2017 NFL Combine: The Top Names You Need to Know

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystFebruary 23, 2017

2017 NFL Combine: The Top Names You Need to Know

0 of 15

    Scott Halleran/Getty Images

    The "Underwear Olympics" are about a week away.

    The NFL Scouting Combine has come a long way since it was known as the National Invitational Camp back in 1982. Where once it was a sleepy gathering in Tampa, Florida, it's now a week-long media event in Indianapolis.

    Starting on February 28, over 300 of the best and brightest college football has to offer will descend on Lucas Oil Stadium. They will be measured and interviewed and put through the paces in any number of drills.

    They will even be Wonderlic-ed.

    There will be no shortage of coverage of 40-yard-dash times and bench press reps and who did what in the three-cone drill.

    There could even be a million-dollar bonus if a youngster can break the 40 record while sporting a certain brand of shoe.

    For a lot of players at the combine, the pressure is on. A strong showing could shoot them up draft boards. Fall flat, and they might not be drafted at all.

    However, for others, the combine is essentially a formality. Even though they will be the most talked-about players in Indy, it would take a disaster of biblical proportions to knock them from the first couple of rounds of the 2017 NFL draft.

    These are the big dogs of the 2017 NFL Scouting Combine.

    And next week, it's time for them to eat.

Myles Garrett, DE/OLB, Texas A&M

1 of 15

    Butch Dill/Getty Images

    Might as well start at the top.

    While some projected No. 1-overall draft picks seem to implode mere minutes before their name is called, Texas A&M edge rusher Myles Garrett looks to be in solid form. 

    At this point a year ago, Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil was predicted to go No. 1 overall. While his draft day misfortunes on social media secured his eventual No. 13 pick, his slide began with an uninspiring showing at the combine. 

    However, as Chase Goodbread wrote for NFL.com, the NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah doesn't believe Garrett will have any such problems.

    "When you talk to the folks at Texas A&M, they tell you he is going to test like a freak. Now we're going to get a chance to see him get out there, go through all these drills, put the watch on him, see how high he jumps, all those things. I expect him to just completely torch the combine," Jeremiah said. "He's going to be outstanding in this area. He enters for me as the clear-cut best player in this draft, and I expect him to leave (the combine) as such. But it's going to be fun to watch him put all those athletic skills on display."

    Garrett's athleticism has been compared to Jadeveon Clowney, who put on a show back in 2014 with a 4.53-second 40-yard dash.

    At 266 pounds.

    If Garrett performs as advertised, he'll be one of the stars of this year's combine—and the pressure will mount on the Cleveland Browns to pull the trigger on Garrett at No. 1 overall.

    In fact, one director of player personnel told Bleacher Report's Matt Miller the Browns would be making a huge mistake if Garrett isn't the first overall pick.

    "Passing on Garrett is like passing on a young Bruce Smith," he said. "You don't pass on a kid like that."

Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina

2 of 15

    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    In each of the past two drafts, quarterbacks came off the board at No. 1 and No. 2.

    Much like in 2016, though, there isn't a consensus top signal-caller this year. Each quarterback prospect faces questions that must be answered at the combine and their pro day.

    North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky, who passed for 3,748 yards and 30 touchdowns for the Tar Heels in 2016, might not be able to do much in regard to the one hanging over his head.

    It's probably a little late in the game for him to grow taller.

    As Luke Easterling of USA Today reported, it's believed that Trubisky will check in at the combine at 6'1" or so—short by NFL quarterback standards.

    "In the last 15 years," Easterling wrote, "only two quarterbacks 6'1" or shorter have been drafted in the first round: Johnny Manziel and Rex Grossman. Trubisky's skills as a passer are much better than those two guys, but it's certainly worth noting, considering how rare it is for shorter quarterbacks to have significant success at the next level."

    If Trubisky does turn out to be vertically challenged, he's going to need a stellar performance in drills and interviews to avoid coming up short on draft day.

    Sorry. Couldn't help it.

DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame

3 of 15

    Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images

    When it comes to Notre Dame quarterback DeShone Kizer, pundits are all over the place.

    From a purely physical standpoint, Rob Rang of CBS Sports has some high praise.

    "Kizer is the most gifted draft-eligible quarterback prospect in the country," Rang wrote, "with a prototypical blend of build, arm strength and functional athleticism. He possesses the kind of undeniable talent that could lead to a much earlier selection than my ranking but he is far from a surefire franchise quarterback, making head-scratching decisions or simply inaccurate passes in virtually every game this season."

    The NFL Network's Mike Mayock upped the ante, ranking Kizer No. 1 at his position, ahead of Clemson's Deshaun Watson and Trubisky.

    However, in his most recent mock draft, ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper doesn't even have Kizer coming off the board on the first day.

    It's the players who inspire such wide variance of opinions in the draft community who often have the most to gain (or lose) in Indy.

    Kizer certainly has the arm and legs to put on a show at the combine. But it may well be the interviews—where he's going to have to answer for a 4-8 2016 season, a benching and a completion percentage of under 60 percent—that make or break it for him.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson

4 of 15

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    Deshaun Watson doesn't have the accuracy of Mitch Trubisky. In fact, the Clemson star struggled mightily with turnovers in 2016, tossing 17 interceptions.

    Watson also doesn't have the huge arm or raw athleticism of DeShone Kizer, although Watson is hardly a statue either.

    What Watson does have is one heck of a collegiate resume that includes a 28-2 record over the last two seasons, three FBS playoff wins in four games and a national championship.

    Well, that and consecutive Davey O'Brien awards as the top quarterback in college football.

    Not many scouts have Watson listed as the lead dog in the three-man race to be the first quarterback drafted. However, Clemson coach Dabo Swinney told reporters (via Jimmy Burch of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) that teams that pass on Watson in April's draft will be making a sizable mistake.

    "If they pass on Deshaun Watson, they're passing on Michael Jordan," Swinney said. "I'm just an old funky college coach, but Deshaun Watson is the best by a long shot."

    OK, so maybe Dabo is a little prone to hyperbole.

    Watson isn't going to be able to allay concerns about those turnovers in Indy. What he can do, however, is show an ability to make all (or at least most) of the throws required of an NFL quarterback, remind scouts of his own athleticism and hammer away to reinforce his resume of winning games at college football's highest level.

    The pressure on Watson in Indy is going to be high; there's a lot on the line.

    That hasn't bothered him a bit in the past.

Garett Bolles, OT, Utah

5 of 15

    Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

    OK, enough about quarterbacks.

    There's no doubt that quarterbacks carry the most weight on draft day. But the players tasked with protecting those quarterbacks are also highly prized. In most years, a fistful of offensive tackles would be drafted on Day 1.

    However, this year's crop at tackle is a bit thin (so to speak) on top-end talent. Bleacher Report NFL Draft Lead Writer Matt Miller has only two tackles ranked among his top 32 players.

    And Miller wrote recently that Utah's Garett Bolles could surge past both and be the first player at his position drafted.

    "The 24-year-old left tackle is mean and athletic and became a starter at Utah after arriving on campus in early August," Miller wrote. "NFL scouts would love him to be 21 instead of 24—he served an LDS mission and played at Snow College before enrolling at Utah—but the tools Bolles brings to the table have everyone in the league talking. Like one scout told me last week, Bolles is the tackle in this class—the rest of the draft industry just has to catch up to that."

    It's a movie we've seen before in recent years—the small(er)-school tackle who puts up a draft season so impressive it propels him to top honors at the position.

    And for Eric Fisher (who wound up the first overall pick) in 2013, one of the key steps in his journey up draft boards was an outstanding performance at the combine.

    Perhaps we'll see a sequel from Bolles in 2017.

Jamal Adams, S, LSU

6 of 15

    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    In today's pass-happy NFL filled with spread offenses, teams are constantly on the look for "Swiss Army knife" defensive backs in the mold of Tyrann Mathieu of the Arizona Cardinals—players with the toughness of safeties and the ball skills and coverage ability of cornerbacks.

    In the opinion of Mike Renner of the Washington Post, this year's best example of that sort of young defender just so happens to hail from the same school as Mathieu.

    "Last year," Renner wrote, "we saw Jalen Ramsey come into the combine with safety size and then test like a cornerback. This year, Jamal Adams figures to do exactly the same. Listed at 6-1, 214 pounds, the junior safety has the type of movement skills capable of executing any task in coverage. So much so that the LSU defense legitimately asked him to play every position on their defense (besides on the line). Of his full workload, 14.2 percent of his snaps came lined up as a true linebacker, 14.1 percent came as a strong safety, 32.8 percent came as a slot corner, 38.5 percent came as a free safety and he even took three snaps as a true corner on the edge. The result was PFF's highest-graded safety in all of football, and a top-10 lock in the upcoming draft."

    After Ramsey starred last year in Indianapolis, the Jacksonville Jaguars made the former Florida State star the fifth overall pick in the 2016 draft—a pick Ramsey justified by ranking among the top contenders for Defensive Rookie of the Year much of the season.

    If Adams similarly tears up the track at Lucas Oil Stadium, he'll likely be taken in a similar spot, at which point he and Ramsey can both start aspiring to Mathieu's league-high contract for a safety.

    Got to have goals, right?

Marshon Lattimore, CB, Ohio State

7 of 15

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    There wasn't a college in America that made a bigger splash in last year's draft than The Ohio State University. Not only did the Buckeyes set a record for players drafted in the first three rounds, but both the Offensive and Defensive Rookie of the Year awards were won by Ohio State players.

    This year's class from Columbus isn't as deep, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of Buckeyes to pore over—especially in the defensive backfield.

    Ball-hawking safety Malik Hooker won't be participating in combine drills after having shoulder and hernia surgeries earlier this month, so the task of carrying the flag as Ohio State's top prospect at the combine will fall to cornerback Marshon Lattimore.

    Lattimore, who tallied 41 tackles and four interceptions in 2016, is widely considered the top player available at one of the more coveted positions in the NFL. In his post-Super Bowl mock draft, Miller doesn't have the 6'0", 192-pounder making it out of the top five.

    "The best cornerbacks rarely last long in the draft," Miller noted, "and NFL scouts I've polled believe Lattimore can come in and be a shutdown player from the first day given his size and speed."

    However, for all the talent Lattimore showed in 2016, it was his only year as a starter in Columbus. If Lattimore really is going to be a top-five draft pick, he needs to overcome that limited amount of game tape.

    The easiest way to do that is by turning heads and dropping jaws in drills in Indianapolis.

Mike Williams, WR, Clemson

8 of 15

    Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    When it comes to wide receivers at the combine, one drill reigns supreme—the "dash for cash."

    Clemson's Mike Williams probably won't be the fastest receiver in Indianapolis this year, but he recently posted a video that helps show why many consider him the best wideout of the Class of 2017.

    In the video, Williams is shown easily doing 13 bench press reps at 230 poundsslightly more weight than he'll be tasked with lifting in Indianapolis. And while the bench press isn't a drill that many think of as important where receivers are concerned, the strength Williams displayed when high-pointing catches in traffic certainly was.

    In fact, according to Pro Football Focus, that might be the strength (so to speak) of Williams' game.

    "Williams was possibly the deciding factor in Clemson claiming revenge against Alabama in a rematch of the 2015 National Championship," the site noted. "He displayed all the qualities that make him such an exciting prospect against NFL-caliber defensive backs. As well as presenting opponents with a matchup problem, Williams also represents a reliable target underneath. He projects as a receiver capable of using his body to move the chains while adding a downfield component to the passing game due to his ability to win at the catch point with strong ball skills."

    Assuming that Williams doesn't run a 40 at the combine that's timed with a calendar, the 6'3", 205-pounder could easily be the first receiver selected in 2017, as the totality of his skill set offers true No. 1 receiver potential.

John Ross, WR, Washington

9 of 15

    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Washington receiver John Ross might want to rock some Adidas cleats in Indy.

    Because if anyone in this year's class is going to challenge Chris Johnson's combine 40 record of 4.24 seconds, the 5'11", 190-pounder may be the favorite.

    In addition to topping 1,100 receiving yards for the Huskies in 2016, Ross led all Power Five receivers with 18 touchdown catches. As Emily Kaplan of the MMQB wrote, one NFL scout believes Ross can make a bigger impact at the NFL level than his size might indicate.

    "When you watch John Ross's tape," the scout said, "you could argue he's just an exceptional slot guy. But smart offenses will figure out ways to incorporate him everywhere."

    For his part, Ross credits his breakout season to advice from DeSean Jackson, a similarly undersized burner who told the youngster there's more to vertical success than just being fast.

    "You're fast," Ross said Jackson told him, "but you don't have to use all of your speed every single time. Use your speed as a weapon, slow down sometimes. Focus on technique and that's how you'll beat your guy."

    "It sounds so simple, but it's not, and at first, I didn't really understand," Ross said. "But DeSean and I kept talking during the season, probably two times a week, and then it just clicked. By using his advice, that's how I took my game to the next level."

    Jackson's bit of wisdom may well be true. But so is this: You can't teach speed.

    And the fastest player in a given year's combine is guaranteed to be one of the most talked-about youngsters at the event.

Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama

10 of 15

    Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

    It's guaranteed that Alabama defensive lineman Jonathan Allen will not be breaking any records in the 40-yard dash at the combine. With the exception of possibly the bench press, Allen will probably fail to rank among the top at his position group in many drills.

    It happens when you weigh nearly 300 pounds.

    However, that doesn't mean that Allen, who piled up 69 tackles and 10.5 sacks for the Crimson Tide in 2016, won't be one of the most talked-about players in Indianapolis. Every team picking in the top five will likely request an interview with Allen.

    That's because, as Jeff Cavanaugh of WFAA remarked, Allen is one of the most talented and complete prospects in this year's class.

    "(For) any team in the market for a 4-3 DT or a 3-4 DE, Allen is the best of the bunch in this draft class," Cavanaugh wrote. "He's a very complete prospect. As a run defender his ability to shed blockers is outstanding. He shows power in both the upper and lower body. He controls and discards blockers with ease in one on one situations."

    Allen has the size and strength to hold the point of attack as a three-technique tackle or five-tech end, but the quickness to also be effective coming off the edge in subpackages.

    That versatility is going to appeal to a lot of teams. So much so that if Myles Garrett falters in Indianapolis and Allen puts on a show, it isn't inconceivable that the Browns might consider him at the No. 1 overall pick.

    As Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com wrote, the NFL Network's Mike Mayock thinks it's a two-man race.

    "I think Garrett affects the game on the outside. I think Allen affects the game on the inside," Mayock said. "It's a pass-first league and I think the Browns in that new Gregg Williams scheme, that four-man front, one of those two guys would fit beautifully."

    I'm not inclined to argue with him.

Solomon Thomas, DE, Stanford

11 of 15

    David Madison/Getty Images

    It's a good year to be in the market for help on the defensive line.

    According to Rob Rang of CBS Sports, the top three overall prospects in the Class of 2017 are all defensive linemen. And while Solomon Thomas of Stanford brings up the rear of that trio, Rang paid the 6'3", 273-pounder a huge compliment in comparing his game to that of Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams.

    "Comparing anyone to a disruptive presence like Donald (a legitimate Defensive MVP candidate, in my opinion) seems like hyperbole," Rang wrote. "But it is hard not to see the resemblance to the 6'1", 285-pounder given their similar initial burst, functional power, advanced use of hands, and non-stop hustle."

    The problem, as one AFC scouting director told Lance Zierlein of NFL.com, is that Thomas is too small to play tackle at the NFL level and is lacking the length pro clubs like to see in ends.

    "He's damn good. Now, I don't (have him ranked as high) as you do (third overall) because he's not big enough for inside and he's not as long as you like on the outside. You have to figure out where you will play him, but he won't stop. He's going to be really productive."

    If Thomas comes in even shorter than 6'3" (which is likely—many colleges are, um, liberal with their measurements), then there's going to be that much more pressure on Thomas to demonstrate in drills that it isn't the size of the dog in the fight.

    Of course, many scouts thought Donald was too short to be an effective three-tech when the Rams drafted him in 2014.

    And we all know how that turned out.

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU

12 of 15

    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Last year marked something of a rookie running back Renaissance in the NFL. No. 4 overall pick Ezekiel Elliott led the National Football League with over 1,600 yards on the season.

    While speaking with Julie Boudwin of the New-Orleans Times-Picayune, LSU tailback Leonard Fournette allowed that Elliott's success last year opened doors for the Class of 2017.

    "He helped all the running backs, to be honest," Fournette said. "He opened the doors for a lot of us just the way he did it. His rookie season he took off and that's big props to him. He had a great season this year and blessings and prayers go to him."

    Not that Fournette needed doors opened for him. At this point a year ago, had you asked 10 pundits if they'd rather have Fournette or Elliott, I'd wager it's Fournette who would have won the day. ESPN's scouting report on the 6'1", 230-pounder lists him in some pretty good company where NFL prospects in the backfield are concerned.

    "Fournette has room to improve with his patience and as a receiver in the passing game," the report noted. "However, he has a rare combination of size, power, agility and speed for the position and belongs in the conversation of Adrian Peterson, Todd Gurley and Ezekial Elliot as a potential top ten pick."

    Fournette told Boudwin that he's been working hard to solidify that top-10 status with a great combine, citing the 40-yard dash as a target for improvement.

    "Because of my size, a lot of people don't think I'm fast," Fournette said. "A lot of people saying it doesn't really look like I'm moving fast. I just want to prove everybody wrong, that's all. (I'd like to run) 4.4-flat or 4.3 ... we'll see."

    If Fournette comes anywhere close to that time, you'll know. So will I and everyone else.

    A 40 time that quick from a 230-pound back would light up the combine grapevine like the proverbial Christmas tree.

Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State

13 of 15

    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    Fournette won't be the only tailback headed to Indianapolis looking to solidify his status as this year's top running back.

    There are those in the draft community who believe that from a physical standpoint, that honor belongs to Florida State's Dalvin Cook. Cook doesn't have Fournette's size or physicality, but he's also a more well-rounded and more elusive back—one Dane Brugler of CBS Sports went so far as to compare to Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk.

    "It is unfair to compare a college prospect to a Pro Football Hall of Famer," Brugler wrote, "but stylistically the comp fits for Cook. Who knows what type of NFL resume Cook will accumulate and if it will come close to Faulk's storied career. But the on-field talent is similar from the size to the athleticism and the versatility to be an offensive weapon."

    "As long as the medical staff and front office are comfortable with his long-term durability," he continued, "Cook should be the first running back drafted in the 2017 class, although his final grade isn't as high as Ezekiel Elliott's a year ago."

    It's that last part that Cook will have to answer for at the combine. While Fournette is trying to show off his top-end speed (a trait not in question with Cook), Cook will be asked to account for multiple shoulder problems during his time with the Seminoles.

    If the shoulder checks out in medical exams, there will still be plenty to answer for in interviews. Cook had at least three run-ins with the law during his time at Florida State, including an assault charge (of which he was later acquitted) and citations of animal cruelty.

    Although Cook was not convicted of any wrongdoing, in today's climate, off-field issues have become exponentially more important to NFL front offices.

    As important as it is for Cook to show he can hold up under NFL punishment, it's equally vital he allay fears that any will be forthcoming from the courts.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

14 of 15

    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    As Mike Mayock of the NFL Network wrote during Senior Bowl practices, Alabama tight end O.J. Howard appears to be making the most of his opportunities to bolster his draft stock.

    "I think he'll probably end up being the first Senior Bowl player taken in the draft," Mayock said. "You can see he's really worked on his blocking and has improved in that area. He has a perfect combination of height, weight, speed, toughness, and athletic ability. The comparison I have for him is Greg Olsen. If you have a chance to draft a Greg Olsen, you go get him. And I think you'd have to get him with a pick in the early 20s."

    Physical talent has never been the question with Howard. The 6'6", 249-pounder is the embodiment of what NFL teams look for at the tight end position—long, athletic and fast.

    But production never met potential in Tuscaloosa. As Lance Zierlein of NFL.com reported, that has led some NFL teams to question Howard's drive.

    "Alabama recruited a shiny toy but (Lane) Kiffin never really knew what to do with it," one NFC general manager said. "I don't worry about the talent at all. He could be an all-pro. I just need to know if he loves football."

    For his part, Howard told Adam Stites of SB Nation he's on a mission to show teams his work ethic isn't in any way a problem.

    "[NFL scouts] ask me sometimes how did I stay focused and I told them that I'm the type of person if I get so disappointed and frustrated about that, it shows on the field," Howard said. "So I had to stay focused and do what's best for myself and my future. That's how I stayed positive through the process."

    The combine will offer Howard an opportunity to build on his momentum from Mobile—to once again assuage doubts about his motivation.

    Or he can just run so fast that teams forget why they were worried.

    Whatever works.

Honorable Mentions

15 of 15

    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    I could go on (and on, and on) about players to watch among the 330 who were invited to Indianapolis.

    Here are a few more to keep an eye on.

    Curtis Samuel, RB/WR, Ohio State

    Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com listed the Buckeyes' "tweener" as a candidate to take a run at Chris Johnson's 40 record. "Samuel has been a do-it-all playmaker for the Buckeyes," Jeremiah wrote, "and his game is predicated on pure speed. He was the state runner-up in the 55-meter dash while attending Erasmus High School in Brooklyn, New York."

    Jabrill Peppers, S/LB, Michigan

    At 205 pounds, Peppers looks the part of an NFL safety but will work out with the linebackers at the combine. However, if Peppers runs the 40 time his college coach predicted (via Chase Goodbread of NFL.com), teams will be tripping over themselves to find a fit for him. "That's going to be in the 4.3s somewhere," Michigan head coach Jim Harbaugh said, according to the Detroit News, via Goodbread.

    Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt

    Cunningham's rather surprising decision to return to Vanderbilt in 2016 appears to have paid off in a big way after he led the SEC with 125 stops. With Alabama's Reuben Foster sitting out of the combine due to shoulder surgery, Cunningham has a chance to get into the conversation for the first ILB off the board in 2017.

    Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee

    There hasn't been a more productive pass-rusher in college football the past three years, but ESPN's Mel Kiper told Mike Griffith of SEC Country that Barnett has much to prove at the combine. "I want to see how he tests out," Kiper said. "He was a really good college player, (but) is he explosive enough, does he test out well enough?"

    Patrick Mahomes, QB, Texas Tech

    Per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Mahomes enters Indy with aspirations of forcing his way up the pecking order. "I feel like I have a lot to offer, and I feel like if I do well at the Combine and at Pro Day, I will be up there with (the other top quarterback prospects)," he said. "It's always the dream to get drafted No. 1 overall."

    Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford

    As Goodbread wrote, scouts are all over the place on the do-it-all Cardinal star, with comparisons running the gamut from Brian Westbrook to a poor man's Reggie Bush or Marshall Faulk. If McCaffrey is going to sneak into the back end of the first round (as some have surmised), then he needs to show he's faster than he's being given credit for.

slash iconYour sports. Delivered.

Enjoy our content? Join our newsletter to get the latest in sports news delivered straight to your inbox!