Prospects with the Most to Prove at 2018 NFL Combine

Justis Mosqueda@justisfootballFeatured ColumnistFebruary 21, 2018

Prospects with the Most to Prove at 2018 NFL Combine

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    On Tuesday, I wrote about the hidden gems who could rise up draft boards at the NFL Scouting Combine. On Wednesday, I am covering the other side of the coin: well-known prospects with a potentially costly question mark. 

    These are the types of players who may have made multiple all-conference or All-American lists at football factories but are undersized, have questions about their athleticism, were misused or are recently coming off of an injury. With the way that the current collective bargaining agreement is structured, falling down even a handful of spots on Day 1 or 2 is a costly slip for a prospect's earnings.

    Excelling in their last test, athletic measurables, can make or lose draft prospects several millions of dollars over the course of their four-year rookie contracts. For these eight prospects, turning the narrative from what might be a hole in their college careers to their athletic potential could be valuable.

    Here's a crash course on the players who might have the most volatile stock heading into the combine.

James Washington, WR, Oklahoma State

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    No one can argue James Washington's production. For three straight seasons, Washington recorded at least 1,000 receiving yards at Oklahoma State, capped off with a 1,549-yard season as a senior. In terms of receiving yards, Washington has the seventh-most in NCAA history, but the names ahead of him (Corey Davis, Trevor Insley, Ryan Broyles, Justin Hardy, Marcus Harris and Patrick Edwards) aren't exactly a list of Pro Bowl wideouts.

    Production means something. Traits mean more. Every scouting report that will be focused around Washington will start with his elite ability to track the football. There's no doubt that he is great at that aspect, but what does that mean for his NFL projection?

    In the NFL, you don't get put into a position where you can track the ball deep, like Washington did in the Big 12, unless you have elite speed. There's reason to question if he can replicate that style of play in the NFL. Last year, the only Big 12 cornerback taken in the entire NFL draft was Rasul Douglas of West Virginia, a junior college transfer who ran a 4.59-second 40-yard dash (18th percentile for NFL cornerbacks) at the combine.

    According to NFL Draft Scout, there isn't a Big 12 cornerback worth drafting in the first five rounds of the draft this season. Because of Washington's style of play and the general lack of cornerback talent in the Big 12, a lot will be made of Washington's 40-yard dash time, right or wrong.

    Another factor that might concern teams is that his teammate, Marcell Ateman, recorded 18 receptions for 325 yards and five touchdowns on third and fourth down this past season. Washington only recorded eight receptions for 139 yards and one touchdown, despite producing on first and second down. When Oklahoma State needed a play, especially on in-breaking routes, they went to Ateman significantly more than Washington.

    To separate himself from the pack in this receiver class, Washington is going to need to prove that his deep game will translate to the NFL.

D.J. Chark, WR, LSU

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    There's an almost seven-minute YouTube video that has every reception that LSU receiver D.J. Chark recorded in 2017. If you sit a five-year-old in front a computer screen and press play, the child would be able to tell you that Chark is fast.

    The problem is, in LSU's underdeveloped passing game, speed is basically all Chark flashed in his Tigers career.

    Last year, former Tigers receiver Travin Dural made the New Orleans Saints practice squad, despite going undrafted after posting just 280 receiving yards in his senior season of 2016. That same year, Dural's teammate, Malachi Dupre, recorded 593 yards as a junior and was later drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the seventh round.

    The NFL has been aware of LSU's passing woes for years, and NFL teams have bet on receivers that the program has largely done wrong. Chark's 874-yard senior season is the best an LSU receiver has recorded since Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry left Baton Rouge in 2013, but he's far from a finished product.

    On film, he looks a lot like New York Jets receiver Robby Anderson, who recorded 587 yards as an undrafted rookie in 2016 and 941 yards in 2017. But to live in the NFL with Anderson's playing style, you need to match his speed. According to NFL Draft Scout, Anderson ran a 4.36-second 40-yard dash at Temple's pro day in 2016.

    Chark is fast, but is he that fast? As a player who, at least at the moment, will have to live off his ability to win on nine routes and post routes, he could be a second- or fifth-round pick based on the results of his 40-yard dash.

Connor Williams, OT, Texas

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    Connor Williams was a sophomore phenom in 2016. The Texas Longhorns left tackle was largely considered to be a future franchise bookend and a potential top-10 pick. Unfortunately, a knee issue kept him off the field for two months in 2017, and his play, before and after being pulled off the field, left some unsatisfied.

    Still, Williams declared for the NFL draft a year early, leading to the age-old question: What on earth do we do with NFL prospects who regressed before the draft? Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline stated this week that  many teams project Williams to be a guard because they don't think he can hack it at left tackle.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein is also in on the Williams-to-guard movement. For what it's worth, Zierlein is the son of Larry Zierlein, who has coached offensive linemen for Cleveland (2001-04), Buffalo (2006), Pittsburgh (2007-09) and Arizona (2013-17), among many stints at the college level.

    Showing the world that he's at full health and looking like the player he was in 2016 could be the difference in $10 million for Williams over the course of his rookie deal. Hitting the right numbers on the bench and in the agility drills should be a major focus for him.

Maurice Hurst, DL, Michigan

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    Michigan defensive tackle Maurice Hurst has 13.5 sacks and 32 tackles for loss on his college resume. His production was solid, to be sure, but some teams might be concerned about his size. 

    According to NFL Draft Scout, the class' top under tackle is just 280 pounds. Because he didn't play at the Senior Bowl, we have no idea if that number is 10 pounds too high or too low, but Hurst was also listed at 280 pounds by Michigan's official site

    Aaron Donald famously weighed in at 285 pounds, which is likely a reason the All-American fell to the 13th overall pick. He also ran a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and a 7.11-second three-cone drill. Relative to defensive tackles, Donald's numbers for the 10-yard split, 40-yard dash, vertical jump, broad jump, broad jump, three-cone, short shuttle and bench press were between the 80th and 99th percentile for the position. While Donald was undersized for his position, he was athletic for his size.

    Smaller defensive tackles such as Geno Atkins, Mike Daniels, Grady Jarrett and Jurrell Casey have shown that the same mold Donald was cast from works. We know Hurst is likely to come in lighter and shorter (6'2") than most defensive tackles. We know Hurst is likely to test better than most defensive tackles in Indianapolis. Draft picks are made based on results, though, and Hurst will need to prove that his athletic numbers match what he showed on film for teams to take a 280-pound defensive tackle in the first round.

Marcus Davenport, EDGE, UTSA

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    Defensive end Marcus Davenport of UTSA has shot up mock drafts over the last few months, as the relative unknown has risen to a top-10 pick. Over the course of his college career, Davenport recorded 21.5 sacks and 37.5 tackles for loss, with 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss coming in 2017.

    At the Senior Bowl, Davenport weighed in at nearly 6'6" and 259 pounds, a little light for his frame but more than large enough to hit the NFL threshold. In Mobile, he was invisible for his first two practices of the week, often landing on the ground, but he finished with a strong Thursday practice. In the Senior Bowl game, he was one of the most productive players, reminding some of Ezekiel Ansah who had quiet practices but a standout game.

    Davenport is a mixed bag that is being marketed as a can't-miss prospect. There isn't a Conference USA offensive tackle who was invited to the 2018 combine. Over the previous three years, Forrest Lamp is the only Conference USA offensive lineman drafted into the NFL. Lamp was a left tackle at Western Kentucky before moving to guard for the Los Angeles Chargers.

    Up until the Senior Bowl, Davenport had almost never lined up against an NFL-caliber offensive lineman. His up-and-down play there should have had some pumping the breaks a bit. Like all small-schoolers, showing at the combine that your athleticism is comparable to or better than those of big-school prospects is crucial. For a small-schooler who is being talked about as a top-10 pick, it will be a vital day.

Arden Key, EDGE, LSU

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    Arden Key posted 16 sacks and 19 tackles for loss in his first two years at LSU. Consequently, most NFL draft analysts projected him to be a first-round pick in "too early" mock drafts last offseason. Since the 2016 football season, though, the narrative on Key has flipped.

    Before, one concern about Key was that he looked like he was playing edge defender for LSU with a playing weight in the low 240s. After taking a leave of absence from the team in the 2017 offseason, Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer reported that scouts believed he was up to close to 280 when he returned.

    LSU listed him at 265 pounds, but over a month removed from the Tigers' last game, there's no way for an outsider to know his weight. On top of that, he regressed a bit in 2017, and we still don't know the full story of why he left the football team in the offseason.

    NFL teams, who will get one-on-one interviews with Key for the first time, will get to the bottom of his wild 2017. Key is no longer being mocked as a top-10 pick anymore. If teams are sold on the athlete and the man, he could be by next month. If teams are scared off by what they see in Indianapolis, he may fall all the way out of the first round like Tim Williams last draft class or Randy Gregory three draft classes ago.

Harold Landry, EDGE, Boston College

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    As a junior in 2016, Harold Landry made 16.5 sacks and 22 tackles for loss for Boston College. Many considered him to be a first- or second-round pick, but he elected to return to school for his senior season. This made him one of the most popular senior draft prospects heading into 2017.

    Unfortunately, an ankle issue clearly bothered him all season. If he wasn't missing a game, he was playing on a pitch count or playing half-speed. The result? Just five sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss in eight games.

    After missing the end of his college career and the Senior Bowl, Landry will hope to be back to 100 percent for combine testing. If he is, he should be a standout performer. NFL Network's Bucky Brooks compared Landry to Von Miller this month. Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner said Landry's 2016 season is better than any other season by a pass-rusher in this draft class.

    If Landry is healthy and can put up Vic Beasley-like combine numbers, he will quickly join North Carolina State's Bradley Chubb and UTSA's Marcus Davenport in the top tier of edge defenders in this class. With that said, if 100 percent healthy is still a question.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, DB, Alabama

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    Minkah Fitzpatrick's presence on this list is no fault of his own. The Alabama safety played at an All-American level twice in his last two years with the Crimson Tide and has earned the label "Nick Saban's son" by his teammates.

    In college, he was used as a slot cornerback who would blow up bubble screens, a high safety ball hawk in long passing situations and a tremendous blitzer when playing near the line of scrimmage. For Alabama, he was something close to the Green Bay Packers' Charles Woodson (when he played slot corner and safety) and the Minnesota Vikings' Harrison Smith.

    Still, the most valuable position in the defensive backfield is outside cornerback, not inside cornerback or safety. According to Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner, Fitzpatrick only played 13 snaps at outside cornerback all season. Anyone who says he or she knows what Fitzpatrick would look like at outside cornerback is either lying or doesn't need much information to be convinced.

    The bright side is that athletic cornerbacks, at least all-around athletes, are likely to pan out in the NFL. If Fitzpatrick tests well, he should be able to shake some of the doubters.

    At the top of the draft, the difference in money is drastic. For example, Solomon Thomas, the third overall pick in last year's draft, signed a four-year contract worth over $28 million. Deshaun Watson, the 12th overall pick in last year's draft, signed a four-year contract worth less than $14 million.

    Proving that you're an elite cornerback prospect, not an elite safety prospect, seems like nitpicking from some, but it could be the difference between millions of dollars for Fitzpatrick.