Every year, the combine comes and goes, providing relatively similar storylines every season.
High-profile Player X is "sliding" after an underwhelming 40-yard dash time. Dude you've never heard of—most likely an offensive or defensive lineman—will have a workout performance so freakish you forget entirely that he can't play football that well. Someone will say something controversial. At least one league executive or player will do something stupid.
Afterward, you will read endless columns and recaps to tell you what it all really means. For the most part, the word "nothing" should come up over and over. It's entirely unfair to put too much stock into these workouts and smart teams have long figured that out. The best indicator remains and will always be game tape.
With that said, the combine is not without purpose. Players with concerns can help eradicate those by addressing them in the interview room or in workouts. Players sitting on the edge of a round grade can help or hurt themselves, simply by performing better or worse than someone within their peer group.
The combine is not about finalizing draft results. It's about players considered close to one another separating themselves from the pack.
With that in mind, here's a look at a few players who could make that leap.
Blake Bortles, QB, UCF
Johnny Manziel? Not throwing. Derek Carr? Not throwing. Teddy Bridgewater? Still on the fence. Blake Bortles? He's about to live out his dream of working out in Indianapolis and isn't going to pass up the chance to show off his huge arm:
The decision of Manziel and Carr to not throw and Bridgewater to wait until the last minute is wholly understandable. There are some—mostly sportswriters—who like to show off their piety and criticize quarterbacks' decisions to not throw at the combine.
However, it's easy to sit from the sidelines and throw a hissy fit whenever you don't have millions of dollars hanging in the balance.
Manziel, Carr, Bridgewater and Bortles each have the opportunity to go in the first round. There is almost zero consensus from scouts, league executives or coaches about who is ultimately the best prospect.
Given the opportunity to make sometimes just one impression for these folks, Indy is hardly the ideal setting. Quarterbacks are throwing in an unfamiliar, pressure-packed place, often to receivers they have never thrown to previously.
Scouts aren't going to write a potential franchise quarterback off for not throwing at the combine. They're going to come to the pro day armed with expectations, sure, but Manziel and Carr—and maybe Bridgewater—get to throw to teammates they know and on fields where they've previously thrived.
It's no question which of the two scenarios engenders better performance.
Nevertheless, Bortles' decision to throw gives him a massive opportunity to gain ground or separate himself as the clear-cut No. 1 pick.
Bortles remains a bit of a curiosity for NFL teams. We got a glimpse of what he can do in a big moment against Baylor, but the American is far from comparable to the elite athletes he'll go against on Sundays. It's not Bortles' fault that he plays in easily the worst of college football's "major" conferences, but it does give Bortles more to prove than Manziel, a superstar in the SEC, and even his conference-mate Bridgewater, who has been tabbed as a future elite NFL talent since the womb.
Luckily for Bortles, he's ready-made for these types of situations. There isn't a more powerful arm in this class and Bortles' crisp spirals make for catchable balls—no matter who is running the routes.
Teams will want to focus more on his footwork and ball placement than how quick the ball is coming out, but the physical tools here scream "star."
Conversely, he could struggle and create even more questions about his NFL acumen. That's a big risk, but one Bortles should be supported for taking.
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon
Lyerla's trip to Indianapolis is just one massive exercise in "prove it." Heading into his junior season at Oregon, Lyerla was expected to be a key cog in arguably the nation's most explosive offense.
The Ducks don't typically over-feature the tight end, but Lyerla's combination of size, speed and athleticism made him an impossible-to-ignore figure.
Then everything went off the rails.
Lyerla played only two games before quitting the team in October, finishing with two receptions for 26 yards. His decision to suddenly quit football came into focus when Lyerla was arrested on possession of cocaine later that month.
The time since his arrest has been one of personal and certainly professional turmoil. He pleaded guilty to the cocaine possession in December and has slowly gone about turning his life around.
At his press conference on Thursday, Lyerla told reporters his decision to leave the team was ultimately the best thing for his mental health:
I think the biggest thing was just making the choice to move away from home and get myself in a place to where I'm only doing positive things. Just continuing to stay on the right track...Mainly, it was having a big sit-down with my family and coming to an agreement with myself as far as the negative things I was doing and what I need to do to change.
Teams will certainly be more inquisitive when they get behind closed doors. They will want to know everything about Lyerla's drug issues. When they began, when they stopped, whether they have a chance of recurrence, etc.
With the NFL's stringent policies against cocaine, teams aren't going to risk a high-round choice on someone they're afraid could relapse.
Of course, it certainly wouldn't hurt matters if Lyerla excels in the physical drills. Teams don't love taking major risks, and they especially don't like taking major risks on players about whom they are unsure. Lyerla, physical freak, is going to have a lot more supporters than Lyerla, mediocre workout performer.
Perhaps that's unfair, but that's just the way it is in the NFL. Lyerla needs to ace every portion of his combine to have a chance at ascending on draft boards.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State
The combine was made for players like Benjamin. Listed at 6'5" and 234 pounds, Benjamin has a Calvin Johnson body with the type of elite athleticism and speed that can make scouts drool. Benjamin went over 1,000 yards receiving on only 54 catches as a sophomore at Florida State and is an overpowering leaper who may be an instant downfield and red-zone threat.
He's part of a glut of receivers hanging near the end of the first round or beginning of the second. Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans and Marqise Lee are clearly in a tier of their own as guaranteed top draft picks.
As indicated by NFLDraftScout.com, Benjamin is a step below, lumped in with LSU's Odell Beckham Jr., Penn State's Allen Robinson and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks.
Which receiver of that quartet winds up going first in May will depend almost entirely on workout, pro day and combine performances.
Cooks is a jitterbug slot threat with a ton of physical tools. Robinson might be the most complete receiver at this point. Beckham and Benjamin are the two with possible "star" labels hanging over their heads, but the latter has far more to prove at this juncture.
While effective at Florida State, Benjamin has a host of concerns dogging his NFL translation. His physical tools can't be questioned, but he drops a ton of passes. If it weren't for Florida State's victory in the national championship game, one of the overarching storylines would have been the Seminoles receivers' inability to help Jameis Winston.
Benjamin is the type of talent who really could go one of two polar-opposite ways. His physical skills make it impossible to dismiss him as a potential Pro Bowler. His lack of polish and relatively advanced age for someone in his class (23) might give Jets fans night terrors of Stephen Hill.
That's at once scary and exhilarating. If Benjamin performs as expected at the combine, though, it's going to be awfully difficult to teams to pass him by at the end of the first.
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