What did we learn from the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine?
That is the question on the minds of every NFL fan. The combine is a four-day test of the physical and the mental. It involves poking and prodding on multiple levels, all in the hopes of weeding out the top prospects.
We will all find out in May who did their due diligence and used this information, along with game film, to make the right choices. The Pittsburgh Steelers sent their full contingent of coaches, staff and scouts to the combine with the goal of turning around a two-season streak of missing the playoffs.
What did they learn? Read on and find out.
All combine numbers courtesy of NFL.com.
Going into the draft, wide receiver has to be seen as a top-five need. It is a virtual certainty that wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders is going to be allowed to leave via free agency. As talented as he is, he was inconsistent in 2013. His asking price for production is going to be prohibitive.
The Steelers also have wide receiver Jerricho Cotchery as a free agent, who may not be retained. Should the team lose both of these players, one of the prospects from the combine could be lining up next to wide receiver Antonio Brown sooner rather than later.
Fortunately, this group of wide receivers really impressed. Whether the Steelers want to draft one early or wait until later in the draft, there is plenty of talent to go around. Pittsburgh could opt to draft a wide receiver with the 16th pick in the first round.
If so, the target would likely be Texas A&M wide receiver Mike Evans. He is a huge target at 6'4" and 231 pounds. If the Steelers want to give quarterback Ben Roethlisberger a target with impressive athleticism and enormous catch radius, Evans is the man.
However, should they opt to wait, they can choose from plenty of prospects. Here are some of the top prospects to consider outside of the first round:
- Davante Adams, Fresno State
- Donte Moncrief, Mississippi
- Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State
- Shaquelle Evans, UCLA
- Brandon Coleman, Rutgers
- Martavis Bryant, Clemson
- Cody Hoffman, BYU
These players are all in the second- to sixth-round mix. They are all targets with nice size and speed and lots of potential. Just a quick list like this shows just how deep this class is.
It is high time that fans face the reality that Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert is the top cornerback in this draft. All his combine performance did was cement that truth. In fact, he might have put himself out of range for the Steelers altogether.
Gilbert measured in at 6'0" and 202 pounds. By comparison, Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard was 5'11" and 199 pounds. That's a pretty negligible difference; however, Gilbert has a three-inch reach advantage and ran his 40 a full .1 faster.
This all adds up. Gilbert is the ideal cornerback for what the Steelers do on defense. The only question is if he'll last until the 15th pick.
If he makes it past Detroit at No. 10, there's a shot he'll be available to Pittsburgh at 15. But, with his package of skills, he is going to be a hot commodity and could be the type of player a team might trade up to acquire.
Maybe the Steelers will be among those teams.
Up and down this defensive back group, we saw a very diverse lot. The combine featured defensive backs in all shapes and sizes with unique skill sets. What this entails for the draft is that determining the order of the players taken will be a challenge.
It could be less about overall talent and more about finding the appropriate scheme fit. Teams that play more zone will have their choice of players who are better at that.
This is great news for the Steelers. This team could be looking for a cornerback and a safety in this draft. Many of the defensive backs at the combine were tall (6'0" or taller) and long (38 players measured with 31" or longer arms). These are the physical types that the Steelers look for.
You pair up experience in man coverage, and there are plenty of players to choose from. Looking at the previous slide, Gilbert is the prize, but that doesn't mean missing out on him is the end of the world. Here are some other defensive backs that the Steelers could look at later in the draft:
- Pierre Desir, cornerback, Lindenwood
- Phillip Gaines, cornerback, Rice
- Stanley Jean-Baptiste, cornerback, Nebraska
- Ahmad Dixon, safety, Baylor
- Daniel Sorensen, safety, BYU
- Deone Bucannon, safety, Washington State
The Steelers are dealing with a situation where both of their backup running backs are mediocre players and free agents. Both Jonathan Dwyer and Felix Jones have been serviceable but far from spectacular. In the meantime, this rookie pack of running backs is shaping up to be deep and talented.
With other needs, the Steelers won't look at a running back earlier than the fifth round. That won't matter though, as many of these fifth-round backs are more talented than Dwyer and Jones. The question will be: What style of back do the Steelers want?
There are two schools of thought. Starting running back Le'Veon Bell is a bruising power back who can wear down a defense. When he comes off the field, the Steelers could trot out a speed back like Kent State's Dri Archer to take defenses by surprise.
Or they could bring in another big back like LSU's Jeremy Hill. Here's a list of some of the other late-round backs who impressed at the combine. The Steelers could target any of them:
- Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
- George Atkinson, Notre Dame
- Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State
- David Fluellen, Toledo
- Terrance West, Towson
- Damien Williams, Oklahoma
Nothing can squash a season faster than injuries. For some teams, when it rains, it pours.
That was the case for the Steelers in 2013. This team did everything but hold open tryouts to find viable offensive linemen. Guys were playing out of position and just holding down the fort, while others got well.
And even though the line did come together and play well in the last seven games of the season, there is always room for improvement. Offensive line coach Mike Munchak knows a thing or two about coaching up players and had to be excited at the crop of multi-purpose linemen on display at the combine.
It isn't unusual to project a college tackle to guard in the NFL, but at this combine, many of them showed enough power and athleticism to be capable at both spots. The Steelers might be looking for one or two new starters in the fall, so they need these kinds of versatile athletes.
A couple of players in particular who stood out were Notre Dame offensive tackle Zack Martin and Furman offensive tackle Dakota Dozier.
Martin (6'4", 308 pounds) offers an impressive package. The Notre Dame product is athletic enough to step out and protect at tackle but offers enough power and punch to move inside to play guard. He projects as the fourth offensive lineman off the board, so if the Steelers think he could be the next great swing lineman, they would have to take him early.
Dozier (6'4", 318 pounds) offers many of the same pluses that Martin does. His length is a little bit better, but his footwork is rawer. However, for being 10 pounds heavier, he still moves well. His first step is exceptional, and he does a nice job of getting his hands on defenders.
He is another prospect who could start his career inside at guard before moving outside. The upside to Dozier is that while Martin is a first-round pick, the Furman tackle can be had a couple of rounds later.
Numerous small-school players did well for themselves at the combine. Sometimes it is more challenging to scout players like them because they can look tremendous in drills, but the level of competition muddies the evaluation process. Nevertheless, a few well-placed small-school stars late in the draft can pay big dividends for a smart franchise.
One of the stars of the combine was Pittsburg State University wide receiver John Brown. He capped a terrific senior season by wowing everyone in attendance in Indianapolis. At 5'10", 179 pounds, he ran a blistering 4.34-second 40-yard dash.
This will send teams back to find film on the wide receiver to see if he has the rest of the game to accompany his speed. The Steelers could get a real steal with him late on Day 3 as depth at wide receiver and as a kick return specialist.
Another small-school player who had a great combine was Dixie State tight end Joe Don Duncan. His combination of physical stature (6'3", 268 pounds) and power (35 reps on the bench press) screams Steelers tight end.
You mix in that he has some of the largest hands (10.5") of any tight end at the combine and had a productive season at Dixie State, and the idea of drafting him makes Steelers fans swoon. Especially if he could be had in the fourth or fifth round.
The last small-school star whom the Steelers need to give a long look is Bloomsburg defensive end Larry Webster. At 6'5" and 252 pounds, he is a prime candidate to convert to outside linebacker in the Steelers 3-4 scheme. He displayed impressive speed with an official 4.58 40-yard dash.
In drills, he displayed nice agility and explosion and could be one of those late-round types who can develop into a great pass-rush specialist.
Sometimes, being too fit and healthy is a bad thing. Defensive tackles in college football seem to be trending toward more streamlined and athletic players. While this is great for 4-3 teams who want these lean, mean 300-pound tackling machines, 3-4 defenses require something else.
They require a big, massive nose tackle: the classic 0-technique tackle who can play in a two-gap scheme and use girth and power to create havoc and force a double-team on every play. These young men are built low to the ground and carry a few extra pounds to make them more than a handful for offensive linemen.
The defensive tackles at the combine displayed athleticism and quickness, but the number of earthmovers was limited. That's not to say there were none, but if the Steelers seriously want to draft a new nose tackle, their options are limited.
Early in the draft, Notre Dame nose tackle Louis Nix III is the pick. He passed the eyeball test at 6'2" and 331 pounds. His film shows a player with nice agility for his size and excellent leverage. He didn't have a great combine by any means, but among the players who project a similar style, he more than held his own.
Another nose tackle prospect who showed well at the combine was Arkansas State defensive tackle Ryan Carrethers. If any player at the combine looked and played like a 0-technique, it was him. His center of gravity is somewhere near the core of the earth, and he moves forward all the time. He is most likely an early Day 3 pick.
If the Steelers wanted to dig a little deeper, they should consider Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Justin Ellis. He is 6'1" and 334 pounds with nice upper body length. He is another big man who has nice feet and a good forward lean to his game.
Overall, the combine had a limited number of nose tackle prospects, albeit some interesting ones. And fortunately, they are spread out between the rounds enough that Pittsburgh has no reason to rush to draft one.
There is an easy way to summarize all this from a Steelers' perspective. This is a team with very specific needs, and the combine was a veritable smorgasbord of prospects at all of them. With potentially nine picks (including compensatory selections) in the 2014 draft, Pittsburgh has an opportunity to plug some holes.
Numbers at the combine were amazing all over the place. Hopefully, the Steelers had their stopwatches out and focused on some of the athletes on display. If a player like Kent State running back Dri Archer slips a little, his speed and quickness would be welcome on the offense.
Or late on Day 3, the Steelers might decide that the length and speed of Rice cornerback Phillip Gaines is worth the risk.
It is hard to say how much the Steelers shuffled their big board after the combine, but with so many lesser-known players having big days, one has to think that some intense film study will be going on in the weeks leading up to the draft.