2019 NFL Combine: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakout Names

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystFebruary 8, 2019

2019 NFL Combine: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakout Names

0 of 11

    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    The picture of an unassuming Tom Brady in his boxers at the 2000 NFL combine became an indelible moment in the event's history for all the wrong reasons. 

    Brady overcame his limitations to become the greatest quarterback of all time. However, that doesn't mean every prospect without a preferred physical skill set can play in the league. 

    The combine is an opportunity for teams to identify the best incoming athletes. Some prospects wind up helping their draft status with exceptional performances, much like Dallas Cowboys cornerback Byron Jones, Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross and Pittsburgh Steelers safety Terrell Edmunds did in recent years. 

    The measurements scouts take from Feb. 26 through March 4 at Lucas Oil Stadium are only part of the evaluation, but they will matter. It's always better for a prospect to show out than the alternative. 

    With that mind, a number of prospects have a lot to gain. Some are ready to move into elite status, while others are ready to make names for themselves.          

Honorable Mention

1 of 11

    Jon Barash/Associated Press

    Obvious names like Ohio State defensive end Nick Bosa, Houston defensive tackle Ed Oliver and LSU linebacker Devin White aren't included here because they're expected to crush their workouts and maintain their status as top prospects. 

    However, the following noteworthy players can use their performance as a catapult into a different stratosphere since question marks surround their skill sets.

            

    DT Dexter Lawrence, Clemson (pictured): Lawrence's disappointing junior campaign ended with a suspension after he tested positive for a banned substance. The combine can serve as a reminder why NFL scouts were enamored with the 350-pounder who moves so well for his size. Lawrence will also have the opportunity to address any of these issues with teams. 

    DT Khalen Saunders, Western Illinois: Yes, the 320-pound Saunders can do an amazing backflip, but he can do so much more. After a dominant senior campaign, he shined at the Senior Bowl, too. Now, the FCS product can prove he belongs with the best athletes on field turf. 

    OT Jawaan Taylor, Florida: Alabama's Jonah Williams is this year's top offensive tackle prospct, but the draft-day order may work out differently. Williams' lack of length raises questions about whether he'll move inside in the NFL. That provides an opportunity for Taylor to take over the top spot just by being himself in workouts. If Taylor's measurements raise no red flags and he moves as well during position workouts as he does on film, he could easily leave Indianapolis as OT1. 

    TE Dawson Knox, Ole Miss: The Rebels tight end has a chance to raise his profile in a loaded class. Knox is a great all-around athlete who walked onto the Ole Miss program. In high school, he played quarterback, ran on the 4x200-meter relay team and even won a slam dunk competition. His athleticism translates to the field even though he wasn't allotted many opportunities in the Rebels offense. 

    WR Parris Campbell, Ohio State: In a program defined by elite NFL talent, Campbell set a school record with 90 receptions last season. Additionally, the first-team All-Big Ten performer is able to run a sub-4.3-second 40-yard dash, according to the Akron Beacon Journal

RB Jalin Moore, Appalachian State

2 of 11

    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Three factors will make the combine crucial for the Appalachian State running back Jalin Moore. 

    First, Moore fractured his right ankle in mid-October. At the time, the school announced he needed up to 12 weeks of recovery time. However, he wasn't cleared to participate in last month's Senior Bowl. A few more weeks of healing and preparation could be the difference in his ability to compete at the combine.

    Regardless of whether he's cleared to participate, the medical portion of the evaluation will dominate Moore's trip to Indianapolis. 

    Second, the combine provides prospects from non-pipeline programs an equal footing with Power Five players. Moore carried the ball 483 times for 2,839 yards and 28 touchdowns over his final three seasons even though his senior campaign came to an end in the second week of October. 

    If fully healed, Moore is one of the class' best all-around athletesAccording to the Watauga Democrat, the 207-pound back runs a 4.37-second 40-yard dash and touts a 38.5-inch vertical and 11'1" broad jump. Each of those numbers would have ranked among the top four for running backs at last year's combine. 

    Moore may not be quite 100 percent going into the combine. Even so, scouts and teams will closely monitor his explosion number.

WR Andy Isabella, Massachusetts

3 of 11

    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Last year, three prospects tied for the combine's fastest 40-yard dash at 4.32 seconds. Cornerback Denzel Ward, whom the Cleveland Browns selected with the fourth overall pick in the 2018 draft, was one of them. 

    UMass wide receiver Andy Isabella has a history of outracing Ward dating back to their Ohio high school days, but he's much more than an undersized speed demon. The 5'10", 190-pound target led major college football with 1,698 receiving yards last season. 

    "When he wasn't open, he's still open," Massachusetts quarterback Ross Comis told Bleacher Report

    In three seasons as a starter, the 2018 Walter Camp All-American caught 229 passes for 3,519 yards and 30 touchdowns. 

    His straight-line speed is only part of the equation. Isabella displays tremendous short-area quickness, which allows him to separate so long as he doesn't take any false steps. His times in the short shuttle and three-cone drills have a chance to be as impressive as his 40 time. 

    Isabella's lack of size remains a concern, but he's far more than a typical slot receiver, as he's often labeled. 

WR D.K. Metcalf, Ole Miss

4 of 11

    Thomas Graning/Associated Press

    The combine experience extends beyond the on-field portion. The medical evaluations and team interviews are every bit as important; more so, in some cases. 

    The medical evaluation may be more important for Ole Miss wide receiver D.K. Metcalf than anyone else in at the combine. Metcalf, who worked his way into top wide receiver status, suffered a neck injury in October. 

    "Long term, he'll bounce back and he'll be fine," Rebels head coach Matt Luke said at the time, per ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg. "We'll make sure he gets the very best care."

    ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Metcalf had been cleared and given a full bill of health as of Jan. 25

    However, NFL teams use their doctors to provide a third-party perspective. They don't always agree with other assessments, and it varies organization by organization. 

    Once cleared, Metcalf will have a chance to retake the top spot in a garbled, albeit deep, wide receiver class that currently lacks a true No. 1 target. Physically, he has all the traits a team wants as an X-receiver.

    At 6'4" and 230 pounds, Metcalf's size coupled with excellent top-end speed make him a big-time threat when working down the field and outside the numbers. 

WR Emanuel Hall, Missouri

5 of 11

    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    A cornucopia of wide receiver talent is available this year. The value found within the class is based on what teams are searching to acquire. 

    Missouri's Emanuel Hall is a quick-twitch athlete who threatens any defense as a deep threat. That opens up underneath routes, because opponents must always account for his speed. Hall averaged 23.5 yards per reception over the last two seasons. 

    According to Hero Sports' Andrew Doughty, Hall runs a 4.4-second 40-yard dash. His speed and ability to take the top off a defense aren't concerns, though. How Hall continues to evolve as a route-runner and what he shows during his position-specific workout can help boost his stock. 

    The 6'3", 195-pound target submitted his name to the NFL draft advisory board last year before deciding to return for his senior season. He had something to prove. 

    "The myth that I can't run routes is kind of gone," Hall said after a 171-yard performance against the Wyoming Cowboys, per the Kansas City Star's Alex Schiffer.

    Soft-tissues injuries are an issue. Hall dealt with a bothersome groin and hamstring over the last two seasons. Tightly wound explosive athletes are often prone to these problems, which makes his medical evaluations something to watch at the combine. 

OT Yodny Cajuste, West Virginia

6 of 11

    Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

    Certain prospects look the part. It's even better if they can actually play. 

    West Virginia's Yodny Cajuste has the physical profile every team wants in its starting left tackle. He's a well-built 6'5" and 321 pounds with vine-like arms. He fits the bill as a "dancing bear" because of his outstanding movement skills and fires off the ball with cat-like quickness. 

    However, those traits don't always translate to the field. Cajuste has the tendency to be overaggressive and impatient. As a result, he can take bad angles or be beat in his pass set.

    Those can be coached out of him. The natural ability he brings can't. 

    The reigning Big 12 Co-Offensive Lineman of the Year improved each season and didn't become a full-time starter until his junior campaign. 

    "There are always going to be people who say you're not good enough, but whatever you put your mind to, you've just got to go hard and put all your effort into it," Cajuste said

    Once he's on the field working out with other offensive linemen, his smooth approach should solidify his status as a first-round talent. 

TE Noah Fant, Iowa

7 of 11

    Holly Hart/Associated Press

    Two Iowa tight ends have a chance to be selected in April's opening round. 

    Reigning John Mackey Award winner T.J. Hockenson is the generally considered the top prospect because he's more well-rounded. Noah Fant is the more athletic of the two, and he'll push to earn that top spot. 

    In a league where creating mismatches is crucial, Fant has the tools to become the focal point of a passing attack. 

    Fant is a little leaner and not the same caliber of blocker as Hockenson, but he's outstanding working in space and the red zone. He led the Hawkeyes with seven touchdown receptions last season after grabbing 11 in 2017.

    According to Pro Football Focus, the first-team All-Big Ten performer ranked top 25 overall among tight ends in yards after catch per reception (6.8), passer rating when targeted (122.2), yards per reception (13.3) and pass-blocking grade (73.1). 

    Two specific numbers will wow scouts if Fant replicates them in Indianapolis.

    He set program records by a tight end with a 42.1" vertical and 3.95-second short shuttle during spring testing, per Dynasty Football Factory's L.J. Chaney. No tight end has broken the four-second barrier in the short shuttle since NFL.com began posting workout numbers in 2006. 

DE Rashan Gary, Michigan

8 of 11

    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    A serious disconnect exists between Rashan Gary's potential and actual on-field production. 

    The No. 1 overall recruit from the 2016 class has exceptional physical tools. At 6'5" and 283 pounds, Gary can play defensive end or tackle. His size coupled with a powerful punch at the point of attack and cat-like quickness means he dominated at the collegiate level, right? 

    Not so fast. 

    Gary played well, particularly when he posted a career-high 12 tackles for loss and six sacks as a sophomore. But as a whole, he didn't live up to his billing after signing with the Wolverines, in part due to Michigan's defensive scheme. 

    "He's such a presence, that even if maybe they're not paying more attention in terms of blockers on him, it funnels people toward me," fellow defensive end Chase Winovich explained, per the Detroit Free Press' Nick Baumgardner

    As a junior, the defensive lineman managed 2.8 quarterback pressures per game, according to Pro Football Focus. He did so while dealing with a shoulder injury. 

    The combine is an opportunity for Gary to remind NFL teams why he's considered an elite talent. His movement skills belie a man his size. That can take him from being a mid- to late first-round pick into the top-five conversation.

DT Renell Wren, Arizona State

9 of 11

    Darryl Webb/Associated Press

    The NFL no longer wants bulbous defensive tackles whose primary function is to eat up double-teams. The game's continued evolution has placed a greater emphasis on more athletic interior defenders who are consistently disruptive and can collapse the pocket. 

    Arizona State's Renell Wren fits that mold.

    At 6'5" and 315 pounds, Wren has the size teams covet, but his quickness to get into the backfield is his greatest trait. The defensive lineman, who has added 60 pounds between his freshman and senior seasons, ran a 4.65-second 40-yard dash in high school, according to the Sun Devils' official site.

    He hasn't slowed down all that much.  

    Wren's quickness didn't necessarily show up in the box score with 14.5 career tackles for loss and three sacks, but his penchant to blow up plays is often on display. Furthermore, NFL teams will likely see potential to mold. 

    At the combine, Wren aims to post 35 or more reps on the bench, run a 4.8-second 40-yard dash and produce better than a 33-inch vertical and 9'11" broad jump, per NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. Just for reference, not a single 300-pound prospect hit all of those numbers last year.

LB Porter Gustin, USC

10 of 11

    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    USC's Porter Gustin eats, sleeps and breathes football. 

    "Porter has changed the culture of this weight room," Trojans head strength and conditioning coach Ivan Lewis said, per the Orange County Register's Joey Kaufman

    Gustin is more than a workout warrior. His strict adherence to nutrition and preventative medicine is fanatical. The defender eats almost 10,000 calories per day, per Kaufman. He hasn't touched processed sugars since he was 11 years old. He receives 90 minutes of soft tissue therapy every day. 

    All of this turned a scrawny high school kid into a hard-nosed 260-pound linebacker, who managed 13 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in only 10 games over the past two seasons. He posted the most run stops among Pac-12 defenders during the 2016 campaign, per Pro Football Focus

    Gustin is an outstanding player, and he treats his body like a temple. But it's broken down at times. He dealt with toe and biceps injuries as a junior. As a senior, Gustin suffered a torn meniscus at the start of the season, and a broken ankle ended it prematurely. 

    He's expected to be ready for the combine to show off his physique and athletic prowess. Like others mentioned, his medicals are of the utmost importance. 

CB Kendall Sheffield, Ohio State

11 of 11

    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Ohio State never fails to produce quality NFL prospects. 

    Defensive end Nick Bosa is the presumptive No. 1 overall pick. Dwayne Haskins is the favorite to be the first quarterback selected. Defensive tackle Dre'Mont Jones is a future first- or second-round selection. As mentioned earlier, wide receiver Parris Campbell has a chance to post an impressive combine. 

    But cornerback Kendall Sheffield has the most to gain from his time in Indianapolis. 

    Sheffield originally committed to Alabama before spending a year at Blinn College and transferring to Ohio State. 

    His raw speed separates him from most. Sheffield is the fastest player ever to come out of the Buckeyes program after breaking a school record with a 6.63-second 60-meter dash. The former track standout won the 2014 Texas state 5A 110-meter and 300-meter hurdles championships as well. 

    As a cornerback, though, Sheffield is far from polished. He's still a work in progress with tremendous upside, even though he tied for the team lead with eight pass breakups. 

    "I think each week I've gotten better and better even through my ups and downs throughout the season," Sheffield said before the Rose Bowl, per The-Ozone's Tom Orr.