Analyzing NFL combine results means first acknowledging the fact that, as a practice, the combine remains one of the silliest traditions in sports. Media members (Hi, everyone!) put far more stock into the results than teams do, as we all desperately try to fill space during the doldrum months of the NFL calendar.
The stupidity of it all, of course, is what makes it so glorious. Never will you hear more self-satisfied media members overreacting, telling the audience of their genius at picking out the one diamond in the rough who performed well in Indy.
Never heard of Jimmy Garoppolo? Don't worry, here are 5,000 columns telling you how impressed NFL teams are with his skill set.
The reality is that most teams come into the combine hoping to confirm what they've seen on film. Players whom teams are considering have already undergone an insane amount of scouting—there just aren't that many surprises in today's digital age. Disappointments due to slow times or mediocre strength numbers are far more prevalent than pleasantries.
Not that the combine is entirely meaningless. Saying that would be reductive. It's still one of the league's biggest conventions, where general managers, coaches and scouts get together and form something of a groupthink. Teams aren't going to give away their draft boards, but constant conversations are ongoing about the general evaluation of certain players.
It's about properly contextualizing what goes on in Indianapolis—not falling over one another to write the latest #hottake about the next guaranteed star or impending bust.
So when you read a headline about players who helped themselves, understand that a guy with a fourth-round grade isn't suddenly going to wear a suit on Thursday in May. Moving within a tier can sometimes make a round or so difference, which is no small deal when it comes to rookie NFL contracts.
With that in mind, let's highlight a few underrated players who might be properly rated after their combine performances.
Aaron Donald (DT, Pittsburgh)
If you'd like a classic example of the NFL's size obsession undeservedly hurting a player's draft stock, look no further than Donald. The former Pittsburgh star was listed on numerous Heisman watch lists late in 2013, with contenders falling over one another to move out of the running.
He didn't get invited to New York City and wasn't even close to winning, but the fact that a defensive tackle was in consideration should be proof enough of how good he was last season.
Donald had 59 total tackles, 28.5 for a loss and 11 sacks. Let's break out our calculators to do that math. Did you get a number that said 48.3 percent of his tackles were for loss and then went back through because that calculation couldn't possibly be right?
Well, it is. Don't worry.
Donald, not Jadeveon Clowney, was the best defensive lineman in college football last season, showing the type of first-step explosion and tenacity that scouts typically drool over. One problem: He is only 6'1" and 285 pounds.
In the evolutionary fluke gene pool that fills the NFL, he measures out as small—perhaps the only time that adjective has been used to describe him.
In Indianapolis, the measurement portion went as expected. Donald was diminutive standing next to his 300-pound contemporaries. Though he had outperformed almost all of them on Saturdays, it was hard not to notice a discrepancy.
Then he started working out and changed the narrative. A 4.68-second 40-yard dash and 35 bench-press reps left mouths agape, as Donald's special combination of size and speed made him the most talked-about defensive lineman other than Clowney among league executives.
Pat Kirwan of CBS Sports was one of a few to throw out a lofty, Hall of Fame comparison:
“It never got to me. It is what it is. Thinking about it ain’t gonna make me any taller. All I can do is go out and play hard-nosed,” Donald told reporters of the size concerns.
After his combine outing, he may have played himself into the back half of the first round. At the very least, he's an early Round 2 selection. Either way, I wouldn't bet against him.
Dri Archer (RB, Kent State)
If you had asked casual college football fans whether Dri Archer was a Kent State running back or the name of a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model, you might have been looking at a 50-50 split.
He rushed for only 527 yards last season on a Golden Flashes team that went 4-8 and was far out of the national purview. We all love #MACtion as much as the next guy. But few could blame you for checking out on Kent State football in 2013.
Well, he shouldn't have any trouble being mistaken for a Sports Illustrated model after the combine. Rated as a late-round selection coming into the combine, he blazed his way up draft boards with one of the fastest 40 times in history. He finished just 0.02 seconds away from Chris Johnson's combine record at 4.26 seconds.
The jaw-dropping time even had Johnson, who takes pride in his 40 record, wringing his hands about potentially being taken out of the history books:
Times in the 40 obviously aren't a guarantee of NFL success. Johnson was considered a borderline first-round selection before scampering his way to the No. 24 selection in 2008. The Titans wound up patting themselves on the back profusely for that selection, but few remember that he shares his combine record with Rondel Melendez.
Who? Exactly. Melendez was an unheralded wide receiver from Eastern Michigan who set the combine record in 1999. The Falcons took him with the 247th overall pick. The man doesn't even have a Pro-Football-Reference page.
“He ran fast, almost as fast as Chris Johnson," Mike Mayock said about Archer on NFL Network (h/t Cleveland.com). "He helped himself. The fact that he can return helps him. Whenever you get those guys that 170-plus pounds, the question is how do you use them? Where do you line them up? That’s where the value situation is."
The reality is Archer is more likely a Melendez than a Johnson. He doesn't have a position. He's not big enough to be anything but a situational rusher out of the backfield and hasn't shown the polish as a route-runner to make a full-time transition to receiver.
That said, he probably ran himself into hearing his name called sometime on Saturday. Considering he was probably more likely to go undrafted than be selected coming into Indianapolis, that's nothing short of a win.
Jerick McKinnon (RB, Georgia Southern)
If you're looking for a running back who might have actually convinced scouts he has starter potential, McKinnon is that player. The Georgia Southern back, who worked both under center and behind it during his collegiate career, may have had the best overall workout of any offensive player at the combine.
He ran the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds, added stellar times in the shuttle and three-cone drills and showed off a surprisingly powerful frame. His 32 bench-press reps were six more than any other running back, and his vertical leap ranked behind only Lache Seastrunk.
Every drill McKinnon did in Indianapolis got him a colored-in blue star—denoting a "top performer" among players at his position.
At 5'9" and 209 pounds, he has enough size that arguably his only flaw is his rawness. He worked almost entirely out of the option at Georgia Southern and has minimal experience in standard running back formations. Pass blocking is essentially a foreign language to him at this point.
“As far as the running backs, I think (Jerick) McKinnon from Georgia Southern is a real wild card in this draft...He had a big day,” Mayock said on the NFL Network broadcast.
Projected as a late third-day selection coming into the combine, you have to expect teams to start looking more closely at him now. He's not going to vault into the first round, but given how many running backs reach stardom after late-round selections, landing in the fifth isn't entirely out of the question.
Aaron Schatz of Football Outsiders calculated the website's Speed Score—a metric that takes into account the size of a player, juxtaposed with his 40 time—for ESPN this week. McKinnon ranked behind only Oklahoma back Damien Williams, who also had a nice time in Indy.
At the very least with McKinnon, you're looking at a situational back who could help on special teams—not exactly the worst result on the third day.
Note: All combine numbers are via NFL.com.
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