Matt Miller's 2018 NFL Scouting Combine Primer
Money will be made and money will be lost at the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, which kicks off this week. Which players are poised to go home with increased stock, and which could turn a bad week into declining interest from NFL teams? We'll address that while also discussing the controversial quarterback class, the players with a shot to break records and an early look at the tampering teams will do with general managers and agents in the same room.
But first, an overview. The NFL combine accommodates 335 players. Keep that in mind as you're thinking about how many talented players weren't invited. The NFL draft has 256 picks, which means a significant amount of invitees won't hear their names called in late April and a good number of those not invited will be drafted. An invite to the combine is a sign of the NFL's interest, but it's not a guarantee of being drafted.
Those 335 players will ascend on Indianapolis for a week of testing both on and off the field. Each athlete will go through an intense physical, a drug test, a Wonderlic test, a personality test and 15-minute interviews with NFL clubs that have interest in them. If they're expecting a vacation, this isn't it. Players can bet on four to six hours of sleep each night before waking up to rush to a drill or an interview.
This is the ultimate job interview—which has become a cliche but is the best way to describe the combine to an outsider. Win here and your stock rises. Fail and you may never hear your phone ring on draft weekend.
Latest Insider Buzz
Where will Cousins sign? There are obvious connections to the New York Jets; and we've seen Joe Thomas recruiting him to Cleveland and Von Miller recruiting him to Denver on Twitter. I also expect the Minnesota Vikings to at least see what Cousins is looking for. But this week will go a long way toward determining where he'll sign when free agency starts March 14. It's technically tampering, but every NFL team will be talking to agents this week to lay the groundwork for deals. Cousins is the domino everyone is waiting to fall first. Expect him to wind up with the New York Jets.
Ian Rapoport of NFL Media reported that the Minnesota Vikings are "not expected" to use the franchise tag on Keenum. That opens up a path for him to become a starter elsewhere on a big contract. The rumors I've heard all offseason point to the Denver Broncos as the most likely fit for Keenum given his style of play and expected contract demands.
Landry is on the block, according to one pro personnel director I spoke with this week. The Miami Dolphins placed the franchise tag on Landry but plan to move him for draft picks. The going rate, according to the personnel director, "starts" with a third-rounder. Teams like the San Francisco 49ers, with a need at receiver but unable to secure one in the draft, should make that call.
Players with the Most to Gain
Lamar Jackson, QB, Louisville
The 2017 Heisman Trophy winner is an electric, dominant player but is among the most polarizing prospects I can remember evaluating. Jackson made huge strides as a player in 2017, but NFL sources maintain he's at best a developmental quarterback and at worst moving to wide receiver. A good week of interviews and workouts could help Jackson gain the traction he needs inside front offices.
Arden Key, EDGE, LSU
Off-field and injury questions plagued Key's year and kept him from realizing his potential as a top edge-rusher. NFL teams will poke and prod Key mentally and physically to find any cracks in his armor. If he can ace his interviews and pass the drug test—something it was rumored he failed at LSU—Key has the physical tools to dominate. He's a naturally gifted rusher with the skills to stand up or rush with his hand down.
Luke Falk, QB, Washington State
Too often forgotten in this quarterback class is Luke Falk. The Washington State senior doesn't have a huge arm or game-changing speed, but he's incredibly intelligent and has enough tools to start in the NFL. While Falk might not have the ceiling of Josh Allen or Lamar Jackson, his floor is higher. If he becomes a Kirk Cousins-type starter, it wouldn't be a surprise. Interviews and workouts should be very kind to Falk all week.
Players with the Most to Lose
Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma
Mayfield enjoyed a meteoric rise during the 2017 college football season and has firmly put himself inside the conversation to be a top-10 pick after a strong Senior Bowl. But when you're at the top, you have the most to lose, and Mayfield now has to win over the owners and general managers in charge of making the selections in Round 1. Every club official interviewing him this week will be asking about his offseason arrest and comparing him to Johnny Manziel—something he's not a fan of. How well Mayfield handles the pressure of interviews will impact how early he's drafted.
Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA
Speaking of players who need to ace the interview portion, UCLA's Rosen is the one with a target on his back. From a mechanics standpoint, no one is better in this class. Rosen is perfection as a thrower but has to convince decision-makers he won't be a distraction or a problematic teammate. The 15-minute speed-dating-style interviews will give teams a glimpse into who he is, but good area scouts have already been digging and will likely use the combine to verify what their investigations into his personality uncovered.
Holton Hill, CB, Texas
Maybe I jinxed him, but the week before the University of Texas suspended Hill, he was ranked as my No. 1 cornerback for the 2018 class. Off-field problems and rumored failed drug tests are issues that must be addressed head-on by Hill this week. If he can pass the combine test and come across as repentant and changed in interviews, his stock could be rehabbed.
Forget the 40; 3-Cone Is Where It's at
The 40-yard dash gets all the hype during the scouting combine, but it's the three-cone drill that other evaluators and I really care about. It just gets lost in the shuffle of the week because you won't see Simulcams or Rich Eisen running it in a suit.
The 40-yard dash is relevant because it's exciting and great on TV. It serves a purpose as a comparison drill. NFL teams can look at what time Saquon Barkley runs and compare that historically with other running backs. But the three-cone is an indicative of athleticism.
When I'm evaluating athletes, I want to see burst, balance, agility and flexibility. No other drill showcases all of that. The three-cone does it in less than 10 seconds. It's cool to get hyped about the 40, and I've already made some prop bets on it, but just remember the real scouts love the three-cone.
The talk of the combine last year was the record-breaking 4.22-second 40-yard dash by Washington's John Ross. That time is largely responsible for putting Ross inside the Top 10 (ninth overall by the Cincinnati Bengals). Who should be on record watch this year?
Junior cornerback Donte Jackson has told reporters, including NFL Media's Jane Slater, that he has a shot at the 40-yard-dash record. Jackson definitely looks fast on film, but 4.22 is a different kind of speed. Regardless of whether he breaks the record, all eyes will be on him when he lines up to run the 40.
Whether you count Stephen Paea's 49 or Justin Ernest's 51 reps of 225 pounds as the record, no one is expected to come close.
Chris Conley's record of 45" is practically untouchable, but keep an eye on Florida State's Derwin James. If he's feeling it, he could break 42" at 217 pounds. James is a top candidate to be the overall winner of the combine given his low 4.4 speed and strength.
Quarterback Stock Watch
There isn't a consensus No. 1 quarterback right now. Will that change at the combine? Perhaps the most promising storyline will be who emerges as the top passer coming out of Indianapolis.
According to Rapoport, Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma), Josh Rosen (UCLA) and Josh Allen (Wyoming) will all throw at the combine. Each has nothing to hide. Mayfield and Allen were just at the Senior Bowl a month ago throwing every day, and Rosen has beautiful passing mechanics.
It's yet to be said if Lamar Jackson (Louisville) will throw, and Sam Darnold (USC) is reportedly not throwing, per Schefter. It's notable that they're the two passers whose passing mechanics need the most work. Darnold has been working with quarterbacks coach Jordan Palmer this offseason; Jackson's coach hasn't been revealed if he's hired one.
What Goes on Behind Closed Doors?
Here is what really matters about combine week. It's not the 40-yard dash or three-cone. It's not who can throw the fastest on a radar gun or bench-press the most. It's about how you interview and how you look medically.
Former NFL player Matt Bowen of ESPN told me a story once about being grilled at the combine by a team doctor concerned with a scar he had. The doctor wanted to know about a potential surgery he believed Bowen was hiding. Turns out it was from a bike wreck he'd had as a kid. That's how intense these medical evaluations can be.
Passing the medical exams is something the player cannot control. What they can control is how they do in the team interviews. Teams get 15 minutes with a player they've requested to speak to. During that time, a quarterback's worst plays in college might be flashed on a screen, or he may be asked to memorize a play and then recite it at the end of the interview. Every team handles its 15 minutes differently, but the goal is usually to put pressure on the prospect to see how he responds.
While the news you see and hear coming out of Indianapolis will mostly revolve around on-field events, it's these speed dating sessions that can often decimate a player's stock.
Ready, Set, Tamper!
No one likes to talk about it, but this is where most deals in free agency get started and some might even get done. Why don't they talk about it? Because it's technically illegal.
The NFL free-agency period begins March 14, and teams can begin talking to the representatives of unrestricted free agents on March 12. Until the new league year begins, though, they can't officially agree to a contract. But of course the talking begins way before March 12, and most deals are agreed to before then—how else would Adam Schefter have contract details one minute after free agency started?
It's in the back rooms of Indianapolis bars and steakhouses that these deals are cemented. You can be sure Kirk Cousins' reps will find time to share a drink with the Denver Broncos or New York Jets (if not both) this week. The same goes for every top-tier free agent hitting the market in March.
Top Combine Sleepers
Nyheim Hines, RB, North Carolina State
A speedy running back prospect with the inside-outside vision to be a threat right away in the NFL, Hines has been a forgotten man in a deep running back class. A good combine performance could shoot him to late Day 2.
Dante Pettis, WR, Washington
One of the best punt returners in college football history, Pettis is also a good receiver prospect with a solid Day 2 grade. In a wide receiver class dominated by Calvin Ridley (Alabama) but with no one yet emerging as the No. 2 in the group, Pettis could stand to make money with an impressive week.
Kentavius Street, DL, North Carolina State
I'm not a fan of Street's film, but there is no doubting the man will put on a show in Indianapolis. Just watching his tape, you see how athletically gifted he is. Coaches at NC State also rave about his agility and strength. He'll send plenty of scouts back to double-check the film after this week.
Tony Brown, DB, Alabama: The fourth of the Alabama defensive backs likely to be drafted this season, Brown is a top-notch athlete and should generate a nice amount of buzz in Indianapolis. One scout I spoke to this week thought Brown might run in the low 4.4s and should test well in all agilities.
Hayden Hurst, TE, South Carolina
A former baseball player who will be 25 years old when the season starts, Hurst can solidify his status as a top-three tight end this week. Teams want a chance to see and talk to Hurst but also need to see how well he looks in physicals. Does his body carry more wear and tear? Does he have room to gain strength? Answering those questions could improve his stock in Indianapolis.
Top Combine Snubs
Poona Ford, DT, Texas
A potential Day 3 prospect, Ford showed athleticism and instincts at the Senior Bowl and on tape this season. He's a surprise snub who could have benefited from a chance to alleviate concerns about his lack of height (6'0") and proved that in the right scheme he could be an NFL contributor.
Adam Breneman, TE, UMass
A former Penn State signee, Breneman retired from football briefly due to injury but returned at UMass and was a beast the last two seasons. In a deep tight end class, it's somewhat understandable that Breneman wasn't invited, but his numbers (134 catches in two seasons) and skill set are draft-worthy.
Daurice Fountain, WR, Northern Iowa
A favorite of mine on the all-star circuit this winter, Fountain definitely has the skills of a draft-caliber wide receiver. Unfortunately, the combine can only accommodate so many players and he was left out of this year's deep class. He's still expected to hear his name called on draft weekend.
Joe Ostman, EDGE, Central Michigan
Another surprising omission was Ostman. The Central Michigan defensive end made plays all season long and was also impressive in all-star practices. And while he wasn't expected to blow away the competition, I had a top-200 grade on him and expected the NFL to validate that with an invite.
Jeremy Reaves, S, South Alabama
Reaves might be a bit undersized in the hand and arm department (7 ¾" hands, 30 ⅜" arm length), but he was a monster in the Sun Belt and impressed with his football instincts and IQ at the Senior Bowl. It would have been nice to see Reaves run at the combine, but his pro day should give him a chance to prove himself to scouts.