In the time leading up to the NFL draft each year, there are always players who break out and drastically increase their stock at the combine or their pro day. This year has been no different, as there have been a number of prospects who improved their draft stock—possibly even enough to have solidified themselves a spot in the first round. Here is a break down of some of these players that were projected as second-rounders, but now should go in the first.
Aaron Donald, DT Pittsburgh
One of the big winners of the combine was Aaron Donald. The 6'1", 285-pound defensive tackle blew away scouts with his athleticism. He posted the best 40-yard dash time among DTs (4.68 seconds) while also doing 35 reps on the bench press.
Prior to the Combine, NFL Network's draft guru Mike Mayock didn't even have him on his list of top five players the position. Mayock admitted he liked Donald prior to the combine, but mentioned that others had reservations about him:
As far as Aaron Donald, he's a guy I loved at Senior Bowl and love him on tape and he's explosive and he's quick. Now, the problem with the shorter defensive tackles is that when they don't win with their first move, they don't win with their quickness, they can get stuck on blocks because they don't have the length to get off the block. And that's the concern with Donald. Now, I think this kid's tough enough, quick enough and disruptive enough that he still deserves to be a first‑round defensive tackle, so I'm a believer in the kid, but there are some people that think he's a second‑round defensive tackle, because of the lack of length.
Donald followed up his combine performance with an excellent pro day as well. Gil Brandt of nfl.com was impressed, saying he "looked very good, showing fluid movement." If you don't believe him or want to see it for yourself, check out this video of his pro day:
Donald has certainly made the most of his opportunity and should be not only a first-round pick, but a top-15 pick as well.
Brandin Cooks, WR Oregon State
Cooks holds the single-season PAC-12 record for receiving yards and receptions, yet was not highly touted going into the combine. Like Donald, Cooks didn't appear on Mayock's top five list either. Yet his combine performance certainly changed things around, as Mayock most recently had him listed as the fourth best receiver in the draft.
Cooks started off with a bang by running the 40-yard dash in 4.33 seconds. He followed it up with by displaying good hands and very good agility. Cooks even managed to set the record in the 60-yard shuttle.
Mayock was extremely impressed with his performance as a whole:
He’s a kid who I thought made a statement, ‘I’m a first-round pick.’ And this is one of the best wide-receiver drafts I’ve ever seen.
Cooks looks to be a late first-round pick for a team in need of an explosive receiver. The Kansas City Chiefs would be a prime candidate after losing Dexter McCluster to Tennessee in free agency.
Cooks is also helped by the recent popularity of using smaller receivers to run drag routes and slants, which allows them to get the ball fast and and gain yards after the catch. Last year we saw Tavon Austin's draft stock soar for this exact reason.
If Cooks can duplicate or better his combine results at his pro day tomorrow, he may not even make it to the Chiefs, who hold the 23rd pick in the draft. The Rams traded up last year to get Austin, who holds a very similar skill set to Cooks, so it is no stretch to think someone else may do the same.
Dee Ford, DE Auburn
Originally projected as a second-rounder, Ford was intent on breaking into the first round at the combine. However, he was held out of all drills for medical reasons. Still, he certainly made waves at the Combine with his analysis of fellow defensive end Jadeveon Clowney:
I'm better (than Clowney). Let's put it like this. People like to talk about size all the time. Size is pretty much overrated in my eyes...People are just looking at the fact that he's a physical specimen. Honestly if you watch the film, he plays like a blind dog in a meat market, basically."
Given the disappointment of not being able to participate, Ford needed a big pro day to validate the comments he made. Mayock was very clear in saying this pro day was huge for Ford:
I think this is a huge day for this kid. He's going to fall somewhere between the middle of the first, and the middle of the second round. And how he does (Tuesday) will say a lot toward where that is.
Well, Ford certainly did not disappoint. He was very explosive and fluid in the drills, including running an unofficial 4.53 40-yard dash time, matching Clowney's combine number. He also topped Clowney's mark for the bench press (21) by doing 29 reps at 225 pounds. All in all, his day was a big success, which you can see in this video.
Even though he didn't change anyone's mind about Clowney being the top defensive end, what he did do was prove that he is a first-rounder. He proved that he has the necessary speed, strength and agility to perform at the next level. More importantly, he proved that he is healthy enough to make it at the next level after showing no ill effects from his back injury.