10 Players with the Most to Prove at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine

Curt PopejoyContributor IFebruary 19, 2014

10 Players with the Most to Prove at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine

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    Douglas Jones-USA TODAY Sports

    Sometimes, it doesn't matter how much work you put in—it is simply not enough. For many prospective NFL stars, circumstances become such that three months from the draft, they must partake in significant damage control. Becoming a top pick is a constant struggle.

    Whether it is an injury or off-field issue, some players are coming into the Scouting Combine with a lack of recent film to evaluate and questions to answer about their future.

    Other prospects come into the combine facing the reality that even after a great season, perception says they do not measure up to their peers. The combine is an opportunity to stand side by side with these players and prove their worth.

    For 335 athletes, the combine is a vital job interview. For these 10, it provides an opportunity to atone for their pasts and set a course for their futures in the NFL. Can these players prove to the league they are prepared to be NFL stars? Read on and find out.

    All stats provided courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.

Taylor Lewan, Offensive Tackle, Michigan

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    It was something of a shock when Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan chose to return to school for his senior season. Ultimately it seemed like a smart choice as several other offensive tackles made late accessions into the top of the first round last year. Lewan looked poised to be among the top two tackles in 2013, almost assuring him a high pick this year.

    Unfortunately, as the draft approaches, Lewan finds himself in a free fall. He has gone from being the consensus second tackle to at best the third, and in some cases only the fourth-best tackle in the draft. How did this happen?

    Part of it is his play on the field. The league has become enamored with athletic tackles with quick feet and the ability to move. Lewan is more of a throwback. He plays with a mean, nasty nature and aggressive style that leads to mistakes at times.

    Lewan has to use the combine as an opportunity to not only impress in interviews, but in drills as well. He needs to show teams he can be a strong left tackle while not coming across as a bully. In drills, Lewan has to show he has quick feet, can set up quickly and reset in a hurry.

Colt Lyerla, Tight End, Oregon

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    Oregon tight end Colt Lyerla came into the 2013 season with so much promise. As part of that high-powered Ducks offense, Lyerla was an impressive weapon. His numbers had never properly reflected his talent, but that was set to change.

    Unfortunately, the dream season of 2013 never came to fruition. Lyerla ultimately left the Ducks team as reported by ESPN.cpm news services and not long after that was arrested for cocaine possession. At this point, the best thing Lyerla can do is get to the combine and plead his case to the league.

    If history tells us anything, it’s that if you can play, the league will find a spot for you. That means all his indiscretions aside, what Lyerla does in drills will be vital.

    The young tight end has had four months to prepare for the combine, so he'd better show up. This means he needs to time well and flash all that athleticism in the drills.

Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Louisville

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    It might seem odd to have Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater on this list. However, with the fluidity of the quarterback rankings, Bridgewater cannot rest on his laurels.

    Bridgewater has become a victim of paralysis by analysis. His game has been placed under such a microscope that every nuance of his skills is being picked apart.

    Bridgewater has the opportunity to open eyes to aspects of his game most teams haven't seen on film. Much of the debate about the top quarterbacks centers on athleticism, and it would be prudent for Bridgewater to come out and try to time as well as possible in drills.

    Bridgewater also has a chance in interviews to validate his high football IQ. It is not difficult to get caught up in the nuts and bolts of a quarterback, but it is the calm and poise that Bridgewater shows that sets him apart from other top signal-callers in this class.

De'Anthony Thomas, Running Back, Oregon

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    Another Oregon Duck makes this list with a focus on making teams forget 2013.

    Running back De'Anthony Thomas had a completely forgettable 2013 season. His production was down due in part to some health issues. However, even when Thomas was on the field, his game was not up to the standard of 2012.

    Thomas' physical gifts are rare. In lieu of great film to go by, he needs to wow teams with elite times. His speed in the 40-yard dash and his agility in the cone and shuttle drills could be enough to make teams look back at 2012 film and see just how productive he can be.

    Thomas put his eggs into this basket when he elected not return for his senior season. It was a calculated risk and for it to pay off, he must have a huge combine performance.

    This is a crowded running back class. Thomas needs to separate himself from the pack if he wants to help his draft stock.

AJ McCarron, Quarterback, Alabama

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    All Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has done as a member of the Crimson Tide is win two SEC championships and three BCS championships—a resume as impressive as any in college football history, but that is not enough for the NFL.

    The NFL looks for a specific set of skills that any quarterback must have to succeed. Like it or not, putting up gaudy win/loss numbers is a small part of that equation. In fact, if you really want to rank what NFL teams look for, winning gobs of games is pretty low.

    If McCarron wants to be taken seriously by the league, he needs to display physical gifts at the combine that really don't show up in the film. He can do this in quarterback drills.

    McCarron needs to line up next to the top signal-callers in the country and display improved velocity and strength on his throws.

    Many quarterbacks improve their arm strength in the NFL, mainly through improving footwork and throwing mechanics. McCarron is solid in both areas, but still lacking in velocity. If McCarron wants to be drafted early, he's going to have to impress teams with an arm he didn't show in games.

Kelvin Benjamin, Wide Receiver, Florida State

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    Sometimes, the combine is about showing that a player is capable of much more than their film.

    That's the case for Florida State wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin. Few wide receivers have the highlight reel that Benjamin has. His propensity to make the acrobatic catch is clear.

    The problem is, if you look at Benjamin's game in its entirety, you see a very raw prospect who is getting by on physical gifts over refinement.

    For Benjamin, the combine needs to be about showing polish to his game with crisp routes in drills, active hands and more fluidity in his moves.

    When you are a wide receiver as big as a tight end, you need something more to your game than the size gimmick. He has the opportunity to put on a show and be the star of this combine if he's willing to put in the work.

Seantrel Henderson, Offensive Tackle, Miami

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    Players like Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson are a real headache to try to scout. One play, the 6'7", 331-pound man is mauling a defender on a sweep to his side. The next play, he is standing on the sidelines because he's gassed or not giving good effort.

    When he is at his best, Henderson is one of the strongest, more ferocious run-blocking right tackles in the country. Unfortunately, getting that best on a consistent basis is a more than something of a challenge.

    The best thing Henderson can do is show up at the combine with a purpose. He is going to need to be in great shape and answer for the inconsistencies of his game. Henderson has plenty of talent to play in the NFL. The problem is he just has to convince teams that he is worth the risk.

    Henderson has a shot to really improve his draft stock with a strong combine. In fact, it would not be out of the question to find him in the first 100 picks if he can show some contrition and display a commitment to improvement.

Shayne Skov, Linebacker, Stanford

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    No player wants to be pigeonholed in terms of his skills. Unfortunately for Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov, that is precisely the case with him.

    Skov is a downhill, run-stopping force for the Cardinal, but the NFL might not think that's enough. Even in the 3-4 that Stanford runs, Skov was rarely called upon to drop into coverage.

    Skov has an opportunity to be the top inside linebacker drafted come May. The rub is, if he perceived as strictly a thumper who can only stop the run, how early he is selected will take a hit. Obviously there are plenty of spots for players like Skov in the league, but this is about value.

    Similarly to San Diego Chargers linebacker Manti Te'o, Skov is going to fall behind more athletic players. The combine could be his chance to give his critics a better look at his complete game.

Jason Verrett, Cornerback, TCU

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    If there is anything that the combine can do for TCU cornerback Jason Verrett, it is let teams know you don't have to be 6'0" and 200 pounds to be an elite cornerback in the NFL.

    Size is really the only concern about Verrett's game. Don't misunderstand—Verrett is not terribly short, measuring up at around 5'10". The problem with Verrett's size is that he is only 176 pounds.

    Verrett gets around being a slight athlete with superior instincts and technique. Verrett is a strong coverage player, especially in zone, and he has learned to work with what he has at a very high level.

    If Verrett can show up at the combine above 185 pounds and maintain the speed and quickness he has, it will diffuse some of the concerns about his ability to muscle up bigger wide receivers.

    This is a pretty humble class of cornerbacks and of those with first-round aspirations, Verrett has the most to gain with a great combine. But on the other side of it, he could also take the greatest tumble if his combine is even average.

Antone Exum, Cornerback, Virginia Tech

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    The last guy on this list is Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum. ESPN's Heather Dunich reported that Exum was a victim of a nasty ACL tear in January of 2013.

    Unfortunately, recovery time for Exum extended through the 2013 season, and even with three partial appearances, the season was a wash. 

    It isn't clear just how ready Exum is for the combine, but the hope is he can participate to some degree.

    Exum has elite size at 6'1" and 220 pounds. His physical play and center field mentality projects well in the NFL. The key will be if Exum is healthy or not.

    Every workout he can complete is another chance for him to build his draft stock. A completely healthy Exum is as good as any defensive back in the country.

    In fact, Exum's game is very much in the mold of some of the Seattle Seahawks defensive backs. In particular, Exum seems to have a lot of similarities to safety Kam Chancellor. Most NFL teams would be happy to steal the next Chancellor in the fourth or fifth round.

    Best-case scenario for Exum is that he gets back to 100 percent and finds himself right in the mix to be a top-100 pick. If he continues to struggle with recovery, Exum could go undrafted altogether.