NFL Draft Combine 2016: Position-by-Position Primer

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2016

NFL Draft Combine 2016: Position-by-Position Primer

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    Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

    As the staple of the NFL draft process, the NFL Scouting Combine offers all draft-eligible players invited to impress teams physically, athletically and mentally throughout the course of their stay at the event.

    Along with being measured, poked and prodded, each prospect gets a chance to perform in a variety of speed, strength and agility drills, along with position-specific drills, to show NFL scouts their talent. And along with on-field testing, players get to meet with NFL clubs in elongated speed dating to give teams a peak into their mental makeup, football IQ and overall character.

    From February 23 to February 29, a player's every move will be evaluated, scrutinized and appreciated. This preview offers a look into three different storylines for each position group on what to watch during the NFL Scouting Combine.

    The "Top Five Players to Watch" in these position groups are the prospects that will draw the most focus from NFL scouts and decision-makers, whether that be due to a concern over athleticism, future NFL position or character concern.


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    LM Otero/Associated Press

    What Really Matters for Quarterbacks

    For quarterbacks, almost all of the timed testing isn’t of grave importance. Players such as Ohio State’s Cardale Jones, North Carolina State’s Jacoby Brissett and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott will hope to show their dual-threat athleticism, but signal-callers need to impress in the passing drills and off the practice field.

    In passing drills, NFL teams will be able to compare velocity across all of the top attending quarterbacks, as well as get a feel for their ball placement in a high-pressure situation. And off the practice field, quarterbacks have the most to gain or lose in the interview process.

    At a position that can ultimately determine a franchise’s future, selling yourself to decision-makers is the most important thing a quarterback can do during the draft process.

    Connor Cook’s Character Rehab

    After he declined an invitation to the Senior Bowl for personal and/or injury reasons, Connor Cook’s character concerns became one of the main storylines of the postseason. Fox Sports’ Bruce Feldman already detailed how the Michigan State product is ready to put doubts to rest at the combine, and he’ll have plenty of character rehab to do for NFL teams.

    If Cook can win over franchises from a leadership and attitude standpoint, he may be back in the first-round mix.

    Christian Hackenberg’s Accuracy

    Once upon a time, Christian Hackenberg was touted as the next Andrew Luck and destined to be the first overall pick in the draft once his college career finished. But a new offensive system and persistent dysfunction at Penn State stymied his development, especially his accuracy.

    Showing teams that he can be comfortable in a pressure situation, finish throws short and long and has the requisite ball placement will go a long way in getting Hackenberg back in the NFL’s good graces.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Connor Cook, Michigan State
    2. Cardale Jones, Ohio State
    3. Christian Hackenberg, Penn State
    4. Josh Woodrum, Liberty
    5. Vernon Adams, Oregon

Running Backs

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    Associated Press

    Derrick Henry’s Athleticism

    The Heisman Trophy winner dominated the college level with repeated powerful runs in the Alabama offense. But for NFL teams, Derrick Henry needs to prove he’s more than just a power back, especially if he hopes to be a first-rounder.

    Since he's a 6'3", 242-pound running back, his 40 time won’t be blazing, but how he fares in the agility drills (short shuttle, three-cone, long shuttle) could push him past the Brandon Jacobs comparisons and into Round 1.

    Battling for the No. 2 Spot Behind Ezekiel Elliott

    Henry is among the few running backs who are angling to be the No. 2 runner in the 2016 class after Ezekiel Elliott. Henry has benefited from a fantastic offensive line at Alabama but has the size and athleticism (for a running back of his style) to merit first-round consideration.

    Arkansas' Alex Collins was 247Sports' No. 1-ranked running back in the country out of high school and has elite acceleration in the open field. And Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon will look to translate his four-year college production and awesome on-film stop-start ability into a successful combine.

    Injury Checkups

    As is the case across all positions, injury checkups will play a major role in the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. Arkansas’ Jonathan Williams missed his senior season with a foot injury, which also limited him at the 2016 Senior Bowl.

    While he should be 100 percent in Indianapolis, NFL teams will hope to determine if his injury could lead to future foot problems. Also, doctors will look at Utah back Devontae Booker’s injury history and determine if it’ll be a long-term issue.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Derrick Henry, Alabama
    2. Kenyan Drake, Alabama
    3. Alex Collins, Arkansas
    4. Devontae Booker, Utah
    5. Jordan Howard, Indiana

Wide Receivers

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Will a Receiver Break Chris Johnson’s Record in the 40-Yard Dash?

    While a handful of defensive backs and a few running backs could also break the 4.3 40-yard dash number, a handful of receivers have a chance to break Chris Johnson’s record-breaking time of 4.24. TCU’s Kolby Listenbee, a college sprinter, has the best shot, but Notre Dame’s Will Fuller and Ohio State’s Braxton Miller should be in contention as well.

    Laquon Treadwell and Josh Doctson Versus Speed Receivers

    When looking at receivers at the combine, focusing on numbers can be misleading. Bigger-bodied, jump-ball wideouts such as Ole Miss’ Laquon Treadwell (6'2") and TCU’s Josh Doctson (6'3") don’t need to post elite numbers because their height and skill set make up for it.

    However, if the pair tests especially poorly, including in the 40-yard dash, quick, efficient and speed receivers could push past the draft’s two premier jump-ball specialists.

    Agility Drills Coupled with Pass-Catching Drills

    The 40-yard dash time is the golden number for the combine, but there are four more important numbers to look at. The 10-yard split shows the initial speed off the break. The vertical jump shows the ability to rise in the air. The L-cone drill gives an indication of route-separation upside. And the long shuttle shows NFL teams how these receivers can work on multiple breaks without losing momentum.

    These drills coupled with "the gauntlet," which forces receivers to run straight across the field and catch passes from both sides, are the real areas scouts will watch for with the receivers.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Laquon Treadwell, Ole Miss
    2. Josh Doctson, TCU
    3. Will Fuller, Notre Dame
    4. Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina
    5. Duke Williams, Auburn

Tight Ends

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Hunter Henry Trying to Keep Top Spot

    While he won’t finish in the top spot for any combine drills among tight ends, Hunter Henry will look to show just enough athleticism to maintain his top ranking in the tight end class. He does everything well as a pass-catcher and a blocker and appears to be one of the safest players in the 2016 draft. But meeting the athletic thresholds that a top-50 tight end needs will be crucial for Henry’s draft stock.

    Tight End/Receiver Hybrids

    The rise of hybrid pass-catchers and seam-stretching tight ends has put basketball-like receiving tight ends at the forefront. Talents such as South Carolina’s Jerell Adams and Stanford’s Austin Hooper are good enough blockers, but their real value is in being consistently more athletic than linebackers and too powerful for defensive backs in isolation. Those two could use impressive combine performances to vault into second-round consideration.

    David Grinnage: Tight End or Something Else?

    Surprisingly declaring early for the 2016 NFL draft, North Carolina State’s David Grinnage has the body type (6'5", 265 lbs) of a left tackle or defensive end more than a tight end. But he’s shown in college that he can be a plus interior pass-catcher. With more offensive focus he could emerge as a quality NFL tight end. He’ll test well for his weight as an athlete and because of his body-type, he'll give teams that option to evaluate him as a tight end and/or a worthwhile project to groom elsewhere. That type of developmental versatility should make him extra intriguing during and shortly after the NFL Scouting Combine. 

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Hunter Henry, Arkansas
    2. Tyler Higbee, Western Kentucky
    3. David Grinnage, NC State
    4. Jerell Adams, South Carolina
    5. Ben Braunecker, Harvard

Offensive Linemen

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Laremy Tunsil Gets to Cement No. 1 Pick

    A combination of Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil’s elite upside and the Titans’ desire to upgrade their offensive line has made their match common among mock drafts. In his most important meeting of the weekend (with the Titans), Tunsil needs to sell that he’s intelligent enough to handle the left tackle position and coachable to continue to develop.

    He also needs to answer any character questions the team may have. If he can take care of business, he’ll be locked into the first overall pick.

    Left Tackles Separate Themselves

    It’s a mixture of the combine’s testing numbers (especially the three-cone and short-shuttle) and the kick-slide workouts that really begin to prove to teams which players can handle being out on an island as pass-blockers.

    The combine is where left tackles begin to separate themselves. And if an offensive lineman can offer left tackle upside, the first round emerges as a real possibility. Texas A&M’s Germain Ifedi, Indiana’s Jason Spriggs and Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark especially have the potential to prove this in Indianapolis.

    Jason Spriggs to be Biggest Combine Winner?

    Back in March, Indiana’s head coach, Kevin Wilson, posted Jason Spriggs' combine workout numbers, as timed by the team’s staff. Wilson tweeted that Spriggs ran a 4.82 40-yard dash, posted a 37.5" vertical leap and benched 225 pounds 33 times.

    If those numbers hold up, Spriggs not only will be one of the more impressive offensive combine performers in recent years but may cement a top-20 grade from NFL teams.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Jason Spriggs, Indiana
    2. Ronnie Stanley, Notre Dame
    3. Germain Ifedi, Texas A&M
    4. Vadal Alexander, LSU
    5. Le’Raven Clark, Texas Tech

Defensive Tackles

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Andrew Billings to Rise to Top-15 Pick?

    As the perceived top nose tackle in the 2016 class, Baylor’s Andrew Billings has the chance to rise the way Danny Shelton did a year ago. As a nose tackle, Billings doesn’t need to post great numbers specifically (though good showings in the broad jump and bench press wouldn’t hurt), but he needs to carry his weight well in drills and look the part of a three-down interior defensive lineman.

    If he can offer some pass-rushing upside, he could rise into the top half of Round 1. 

    Vernon Butler, Sheldon Rankins Build Off Senior Bowl

    The two biggest winners from the 2016 Senior Bowl, Louisiana Tech’s Vernon Butler and Louisville's Sheldon Rankins, will look to build off their first-round-worthy performance with the combine testing numbers to back it up. Already receiving top-20 projections in mock drafts, Butler and/or Rankins could get into the top-10 discussion if they can post strong broad jump, 40-yard dash and short shuttle numbers.

    Top Athletes Who Could Rise from Testing

    Defensive tackle is easily the best position group of the 2016 NFL draft, and a handful of special athletes could use the NFL Scouting Combine to make up for a lack of college development.

    Mississippi State’s Chris Jones and Texas’ Hassan Ridgeway both have clear first-round upside, but they’re perceived as developmental prospects generally reserved for Round 2 or later. But if they can display the type of elite defensive tackle athleticism that their film indicates is possible, they could sneak into the back end of the first round.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Andrew Billings, Baylor
    2. Chris Jones, Mississippi State
    3. Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech
    4. Sheldon Rankins, Louisville
    5. Hassan Ridgeway, Texas

Defensive Ends

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Noah Spence and His Past

    Battling back from a serious drug addiction during his time at Ohio State, Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence still has a lot of explaining to do for NFL teams.

    While all signs point to Spence making a phenomenal recovery and being on the path to a long, healthy life, franchises need to be sure he’s mentally able to stay clean and won’t have any long-term effects from his past drug use before they invest a first-round pick in him.

    On the field, he should be one of the most impressive athletes in Indianapolis. 

    Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd Fighting for Draft Position

    During the season, Clemson’s Shaq Lawson was the unquestioned defensive leader of his team and was among the best defensive players in the country. However, whether it's due to Lawson’s late-season injury or his teammate Kevin Dodd’s fantastic national championship game, the two have similar late-first-round grades.

    Both offer similar upside, with Lawson being an ideal strong-side defensive end and Dodd capitalizing as a weak-side edge-rusher. After playing well as teammates in 2015, they’ll be battling for draft position in the 2016 NFL draft.

    Those Transitioning to Stand-Up Linebackers

    Every year at the combine, a handful of defensive ends get the opportunity to work as linebackers in an effort for 3-4 defensive teams to get a look at their versatility. This year, Boise State’s Kamalei Correa, Maryland’s Yannick Ngakoue, Stony Brook’s Victor Ochi and others will get the opportunity to do just that, as all three are best suited for 3-4 defenses.

    Their work in linebacker drills, coupled with their explosive-drill testing (broad jump, vertical jump, 10-yard split and short shuttle), will help determine if they can make the switch to linebacker.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky
    2. DeForest Buckner, Oregon
    3. Shaq Lawson, Clemson
    4. Yannick Ngakoue, Maryland
    5. Kevin Dodd, Clemson


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    Brett Davis/Associated Press

    Jaylon Smith and Myles Jack Injury Checks

    While neither will participate in the combine testing, Notre Dame’s Jaylon Smith and UCLA’s Myles Jack have plenty on the line when they arrive in Indianapolis. Both are potential top-10 picks but need to be cleared by NFL team doctors before franchises will sign off on drafting them early. 

    As of now, Jack appears to be more of a certainty because his recovery from knee surgery is ahead of schedule, while Smith still needs to prove his torn ACL and subsequent surgery won’t force him out of training camp. 

    Jordan Jenkins vs. Leonard Floyd

    In last year’s NFL draft, Shane Ray was rated as the better prospect compared to his Missouri teammate Markus Golden, but the opposite has been true one year into their NFL careers.

    Similarly, Georgia’s top pass-rushers may find themselves in such a situation. Leonard Floyd, like Ray, is the more explosive and athletically gifted pass-rusher of the two, but Jordan Jenkins may generate more NFL support with a good combine showing thanks to his core strength and reliability as a pass-rusher.

    Floyd should have one of the better combine performances among defenders, but Jenkins may prove to be the better pass-rusher in the NFL. Jenkins needs to make up for a lackluster senior season that saw him play more of an edge-setting role rather than as an active pass-rusher. 

    Explosive Numbers for Pass-Rushers

    The use of combine-testing analytics has taken hold in the league, and it’s especially valuable for pass-rushers. Combining the most explosive drills into a singular quantifiable number allows bias to be eliminated and gives a better understanding of a player’s complete athletic score.

    While methods like the Seahawks’ SPARQ formula are used for all position groups, there may be no greater use for them, and combine testing in general, than for pass-rushers. For a position that's tremendously reliant on explosiveness, quickness and fluidity to work in space and through blockers, raw athleticism wins out as a pass-rusher more than any other football position.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Darron Lee, Ohio State
    2. Jordan Jenkins, Georgia
    3. Leonard Floyd, Georgia
    4. Reggie Ragland, Alabama
    5. Kyler Fackrell, Utah State


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    Paul Vernon/Associated Press

    Three-Way Battle for Top Cornerback Spot

    After holding the top spot for most of the 2015 season, Florida's Vernon Hargreaves III now has company atop the cornerback rankings. He's working to hold off Clemson's Mackensie Alexander, who offers awesome hip fluidity and loads of developmental upside as a nickel or outside cornerback, and Ohio State's Eli Apple, who boasts ideal NFL size at 6'1" and the vertical turn-and-run ability to be an elite cornerback.

    At a position that's dictated by overall speed and quickness, the combine will do plenty to sort out teams' rankings.

    Rashard Robinson’s Character Discussion

    Rashard Robinson was a onetime highly touted recruit and impact freshman for the LSU Tigers secondary, appearing to be the next Morris Claiborne and a top-10 pick. But issues kept him off the field and eventually off the team, including an incident in which he allegedly stole a teammate's laptop, though the case was rejected, per Ross Dellenger of the Advocate.

    Answering those question marks will determine if he's draftable for NFL teams. His talent indicates he's a top-100 pick but the severity of his off-field issues may push him out of the draft altogether.

    Battle for the Fastest Cornerback

    LeShaun Sims, one of three Southern Utah players invited to the combine, is one of the most likely prospects to challenge Chris Johnson's 4.24 record in the 40-yard dash. His track background and on-film game speed indicate he should be among the fastest players in attendance. Florida State's Jalen Ramsey and Clemson's Mackensie Alexander both have awesome speed as well and could crack 4.3s, too. 

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
    2. Vernon Hargreaves III, Florida
    3. Eli Apple, Ohio State
    4. Rashard Robinson, LSU
    5. Tavon Young, Temple


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    Charles Krupa/Associated Press

    Jalen Ramsey: Cornerback or Safety?

    Almost without question, Florida State's Jalen Ramsey will be one of the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine's most impressive "freak" athletes. He should push the limits of most combine tests for a defensive back and challenge for the fastest 40 time.

    But NFL teams may be most curious to see which position he fits best in.

    Is he a speedy cornerback or a rangy, aggressive and versatile safety? In positional drills and in the interview process, NFL teams will determine where they prefer him to play.

    Jayron Kearse’s Athleticism vs. Production

    One of the country's best athletes in college, Clemson's Jayron Kearse looks the part of a first-round safety. Boasting ideal strong safety size (6'5", 220 lbs) and explosive, rangy flashes that few at the position are able to show, Kearse should be a clear first-rounder. But on film, he struggles to read and react to running lanes, takes poor angles and doesn't finish well as a tackler.

    He should impress as an athlete, but NFL teams will be curious to get him to the whiteboard and test his football IQ. Even with rare athleticism, Kearse may not be a Round 1 or 2 pick if NFL franchises can't trust him mentally on the field.

    Small-School Safeties

    The small-school ranks are known for always having a handful of talented defensive backs in the draft process, and 2016 is no different. Southern Utah's Miles Killebrew has been on NFL radars since his sophomore season, and his hard-hitting, explosive style should translate well to the combine process. He should be among the most impressive safeties in Indianapolis.

    Additionally, William and Mary's DeAndre Houston-Carson, a former cornerback, will need to show teams he has the hip fluidity and flexibility, along with the deep speed, to play free safety at the NFL level. Both have the potential to be top-100 picks.

    Top Five to Watch

    1. Jalen Ramsey, Florida State
    2. Jayron Kearse, Clemson
    3. Keanu Neal, Florida
    4. Miles Killebrew, Southern Utah
    5. DeAndre Houston-Carson, William & Mary