The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine represents the final chance for NFL draft prospects to boost their stock in front of scouts and front-office personnel. While no real football is played, the combine does offer an opportunity for players to win over critics and reinforce the skills they have demonstrated on game film.
The label "combine stars" comes with the stigma of an athletic yet raw prospect who may or may not ever develop into a viable NFL contributor. In reality, however, future stars can also grab the attention of scouts who ignored them in college.
With that in mind, here are a few prospects who will see their draft stock soar after shining in front of NFL teams in Indianapolis.
Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo
Khalil Mack has overwhelmed scouts with his immense physical tools, rising into the first tier of defensive stars along with Jadeveon Clowney and Anthony Barr. Even though he played at a MAC school, questions about his level of competition are starting to dissipate:
Although I am still a bit uncomfortable with the level of competition Khalil Mack faced, I really like him as a player the more I watch.— Christopher Hansen (@ChrisHansenNFL) February 15, 2014
ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. has raised Mack up to third on his big board, and while not all ratings are as high, it reflects Mack's status as a potential top-five draft pick. As Kiper notes (Insider subscription required), his versatility has outstripped whatever flaws have appeared on tape:
I expect Mack to put on a show in Indy, with good speed, agility and leaping ability and adequate length. Scouts are getting caught up on his tape, but those who haven't aren't missing constant dominance so much as versatility. You'll see Mack lining up both at the line and on the perimeter. He is versatile and capable of rushing the passer with quickness and power or dropping into coverage with a great ability to shed tackles and make plays in the open field. He uses good leverage to take on blocks and drive people back and uses quickness and strong hands to shed. He plays with a great motor and tackles with form.
You'll note the first sentence of Kiper's evaluation, and indeed, the combine is tailor-made for someone like Mack. The ex-Bull will put on a show in the drills, and some team in the top 10 will take a chance on his drool-worthy athleticism.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois
Like Mack, the Eastern Illinois product is starting to overcome questions about his level of competition. Garoppolo needed impressive showings at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, and against higher competition, he validated his excellent tape:
EIU QB Jimmy Garoppolo has to be improving his draft stock down here in Mobile. Quick release + ball placement.— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) January 21, 2014
As Bowen tweeted, it is indeed the combination of arm strength, a quick release and high football IQ that has the former Panthers quarterback rising up draft charts. In reality, the combine environment is not too different from the practice environments Garoppolo thrived in, and it will be tough for scouts to find much wrong with his stellar mechanics.
Garoppolo still resides in the second tier of quarterbacks, behind the trio of Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles. But for teams that miss out on the top prospects at the position, it is not inconceivable that someone could trade back into the first round and select Garoppolo, who has impressed at every stop of the pre-draft workout thus far.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Watkins has surged past Marqise Lee and Mike Evans to establish himself as the top wide receiver prospect on most big boards. As NFL.com's Bucky Brooks says, Watkins looks like a game-changing vertical threat at the next level:
As I study the top wideouts in this year's class, Clemson's Sammy Watkins stands out as the premier playmaker. Checking in at 6-foot-1 and 205 pounds with legit 4.4 speed in the 40-yard dash, Watkins is an explosive receiver capable of blowing past defenders on vertical passes and busting a big play on a short throw. This is a truly dynamic athlete with exceptional balance, body control and short-area quickness. He excels at getting in and out of his breaks to create significant separation from defenders at the top of routes. Now, Watkins is definitely not a finished product as an overall route runner, but his pure athleticism makes it hard for defenders to stay with him in isolated matchups.
Brooks cites 4.4 speed, and if Watkins checks in at around that range, it will be nearly impossible for someone like the Rams or Raiders to pass him up in the top five. Even without total polish, his size and natural athleticism should make him a deadly jump-ball and red-zone threat against smaller defensive backs.
Watkins will test well at the combine, likely cementing his status as a top-10 pick. In a deep receiver class, the Clemson product stands out above the rest.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Hageman has garnered buzz as a mid- to late first-round possibility, largely on the strength of his physical gifts. At 6'6" and 311 pounds, Hageman has the frame and skills to be both a run-stuffer and dominant interior pass-rusher.
Hageman demonstrated great versatility and consistency at the Senior Bowl, dominating the competition throughout the week. For someone who was dogged by questions about his motor, it was an invaluable week for the defensive tackle's draft stock. Indeed, many like Omar Kelly of the Florida Sun Sentinel were won over:
Okay, I've seen enough of Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman to know I'm a fan. BIG, lean, athletic, good use of hands. Sheds blocks.— Omar Kelly (@OmarKelly) January 21, 2014
Minnesota defensive line coach Jeff Phelps described Hageman as a "freak of nature," per the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel (via NFL.com's Mike Huguenin), and it's an apt description. Hageman was actually recruited as a tight end, and his rawness shows at times with little things like hand placement and leverage.
Nevertheless, the athleticism possibly makes Hageman a dominant defensive tackle, one that could fit in either a 4-3 or 3-4 scheme. Thus, expect Hageman to impress at the combine enough to warrant a Day 1 selection.