2021 NFL Draft Prospects Hurt Most by the Lack of a Scouting Combine
Most years, the NFL Scouting Combine is one of the centerpieces of the predraft process. Hundreds of college football's top players gather annually in Indianapolis to be put through their paces by NFL coaches and scouts.
Until this year, anyway. As a result of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic, there won't be a scouting combine. Teams will instead travel in limited numbers to each school's pro day to watch players work out.
It throws quite the monkey wrench into predraft evaluations. A great or poor showing at the combine can have a significant effect on draft stock, shooting players up or down teams' boards.
The combine has long been an event that favors athleticism. The "Underwear Olympics" are won each year by the fastest, strongest and most agile prospects. Missing out on this opportunity to show off in Indianapolis could be a sizable hit to the stock of some of this year's top players, especially those who elected to sit out the 2020 season.
For the prospects listed here, pro days just became a lot more important, because every slot farther down the draft board means less cash on that first contract.
Trey Lance, QB, North Dakota State
There isn't a player who stood to benefit more from the combine than Trey Lance.
Mind you, Lance will still all but certainly be a first-round pick this year after throwing for 2,786 yards and 28 touchdowns without a single interception back in 2019. As Matt Howe reported for 247Sports, ESPN draft expert Todd McShay believes the 6'4", 226-pound Lance is a slightly better pro prospect than Justin Fields.
"Everyone is talking about Justin Fields from Ohio State," McShay said. "They have almost identical grades. They're both mobile, they're both big, they're both strong, they both have strong arms. I think he [Lance] processes the field and sees the field a little bit better than Fields does."
Indianapolis would have afforded Lance an opportunity to hammer McShay's assessment home: to show out against Fields and Clemson's Trevor Lawrence; to offer NFL teams a chance for an apples-to-apples comparison with the top signal-callers in this year's class.
The fact is, we haven't seen Lance take on an elite defense—or even an FBS defense. That difference in the level of competition matters. So does the fact that the COVID-19 pandemic limited Lance to just a single game in 2020, a lackluster performance against Central Arkansas.
It's still a possibility that some QB-needy team will select the lanky and athletic small-school star inside the top 10. But watching him work out at the combine would have made it easier for a GM to justify doing it.
Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
There is no argument that Trevor Lawrence isn't the top prospect at the game's most important position. He's a tier unto himself, and barring an earth-shattering upset, he'll be the first player chosen April 29.
After that, the second tier under center on most draft boards consists of, in some order, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields and Trey Lance. All three will more likely than not be chosen in the first round.
Then, however, the waters muddy. And among the QBs vying to potentially jockey their way into the back end of the draft's first day, Kyle Trask stands out as a player who would have benefitted immensely from a strong performance in Indianapolis.
Trask had a great senior season in Gainesville, completing 68.9 percent of his passes for 4,283 yards with 43 touchdowns against just eight interceptions. He was also named a finalist for the Heisman Trophy.
However, the last outing of Trask's collegiate career was one of his worst—a sloppy 158-yard, three-pick effort in a blowout loss to Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. He also wasn't able to rehab his stock at the Senior Bowl, withdrawing from January's event with an ankle injury.
Trask is accurate. He's hard-nosed. He's experienced. But he's a "classic pocket passer" (code for slow), and he doesn't have a huge arm.
Florida's pro day will afford Trask a chance to accentuate his positives and minimize his negatives, but his chances of changing perceptions about him would have been a lot better at a full-on combine.
Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis
The COVID-19 pandemic wrought havoc on all aspects of American life, and college football wasn't spared. It was a mess, and it was one that quite a few players decided to skip altogether by opting out of the 2020 campaign.
The 5'11", 191-pound Kenneth Gainwell can hardly be faulted for taking a pass. According to Jason Munz and Evan Barnes of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, at the time of the opt-out, Gainwell's father indicated that the family lost four loved ones to the coronavirus.
"He decided that he didn't want to take any chances with the coronavirus going on. You don't want to to get out there and get sick and bring it to us, his brother or his teammates," Curtis Gainwell Sr. said.
It was a rotten break for a back who was coming off a huge season (1,459 rushing yards, 6.3 YPC, 13 touchdowns). He was also quite the threat as a pass-catcher, hauling in 51 passes for 610 yards and three more scores.
Given that 2,000-yard season and all the tape displaying Gainwell's elite explosiveness, he's probably still in at least the Day 2 conversation.
But he wasn't eligible for the Senior Bowl, and now that the combine is kaput, there will be a ton of pressure on him at the Memphis pro day to show that his long layoff hasn't cost him a step.
Marquez Stevenson, WR, Houston
One of the highlights of the combine every year is the "dash for cash." Each year, players take to the field in Indianapolis to vie for the title of the combine's fastest man. More often than not, that player is either a wide receiver or a defensive back.
If there was a combine in 2021, one of the leading candidates to peel off the fastest 40 time would have been Marquez Stevenson.
He didn't do a lot over the five games he played in 2020, but over the two preceding seasons, the 5'10", 182-pounder caught 127 passes, topped 1,900 receiving yards and found the end zone 18 times. Stevenson reportedly possesses 4.38 speed in the 40, and as Ian Cummings wrote for Pro Football Network, those wheels were on display at the Senior Bowl, but:
"After being listed at 6-foot-0, 191 pounds before the Senior Bowl, Stevenson measured in a full two inches shorter than expected. That didn't kick off his Senior Bowl week on a high note, but Stevenson performed admirably in practices, even if he didn't stand out to the level of other receivers. Stevenson's speed stood out on more than one occasion, and he also supplemented that with good change-of-direction skills at times. Stevenson's weigh-in hurt him, but he was able to do enough on the field to break even."
He would not have gotten taller between Mobile and Indianapolis. But had he posted one of the best 40 times at the event, his stature wouldn't have stood out as much.
Rashawn Slater, OT, Northwestern
You're soon going to notice a theme among the remaining players in this piece: Most didn't play in 2020, opting out because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It's been a while since we saw Rashawn Slater, but as Alex Shapiro wrote for NBC Chicago, Northwestern head coach Pat Fitzgerald believes any team that drops him on its board because of his layoff is making a mistake.
"He fits at the very top [of the board at tackle]," Fitzgerald said. "Young man that came in, and right away was an instant-impact player. Amazing family; dad played in the NBA. Really athletic. Just needed to get stronger, and to Rashawn's credit, my goodness is he a freak in the weight room. He's going to have one heck of a pro day."
There's a lot to like about the 6'4", 315-pounder. Slater played against 2020 NFL DROY Chase Young in 2019 and more than held his own. He also has experience at both tackle spots. But Slater lacks ideal length for a tackle prospect, leading some draftniks to project that his best fit in the pros is as a guard or even center.
Salter will have an opportunity to show off at Northwestern's pro day and solidify his status as a Round 1 pick. But workouts and interviews at the combine would have offered him a chance to make his case to both stay at tackle in the NFL and get drafted ahead of other Tier 2 tackles like Virginia Tech's Christian Darrisaw.
Gregory Rousseau, EDGE, Miami
The combine is a showcase for athleticism, as possessing great technical acumen won't turn as many heads as a blazing 40 time or a ridiculous vertical.
As David Lake reported for 247Sports, Miami head coach Manny Diaz thinks Gregory Rousseau would have blown up the event because the 6'7", 270-pounder has traits that can't be taught.
"He had a great season [in 2019], and he has great measurables that you just can't teach. His length and his ability to bend," Diaz said. "If you look at his sacks, they were high-motor sacks where he was coming off a block and getting a quarterback on the ground that was trying to scramble out of there. He has a unique set of skills, and that makes him very valuable."
Rousseau's 2019 season was great indeed: 54 total tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss and 15.5 sacks. But as was the case for so many of the players appearing in this piece, 2020 was a wash for Rousseau, who opted out over concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.
To be clear, Rousseau isn't dropping out of Round 1 unless he spontaneously combusts at Miami's pro day. He may very well be the first edge-rusher selected in 2021.
But had he gone to Indianapolis and put on a show, he could have locked down the status of the No. 1 edge-rusher in 2021 and a top-10 pick.
Last year, the difference between being drafted at No. 8 and No. 17 was over $1.2 million in 2020 salary and about $6.5 million over the life of the deal.
Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
Azeez Ojulari is attempting to get what Gregory Rousseau already has: status as a first-round prospect.
Unfortunately, Ojulari won't have the combine to aid him in this quest.
The 6'3", 240-pound Ojulari had an excellent 2020 season: 12.5 tackles for loss and 9.5 sacks. According to Schuyler Callihan of All Panthers, his speed off the edge should appeal to quite a few teams, especially those running a three-man base front:
"Burst and bend. They are the basic requirements for edge-rushers in today's era of football. In order to get after the quarterback in the NFL, you have to have elite quickness, and Ojulari has it in spades. The common scouting term for this is 'twitch.' Ojulari is consistently placing SEC tackles in poor body positioning, forcing them to open their hips early in the rep. This is a direct indicator of what the threat of a speed rush does to offensive tackles."
However, Ojulari isn't without flaws. At just 240 pounds, he's somewhat undersized even by outside linebacker standards. He also didn't display much in the way of secondary moves at Georgia—if his initial burst didn't get him home, that was usually that.
Ojulari's quickness and burst would probably have shined through in drills at the combine. And every top-five result in those drills would have made it easier for teams at the back of Round 1 to have convinced themselves that they could have put some weight on Ojulari and coached up his technique.
Levi Onwuzurike, DT, Washington
The predraft process wasn't completely wiped out for Levi Onwuzurike. The 6'2", 290-pounder was on the field in Mobile for Senior Bowl workouts and fared well in one-on-one drills, according to Tim Twentyman of the Detroit Lions website. Onwuzurike told Twentyman that he was looking to showcase his athleticism.
"I think for me, it's the speed and getting off the line of scrimmage," Onwuzurike said. "Pushing that O-lineman five yards off the ball and being a disruption, but at the same time, taking in what the coaches teach us and try to learn the techniques of the NFL."
Taking part in Senior Bowl practices was also a chance for Onwuzurike to show that he stayed in shape and remind scouts of the interior force who amassed 45 total tackles, six tackles for loss and two sacks for the Huskies in 2019. It was a necessary reminder because Onwuzurike's last game was the 2019 Las Vegas Bowl against Boise State.
Per Twentyman, Onwuzurike is viewed by some teams as a first-round prospect, despite opting out of the 2020 season. But after the long layoff, the big man would have benefitted from the additional opportunity to showcase his get-off on the field at the combine.
That, in turn, is going to ratchet up the pressure on Onwuzurike to have a strong workout in front of the scouts in attendance for Washington's pro day on March 30.
Caleb Farley, CB, Virginia Tech
The class of 2021 is deep at cornerback, but there's no clear-cut No. 1. Per Nick Kosko of 247Sports, ESPN NFL draft guru Mel Kiper believes that Patrick Surtain II of Alabama and Caleb Farley of Virginia Tech are essentially neck-and-neck:
"Caleb Farley, I went back and looked at him in 2019. He was so good. I mean, Farley really had a good year. And he's got length, a former wide receiver. Doesn't tackle well. That's something he's gotta show a little more toughness, and tackle and be more consistent in that area. But in coverage, he located, he was getting those late pass breakups. I mean, he was really a lockdown cover corner in 2019. So I look at Farley, had he played this year [COVID opt-out], I think he could have been a top-five pick."
Two years ago, the 6'2", 207-pounder was one of the nation's best cornerbacks, picking off four passes and notching 12 passes defended.
Surtain is the tougher and more technically sound of the duo after helping lead Alabama to a national title, but Farley is the more naturally athletic and fluid of the pair.
Had Farley gotten the opportunity to showcase that athleticism at the combine, his odds of being the first player drafted at his position would have been quite a bit better.
Jevon Holland, S, Oregon
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers found a gem in the 2020 draft in safety Antoine Winfield Jr., and Mel Kiper believes that Jevon Holland could make a similar impact (h/t Kevin Wade of 247 Sports):
"Holland is the Antoine Winfield Jr. of the 2021 class. A defensive back who plays all over the field and is always around the ball. Holland had five interceptions as a freshman in 2018, and he had four more last season. ... He can play deep safety or in the slot. He's a sound tackler. Holland is a perfect defender for today's NFL. He also has been used as a punt returner."
Holland was a ball hawk at Oregon in 2018 and 2019, but the 6'1", 201-pounder elected to opt out of the 2020 season.
Given how much the Ducks moved Holland around on the back end, it should come as no surprise that he possesses elite athleticism. Whether it's the physicality to hold up against the run at the point of attack or the speed to cover pass-catchers both from safety and in the slot, he has the ability.
Had the combine taken place in 2021, Holland likely would have excelled. But now he'll have to count on his pro day to demonstrate that he deserves consideration late on the first day of the draft.