NFL Scouting Combine Notebook: AJ Dillon Storms Up the Draft Board

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterFebruary 29, 2020

NFL Scouting Combine Notebook: AJ Dillon Storms Up the Draft Board

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    If you loved watching Derrick Henry in the playoffs, wait until you see A.J. Dillon.

    The Boston College bruiser came into the combine as just another running back entering an NFL that no longer has much use for them. But after a 4.53-second sprint and some dazzling workout results at 247 pounds, NFL teams are going to see Dillon as much more than just another pile driver between the tackles.

    Plus:

    • Georgia's D'Andre Swift, Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor and others separate themselves from the pack on a night when running backs really matter;
    • A 364-pound tackle delivers a seismic performance (and he can block, too);
    • Another offensive lineman smashes combine records (and he also can block);
    • A few second-tier quarterbacks improve their draft stock. A tiny bit;
    • Randy Moss' son muses about catching passes from Tom Brady;
    • And an exclusive Combine Notebook expose about prospects biting other prospects on the face. Find out who bit whom, when and why.

    All this and much, much more!

AJ Dillon Breaks the Mold and Blows Up the Combine

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    Joe Sargent/Getty Images

    We're here tonight to tell you about a very special running back.

    Yuck. Haven't you heard? Running backs don't matter.

    Hear us out. This back tips the scales at a burly 247 pounds.

    Double yuck. Big backs wear down halfway through their rookie training camps. We're only interested in Austin Ekeler types.

    But this big back ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash Friday, with shocking jump results for a man his size: a 41-inch vertical and a 131-inch broad jump.

    Wake us when you are finished spouting workout results.

    And he's the all-time leading rusher in Boston College history.

    Wait, did you say Boston College? The past-its-prime program that produced running back draft busts William Green and Andre Williams? Is this a comedy routine? Are we on Impractical Jokers?

    No, we're dead serious, smarty-pants. We're here to tell you about AJ Dillon, a running back who could be a better version of Derrick Henry.

    You remember Henry, right? The Titans battering ram who nearly splintered the doors to the Super Bowl with one of the best postseason performances in history, right?

    OK, we're listening.

    Dillon's combine results are almost identical to Henry's results from 2016.

    Yeah well, who cares about combine results? It's the tape that matters.

    True. And Dillon's tape is very, very good.

    I'll admit that when I started watching Dillon, I expected to see another Andre Williams: a slow-footed bruiser who pounded out a few yards at a time in Boston College's lost-in-the-'70s offense. But Dillion is shockingly quick, with excellent vision and cutback ability. His receiving chops will need work after he caught just 21 passes in three seasons as a featured back, but Henry proved that a power back can still be a dangerous weapon in the right kind of offense.

    And if you don't like the Henry comparison, Dillon offered a few others when he spoke to the media Wednesday: "I like to take bits and pieces from people's games," he said. "I look at Le'Veon Bell's patience, Leonard Fournette, the way he runs a ball with speed...the way he runs, it's an aggressive running style, Saquon's explosiveness, Steven Jackson back in the day with the Rams, that's how he ran to not really be denied yards."

    Jackson and Fournette, it should be noted, also put up combine results similar to Dillon's.

    So you're saying that Dillon is a top-10 pick because of his combine results?

    [Sigh] No. we're saying that Dillon is one of the most intriguing players in this draft class. He proved he belongs in the conversation with Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor, Georgia's D'Andre Swift and Ohio State's J.K Dobbins to be the first running back off the board. Dillon can make an instant impact, and if you are worried about a big back's workloadas you should be—then it's better to get one in his rookie contract than wait four years and splurge in free agency for someone like, say, the real Derrick Henry.

    Anything else?

    Yeah, his grandfather is former Notre Dame receiver Thom Gatewood. You can see Gatewood catching a touchdown pass from Joe Theismann in the 1971 Cotton Bowl a little after the two-and-a-half-minute mark of this video.

    OK, That's really random. But this Dillon guy does sound pretty good. Did anyone else stand out at the combine Friday?

    Read on, dear friends. Read on.

    Fair enough. We'll keep an eye on this Dillon guy.

Beyond the Drills, Part I: Running Backs

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Here's a closer look at some of Friday's jaw-dropping combine results at running back.

    D'Andre Swift, Georgia: 4.48-second 40-yard dash

    A fine result but also an expected one. We all knew Swift was fast. It says so on the back of his jersey. For many prospects, succeeding at the combine is just a matter of checking off boxes.

    Georgia guard Solomon Kindley provided some perspective Wednesday on what it was like to block for Swift. "Blocking for D'Andre Smith was very exciting because as he gets past me, I know it's gonna be a show. I'm ready for him to get past me to see what he's gonna do."

          

    Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin: 4.39-second 40-yard dash at 226 pounds.

    There were some actual questions about Taylor's speed entering the combine. Seriously. Guess that storyline, such as it was, has been laid to rest forever.

    The bigger question for Taylor is his workload: 926 carries in three seasons, the sort of mileage that makes analytics types worry that the South Jersey native left his best work on the field in the Big Ten.

    There's nothing a running back can do at the combine to roll back his odometer, but Taylor praised the Wisconsin training staff for teaching some of the finer points of load management and recovery. "Those guys did a great job of giving you the knowledge of what you need to do to prepare your body, as well as putting you in position to prepare your body for the workload of the season," he said.

         

    Cam Akers, Florida State: 4.47-second 40-yard dash.

    Akers is another guy who needed to prove to some folks that he's fast, perhaps because the blocking at Florida State isn't what it used to be and Akers spent a lot of Saturdays fighting his way to the line of scrimmage.

    "A lot of teams have a question about my speed," Akers said Wednesday. "I'll be clearing that up Friday." Yup. Sure did.

         

    Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State: 4.41-second 40-yard dash; 125-inch broad jump.

    Evans is a compact, determined runner who racked up 1,480 yards and 18 touchdowns last season with huge games against opponents like Charlotte (234 yards, three touchdowns) and Texas State (154 and three), and pretty good games against stiffer competition like South Carolina (23 carries for 85 yards). Evans is crafty in the open field, but he's quick to bounce plays to the outside, isn't that useful in the passing game (21 receptions last year) and has a duck-the-head-and-lunge blocking style.

    Evans is exactly the kind of player who needs measurables to prove he has the athletic upside to be draft-worthy, so Friday was a huge day for him.

Prospect Spotlight: Mekhi Becton, OT/Force of Nature, Louisville

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    What happened

    A minor earthquake measuring about 4.9 on the Richter Scale rumbled through downtown Indianapolis on Friday evening, setting off car alarms and... Whoops, sorry! That was no earthquake. It was just Louisville's Mekhi Becton, at 6'7" and a hulking 364 pounds, running a 5.1-second 40-yard dash, with an exceptional 1.77-second 10-yard split (a number that matters more than the dash itself for linemen).

         

    What he said

    Becton spoke Wednesday about his shocking size-athleticism combination. "They don't expect a person like me to move that well," he said of his opponents. "So I think I surprised a lot of people." Friday's results weren't surprising. They were stunning.

    As for his sometimes comical Hulk-smash pancake blocks? "It's just fun seeing a man on the ground every play and then going to jump on him. That's what I love about the game." Yep, and it's fun to watch, too.

          

    What it means

    Becton's highlight reel looks like a kaiju movie, and he looks like an uncle lining up with a Pop Warner team when standing beside the rest of the Louisville line. But he played in a zone-blocking offense that forced him to move laterally snap after snap instead of pulverizing the man in front of him. It was like using a forklift as a shopping cart, and once you get past the pancake-party highlights, there's a lot of film of Becton looking ordinary as he tries to do the work of a smaller, quicker lineman.

    Becton said Wednesday that his footwork needs refinement, he's over his ideal playing weight and wasn't the mauling finisher in 2018 that he became last year. In short, he's a work in progress, so teams picking at the start of the first round need reassurance that the upside is worth the learning curve. Becton proved this week that he has All-Pro upside. With teams like the "hog molly"-lovin' Giants picking early, Becton could be a top-five pick and has little chance of getting out of the top 15 in April's draft.

Beyond the Drills, Part II: The Big Guys

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Here's a deeper look into some of Friday's jaw-dropping combine results at offensive line and elsewhere.

    Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa: 4.85-second sprint (1.69-second split), 36.5-inch vertical jump, 121-inch broad jump

    Wirfs' vertical and broad jumps were combine records for an offensive lineman. His athleticism is no surprise: He was a high school wrestling and track standout and weight room rock star. He explained Wednesday that both individual sports improved his agility while also developing his competitive mentality. "I hate losing, so I'm not gonna let another man beat me. I'm going to do whatever I can to stop it."

    On tape, Wirfs' collisions with defenders sound like firecrackers, and he can sometimes be seen leading a convoy 25 yards down the field for his running back the way Walter Jones of the Seahawks used to do for Shaun Alexander.

    In short: Draft this man if you need a tackle. Or even if you don't.

          

    Ezra Cleveland, OT, Boise State: 4.46-second 20-yard shuttle; 7.26-second three-cone drill, both bests for offensive linemen

    Cleveland battled turf toe last season, which may have negated his strength and balance. He found himself rocked back or knocked to the ground a little too often. Cleveland's agility, coupled with 30 bench-press reps, proved he has the athleticism to be a starting left tackle and will force teams to take a deeper dive into his tape and the impact of his injury. Cleveland quietly emerged as a big winner Friday.

          

    Jedrick Wills, OT, Alabama

    Wills' numbers weren't noteworthy. But he almost knocked off a coach's head with his bare hands. That should keep this ornery technician from falling behind the workout warriors in the first-round tackle conversation.

          

    Davon Hamilton, DT, Ohio State: 33 bench-press reps

    We'll get to the defensive linemen Saturday, but Hamilton deserves a shoutout for putting on a show on the bench. Hamilton was overshadowed by Chase Young, but he's a quick-footed, 1-tech tackle who munches on double-teams, can surprise blockers with his athleticism on stunts and made a solid impression in media interviews. Athletic results like these will help Hamilton stand out as more than just a cog in the Buckeyes' defensive line machine.

Quarterback Notebook: Some Good, Some Bad, Some Eh

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Here are some final notes, observations and scuttlebutt on the quarterbacks at this year's combine.

    • Oregon's Justin Herbert and Oklahoma's Jalen Hurts helped themselves both in Thursday's workouts and during Senior Bowl week. The laid-back Herbert is convincing teams he has the confidence and temperament to be a "face of the franchise" type, and Hurts has demonstrated smoother mechanics and the potential to succeed in a conventional offense. Both players look great when throwing against "air," so stay tuned for more buzz before their pro days.
    • Jacob Eason of Washington helped himself with a 4.89 second 40-yard dash and reasonable jump and cone results, proving that he's no 6'6" elm tree in the pocket. Combine throwing sessions with no defenders were the ideal setting to showcase his impressive arm. Eason is a bootleg-brand version of Josh Allen whose tape reveals a perilously high WTF-to-OMG throw ratio. But size, arm, athleticism and some OMG throws are all he needs for some team to fall in love with him.
    • Lovers of passing mechanics gush about the quick release of Washington State's Anthony Gordon, and draft hipsters always fall hopelessly in love with pesky, undersized Air Raid quarterbacks at the drop of a hat. Gordon has built a case for a Day 3 draft selection in Indy and at the Senior Bowl. He'll then get his chance to prove he's more than a guy who plays the second halves of preseason games.
    • Some insiders I have spoken to praise Colorado quarterback Steven Montez for his mindset/toughness/preparation, but there is not a lot to love in his game film. He'll get drafted and, if he's lucky, embark on a Chase Daniel-like career.
    • I asked a few folks who observed the second throwing session Thursday (Utah's Jordan Love and lots of guys who seemed to think the goal of the drill was to throw the football out of bounds) what they thought, and most responded by shaking their heads and grunting. But Florida International's James Morgan got some positive reviews. Morgan, like Eason, is a fastball hurler who can look great in shorts but will whiz the ball into traffic from a collapsing pocket. Morgan ran a 4.89 40-yard dash and recorded adequate shuttles after gutting through a knee injury last year, so teams may take a second look at his film in search of upside.

    As for Love: While he draws his share of wishful-thinking comparisons to Patrick Mahomes, he should really thank Drew Lock for some of the first-round notice he is receiving. Lock, like Love, had lots of up-and-down, let-'er-rip film in his college portfolio when the Broncos selected him in the second round, but he quickly settled down when he took over as the starter late in the year and appears to be the team's quarterback of the future. NFL decision-makers are too cautious to chase every prospect with Mahomes-level upside (which is why Mahomes was the 10th overall pick in 2017, not the second), but they are much more willing to nibble if a player like Lock represents what will happen if the player comes up just a little short.

... and Then Jon Runyan Jr. Bit Brycen Hopkins on the Face

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    What happened

    Michigan tackle Jon Runyan Jr. straight-up chomped Purdue tight end Brycen Hopkins on the face.

    OK, this didn't happen while they were waiting for weigh-ins at the combine or on the field during a Big Ten showdown. It happened when they were toddlers and their fathers, Jon Runyan and Brad Hopkins, were bookend tackles for the Tennessee Titans.

         

    What they said

    "I'm pretty sure I remember when he did it," Hopkins said Tuesday. "He climbed right up my chest, and I watched him, and he bit me in the face. And I won't forget it. I won't hold a grudge against him, but at the same time I was scared of him. It was like, 'This kid just bit me in the face! Who does that?'"

    And what does Runyan have to say in his defense?

    "To be honest, I don't remember. I was one-to-three years old."

    Sounds like a pretty flimsy alibi.

         

    What it means

    As Hopkins suggested, the scars of this toddler-on-toddler violence have long healed. "We remain in contact," Runyan said. "It's awesome that those two little kids playing together at Titans camp are now here at the NFL combine."

    Both of those one-time little squirts will also likely be in the NFL in a few months. Hopkins is one of the top tight ends on most draft boards, and Runyan is a consummate student of the game who has generated some buzz with his workouts and interviews. So consider their turn-of-the-century conflict forgotten.

    Well, almost forgotten. "Our mothers still are best friends to this day," Runyan said. "His mother loves to remind my mother about that."

Combine News and Notes

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    Your daily rundown of what's getting talked about in the hallways of the Indiana Convention Center, the Steak 'n Shake on Maryland Street and the world beyond.

    Jerry Jones says he thinks about re-signing Dez Bryant when he is in the shower.

    Dez doesn't make sense for the Cowboys anymore. Jerrah needs to just wash that man right out of his hair.

        

    Gisele Bundchen says on Instagram that she "would love to know where I'm going to be living this year."

    Some guys need their agents to prowl Indianapolis steakhouses to drum up a free-agent market. Others have one of the most famous women on Earth act like she's on an episode of Love It or List It for them.

         

    Cardinals will play a home game next year in Mexico City.

    The Chargers will still be playing half of their road games in Los Angeles.

         

    Packers plan to make a run at Austin Hooper, per ESPN's Rob Demovsky.

    Hooper has generated serious free-agent buzz here in Indy. Per Matt Verderame of Fansided, the Pro Bowl tight end could fetch over $11 million in free agency. He would look great in a Packers uniform, getting open over the middle and wondering why Aaron Rodgers doesn't want to throw passes to him.

         

    Colts reportedly interested in free-agent defender Jadeveon Clowney.

    The Colts have $86 million in cap space. For an agent, name-dropping the Colts as a potential suitor is like a used car salesman grabbing his phone and saying, "That's the other person interested in buying this 1996 Corolla calling me right now!"

         

    Michael Silver of NFL Network reports that Washington owner Dan Snyder has had conversations with Ron Rivera about taking a quarterback with the second overall pick since before the coach was even hired.

    Great news, Skins fans! Snyder is making his own decisions again! (Ravens apparel is available at your nearest sporting goods outlet.)

         

    Saints general manager Mickey Loomis says the team has a "vision" for Taysom Hill.

    Some folks think about Dez Bryant in the shower, others of underthrown bombs on trick plays.

Prospect Spotlight: Thaddeus Moss, Tight End, LSU

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    What happened

    LSU tight end Thaddeus Moss, son of Hall of Fame wide receiver Randy Moss, did not plan to participate in drills or workouts at this week's combine; the 6'2", 250-pound prospect cited the "long, grueling season that we had in the SEC West, physical games, and our season just ended not too long ago," and said Tuesday that he was "trying to rest my body and rest my mind, putting my best foot forward and putting all of my focus into my pro day."

    NFL Network's Tom Pelissero reported Thursday that combine physicals revealed a fracture in his right foot. Moss will need surgery but should be healthy for the start of the 2020 season.

         

    What he said

    Moss was asked about the possibility of getting drafted by the Patriots and catching touchdown passes from Tom Brady. "It would mean a lot just to catch a touchdown pass, period, in the NFL. But to catch it from Tom Brady, knowing that he threw a good amount of touchdown passes to my father, it would be a good story."

    Indeed. It would be the kind of story Moss could tell his own children in 20-plus years when they enter the combine and prepare to catch touchdown passes from Tom Brady.

    Moss caught 47 passes for LSU last year but also made an impact as one of the better blockers among tight ends in this draft class. "At LSU, physicality is in our DNA. So run-game-wise, I was asked to do a lot. I looked forward to it. I love the physicality of football."

         

    What it means

    Moss is built like an H-back and was unlikely to set the world on fire with his 40 time or shuttle numbers, so skipping the workouts would have been a shrewd tactical move under any circumstances. The injury is unfortunate, but it could allow a tight end with great hands, an aggressive play style and a Hall of Fame support system to fly under the radar.

    Moss is a safer prospect than players like Mizzou's Albert Okwuegbunam, who recorded buzzy sprints and workouts Thursday. He's also a reminder that the most important component of the combine for NFL teams is not the 40 or the broad jump—it's the physical.