NFL Combine 2016: What to Watch For on Day 5
The remaining days of the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine are whittling down, as Monday is the final day of the big event. Sunday marks Day 5 as the defensive front seven players hit the timed tests, stations and skill drills. After their long day, they’ll depart from Indianapolis and prepare for their respective pro days.
The defensive backs will also continue their process of meeting with teams and start to hit the bench press. This loaded defensive class has a number of standouts who must not only excel on the field but also impress in interviews. One strong combine performance can forever change the fate of a player and team.
We have you covered for the fifth day of the combine on the next slides. We will break down what is at stake and who must perform for each of the participating positions. Let’s jump into what’s in store on Day 5.
Pressure on the Defensive Linemen
The roles are going to be switched for the class of 2016 defensive line prospects. Instead of forcing pressures on opposing quarterbacks, all of the pressure is directly on these individuals to put their best foot forward. It’s their time to go through key drills such as the three-cone drill, 40-yard dash and short shuttle.
The combine especially matters for pass-rushers. As Bleacher Report Featured Columnist Justis Mosqueda found, there is a strong correlation between great athleticism and NFL production in the front seven. He found that the best edge-rushers are flexible yet fast. Teams will be paying close attention to these drill times.
Top pass-rushers such as Ohio State’s Joey Bosa, Clemson’s Shaq Lawson and Kevin Dodd and Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence must deliver on their potential to the fullest extent. Anything less than a solid performance in these drills could significantly alter their draft positions.
Other players such as DeForest Buckner, Jonathan Bullard and Emmanuel Ogbah need to cement their status in the class. Buckner has top-five potential, and Bullard and Ogbah are likely fringe Day 1 players. A great combine can tip the scales toward making them locks.
Throughout the positional stations that the defensive linemen will work through, scouts will scrutinize every angle and point of contact made. Other drills can measure explosiveness, but actual football drills cannot be forgotten. Evaluators will look for heavy hands, flexible lower bodies and quickness, which could show versatility along defensive schemes.
Just having experience in a variety of schemes does not guarantee versatility. A player must be effective in his snaps at other spots than his base position to be considered versatile. Now is when players can show whether their physical skill sets will translate to other tasks.
Some NFL edge-rushers have had considerable success as undersized 3-techniques in nickel packages. Olivier Vernon, Michael Bennett and Jabaal Sheard are just a few examples. This extra value is not common but can tip the scales for teams that are looking at multiple players but want someone with the ability to slide to defensive tackle or end.
Answering Character Concerns and Injuries
Given the deep talent in the secondary, several players must ace the interview and medical process. CBS Sports has a whopping 40 cornerbacks graded as draftable, with another 30 safeties who could hear their names called. That number could rise or fall dramatically if teams do not like how the interview process or medical tests go.
Teams are allotted just 15 minutes in an interview. Expect decision-makers to question Clemson’s Jayron Kearse about his lack of effort on the field at times. Former LSU cornerback Rashard Robinson will also be grilled about his past, including an arrest prior to the 2015 season.
Medicals will be crucial for the secondary group. Among the corners, Virginia Tech's Kendall Fuller, Mississippi State’s Will Redmond and Notre Dame’s KeiVarae Russell are all recovering from knee injuries. Among the safeties, West Virginia's Karl Joseph and Penn State’s Jordan Lucas are also trying to return from knee injuries. Those tests must result in a cleared status for them to be taken before Day 3 of the draft.
Cornerbacks on the Bench Press
Despite the attention the 40-yard dash receives, it’s not the best predictor of success for cornerbacks. The ability to recover with pure speed is important, but certain schemes can mask physical limitations, especially speed. But the most important combine drill for the position is the bench press.
According to Bill Lotter of the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, cornerbacks benefit most from the ability to put up a high bench-press total. Top cornerbacks all play with a certain level of physicality, and upper-body strength is the best way to see whether a defender already has put in the work to be physical. This is even more the case for press cornerbacks.
Most defenses vary their coverages between man, off-man and several zone looks. It’s difficult to find players who excel in all schemes, so matching skill sets and physical traits with your scheme can be the difference in finding a gem or a bust. Watch for teams that utilize press coverage to prefer cornerbacks with impressive bench-press totals and long arms.
More Players to Watch
We’ve identified quite a few impact defenders to this point, but several more are worth mentioning as must-watch prospects.
Jeremy Cash, SAF, Duke
The popular comparison this draft season for Duke safety Jeremy Cash is Arizona Cardinals linebacker Deone Bucannon. He was a hard-hitting safety in college like Cash, and his position change started a trend in the NFL. Cash played in a similar role at Duke, rarely playing in coverages. Teams that interview Cash should see whether he is adept at identifying coverages and route concepts.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
One of the best cornerbacks in the 2016 class is Mackensie Alexander of Clemson. The athletic shutdown corner excelled in man coverage this past season. He allowed a completion percentage of less than 30 percent, according to Lance Zierlein of NFL.com.
Alexander never registered an interception in his two seasons, though. The redshirt sophomore is raw in his technique, and his lack of production raises questions. Teams must figure out if he’s able to be more than just a man corner moving forward, so showing him situational stills could help answer whether he’s ready to be a part of a multiple-coverage defense or not.
Shilique Calhoun, DE, Michigan State
A three-year starter for the Michigan State Spartans, defensive end Shilique Calhoun is looking to become an impact player in the NFL. He logged 27 sacks and 44 tackles for loss in his career. But he must be one of the better performers in the athletic drills. Calhoun showed flexibility to bend the edge at times but not as often as he could have. Evaluators need to see that next-level athleticism from him.
Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville
A 6’1”, 304-pound defensive tackle from Louisville, Sheldon Rankins is among the very best tackles in a deep class. He is quick despite having a bit of a stocky build for the position. He routinely beat zone blockers to their zone, which can single-handedly destroy the scheme. Rankins needs to prove he’s just as athletic as he appears to be on tape. Watch for his numbers in the jumps and three-cone drill to be among the best in the class.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.