What We Learned from the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine

Ty Schalter@tyschalterNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 26, 2014

What We Learned from the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    With the annual NFL Scouting Combine now behind us, NFL fans and media personnel are already past the first major milestone of the offseason.

    This season, like every other, hundreds of players, hundreds of NFL staff members and hundreds of members of the media all congregated at Lucas Oil Stadium for nearly a week. Local hotels and airports were booked solid, and local hospitals groaned under the strain of physicals and MRIs.

    Surely, if all those players, coaches, executives, staff members, doctors, reporters and analysts were there, and since the NFL Network broadcast the whole thing live, somebody must have learned something, right?

    While game tape remains the ultimate judge of whether a kid can play, and pro days and private workouts will factor into the final equation as well, the combine provides the only platform for an apples-to-apples comparison of the NFL's top prospects.

    Draft stock rose and fell, players were medically cleared and scratched, and rumors swirled throughout the combine's four days.

    Here's what we learned.

    All statistics and combine results courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.

Nothing Is Ever Good Enough for Some People

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    Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney had one of the most impressive combine performances in recent memory. Weighing in at 6'5", 266 pounds, and with his arms taping out to 34.5", Clowney wowed before he even took a step.

    Then he took a step.

    Clowney smoked the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium, cutting an official 4.53-second 40-yard dash time. He also blew up the vertical jump at 37.5" and launched a 124" broad jump.

    NFL Network's Mike Mayock strongly downplayed Clowney's tantalizing performance, reminding the television audience about Clowney's effort and character "red flags" (h/t Mike Huguenin of NFL.com).

    Clowney's red flags? Here are his red flags: As a sophomore, he set school records with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss, won the Hendricks Award as the nation's best defensive end, was a finalist for the Nagurski, Lombardi and Bednarik awards and finished sixth in Heisman voting. As a junior, with teams throwing and running away from him and double-teaming him on nearly every play, Clowney had just three sacks. Some, like Matt Hayes of SportingNews.com, believes this means Clowney lacks "heart."

    Legitimate explanations for his decreased numbers notwithstanding, Clowney had to play a third year of free football when he'd proven he was worth many millions; he may well have pulled his foot off the accelerator a little bit.

    This says more about the exploitative nature of NCAA football than Clowney's ability or desire.

Michael Sam Will Fit in an NFL Locker Room Just Fine, But...

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Michael Sam answered every question about whether he belongs in an NFL locker room with a smart, funny, humble, gregarious combine press conference. He said all the right things, hit all the right notes and defused any tension with his humor and charm.

    Everyone who saw that press conference live (and nearly anyone who watched the recording) came away rooting for Sam to succeed and convinced that, if he didn't, it wouldn't be because of locker-room conflict.

    Does Sam fit in on the field, though?

    That was the question of the day after Sam posted lackluster combine numbers, including a 4.91-second 40-yard dash time and just 17 reps on the bench press.

    The reality is, Sam was not an elite, every-down prospect before he announced his sexuality. He was projected as a third- to fifth-round situational pass-rusher, likely to make more of an impact on special teams right away and blossom into his potential role on a defense.

    These numbers fit that profile; his stock is unlikely to fall because of them, but his stock certainly won't rise because of them, either.

The Atlanta Falcons Could Be in the Trade Market

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    In the spring of 2013, the Atlanta Falcons allowed pass-rusher and longtime leader John Abraham to leave in free agency, replacing him with the younger Osi Umenyiora.

    There were many reasons that the Falcons, thinking they were loading up for a title run, instead crashed to the basement of the NFC South last season—and a near-total lack of a pass rush was certainly one of them.

    NFL.com's Chase Goodbread broke down the Falcons' reported preference for Buffalo pass-rusher Khalil Mack over UCLA's Anthony Barr, but might they prefer an even more explosive prospect?

    Jadeveon Clowney was asked about the possibility of going to the pass-rush starved Falcons by ESPN.com's Vaughn McClure. "I wish they could trade up for me," Clowney said, "but I hope I don't fall to No. 6. I like Atlanta."

    Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff didn't rule out the possibility, either. "We’re always going to be open for business," he said, per the same McClure article.

Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert Are Both Worthy of the Top 10

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    Heading into the combine, Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert were the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 cornerbacks available in this year's class. The only thing there wasn't any consensus about was who's the better prospect.

    With Dennard's official 4.51-second 40-yard dash time, the physical, press-man cornerback answered questions about whether the 2013 first-team All-American has the deep speed to be the kind of No. 1 cornerback worthy of a top-10 pick.

    With Gilbert's official 4.37-second 40-yard dash time, he solidified his status as the player with the best combination of height, weight and speed available at cornerback. It might, depending on which team you ask, even solidify him as being a better prospect than Dennard.

Khalil Mack Isn't Far Behind Jadeveon Clowney

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    In a draft not nearly as blessed with pass-rushers as last year's class, this year's media hype has circled around beastly super-prospect Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney, an SEC defensive end, has been a topic of media obsession for over a year.

    However, Khalil Mack, a pass-rushing outside linebacker from tiny Buffalo, has been a favorite of NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. As B/R Featured Columnist Gary Davenport wrote, Mayock has been driving the "Mackwagon," as Davenport called it, for quite some time now.

    After turning in a 4.65-second 40-yard dash time, an excellent 4.18-second 20-yard shuttle time, as well as an outstanding 40" vertical leap and 128" broad jump, there's no doubt that the burly Mack (6'3", 251 lbs) has the explosion to terrify quarterbacks off the edge.

    Even if NFL teams won't, as Mayock said he would, consider taking Mack over Clowney, his exceptional athletic performance in Indianapolis cements his position within the top 10. 

The Quarterback Board Is a Mess

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    Teddy Bridgewater entered draft evaluation season as the consensus No. 1 quarterback available and a strong contender to be the No. 1 overall pick.

    Going into the combine, players like Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr had gained momentum in the media, with Manziel and Bortles especially gaining traction as possible top picks. Bridgewater had a chance to clearly re-establish himself as the lead dog at the event—but he didn't take it, as he elected not to throw.

    Bortles did what Bridgewater should have done: throw and outclass a handful of mid- to late-round prospects.

    "Bortles was by far the best quarterback," former NFL quarterback Jim Miller told Jim Corbett of USA Today. The current SiriusXM analyst said Bortles "is the real deal."

    Meanwhile, according to Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller in the above video, Bortles excelled in team interviews, while Bridgewater came off as "aloof." In Manziel's limited participation, his stock didn't move significantly, but a feature interview with Sports Illustrated's Peter King at The MMQB helped polish his public image.

    At the moment, the scramble to be the first quarterback off the board appears to be a three-horse race.

Greg Robinson Belongs Near the Top of the Draft; Cyrus Kouandjio Doesn't

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    Unlike the muddy quarterback situation, the offensive tackle picture cleared up quite a bit over the weekend.

    Left tackles Jake Matthews, Cyrus Kouandjio, Taylor Lewan and Greg Robinson all figured to go somewhere in the top half of the first round.

    Matthews solidified his position as a top-15 candidate with smooth, polished drillwork. Lewan surprised by turning in great workout numbers across the board, including a group-leading 4.87-second 40-yard dash time.

    Robinson, though, was one of the stars of the combine, running nearly as fast as Lewan despite being two inches shorter and 23 pounds heavier. At 6'5", 332 pounds, Robinson put up 32 reps on the bench press and recorded a 113" broad jump, proving he has plenty of explosion, power and speed to go with his elite size.

    Kouandjio, however, dropped himself out the elite group with very poor workout numbers. Across the board, he was near the bottom of the pack in terms of speed and explosion. From his 5.75-second 40-yard dash time to his 21 bench-press reps to his 96" broad jump, Kouandjio showed he isn't nearly as athletic as the other top tackles in the class.

    He was also medically red-flagged with an arthritic knee, per Jeff Reynolds of CBS Sports, possibly due to a failed former surgery. Several teams not only dropped Kouandjio down their boards after the combine, but some may have even taken him off entirely.

Joe Haden Endorses Johnny Manziel's Candidacy for Browns Quarterback

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    Stop me if you've heard this one before: The Cleveland Browns are in the market for a new quarterback.

    Their Pro Bowl cornerback, Joe Haden, appeared on NFL Network's coverage of the combine and talked about a great many things, including his own struggle to run a 40-yard dash that matched up with his apparent game speed.

    Host Rich Eisen brought up the possibility that Johnny Manziel could be his new quarterback, and Haden said he'd have "no problem with it," as seen in the video above.

    "I love the way he plays, I love his passion," Haden said. "No matter who he plays for, I'm going to be a Johnny Football fan for sure."

    With a prompt from NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock, Haden praised incumbent starter Brian Hoyer, but he wasn't nearly as effusive about Hoyer as he was about Manziel. The Browns are in prime position to draft Manziel at the No. 4 overall selection, but only time will tell if new Browns GM Ray Farmer feels the same way his cornerback does.

Aaron Donald Is an Incredible Physical Specimen

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    As impressive as the workouts of Jadeveon Clowney and Khalil Mack were, perhaps the most impressive defender in Indianapolis was defensive tackle Aaron Donald.

    Measuring in at 6'1", 285 pounds, Donald blazed a 4.68-second 40-yard dash. Four inches shorter and almost 20 pounds heavier than Clowney, Donald was only 0.15 seconds slower.

    Donald was just getting warmed up, too. Donald bench-pressed 225 pounds an impressive 35 times, posted a 32" vertical jump, a 116" broad jump and a sizzling 7.11-second three-cone drill.

    With an incredible display of power, speed and agility, the winner of the Outland Trophy, Nagurski Award and Bednarik Award did no worse than tying Clowney for the gold at the NFL's so-called Underwear Olympics.