The most important date on the draft calendar—you know, besides the actual draft—is almost here. This year's best and brightest are scheduled to descend upon Indianapolis later this week for the annual scouting combine, an event that can make or break the first-round hopes of some prospects.
For the likes of Jameis Winston, Leonard Williams and Amari Cooper, the trip is mere business. They'll come in, smile, answer media questions and try to convince teams near the top of the draft they are worth selecting. Any player currently projected inside the top 10 slipping out of the first 32 picks entirely would require a major injury or off-field problem.
Once you get past the borderline locks, anything can happen. A poor 40 time can send a wideout or a cornerback free-falling into the second day. A below-average showing on the weights can send an agile tackle to the media hoping he can spin the narrative he isn't "strong" enough. Slow agility drills can likewise bog down large linemen who will probably never run 40 yards over the course of a full season—let alone in one fell swoop.
And then there is the opposite. A handful of players will talk, run or lift their way into the first-round conversation this weekend. Hell, some first-round prospects will probably slide into top-10 consideration. The combine is not about irrelevant players somehow finding the spotlight; it's about players in relative tiers separating themselves from the competition.
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the first round would play out if picked today. We'll highlight players in particularly precarious draft positions.
|1||Tampa Bay Buccaneers||Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State|
|2||Tennessee Titans||Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon|
|3||Jacksonville Jaguars||Leonard Williams, DL, USC|
|4||Oakland Raiders||Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama|
|5||Washington||Dante Fowler Jr., DE/OLB, Florida|
|6||New York Jets||Randy Gregory, DE/OLB, Nebraska|
|7||Chicago Bears||Danny Shelton, DT, Washington|
|8||Atlanta Falcons||Shane Ray, DE/OLB, Missouri|
|9||New York Giants||Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa|
|10||St. Louis Rams||DeVante Parker, WR, Louisville|
|11||Minnesota Vikings||Andrus Peat, OT, Stanford|
|12||Cleveland Browns||Kevin White, WR, West Virginia|
|13||New Orleans Saints||Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington|
|14||Miami Dolphins||Landon Collins, S, Alabama|
|15||San Francisco 49ers||Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon|
|16||Houston Texans||T.J. Clemmings, OT, Pittsburgh|
|17||San Diego Chargers||Trae Waynes, CB, Michigan State|
|18||Kansas City Chiefs||Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Oklahoma|
|19||Cleveland Browns (via Buffalo)||Devin Funchess, WR/TE, Michigan|
|20||Philadelphia Eagles||Marcus Peters, CB, Washington|
|21||Cincinnati Bengals||Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson|
|22||Pittsburgh Steelers||Maxx Williams, TE, Minnesota|
|23||Detroit Lions||La'el Collins, OT, LSU|
|24||Arizona Cardinals||Benardrick McKinney, ILB, Mississippi State|
|25||Carolina Panthers||Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami (Florida)|
|26||Baltimore Ravens||Breshad Perriman, WR, UCF|
|27||Dallas Cowboys||Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin|
|28||Denver Broncos||Alvin Dupree, DE/OLB, Kentucky|
|29||Indianapolis Colts||Cameron Erving, OL, Florida State|
|30||Green Bay Packers||Denzel Perryman, LB, Miami (Fla.)|
|31||Seattle Seahawks||Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn|
|32||New England Patriots||Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State|
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Oklahoma
Green-Beckham is in perhaps the most precarious position of any potential first-rounder. Grading on skills alone, DGB is the most physically gifted wideout in this class. He'll measure somewhere between 6'5" and 6'6" this weekend, weighing in around 225 pounds if he's at playing weight. Equipped with 4.5 speed and good quickness off the ball, he compares to Calvin Johnson and a young Plaxico Burress.
One issue: Green-Beckham cannot be viewed in such a vacuum. His college career ended amid mass off-field turmoil. Missouri dismissed him outright following an incident in which he allegedly pushed a female student down a flight of stairs. Though he was never charged, Missouri chose to move on, due in part to Green-Beckham's long list of other issues.
A transfer to Oklahoma gave Green-Beckham brief hope of playing in 2014, but the NCAA declined to grant him a waiver.
One full season away from the sport later, Green-Beckham doesn't just have to prove himself as a person. For the first time in his life, he also has to prove the talent is still there. Unlike injured players, Green-Beckham had no excuse not to stay in football shape. Should he arrive in Indianapolis a pound overweight or a step slow in the 40, "anonymous" reports of scouts "concerned" about his work ethic are going to be everywhere.
Right now, I have DGB going No. 19 to Kansas City. By the end of the combine, we'll know whether that was right on the money or a wild overreach.
Vic Beasley, DE/OLB, Clemson, Shaq Thompson, OLB, Washington
We're grouping Beasley and Thompson together here because they share the same concern: size. Beasley was listed at 6'2" and 235 pounds at Clemson. Thompson was even smaller at 6'1" and 228 pounds. He even played running back for Chris Petersen at times.
Of the pair, Beasley has the most to prove. He's in perhaps the deepest position in this class, the hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker. As a defensive end in college, Beasley accrued 32 sacks in his last three seasons. NFL teams are nowhere near sure he can play as a down lineman at the next level. He was slight against ACC offensive tackles, often using his brilliant first-step quickness to get into the backfield.
Tackles at the next level are two or three grades quicker. Beasley is going to need at least 20 pounds of extra muscle without losing an ounce of quickness. Otherwise, he'll be pigeonholed into 3-4 systems and, perhaps more damningly, be viewed as a situational pass-rusher. Round 2 is probably the basement of his draft stock, but that's a scary fall for a player some saw as a potential top-10 guy.
Thompson's concerns are twofold. One, of course, is the fact that he's built more like DeMarco Murray than Clay Matthews. His need to add 20-25 pounds is implied—like when you go to Chipotle and they ask you if you want chips and guac. Of course you want chips and guac. Why else do they think you're there?
Or something like that. Maybe I'm just hungry. Or maybe Thompson should be ordering chips and guac more often. Whatever. The point stands. He and Beasley are in the same boat. They need to add a bunch of weight without losing explosiveness, which is more difficult than it sounds.
What makes Thompson a more interesting player is the fact that he does not fill the pass-rushing linebacker quota. In fact, it's probably his weakest on-field skill. Thompson thrives as a Thomas Davis-esque rover, using his quickness to cover a ton of ground and his toughness to bring down bigger running backs.
Davis, who was a college safety, is perhaps the best comparison. Viewed as being too big and slow to be a safety and too small to be a linebacker, Davis added weight and became one of the NFL's most underrated linebackers. He and Luke Kuechly are the best pass-coverage linebacking duo in football. Their ability to cover ground helps atone for mistakes made by the secondary, which were plentiful in 2014.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
Gordon's stock comes down to a combination of physical skills and positional bias. No one can dispute his on-field bona fides. The former Wisconsin star rushed for 2,587 yards last season, the second-most in Division I history. He added 29 rushing touchdowns, tied for fifth-most in history. His 7.8 career yards per carry put him among the all-time great college running backs.
If this were 2005, we'd be talking about Gordon as a potential top-five pick. But it's 2015. The last two years have seen elite running backs—all with accomplishments a plane or two down from Gordon's—slip through the first 32 picks. NFL teams understand now more than ever how fungible the running back position can be. The reasonable expectation for elite prospects at other positions is a decade-long career; running backs can burn hot and flame out in five.
For the foreseeable future, it's going to take a special prospect to come off the board in the first. Gordon has the production and on-field tape that say he's just that. Proving it from a physical standpoint this weekend is just as important.
Gordon's expected 40 time has clocked in the low 4.4 range since last year. Creep into the 4.5 range? There's a red flag. Shuttle times, cone drills, whatever. Every 10th of a second matters. And if Gordon participates in the on-field portion, all eyes will be glued on his route-running skills and his hands. The one flaw in Gordon's game was how rarely Wisconsin used him as a pass-catcher. Teams will be curious about whether that was a schematic decision or if Gordon's lack of skills in that regard informed Wisconsin's process.
Given Wisconsin's history, it's most likely the former.
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