifted player with a unique combination of athleticism and size."
McShay has Barr going to the Titans with the 11th overall pick in the draft. A former fullback, Barr's performance at the combine could go a long way in determining if that prediction is deemed too high or too low.
There has been a great deal of comparison between Barr and Khalil Mack, another outside linebacker expected to go in the first round of the draft. According to McShay, Barr is losing that battle for the time being.
Studying LB Khalil Mack after watching Anthony Barr. Barr has length adv but Mack more explosive, versatile FB player. Mack is a finisher!— Todd McShay (@McShay13) February 11, 2014
Johnny Manziel-QB, Texas A&M
You may know him as "Johnny Football." Some scouts, however, know him as "Johnny Maybe-A-Little-Too-Undersized and Maybe-Not-The-Best-Decision-Maker." They'll also have to wait until his private workout on March 27th in College Station to see him in action again.
No one doubts Manziel's ability as an incredible playmaker (we all remember that Houdini act against Duke, right?). It is possible that he might be too good at making something out of what appears to be nothing? That might be the case, according to NFL Media Analyst Charley Casserly:
"Pocket discipline. When you watch tape on this guy, there are times I'm not sure what this guy sees. You've got guys wide open and, boom, he takes off and runs. He may be a victim of his ability to make plays running the football, so he doesn't stay in the pocket. I'd want to watch tape with him, what are you seeing, why are you running when you don't have to run?"
It's clear that Manziel will be a lightning rod for attention and coverage in the pros just as he was at the collegiate level. It remains to be seen, though, if that is because of his celebrity status or his impact on the field.
As far as possible destinations for Manziel, Cleveland has been a popular one since he declared for the draft. NFL.com's Ian Rapoport says the organization's most recent shakeup can intensify those rumors.
There were a lot stories written — & to be written — about #Browns interest in Johnny Manziel. With Lombardi out, scouts open it back up— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 11, 2014
Cyrus Kouandjio-OT, Alabama
At least publicly, it appears that none of the players projected to go in the first round are taking the combine as seriously as Kouandijo. In a letter written to NFL.com, Kouandjio proclaimed he is in "attack mode" for next week's workout in Indianapolis.
The 2013 first-team AP All-American had an extremely decorated college career. It doesn't take an NFL GM to know that hardly guarantees success at the next level.
Kouandjio's ability to stay on the field is the top knock on him, earning him a "4" for being "below average" according to his ESPN draft profile (subscription required). Kounandjio had arthroscopic shoulder surgery in the spring of 2013, which came two years after a season-ending knee injury that also required going under the needle.
The same scouting report described the Cameroon native as sometimes being "a quarter-count late picking up twists" and can be exposed as he "tends to lunge rather than staying compact and balanced." He is also known to be a little lazy with his technique, but his toughness and intensity are known to be his best traits.
How many Pro Bowls will Barr, Manziel and Kouandjio combine for in their NFL careers?
All three of these players have the potential to be some of the league's best at their respective positions. To ensure an improved draft stock—and a bigger payday—this trio will need to shine when given the opportunity to in the coming weeks and months.
It would be surprising to see Manziel slip out of the top five, but for Barr and Kouandjio, they could wind up landing anywhere from tenth overall to the bottom of the first round.