2017 NFL Combine: Predicting Biggest Breakout Names

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 24, 2017

2017 NFL Combine: Predicting Biggest Breakout Names

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    The combine is the NFL's warped version of a job interview. Like any other job opening, there are those who impress and those who don't.

    Impressive performances generate buzz around potential breakout stars. These individuals tend to experience a rise up draft boards.

    Each aspiring athlete walks onto the turf at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis with the full understanding his fate can be decided by a good 40-yard dash or position workout. The event is designed to be a pressure cooker. It also serves as an opportunity for scouts and the league's top decision-makers to match their evaluations with a player's athletic prowess.

    There are always prospects who surprise and force those around the league to take a second look. Players such as the Dallas Cowboys' Byron Jones and New Orleans Saints' Brandin Cooks worked their way into first-round consideration after exceptional combine experiences.

    Bleacher Report identified 10 combine invitees with the potential to be this year's breakout performers. They're listed in descending order based on perceived draft value.

10. Offensive Tackle Jermaine Eluemunor, Texas A&M

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    NFL scouts become enamored with traits. While a prospect's play on Saturdays is important, traits that translate to the next level are even more so.

    Texas A&M's Jermaine Eluemunor is coming into the league at the right time. After being a one-year starter, the London native enters a draft class bereft of offensive tackle talent.

    More importantly, he flashed traits coaches can mold. At 6'4" and 325 pounds, Eluemunor has just scratched the surface of his potential after picking up the game when he moved to the United States at 14 years old.

    "He definitely caught my eye [at the NFLPA Game]," an anonymous scout told The MMQB's Emily Kaplan. "Moves well for his frame, powerful punch. A bit raw but a lot to like."

    Texas A&M proved to be a breeding ground for talented tackles in recent years, with Luke Joeckel, Jake Matthews, Cedric Ogbuehi and Germain Ifedi all drafted. Even though the program's streak of first-round blockers will come to an end, Eluemunor's potential makes him an intriguing option later in the draft.

    "I didn't think too much about him before we played, but we were impressed with him," an SEC defensive coach told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein. "He's a really powerful guy, and he moves way better than I expected. I thought he was going to be stiff, but he's not."

9. Running Back Joe Williams, Utah

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    Team interviews with players aren't televised during combine coverage, but their importance shouldn't be overlooked. For a prospect like Utah running back Joe Williams, his answers during these meetings will determine his draft value after he quit the program midseason before returning.

    Not all of the individuals saddled with off-field issues should be viewed the same. Williams battled mental health issues after he lost his baby sister at a young age due an undiagnosed heart problem. The older sibling struggled with depression and self-medication before he stepped away from football.

    "What brought me to the decision was just how bad my mental health was going," Williams told USA Today's Tom Pelissero. "Before leaving, there would [be] times of the day where I would always be that 13-year-old kid grieving about his sister, and just holding her as she died in my arms. I took a lot of painkillers to mask the pain that I had from it, the stress that it was causing. And football just wasn't a big enough outlet for that emotion."

    The first step toward addressing a problem is admitting there is one. The talented runner returned to the program as a new man. The 5'11", 205-pound back rushed for 1,332 yards in the Utes' final seven games. Williams appeared explosive and near-impossible to stop.

    With a better understanding of what this young man experienced, teams can become more comfortable with his history. Once they do, Williams should be considered among the draft's better running back prospects.

8. Defensive End Trey Hendrickson, Florida Atlantic

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    The ability to pressure the quarterback is nearly as valuable as the quarterback himself. Very few were as effective last season at getting to opposing signal-callers as Florida Atlantic's Trey Hendrickson. In 12 games, Hendrickson registered 15 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks as a senior. His sack numbers were down from his junior campaign, where he recorded 13.

    The defensive end wasn't any less effective, though. According to Pro Football Focus, Hendrickson provided the top pass-rush productivity of any edge defender in college football last season. He finished third in the nation with 56 quarterback hurries despite playing 200 fewer pass-rush snaps than the leading duo.

    Concerns regarding Hendrickson's game center on his lack of length, despite a 6'4" and 270-pound frame, and his overall athleticism.

    The Florida Atlantic product started to ease those concerns when he dominated at the East-West Shrine Game. Hendrickson registered a sack, forced fumble and quarterback hurry on his way to being honored with the E. Jack Spaulding Award for Most Outstanding Defensive Player.

    At the combine, he can put all concerns to rest with a strong workout. According to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline, Hendrickson is expected to run in the 4.6-second range during the 40-yard dash and post a 37-inch vertical jump.

    Impressive athleticism coupled with legitimate pass-rush skills makes Hendrickson one of the more intriguing available edge-rushers.

7. Linebacker Tyus Bowser, Houston

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    Edge defenders are usually split into two categories. Either they're better served with their hand in the dirt getting after quarterbacks, or they're athletic enough to develop into a traditional linebacker.

    Houston's Tyus Bowser is talented enough to do both. Bowser is a supreme athlete at 6'4" and 244 pounds. He even competed on the Cougars basketball team for two seasons before he committed to football.

    During his senior campaign, the Texas native registered 12 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks in only eight games. At the Reese's Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, the outside linebacker provided the fastest recorded speed during the contest, per the event's Twitter feed.

    Fast? Check. Productive? Check. No one should be surprised if he ranks among the top linebackers in each of the combine events. What Bowser lacks at this point is consistent technique and bulk.

    That said, any time a prospect shows the ability to bend the edge and effortlessly drop into coverage from the slot, he's special.

6. Cornerback Fabian Moreau, UCLA

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    When a position class is considered deepas cornerback is this yearcertain prospects fall through the cracks. Excitement often builds around the individuals expected to be selected in the opening frame. At least six cornerbacks are currently viewed as first-round talents.

    With so much talent at the top of the draft, individuals without the name recognition don't receive the same fanfare. UCLA's Fabian Moreau is a potential second-round target who should warrant more attention throughout the combine process.

    At 6'0" and 202 pounds, the Florida native has the size and length teams prefer at the position. He's also experienced after starting 40 games at UCLA.

    The Bruins preferred to place Moreau in press coverage, and he excelled. The cornerback proved to be competitive and physical when locked up against wide receivers.

    His skills were on display during the East-West Shrine Game. According to longtime NFL scout and NFL.com senior analyst Gil Brandt, Moreau stood out as the event's best performer during the week.

    Numerous cornerbacks will be selected during the first two days of the NFL draft. Moreau is just as good as any of them.

5. Wide Receiver Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech

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    Sometimes a top prospect can be overshadowed by a teammate. It doesn't happen often, but the possibility exists.

    For example, the Louisiana Tech Bulldogs featured a wide-open offense where slot receiver Trent Taylor caught 235 passes for 3,085 yards and 21 touchdowns over the last two seasons. Taylor led all of college football with 1,803 receiving yards in 2016.

    However, teammate Carlos Henderson is a better pro prospect. What makes Henderson special is his ability to gain yards after the catch. His route-running was limited due to the system in which he played, but he maximized his opportunities.

    Last season, Henderson exploded onto the scene with 82 receptions for 1,535 receiving yards and tied for the FBS lead with 19 touchdowns (in one fewer game than Western Michigan's Corey Davis). He ranked third in yards per route run, per Pro Football Focus. The wide receiver also finished third with an average of 32.2 yards per kickoff return.

    "He's a guy you got to get the ball in his hands because he's explosive," Louisiana Tech head coach Skip Holtz said in October, per the Shreveport Times' Sean Isabella.

    At 5'11" and 191 pounds, Henderson isn't the biggest target, but he's expected to run well at the NFL combine. According to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline, the New Orleans native will time under 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash.

4. Safety Justin Evans, Texas A&M

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    The safety class is absolutely loaded, and a prospect will need to dazzle during the combine to separate himself from an impressive group. A few have the potential to do so. Texas A&M's Justin Evans is at or near the top of the list.

    Two years ago, Connecticut's Byron Jones blew away the competition with a combine performance for the ages. Jones leaped 44.5 inches in the vertical jump and destroyed a combine record with a 12'3" broad jump; he also ran a 4.43-second 40-yard dash at his pro day. Expect a similar effort from Evans.

    "I'm told Evans ... is expected to blow up the combine and put up Byron Jones-type numbers," Pauline reported.

    At the start of the 2016 campaign, expectations started to build around the Texas A&M product.

    "This kid jumps off the tape," an anonymous NFL executive told NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah in September. "He's a better player than [2016 first-round pick] Karl Joseph. He's a ferocious hitter, and he can cover a lot of ground. He will be a top-20 pick this spring."

    Due to how poorly the Aggies played, Evans' status took a hit even after he finished second on the team with 87 total tackles and first with four interceptions. But the 6'1", 200-pound safety is a true center fielder with the physical traits teams look for early in the draft.

3. Safety Obi Melifonwu, Connecticut

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    For certain prospects, the combine is merely one stop in an exceptional offseason that leads into the draft.

    Connecticut's Obi Melifonwu opened eyes at the Reese's Senior Bowl—and he did so before he strapped on his pads.

    Prior to setting foot on the turf at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, prospects are paraded in front of hundreds of NFL scouts, front office executives and media members. The safety stood 6'4" and weighed 219 pounds with a physique chiseled from stone.

    His action figure-like qualities are just the starting point. Melifonwu made the most of his opportunity against college football's top talent. He displayed the same instincts and closing speed in Mobile that helped him lead the Huskies with 118 total tackles and four interceptions.

    Despite the defensive back's size, he's not a run-stuffing strong safety who may be best served playing linebacker. He can play near the line of scrimmage, roam the deep third and even cover slot receivers.

    A safety's role continues to change with each passing year, and more is asked of the position than ever. Once teams see how fluid of an athlete Melifonwu is, coupled with his outstanding measurements, his draft status should skyrocket.

2. Tight End Adam Shaheen, Ashland

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    Photo used with permission of Ashland University Athletics

    Tight end is one of the deepest position classes in the upcoming draft, yet a Division II product may steal the show at the combine.

    Ashland's Adam Shaheen is a 6'6", 277-pound target with fantastic athleticism and ball skills. The tight end led the Eagles in receiving during the last two seasons with 127 receptions for 1,670 yards and 26 touchdowns.

    "He's clearly the third-best tight end in this year's class, and I think you'll start to hear first-round buzz about him by the time his workout is finished," an NFL executive told NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah.

    NFL scouts and decision-makers will see a talented yet raw prospect on the field during position workouts.

    Shaheen originally played basketball at Pitt-Johnstown before he transferred to Ashland. He didn't even play tight end until the 2014 campaign. Instead, he was a wide receiver in high school and only weighed 205 pounds upon his arrival, per the Richland Source's Curt Conrad.

    "It's hard to find tight ends with his combination of size, speed and toughness," the executive added. "He's a unique talent."

1. Quarterback Patrick Mahomes II, Texas Tech

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    The NFL is desperate for a top quarterback prospect to emerge. Clemson's Deshaun Watson, North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky and Notre Dame's DeShone Kizer can all make a case to become the first signal-caller selected in the 2017 NFL draft.

    However, the combine is the perfect setting for Texas Tech's Patrick Mahomes II to shine.

    "He will check every box in Indy," an anonymous team executive told NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah. "Tech was terrible [in 2016] and he didn't get much attention, but everyone will be talking about him after the combine."

    Mahomes is a gifted athlete with prototypical size at 6'3" and 230 pounds and possesses the strongest arm in the class. Teams will also fall in love with his bloodlines since his father, Pat, was an MLB pitcher for 11 seasons.

    "He definitely has the tools to be a No. 1," an NFC scout told Bucky Brooks. "He's big and athletic with big-time arm talent. I know his numbers are inflated, but he can make all of the throws. I think the kid can play. ... I like him a lot!"

    Concerns regarding his understanding of NFL passing concepts since he comes from an Air Raid scheme can be quelled with the work he does in the evenings during team interviews. If those sessions go as well as his workout is expected to, Mahomes will find himself in the conversation as the top quarterback prospect.

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