It's easy to put too much weight into a player's performance at the NFL Scouting Combine, but it's still a valuable setting for teams to evaluate this year's class of top prospects.
There is a lot of data to look through and big boards are sure to change between now and the draft, a three-day event that will be held in New York May 8-10. Still, there were definitely a few eye-opening performances at the combine that should help players come draft day.
Here's a look at three athletes who helped their draft stock with good showings at the combine.
WR Brandin Cooks, Oregon State
It's hard to project how a receiver like Brandin Cooks will translate to the NFL.
He certainly has the college credentials. In 2013, Cooks was the go-to target for Oregon State quarterback Sean Mannion in a prolific passing attack, hauling in 128 catches for 1,730 yards and 16 touchdowns.
This past week in Indianapolis, Cooks also proved he's an elite athlete. Mel Kiper and Todd McShay of ESPN (subscription required) offered their take on the speedy wideout's effort in Indy:
Cooks ran the fastest 40-yard dash time among wide receivers at the combine with a 4.33 and the fastest short-shuttle time (3.81 seconds) for his position group as well, backing up the playmaking ability and explosiveness he shows on tape. He is not a lock for the first round, but he has put himself in position to be taken in that range as the fourth-best receiver prospect in this class (behind Clemson's Sammy Watkins, Texas A&M's Mike Evans and USC's Marqise Lee).
Now it looks like Cooks is competing with other wideouts like Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. and Penn State's Allen Robinson to become first-round selections.
Cooks measured in at 5'10", 189 pounds and brings a speedy, slot receiver presence to the field as opposed to most of the other top receivers in this class, who are big-bodied targets. His size and NFL durability might give people reason to worry, but the athleticism is definitely there.
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
It's funny that you can call someone who is 6'1", 285 pounds undersized, but that's the case for former Pittsburgh star Aaron Donald. NFL defensive tackles are usually a little bit bigger, but Donald showed he has some nice speed and strength for a man of his size.
Despite leading the nation with 28.5 tackles for loss during the 2013 season, it was his blazing 4.68-second 40-yard dash time and 35 reps in the bench press that had the league buzzing following his workout.
Perhaps Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker Larry Foote put it best:
Aaron Donald making himself some money#standupPennHills— Larrry Foote (@LarryFoote313) February 24, 2014
Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette shared comments from Donald after his eye-opening performance.
"I'm a competitor; I like to try to be the best at everything I do," Donald said. "I did everything on the football field [at Pitt], I proved it more at the Senior Bowl and I racked it up here at the combine."
Dulac also passed along observations from Cincinnati Bengals coach Marvin Lewis, who said he saw similarities between Donald and Bengals Pro Bowler Geno Atkins, who has established himself as one of the NFL's elite interior pass-rushers.
There are certainly a bunch of talented defensive linemen in this year's class, but Donald's performance probably vaulted him right into the middle of the first round, where he's competing against other defensive tackle-types like Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman, Notre Dame's Louis Nix III and Florida State's Timmy Jernigan.
CB Justin Gilbert, Oklahoma State
The title for first cornerback off the draft board for 2014 is widely viewed as a two-man race between Oklahoma State product Justin Gilbert and Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard.
Both players put together solid performances this past week, but Gilbert's 4.37-second mark in the 40 was noticeably better than the 4.51 posted by Dennard.
Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press offered some perspective on Gilbert:
Gilbert is bit longer and quicker and can double as a return man. He also did 20 bench-press reps of 225 pounds, tied for third-most among cornerbacks and five more than Dennard, and he said Sunday he considers himself the best cornerback in the draft, even though he's still trying to perfect his backpedal after playing quarterback in high school.
“Cornerbacks with size, you have to be able to use great technique. A guy like me, I have long legs, short torso, so it's kind of hard for me to get my hips down and turn around and all that,” Gilbert said. “But the more you work at it, the better you get at it.”
Gilbert touted himself as a player in the mold of Deion Sanders, and this past week he got to meet the Hall of Famer in Indianapolis.
Gilbert (6'0", 202 pounds) is also a shade bigger than Dennard (5'11", 199), and that size-speed combination could be hard for teams to ignore. Granted, Dennard was generally regarded as a more consistent cover corner than Gilbert in college, but that's not to say Gilbert doesn't have time to be molded into a better NFL player.