2014 NFL Draft: Combine Darlings Headed for Disastrous Rookie Seasons

Curt Popejoy@@nfldraftboardContributor IApril 12, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Combine Darlings Headed for Disastrous Rookie Seasons

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    Michael Conroy

    Everyone looks at the NFL Scouting Combine a little differently. The value that the event has for NFL teams is debatable. Nevertheless, between drills, medical checks and interviews, everyone can find something they love about the Underwear Olympics.

    But what catches all the headlines? The drills. Seeing guys run fast and jump high is what the NFL Network headlines, and it is what most viewers want to watch. There is always a great deal of chatter about the perceived draft stock of prospects after their combine workouts.

    Along those same lines, there are always a handful of prospects who “win” the combine, so to speak. They come in and generate impressive numbers, leading experts everywhere to exalt their virtues and elevate their draft stock.

    Every year we have these workout warriors who come out of Indianapolis with a head of steam. More shocking is that many teams actually buy the hype and draft these guys, even if there isn’t film there to back it up.

    The 2014 combine was sedate by hype standards. While there were a few winners, this crop didn’t produce the level of unknowns with freaky measurables that we’ve grown accustomed to. However, there continue to be plenty of guys who wowed at the combine who could really struggle as rookies. That’s not to say they won’t end up good pros, but don’t be shocked if all of these guys struggle out of the gates.

Phillip Gaines, CB, Rice

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    When you play for Rice, it is hard to find your way to the national radar in terms of draft status. Cornerback Phillip Gaines was far and away the best defender on the Rice team in 2013. Gaines followed up a solid season by landing the Holy Grail of triangle numbers.

    Gaines went to the combine and ran a sub-4.4 40-yard dash. Scoring an official 4.38 put Gaines' name out there for fans everywhere and got analysts on the Gaines hype train. After all, cornerbacks who can run like that at 6'0" tall are a hot commodity.

    However, as a rookie, expect there to be plenty of bumps in the road. The main weakness in Gaines’ game is his limitations in coverage. In short and intermediate zones, Gaines can use his speed to close on the football and make plays.

    But in man or a deep zone, Gaines' instincts aren’t great, and he is going to really have to work hard to mirror NFL-caliber wide receivers, rather than simply react to the play. He’s going to give up way too many long plays.

    Gaines has gobs of potential, but among this group, he might be the one who is going to have to take his lumps early until he can refine his game.

Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh

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    In many cases, the reason a player struggles even after a good combine is that the film just doesn’t match with what the drills tell you. This is not the case with Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald. Donald capped a great 2013 season with a tremendous combine performance.

    Donald ran a 4.68 40-yard dash at 285 pounds and did 35 reps on bench press. If Donald were a sleeper prospect, this places him in the national spotlight. Since Donald was already a first-round prospect, this kind of performance tends to make people want to put him among the very elite of the draft prospects.

    Nevertheless, as a rookie, don’t be shocked if Donald struggles. Why? Because defensive linemen often have a hard time getting themselves integrated into an NFL defense. Just looking at last year, Datone Jones, Sharrif Floyd and Sylvester Williams were all guys coming into their rookie years with a reputation for being disruptive based on athleticism.

    And all of them were very up and down their rookie season. If anyone thinks Donald is going to come in and dominate as a rookie, I’d point to players like these as a more reasonable expectation of his first year.

Greg Robinson, OT, Auburn

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    When it comes to meteoric rises, Auburn offensive tackle Greg Robinson gets the prize. Robinson came into his redshirt sophomore season with almost no chatter at all. Nonetheless, by mid-October, he was being discussed among the very best tackles in the nation.

    Robinson opted to parlay all that momentum and declared for the NFL draft. Smart move on his part, as he has been in a position to ascend to lofty highs among talent evaluators. The scouting combine only added to his mystique. Robinson pulled off a 4.92 40-yard dash at a staggering 332 pounds. Robinson has been heralded as a transcendent type of player and freakish athlete at the position.

    Call me old school if you want, but the film on Robinson doesn’t show Jonathan Ogden or Orlando Pace. As a rookie, just like with Eric Fisher last year, all that athleticism isn’t going to be enough. Robinson might end up being one of the best ever (don’t bet on it), but his lack of experience is going to present itself early in his NFL career.

Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

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    Sometimes you win not because of what you do, but due to what someone else doesn’t. That was the case for UCF quarterback Blake Bortles. Very little about what Bortles did at the combine was outstanding. However, when you do it while the other three top prospects sit back and do nothing, you are suddenly the prettiest girl at the dance.

    That’s not to say all of what Bortles did at the combine was artificial, but it must be looked at with a critical eye. Bortles is a work in progress. He has footwork issues and other small tweaks to his game that are going to become magnified in the NFL.

    The rub is, it really seems like some team is going to draft him very high. This means he is about to be pressed into duty very early. This feels like a recipe for disaster for him and his team. You can respect the fact he went out at the combine and threw when he didn’t have to, but that isn’t the kind of thing you hang your hat on if you are going to put a franchise in his hands.

Jerick McKinnon, RB, Georgia Southern

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    If you didn’t know who Georgia Southern quarterback-turned-running back Jerick McKinnon was, the combine was probably your first chance to see him perform. McKinnon was a triple-option quarterback at Georgia Southern who was almost never asked to throw the football.

    McKinnon made the right choice by coming to the combine and shopping his wares as a running back. We’ve all seen these run-first quarterbacks who were too stubborn to make the change and it cost them dearly.

    The Georgia Southern product did not disappoint. His 4.41 40-yard dash and 6.83 three-cone drill were among the top at his position. What does this tell us? That’s he’s a very talented athlete. However, we all need to temper our enthusiasm a little. Last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars did something similar with Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, and that hasn’t gone according to plan.

    I understand that folks want to rally around stories like McKinnon’s, and his combine performance only adds fuel to the fire. But the fact of the matter is that this young man is a project in every sense of the word. Don’t be shocked if he not only fails to have an impact as a rookie, but also lacks an impact at all early in his career.

Dri Archer, RB, Kent State

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    Kent State running back Dri Archer wins the prize for triangle number of the combine. Archer’s 4.26 official 40-yard dash puts him in an elite group. Very few athletes have ever been able to run as fast as Archer did in the 40.

    This time places him in a rare group, but does it have any bearing on NFL success? Not really. Running back Chris Johnson ran a 4.24 and his career has been a series of hits and misses. Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin ran a 4.27 and parlayed that into a third-round pick.

    Archer is dynamic. No doubt about it. However, he's a bit wee, and if he can't stay healthy enough to be on the field, how much can he help?

    Film on Archer says that when he's at his best, he has NFL-type skills. However, as a rookie, Archer is going to need to learn how to play his role as a change-of-pace back. The team he finds himself on will be huge for his long-term future, but don't hold your breath for a big rookie season.

Kevin Pierre-Louis, LB, Boston College

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    Of all the players on this list, the one who is most likely to fall flat in spite of his combine workout is Kevin Pierre-Louis. The Boston College linebacker opened eyes when he had an official 4.51 40-yard dash at 232 pounds.

    A nice time, but far from elite. Nevertheless, Pierre-Louis was the fastest linebacker at the combine, and so with that comes the extra hype.

    The film on Pierre-Louis tells a different story. Even as an experienced starter, Pierre-Louis has never played up to his athleticism, missing easy plays and lacking the football acumen to truly harness his physical gifts.

    If some team wants to roll the dice on him earlier than, say, the sixth round, they are liable to be disappointed.

Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton

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    Another interior defensive lineman who had people talking during the combine was Princeton's Caraun Reid. The big man put up some impressive times at 302 pounds and really had people rushing to find some Ivy League game film on this young man.

    And what they found when they looked was an athletic big man with a knack for rushing the quarterback from the inside. They might have found Reid's game against Dartmouth, where he racked up three sacks.

    He did it against a 270-pound center, but for his fans, that's enough. The reality is, much of what Reid did in college will be a struggle for him in the NFL, even with his athleticism.

    Reid feasted on below-average linemen in 2013 and still had games where he was unable to be effective. Even with his impressive measurables, it is hard to overlook his lack of production against lower-level competition when determining what sort of impact he will have in the NFL.

    All combine data courtesy of NFL.com.


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