Burning Questions Heading into the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine
The NFL Scouting Combine is nearly here, and with it comes the annual set of burning questions.
Wondering who'll participate in which drills, who'll run the fastest 40-yard dash time, the fretting over who wasn't invited—heck, even the question about whether anything worthwhile can even be learned from it will be raised and rehashed over and over again during the week leading up to February 25.
There are some questions, though, that can truly be answered in Indianapolis. NFL teams get a golden opportunity to weigh, measure, interview and medically work out nearly every draftable prospect, whether or not they take a step on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.
Besides the bevy of numbers that'll be produced by the various dashes, leaps, shuttles, cones and drills, there's precious information to be acquired at the combine—and not just the asking prices of the premier free agents about to hit the market.
Here are the burning questions that everyone in the NFL world can't wait to see answered.
Will Jadeveon Clowney Run a 4.4-Second 40-Yard Dash?
Ever since defensive end Jadeveon Clowney laid this hit in the 2013 Outback Bowl, NFL scouts, media and fans have been counting the seconds until he would get the chance to show what he can do in an Under Armour singlet.
Clowney told Yahoo Sports' Anwar S. Richardson that the show will be more than worth the year-plus wait: "On hand times, I’ve been running 4.4s," Clowney said. "I hope I can get a 4.4 at the combine. A 4.5, I’m not too worried about...I ain’t going to run a 4.6. I’m probably going to run low 4.5, 4.4."
If the 6'6", 274-pound defensive end weighs in at that size and runs in that range, he'll be the freakiest size/speed pass-rush prospect since Chicago Bears end Julius Peppers.
That said, if his hand-timed numbers are in the 4.4-second range, it'll be stunning if he's any lower than 4.50 once he trips the laser. Furthermore, even if he puts up Adrian Peterson speed numbers at Jared Allen's size, it won't tell us much about Clowney we don't already know.
That said, it would be an incredible accomplishment—and a hard-to-ignore statement that he's the best available talent in this draft class.
What Will the Medical Workouts Reveal?
One of the enduring images of the 2013 combine was defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, who wore a hoodie and warm-up pants on the sideline while his fellow draft candidates ripped through workouts in singlets.
Lotulelei, whose medical workout revealed a temporary heart problem, was a potential top-five pick before questions about his health helped push him down to No. 14 overall. He made the teams that pass on him pay, though, having a standout rookie season and earning Pro Football Focus' nod at nose tackle for its All-Rookie Team.
Though he got a second opinion that cleared him and was a steal for the Carolina Panthers, it's inevitable that at least one prospect will get bad news from the standard medical examination. Could the bad luck strike another board-topping talent like Lotulelei—and will teams shy away?
To Throw or Not to Throw: That Is the Question
We already know Johnny Manziel won't throw at the combine, but will fellow top quarterback prospect Blake Bortles?
NFL.com's Mike Huguenin reports that Bortles' father said it'll be "a game-time decision." With Bortles getting buzz as a possible top-10 pick—Rotoworld's Josh Norris recently mocked him at No. 1 overall—it's possible that Bortles, like Manziel, will decide there's more risk than reward in it.
To be sure, the passing drills at the combine are a poor simulator of game conditions. Working with unfamiliar receivers and against no defenders while mindlessly stepping through the route tree can't possibly tell NFL evaluators much about quarterbacks they don't already know.
However, it's a bit presumptuous for young, uneven prospects like Manziel and Bortles—about whom NFL teams have far more questions than about blue-chippers like Andrew Luck—to rest on their laurels.
While it's true that a bad throwing day at the combine could hurt their stock more than a good day could help it, some teams could drop quarterbacks who skip out down their boards just for trying to big-time them.
Will a Pass-Rusher Explode?
After Jadeveon Clowney, the 2014 class of rookie pass-rushers is much thinner than 2013's bumper crop.
Unfortunately, with the success of teams like the Seattle Seahawks, San Francisco 49ers and Carolina Panthers, getting a deep rotation of pass-rushers has never been more en vogue. Players with coveted speed off the edge will be prized in May.
Players like Buffalo's Khalil Mack, Auburn's Dee Ford and Missouri's Kony Ealy will have a chance to prove not only that they're explosive enough to rush the passer, but that they're well-rounded enough to step into a starting role and do everything asked of them.
Evaluators, on the other hand, will have to be careful to avoid falling too in love with these players if they don't already love their tape. The Miami Dolphins took 'tweener pass-rusher Dion Jordan No. 3 overall in 2013 after an excellent combine, and he barely saw the field.
Who Will Jerry Jones Be Watching?
Dallas Cowboys owner/general manager Jerry Jones is one of the most visible and controversial executives in the NFL. Like any top executive, he's always around in the Lucas Oil stands, watching players and making notes.
Whatever he saw in center Travis Frederick last season must have been something that few others saw; after trading down to No. 31 overall in the first round, Jones snagged Frederick one full round before most analysts thought he'd be taken.
All Frederick did was step in and start right away; as Pro Football Focus' seventh-ranked center (subscription required), he vastly outplayed any other rookie. An argument could be made that he would have been available later in the draft, but it can't be debated that Jones didn't know which player his team needed.
Will Johnny Manziel Impress or Implode?
Like Jadeveon Clowney, the combine performance of Johnny Manziel has been highly anticipated. Not necessarily the on-field performance—Manziel's agent Erik Burkhardt tweeted that Manziel won't be throwing in Indianapolis—but in his interviews.
Most of the questions surrounding him are about his commitment to football and/or his hard-partying lifestyle.
NFL players have partied hard since before Manziel's great-grandfather struck oil in 1940, but he'll have to prove in face-to-face interviews (and at the whiteboard) that he works hard enough in preparation and execution to justify playing hard when it's quitting time.
Be prepared for lots of rumors, leaks, speculation and misinformation in the media after the fact, but behind closed doors in Indianapolis, NFL teams will get at least some of the answers they're looking for.
Who's the Next Richard Sherman?
Of course, 6'3" cornerback prospects with 32-inch arms and a 38-inch vertical leap don't grow on trees.
But that's what two-time first-team All-Pro cornerback Richard Sherman was as a rookie prospect, and somehow everybody but the Seattle Seahawks took several passes on him. His raw technique and lack of searing deep speed dropped him all the way to the fifth round, where the Seahawks got a very pleasant surprise.
As the vocal leader of a historically great defense that handily won the Super Bowl, Sherman became the template that all NFL teams want to trace from.
While Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard doesn't have Sherman's sheer verticality—and he may not slip out of the top 10, let alone the first two days of the draft—teams are more likely to prioritize his brand strength, disruption, ball skills and press-man coverage ability throughout the draft over the fluidity, versatility and deep speed that he (and players like him) may lack.
Will a Running Back Impress?
For the second draft class in a row, it looks like there are no first-round-caliber every-down tailbacks.
However, with the NFL seasons that 2013 rookies Eddie Lacy, Giovani Bernard and Andre Ellington had, teams just might want to rethink eschewing runners with their early draft picks.
The production of Lacy, Bernard and Ellington in 2013 was prodigious: 3,667 yards and 23 touchdowns on 716 rushes and receptions, per Pro Football Reference. Lacy was even nominated to The Associated Press' second-team All-Pro squad.
Though none of the three backs were drafted in the first round, the question marks around Lacy's explosiveness, Bernard's between-the-tackles running and Ellington's size and pass protection just go to show that not every back has to be an every-down player anymore.
With an explosive combine performance, players like Kent State's Dri Archer or Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas could entice teams to pull the trigger early and figure out how to use these offensive weapons later.
Which Left Tackle Will Separate Himself from the Pack?
Since legendary pass-rusher Lawrence Taylor ushered in the era of the blind-side guardian, left tackles with size, speed, athleticism, long arms and pass-blocking technique have risen to the very top of draft boards.
That trend has only accelerated since Michael Lewis' best-selling book The Blind Side hit bookshelves in 2006. Per Pro Football Reference, 13 pass-protecting tackles have been drafted in the first 10 picks since then; three went in the first four picks of the 2013 draft.
Many of them climbed up draft boards by excelling in the combine's offensive line drills, which probably do the best job of simulating actual game skills and techniques.
Offensive linemen like Texas A&M's Jake Matthews, Auburn's Greg Robinson and Michigan's Taylor Lewan could all be drafted in the top 10, top five or even No. 1 overall. It all depends on how beautifully they move through the drills—and the eyes of the evaluators beholding them.
Who Will Be the Workout Hero?
Every year, at least one player's mind-blowing workout numbers steal the show.
In 2013, it was Estonian track and field star Margus Hunt, who converted to football when Southern Methodist University shuttered its storied track program. Hunt, unsurprisingly, shined in what some wags call the NFL's Underwear Olympics.
This season, it could be any number of players: South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney, Oregon tailback/receiver De’Anthony Thomas or a lesser-known prospect who blazes past cones, pads and lasers in Indianapolis.
NFL teams have to be careful with whoever blows them away in the combine workouts, because so-called workout warriors with mediocre game film have been disappointing teams for decades.