2017 NFL Draft: Biggest Winners and Losers of Pro Day Workouts so Far
The college pro days lined up throughout March and into early April serve a lot of purposes.
They can be one final chance for a top prospect to dazzle and give scouts a last image to remember them by as they head for draft war rooms. They can be a shot at redemption after a disappointing showing at the NFL Scouting Combine. They can be a prospect's only opportunity to land his name on the draft map after not getting invited to the combine, or even a combination of all of the above.
The early pro-day results have given us an assortment of different flavors from each of those categories. Some prospects, like running back D'Onta Foreman, have erupted while boosting their draft value. Others, like cornerback Teez Tabor, have tried to clear the final pre-draft hurdle only to face plant.
Winner: Running Back D'Onta Foreman
During every 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and every vertical leap in the pro days that follow, general managers want to know this: Are you physically unique at your position or with your body type?
Often when the top prospects take the field they give an unspoken but emphatic "yep!" response to both of those questions. But some yell a little louder than others, and running back D'Onta Foreman screamed at the Texas Longhorns' pro day.
Foreman lived on a steady diet of chunk yardage during the 2016 season, while averaging 6.3 yards per carry, and finished with 2,028 rushing yards overall. He's at the top of a strong running back class, though probably behind the likes of Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey because Foreman doesn't offer much as a receiver (he only had 146 receiving yards over three seasons at Texas).
But he makes up for that by being a rumbling bruise-collector. During his pro-day workout, he showcased the physical skill that allows him to power through tackles. Scouts told NFL.com's Lance Zierlein that Foreman ran the 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds, which is the sort of speed from a 234-pound running back that makes defenders wince involuntarily.
Foreman leaned on his explosiveness and downhill burst to create 64 missed tackles in 2016, according to Pro Football Focus, which ranked fourth in the nation. His tackle-breaking ability alone will open eyes leading up to the draft, though his lack of pass-catching skill could prevent Foreman from becoming a true three-down back, making him perhaps a late Day 2 pick at best.
Loser: Cornerback Teez Tabor
We can argue about exactly how much the 40-yard dash means for, say, the running back position, where success is often rooted in instincts and power instead of just sheer top-end speed. The same thinking can be applied to pass-rushers, where edge speed is great but explosiveness wins the day.
But fundamental speed is like oxygen for defensive backs. They're tasked with both out-leaping and out-muscling massive pass-catchers for contested balls. But they have to get there first, and now there's some doubt surrounding Florida Gators cornerback Teez Tabor.
You don't have to be a grass-burner, but there's a baseline for speed that an NFL starting cornerback still needs to clear, even if they mostly find success through instincts and physicality. And Tabor has fallen short of the bar twice now.
Generally, anything above a 4.60 time in the 40-yard dash from a cornerback leads to some head-scratching, which is why any team considering Tabor with an early pick was left with a minor itch at the combine when he posted a time of 4.62. Then they were clawing violently at a rash after Tabor had weeks to train and improve on that time at his pro day, but instead he went in the opposite direction.
Tabor clocked in at 4.75, according to NFL Network draft analyst and former scout Daniel Jeremiah, who said sirens were blaring immediately.
"The magic number for corners is 4.60. Anything above that, and the alarm goes off," Jeremiah said. "That could have a major impact. People can say the 40 is overrated, but the one position where it matters most is corner. Teams will take his best time, which was at the combine—his magnet on everybody's board will say 4.62—but this was a big opportunity to help himself, and he didn't."
Tabor maintained the standard confidence that's like a uniform at the cornerback position, telling Thomas Goldkamp of Florida.247sports.com "somebody could lose their job if they pass on me."
"Just press play, you know what I mean? That's what I do," he continued. "I'm pretty sure I've got more picks than a lot of the top guys. I'm pretty sure I've got more touchdowns, probably more touchdowns than they got picks. I don't get it. They say I'm slow, but I'm not getting beat that way and I'm beating people back this way."
Tabor finished his college career with eight interceptions. He also had either an interception or pass breakup on 26.5 percent of his targets in coverage during the 2016 season, per PFF, which was well above the national average.
So Tabor is right: His tape does show a corner who's highly effective, and his lack of blazing speed didn't limit that stellar play in the tough SEC.
But it could limit the confidence NFL decision-makers have in his ability to make the leap and duplicate that success at another level.
Winner: Cornerback Brandon Wilson
At pro-day workouts, buzz hovers around the likely top picks. The resulting chatter is mostly about those like Tabor who could tumble from a high rung or someone like Foreman maybe climbing.
But the truth is pro days come with little stress for those premier prospects. Oh sure, they could put more money in their pocket, but the Tabors and Foremans sprinting around fields every spring are always going to get drafted, and usually pretty high.
The real pro-day sweating comes from guys like cornerback Brandon Wilson and others who weren't invited to the combine. A pro day is the grand stage for them and the one chance to make sure their name is lodged in a scout's memory come draft day.
Wilson did that and so, so much more at his University of Houston workout.
With a representative from all 32 teams present, Zierlein reported he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.36 seconds, which would have been the third-best result among cornerbacks at the combine. He also posted a vertical jump of 41 inches and did 24 bench press reps, both of which would have led his position group.
The problem, or maybe rather a curiosity, with Wilson is that his position is less cornerback and more "playmaker." He did defensive back and running back drills during his pro-day workout.
Officially he played cornerback for most of his college career and recorded two interceptions. But in his junior season, he became the only player in the nation to score multiple touchdowns on offense, defense and special teams. Injuries made him an emergency fill-in at running back, and he responded with 111 rushing yards and two touchdowns in a win over Navy.
He also thrived as a kick-returner, with 1,121 return yards over his final two college seasons. And the play that sticks out most from his final year at Houston was a 100-yard return on a missed field goal.
Prior to his pro day, NFLDraftScout.com projected Wilson as a likely undrafted free agent. That's surely set to change now, because although there may be some question about a position fit, the NFL can always find room for a dynamic athlete.
Loser: Defensive Tackle Nazair Jones
Defensive tackle Nazair Jones' short-term NFL future is specific and possibly includes plenty of playing time. It's just not a projection likely to have him hearing his name in the first two days of the draft, and he didn't do much to change that reality at North Carolina's pro day.
Jones is roughly the size of your backyard shed at 6'5" and weighing 304 pounds. He's a space-eater and people-mover up the middle. But he doesn't have the burst to get into the backfield enough as an interior pass-rusher.
He ran the 40-yard dash at 5.13 seconds during his pro-day workout, which was slightly slower than his combine time of 5.10. More importantly, he also registered a broad jump of 8'10" and did 18 bench press reps, all results that were below average for the position, as Rob Rang of CBSSports.com noted.
That doesn't mean Jones lacks NFL potential. He has lots of it, but it's just in a certain area and may take time to develop.
Jones totaled only five sacks over three seasons at North Carolina. But during that time he matured into a run plugger and a sound, reliable tackler. He recorded 58 defensive stops while missing just two tackles, per PFF. He also showed an ability to read the quarterback's eyes well, even if Jones couldn't get to him. He finished his college career with 10 batted passes.
Right now Jones could be quality interior beef, with the foundation of power and instincts to become a better pass-rusher. That status usually ends in being a Day 3 pick.
Winner: Safety Marcus Maye
There's a long line of swarming, ball-swatting defensive backs who have come out of Florida in recent years. That includes safety Keanu Neal and cornerback Brian Poole, who both put together quality seasons for the NFC champion Atlanta Falcons in 2016.
Safety Marcus Maye could be next on deck and will maybe be taken as early as the second round.
Charlie Campbell of Walter Football slotted Maye in there after speaking with multiple teams that gave him a second-round grade. The 6'0", 207-pound 2015 All-American added to his already-climbing draft outlook with a pro-day performance highlighted by a low of 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash.
"During drills Maye looked as good as the Gators' highly rated corners, displaying a quick, fluid pedal and smooth hip turn," wrote Tony Pauline of DraftAnalyst.com. Pauline also noted that, a year ago, Maye received the same grade from the draft advisory board as Neal, who then didn't last past the 17th overall pick.
Maye sat out the combine due to a broken arm, the same injury that shortened his final season with the Gators. His pro day was even more significant then, and he responded well under a bright spotlight.
Maye played just nine games in 2016 but still finished the season with 29 tackles, one interception and five passes defensed.
Loser: Cornerback Sidney Jones
Cornerback Sidney Jones has been the most obvious loser of the pro-day period so far, and in the most crushing way.
Jones was set to be a first-round pick, with Jeremiah calling him a top-20 lock. Then, on the final drill of positional workouts during the Washington Huskies' pro day, he tore his Achilles, which is still one of the most devastating injuries in football.
A long and uncertain recovery road lies ahead. Will Jones be the same player when he returns? Will he still have the same explosiveness? Will some of his athleticism be zapped?
Those questions and more will lead to an inevitable draft spiral. It's just a matter of how far that fall lasts.
Only one team needed to be dazzled enough by Jones prior to the injury to take an early leap and have faith in his recovery. The most ideal team would be a rebuilding one that could easily afford to stash Jones for a year and has enough draft picks to take a gamble (that's you, Cleveland Browns).
Beyond his draft value, now Jones' injury also prompted a larger discussion. How much is too much during draft season?
That's not a question for Day 3 prospects, and especially not fringe talents like Brandon Wilson. It's a question for Jones and others on his level. It's a question for the surefire first-round picks who have earned that status with their game film and have already gone through rigorous physical testing at the combine. They often have nothing left to prove during a pro-day workout.
Every offseason around the NFL, we're reminded during OTAs that football players can suffer serious injuries any time they're on a field. The significant difference there is that a professional player is already getting paid.
Jones is still an amateur until late April. So why risk it?
Winner: Running Back Marlon Mack
Remember those strange times back in 2013 and 2014 when two straight drafts went by without a running back selected in the first round?
It seems the position's draft obituary was written a little too soon, as there will likely be three first-round running backs in 2017 (Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey). Marlon Mack from South Florida will fall in line behind them, but not by much.
Mack soared throughout his college career and became the first running back in school history to rush for 1,000-plus yards in three consecutive seasons. He's also a multi-purpose threat after proving himself as a pass-catcher while recording 65 receptions for 498 yards.
He's a bulldozing brute at 5'11" and 213 pounds with impressive fluidity in his movement. Mack averaged 6.8 yards per carry in 2016 and showed off that agility during his pro day.
"Mack sizzled through bag drills, showing terrific quickness and burst," wrote Rang. "Mack also showed quick feet and soft hands while running routes and catching passes."
Bucky Brooks of NFL.com offered even higher praise when he compared Mack to Jordan Howard, the Chicago Bears running back who ran for 1,313 yards as a rookie.
"Mack is a nifty runner with outstanding vision, balance and body control," wrote Brooks. "He shows terrific patience with the ball in his hands and is a 'pick-and-stick' runner with sneaky wiggle and burst. Mack can make defenders miss in the hole with a jump cut or slip past multiple defenders with a slick stop-start move that's perfect for the pro game."
Mack will likely be available on Day 2 or possibly early in Day 3 only because of the other highly skilled running backs ahead of him. He could become a sneaky mid-round steal.
Loser: Wide Receiver Noah Brown
A lot of factors can go into the decision to declare for the NFL draft early. A significant one is the threat of injury, and the security an NFL paycheck provides even if you tear or break something.
That's why Ohio State wide receiver Noah Brown left the Buckeyes after his junior year. He already has personal experience with the dark hand of injury doom after breaking his leg and missing all of the 2015 season. That sped up his mental clock and timeline for pursuing the NFL. Brown told Dane Brugler of NFLDraftScout.com that the injury weighed heavily and influenced his decision to enter the 2017 draft.
That is all fine and makes this a more than justifiable career move. But Brown still needs work, and it showed during the Buckeyes' pro day.
Brown is blessed with imposing size at 6'2" and 220 pounds, and that alone will be appealing. It might just be enough to make him an early Day 3 pick if a team gets a twinkle in its eye with thoughts of molding Brown's physical gifts into something special.
But in the modern NFL, that size needs to be paired with at least average speed, a painful combination for opposing defensive backs. Brown simply doesn't have threatening speed, and it showed when he needed 4.57 seconds to run the 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to Pauline.
Brown wouldn't be the first or last receiver to excel in the NFL with mediocre speed. A large-bodied pass-catcher can find success with body positioning and quality route-running. He'll need to refine those skills, though, and especially the latter.
The difficulty with Brown is accurately projecting if he can make those changes and develop in the right areas to become a well-rounded receiver.
"Remember, he's still young in the game," an AFC scout told Zierlein. "He's basically got one year under his belt. You're going to have to do a lot of projecting with him, and that's not going to be easy."
Winner: Wide Receiver Chad Williams
Wide receiver Chad Williams is another potential buried gem who didn't get invited to the combine. He was held out because of some off-field issues, which made the Grambling State pro day his last chance to build on the encouraging pre-draft momentum that started with an impressive Senior Bowl week.
He posted testing scores that showed how easily he could separate at the next level and demonstrated his leaping ability to secure tough catches. He recorded 40-yard dash times of 4.35 and 4.39, per Pauline, and a vertical jump of 35.5 inches.
On the field, his natural athleticism led to 90 receptions for 1,337 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2016.
His draft trajectory is pointing upward again, and now NFL.com's Gil Brandt thinks Williams entered back into the Day 3 conversation.
Loser: Cornerback Howard Wilson
The lesson from Sidney Jones' brutal, gut-wrenching luck applies mostly to the top prospects who are nearly certain of being first-round picks. They should think long and hard about participating in pro days and doing one last act on a college football practice field for free that could lead to an injury.
It doesn't apply to the prospects who are clawing for each draft slot. Yet there was Houston cornerback Howard Wilson sitting out pro-day drills during his final chance to leave an impression.
Then the strangeness started.
"Later on, Wilson was throwing the ball to former Cougars signal-caller Greg Ward Jr., who was warming up for receiver drills," wrote Pauline. "According to eyewitnesses, someone ran down and yelled for Wilson to stop throwing the ball—which he did."
Wilson is allowed to make the decision to not participate in drills, but it was an unwise one. He's a promising prospect who missed most of the 2015 season due to a torn ACL. That already put him behind in his development, and an AFC scout told Zierlein if Wilson went back for another year at Houston he could have grown to become a first-round pick.
Wilson has a high ceiling after his five interceptions in 2016. And even more impressively, he averaged an interception once every 15 targets despite just one season as a full-time starter, per Zierlein.
He's surely aware of that limited starting experience over the past few seasons due to injury and the need for teams to get as many opportunities as possible to assess him. But he was still content to watch position drills.