Early Standouts at the 2020 NFL Combine

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistMarch 1, 2020

Early Standouts at the 2020 NFL Combine

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    The NFL Scouting Combine format differed from year's past. Instead of early morning workouts, prospects ran the 40-yard dash and went through position drills during the evening. 

    According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, some of the top draft hopefuls chose to sit out with the advice from agents because of the time shift. Others chose to participate.

    Special teamers and offensive players took the field Thursday and Friday, leaving the defense for the weekend. 

    Focusing only on the offense, more than a few prospects likely made some money on the first two days of workouts. Typically, draft boards are tentatively set, but an impressive performance can cause some movement or encourage scouts to take another look at the game tapes.

    This year's draft class features a strong set of wide receivers and offensive linemen. Those position groups didn't disappoint with all eyes on them. A few players broke records, adding shine to their on-field job interviews. 

    Let's take a look at eight players who separated from the pack. While most prospects fared well, a smaller group stood out among the rest at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

            

QB Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Jalen Hurts didn't participate in wide receiver drills, but he did show off his athleticism. The Oklahoma clocked the second-fastest 40-yard dash time (4.59) among the quarterback prospects. 

    Perhaps viewers overexaggerate the importance of the 40-yard dash in terms of translation to actual game situations, but Hurts needed to display top-end speed to underscore the threat of his legs.

    According to Next Gen Stats, Hurts' athleticism compares to that of Los Angeles Chargers quarterback Tyrod Taylor. 

    Hurts had some pinpoint throws during the passing drills. According to NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah, the dual-threat signal-caller displayed solid footwork, setting himself up for those accurate darts to unfamiliar pass-catchers.

    "We saw the athlete that he is and you see him throw the football," Jeremiah said. "The ball is live. It jumps out of his hand. And watching him go through the drop right here I think his feet when you stack him up with the rest of the guys up there looks pretty good." 

    Hurts had a one-on-one X's and O's board session with NFL Network's Steve Mariucci. The near-four-minute segment showcased his football IQ—the ability to absorb, digest and communicate pro-level language. That's an overlooked but important trait in the transition from college. 

    As the quarterback position evolves with more athletic playmakers under center, Hurts should find an NFL home between pick Nos. 50 and 80 in April.

RB Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Jonathan Taylor may have moved up several spots on big boards.

    Taylor has the gaudy collegiate numbers, racking up at least 1,977 rushing yards in each of his three terms at Wisconsin. He also won the Doak Walker Award as the most outstanding running back for the 2018 and 2019 campaigns. As the icing on the cake, the 5'10", 226-pound tailback put on a show with his speed and pass-catching ability Friday.

    Taylor ran a 4.39-second 40-yard dash, logging the fastest mark within his position group. He followed that up with clean receptions in the on-field drills, hauling in passes on option and flare routes.

    In his first two years on the collegiate level, Taylor caught a combined 16 passes for 155 yards. In this past term alone, he registered 26 receptions for 252 yards and five touchdowns. He needed a solid performance as a receiver to show continued development in that aspect of his game.

    In today's league, running backs can provide a significant boost to passing attacks. Taylor has shown he's more than a potential two-down tailback. 

    In open space, as a ball-carrier or pass-catcher, Taylor can turn on the burners for chunk plays.

WR Chase Claypool, Notre Dame

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    Chase Claypool measured 6'4", 238 pounds, which may prompt teams to experiment with him at tight end. At the combine, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller talked to a scout about the prospect's possible position switch.

    "Scouts were already talking about a potential move to tight end for Notre Dame wide receiver Chase Claypool but after weighing in at 238 pounds that talk is heating up," Miller tweeted.

    Yet, Claypool ran like a wide receiver Thursday, clocking a 4.42-second 40-yard time. He finished seventh at the position, but that doesn't tell the whole story. 

    According to NFL Research, Claypool and Calvin Johnson are the only wide receivers who stood at least 6'4", 235 pounds and ran a sub-4.45-second 40-yard time. 

    Claypool possesses the athleticism that will encourage scouts to pound the table for him leading up to the draft. He also logged the fourth-best vertical jump (40.5") among this year's wideouts. 

WR Justin Jefferson, LSU

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    Justin Jefferson produced a breakout junior campaign on a title-winning squad at LSU this past season, registering 111 receptions, 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns. Still, he went into Thursday's workout circuit with minor questions about his speed. He quickly put those concerns to rest with an impressive 4.43-second 40-yard time.

    As NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah started to talk about speed as a hole in Jefferson's game, the 6'1", 202-pound wide receiver blazed the track.

    "That is huge," Jeremiah said. "That's the most important time that we've seen today. He's a great player on tape and now you've got some big-time legitimate speed on record to back it up."

    Jefferson may have teetered between late-first-round and earl-second-round territory. After the combine, teams may take another look at LSU's game tapes, focusing on the wide receiver's quickness and agility before setting a spot for him on the draft board.

    Consistent with his collegiate tape, Jefferson flashed solid pass-catching skills while in motion during the gauntlet drill. He strictly used his hands—without straying away from the ball—to reel in passes. 

    Jefferson caught passes from Joe Burrow, the presumptive No. 1 overall pick, this past term, but he possesses traits (quickness and sure hands) that should translate to the pros with any QB.

WR Henry Ruggs III, Alabama

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Henry Ruggs III didn't participate in the position drills, but we would be remiss to omit his 40-yard dash time, which stood out as the fastest mark of the day at 4.27 seconds.

    Ruggs seemed disappointed but not entirely because of his thigh injury. He aimed to break Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver John Ross III's record 4.22-second 40-yard time set in 2017.

    "My goal is to be the fastest ever," Ruggs said to Danny Kanell of CBS Sports when asked about his goal for the 40-yard dash. 

    Although Ruggs fell short of his ambitious goal, he's still the top blazer in this class and has a good chance at going in the top 15 on draft day. The Alabama product has drawn comparisons to Kansas City Chiefs wideout Tyreek Hill. The 21-year-old certainly checked the box next to speed, but we didn't see his pass-catching ability on display. 

    Ruggs will have an opportunity to showcase his hands during Alabama's pro day on March 9, assuming his injury isn't serious. 

    In addition to wide receiver duties, Ruggs could be effective on jet sweeps, handoffs in the backfield and on kick returns because of his explosiveness. Among this year's wideouts, he recorded top-five marks for the broad jump (131") and vertical jump (42"). 

    Ruggs' agility and pass-catching skills suggest he's a big-play receiver with tremendous upside.

TE, Albert Okwuegbunam, Missouri

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Albert Okwuegbunam went into the combine as one of the lesser-known prospects. He quickly made a name for himself with the fastest 40-yard dash time (4.49) among tight ends, which also tied for fourth at the position since 2003. 

    Okwuegbunam's athletic score (99), via Next Gen Stats, classifies as elite, underscoring his impressive performance Thursday evening. Taking a closer look at the former Tiger's outing, he had a smooth showing in the pass-catching gauntlet drill.

    With tight ends contributing more to passing attacks, teams will covet Okwuegbunam's size (6'5" 258 lbs) and speed combination. At Missouri, he racked up 98 catches for 1,187 yards and 23 touchdowns through three terms. 

    Almost immediately, Okwuegbunam will draw comparisons to New York Giants tight end Evan Engram, who ran a 4.42-second time during the 2017 combine. The latter took on a role as a high-volume pass-catching tight end with getaway speed.

    This year's tight end class doesn't feature a star prospect but has depth with Cole Kmet, Brycen Hopkins and Hunter Bryant all turning in solid combine performances after decent campaigns with their respective collegiate programs. Okwuegbunam will probably come off the board on Day 2 of the draft. He may have boosted his stock a bit after a strong showing in Indianapolis.

OT Tristan Wirfs, Iowa

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Tristan Wirfs stood out among his peers with record numbers for an offensive lineman. He logged a 36.5-inch vertical jump, which is the best of any prospect at the position, and 121 inches on the broad jump, tying Kolton Miller (in 2018) for the top distance among tackles, guards and centers.

    Wirfs continued to show explosiveness and bend throughout the evening. He clocked the fastest 40-yard dash time for this year's offensive linemen at 4.85 seconds. The athletic tackle looked like a dancing bear during the on-field drills, moving his feet with a wide base while excelling in the wave drill.

    The Iowa product moved fluidly in the pull exercise, which could translate to functional run blocking for a ground attack.

    Coming into the draft, Wirfs' agility may have been a bit understated because of his above-average technique, stemming from a wrestling background. He'll force teams to look back at his tape because of his gaudy workout numbers and nimble feet at 6'5", 320 pounds. 

    Wirfs solidified himself as a blue-chip offensive lineman in this class. He's a probable top-15 pick.

OT Mekhi Becton, Louisville

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Mekhi Becton ran the 40-yard dash but missed most of the position drills because of a hamstring injury. Yet, he made a huge statement with his time at 5.10 seconds with a 1.77-second 10-yard split.

    For offensive linemen, it's important to highlight the 10-yard split because it measures the first steps for a 300-plus pounder asked to mirror quick-footed pass-rushers—both on the interior and perimeter.

    At 6'7", 364 pounds, Becton can quickly go into his pass-protection stance and wall off edge-rushers who are looking to gain a step around the corner. Because of the Louisville product's size, most defenders may attempt to beat him with quickness rather than power. 

    With a little explosiveness out of the snap, Becton will pose major issues for defensive linemen around the league. He seemed to impress Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, who doesn't need a first-round tackle. Expect teams looking for help in the trenches to target the massive offensive lineman within the top 10.

    Combine results courtesy of NFL.com.