NFL Draft 2016: Combine Disappointments Who Desperately Need Strong Pro Days
The 2016 NFL Scouting Combine is in the books as the NFL calendar transitions to free agency and pro-day season. The combine had more than 300 prospects participate in interviews and timed drills. It was inevitable for several big-name players to disappoint at the event since the process is so intense and is meant to create a chaotic atmosphere.
Luckily for these seven individuals we’ve identified as combine disappointments, a mulligan in the form of a pro day gives them another opportunity to perform. Each school-specific pro day can be tailored to the prospect and maximize exposure to strengths while mitigating weaknesses. It also allows players to run a faster time in a specific drill.
We have the skinny on each combine performance that left us wanting more. Those who put the work in between now and their pro day could see their draft stock jump exponentially. Others could drop out of the draft completely if their pro-day outcome mirrors their combine results.
Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky
Arguably the best pure pass-rusher in the 2016 class, Eastern Kentucky’s Noah Spence had the chance to put himself in the elite prospect territory at the NFL Scouting Combine. Past edge-rushers such as Von Miller and Khalil Mack had separated themselves from the pack in this setting, posting excellent times in drills. Spence was unable to put himself in that company, though.
At 6’2” and 251 pounds, Spence ran a 4.8 40-yard dash, a 7.21-second three-cone drill and 4.35 20-yard shuttle. Each of those marks is above-average but far from the elite tier that premier edge-rushers hit. For Spence to elevate himself into the top 10, he must improve on his 40 at his pro day.
One reason speed is so important for Spence is his lack of length. With just 33” arms, he doesn’t have the same advantage Miller benefits from as far as keeping blockers away from his body. The half-inch difference in arm length between the two puts Spence in the 57th percentile for arm length for outside linebacker, while Miller in the 83rd percentile.
Speed is a trump card that opens up a variety of other pass-rush moves. If Spence can’t consistently beat the tackle to the edge of the pocket as a speed threat, his stock will plummet.
Christian Hackenberg, QB, Penn State
In the grand scheme of life and the progression of time, three years ago isn’t too far in the rearview mirror. But that’s a lot of time in the sports world, especially for football players. 2013 was the last time we’ve seen Christian Hackenberg play consistently well.
His fall from grace has been fast and hard. His last two seasons were rife with inconsistent accuracy, poor footwork and questionable decision-making. It’s hard to believe he was once viewed as a top quarterback prospect based on 2014 and 2015.
Things snowballed into a concerning combine performance. While there are legitimate excuses for why Hackenberg struggled in a neutered offense under head coach James Franklin, he should have starred on the practice field. He didn’t; he often overthrew his receivers in drills, which led to more scrutiny.
According to Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports, an NFL college director was not impressed, either:
“I felt bad watching him throw because he’s a competitive guy,” the QB coach said. “You could tell he wanted to go out there and do well. It was just so hot and cold, and that’s what you see [on tape] with him. There were two Big Ten guys [along with Wisconsin’s Joel Stave] who struggled. But this guy, you hear the name [and] you expected better.” Added the college director: “Hack made excuses for bad play [in a team interview]. I didn’t like that.”
Hackenberg must bounce back with a stellar pro-day performance to even have a chance at being a Day 1 pick. Based on his last two years, the question should be whether he’s more than a Day 3, developmental pick. A bad pro day could solidify his fall on draft day.
Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame
Once viewed as a potential top-five pick in the 2016 class, Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith may have suffered the most from a bad combine. He wasn’t able to do any drills, as he was less than two months removed from a nasty torn ACL and LCL injury against the Ohio State Buckeyes. But his medical checks did not have positive reviews from a few teams.
According to Ian Rapoport of NFL Network, Smith may have ankle and knee nerve issues that could sideline him for at least 2016. This news is devastating, as recent examples of players who have entered the NFL off a major injury like this have not been good. He could fall completely out of the draft if his medical tests don’t show better results at his pro day.
Recent examples of injured prospects being drafted include San Francisco guard Brandon Thomas, who was selected in the third round of the 2014 NFL draft. San Francisco also selected running back Marcus Lattimore 131st overall in 2013. The Cleveland Browns took cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu in the seventh round of the 2015 NFL draft.
Teams don’t want to risk losing more than a mid-round pick on a player who could potentially never play again or return to previous levels of impact. If Smith fails physicals again at his pro day, he could become a Day 3 flier or face the possibility of never stepping on the field at the next level.
De’Runnya Wilson, WR, Mississippi State
The combine results can at times be misleading about a player’s overall play style or physical upside. However, some performances are so bad that an individual becomes untouchable because there’s such a small chance of NFL success. Why waste a pick on an athlete who would have to become one of the biggest athletic exceptions in NFL history?
That’s where Mississippi State receiver De’Runnya Wilson finds himself after the combine. His terrific 6’5”, 224-pound frame was greatly overshadowed by his 4.85 40-yard dash, 113” broad jump and 28” vertical jump. Each of those is among the worst marks we’ve ever seen at the combine for a receiver.
Wilson plays slow, which compounds the issue. When the tape matches what happens in shorts, then our eyes aren’t lying. The player with the most to gain from his pro-day performance could be Wilson.
Wilson labored through his 40 and other drills. If he improves his time to 4.65 or lower, he could see a significant boost in where he’ll be drafted. His size makes his slower 40 more acceptable, but it cannot be an extremely slow time like a 4.85 again.
Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida
Sometimes what happens on the field isn’t the most important aspect of the NFL combine. Florida wide receiver Demarcus Robinson may have blown his best opportunity to prove he can be counted on as a person. As we’ve seen in recent years, teams are not only investing in players but individuals who can be trusted to work hard and embody the team philosophy.
Robinson struggled dearly in interviews, according to Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports:
Two different teams dinged the receiver for bad interviews. “He was horrible, the worst we had this year” a college director texted. Another added: “We pushed him a little on the suspensions [four over the course of three years under two head coaches], and he pushed right back. Not what you wanted to hear.”
It’s certainly not the response Robinson should have given. He needs to accept his role in his struggles and mistakes in life. If he fails to do so at his pro day, he could easily fall out of the draft.
While only one team needs to believe in Robinson to take a flier on him, that pill is harder to swallow if he doesn’t at least show remorse or acknowledge his past. If he adjusts his tone at his pro day, his on-field talent is good enough to make an impact in the NFL. Bleacher Report Lead Draft Writer Matt Miller believes he could have been the top receiver in the entire class if not for the off-field concerns.
Darian Thompson, SAF, Boise State
Another surprising combine performance came from Boise State safety Darian Thompson. The star defender was one of the most impressive safeties on film I’ve seen for this class, as he showed great tackling prowess and the ability to find the ball. He finished his career with 133 solo tackles and 17 interceptions.
That type of production generally requires solid athleticism and instincts. While his film indicates he does have the plus instincts and is even a good athlete, Thompson tested terribly. His athletic spider chart on Mock Draftable looks more like the Star Trek Starfleet insignia than expected.
These results are concerning for a player from a non-Power Five conference. All of his tests ended with well below-average scores. If he doesn’t improve at his pro day, large questions will loom about his potential fit into the NFL.
Thompson played a variety of roles at Boise State, including the highly sought single-high safety position. Cover 1 safeties are rare, and Thompson was certainly comfortable when asked to execute there. He’ll have to test at least as an average athlete at his pro day to be considered a viable Cover 1 safety, and that would also boost his draft value.
Scooby Wright, LB, Arizona
Despite being one of the most productive players in college football history in 2014, Arizona linebacker Scooby Wright III has major question marks about his transition to the NFL. He posted an incredible 164 total tackles, 31 tackles for loss and 15 sacks in 2014 alone. Some collegiate linebackers fail to accrue that production in three years of starting.
But Wright’s film is not as dominant as his numbers may suggest. He’s an ankle-biting tackler who thrives in chase-and-run situations. Ideally, this would describe an athletic weak-side linebacker who can be protected from facing blockers head-on.
Unfortunately for Wright, his combine exposed him as a limited athlete. As the NFL continues to value well-rounded linebackers capable of dropping into coverage, Wright’s value will invariably be questioned. He was rarely put into coverage situations at Arizona, which makes sense with his physical traits.
Wright ran a poor 4.9 40-yard dash and was one of the least explosive players overall at the event. The writing is on the wall that he may be a great collegiate player who may be in for a more limited NFL role because of limited athleticism.
All stats used are from Sports-Reference.com.
Ian Wharton is an NFL Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.