The NFL Combine is upon us, as 335 participants descend to Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis over the next five days. This appears to be a very deep and talented 2014 draft class. There are quarterbacks, a truck load of running backs, wide receivers and tight ends. As many as five offensive tackle could go in the first round. Jadeveon Clowney leads the other side of the ball, where it appears the front seven is stacked.
So what are the storylines heading into Indy? Here are a handful of things to watch over the next few days.
Questions regarding Clowney
One of the enigmas this season was South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Going into the fall, he was not only a Heisman hopeful but also the consensus No. 1 pick in the 2014 NFL Draft. By his lofty standards, Clowney had a sub-par season at best. In fact, it was very pedestrian for this freaky edge rusher with such outstanding physical attributes.
Clowney finished the season with 40 tackles, three sacks, 11.5 tackles for a loss and nine quarterback hurries. Those are hardly gaudy numbers, as this former Gamecock had a greatly disappointing 2013 campaign. This now has everyone raising questions regarding his work ethic and desire to play the game of football.
No one knows Clowney better than his Rock Hill (S.C.) South Pointe head coach Bobby Carroll. He believes several things happened with Clowney. Once he gets settled on Sunday’s, Carroll thinks he wil be just fine.
“I am not making excuses for Clowney but everyone asks,” Carroll said. “I think he had some nagging injuries (bone spurs in foot). I think teams schemed him very well. They double and even triple teamed him. They ran away from him a lot.
“I also think there was that fear of injury. Remember, he saw his friend and teammate (Marcus Lattimore) have a catastrophic knee injury and we all know Lattimore would have been a first round guy. I don’t care who you are that’s going to affect you. And I know Clowney looked up to him.”
NFL scouts, general managers and coaches will all say the same thing – these issues are all part of the game. Teams will scheme against good players and everyone deals with nagging injuries and watching teammates go down over the course of a season and throughout a career. Instead, everyone has questioned Clowney’s motivation, or lack of.
Heading into the NFL combine in Indianapolis starting today, Clowney will be bombarded with questions from the media regarding these issues as well as going through the grueling interview process with the NFL teams. Certainly, this could have more bearing on Clowney’s draft stock than what he tests on the field. Everyone’s expectations are that Clowney’s marks to be off the charts.
“There is no doubt that he will have to interview well,” Carroll said. “And I think he will. These guys will have to understand that the Clowney’s of the world just don’t come along. There are not guys like him. Very rarely do you see guys with his size, speed and strength. The NFL is going to surround him with the right people and when they get his mind right I really believe he will do great things if he’s in the right hands. He just turned 21 years old (February 14). He’s still a kid and someone will have a chance to turn him into a grown man.”
Clowney, 6-foot-6, 275-pounds, has been working out and training at Athlete’s Performance in Gulf Breeze, Fla. Carroll fully expects him to set the turf on fire at Lucas Oil Stadium when he tests on Monday.
“Clowney’s going to run and he has been training hard,” Carroll said. “I think he will run a sub 4.5 [forty] and throw up 23, 24 or even 25 reps on the bench press. If I was a general manager or an owner there is no doubt who I would pick No. 1 and the Super Bowl proves that point. Why take a quarterback? Seattle beat Peyton Manning hands down and it wasn’t even close. If that was a prize fight it would have been called at halftime. It’s still about defense and guys like Clowney.
“He will test very well. Clowney knows he can’t be one of those guys. Clowney know he can’t be a bust. He’s a big fish in a big pond and he will have to perform.”
Clowney is my top prospect and to be honest, I don't think it's even close. To me, he's the top non-quarterback to enter the draft in some time. But I have concerns like others do.
All eyes on Sam
Last year at this time all eyes were on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o. This year it’s Missouri outside linebacker/defensive end Michael Sam.
Sam announced last week that he was gay and there’s no question that his open declaration will have the media hopping. He will talk to the media on Saturday and it’s the most anticipated press conference of the combine.
That’s going to be a spectacle but Sam should handle the media pressure fine.
The real question is how will he interview with the NFL clubs while in Indy? This will play a significant role for his draft stock in how in handles questions from the scouts, coaches and general managers.
If I were a member of a front office the only concern I would have is really the unknown – how would it affect my locker room? 32 locker rooms could all handle the Sam situation a little differently and much of that could depend on the leadership in your facility. Only these guys know the answer to that question.
For me, I would be much more concerned with his transition to Sundays. Sam is a career defensive end that has always played with his hand on the ground. While he could still be that traditional 4-3 guy in the NFL, I believe he’s much better suited to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He has very good pass rushing skills and could be that guy in that scheme for a handful of NFL teams.
Who will standout at QB?
The early consensus at quarterback are that four guys stand out above the others in Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M), Blake Bortles (UCF), Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville) and Derek Carr (Fresno State). Then there are guys like Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois), Tajh Boyd (Clemson), A.J. McCarron (Alabama) and David Fales (San Jose State) along with injured signal callers Aaron Murray (Georgia) and Zach Mettenberger (LSU).
Not many will throw among this group. But they will all go through the ever important medical and interview process as well as the psychological testing on Saturday. These three things will play in huge role in the evaluation process of this position.
We all know that there are a handful of teams at the top of the draft that are quarterback hunting in this upcoming. Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland, Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Minnesota are just some of the teams will all be in the quarterback market. These teams also happen to be among the top eight picks in May’s draft.
So many receivers
You have to love this group of wide receivers. It’s super at the top and it’s a deep class. Credit the passing game evolution at not just the college level but the high school level as well. These guys are getting better and better earlier and earlier.
Headlining this class is Sammy Watkins (Clemson). There’s no question that this former Tiger brings explosion and the ability of the big play to the NFL. The only thing Watkins lacks is elite size. He does everything else very well. It’s not that he’s small but he’s not Mike Evans (Texas A&M) or Kevlin Benjamin (Florida State).
This group will test on Sunday and it will be very interesting to see the forty times of some of these guys, especially the bigger receivers like Evans and Benjamin. Other guys with similar size to watch for are Brandon Coleman (Rutgers), Martavis Bryant (Clemson), Allen Robinson (Penn State), Cody Hoffman (BYU), L’Damian Washington (Missouri), and Chris Boyd (Vanderbilt).
Of course you can’t sleep on the 6-foot-2 or smaller receiver. This group of wideouts is led by Watkins. But there are some other special talents out there like Marqise Lee (USC), Jarvis Landry (LSU), Odell Beckham (LSU), Brandin Cooks (Oregon State), Davante Adams (Fresno State), Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) and a host of many others.
Like I said, this is a very good class of wide receivers with a little bit of everything.
You have to really like this tight end group, especially the guys at the top - Eric Ebron (North Carolina, Jace Amaro (Texas Tech) and Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington). This trio has separated themselves from the rest. Ebron and Amaro should really perform will this week.
A guy with a lot of ability but got kicked off the Oregon team this fall is Colt Lyerla. He will have some tough interviews ahead.
Don’t sleep on the RBs
I love the group of running backs despite the fact that this position is no longer the position of power when it comes to the NFL draft. History shows you can grab a good one later on, whether than means the second round or the sixth round.
Still, this looks like a stout group and they come in all shapes and sizes. Andre Williams (Boston College), Carlos Hyde (Ohio State), Jeremy Hill (LSU), Lorenzo Taliaferro (Coastal Carolina), Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky), James Wilder (Florida State), Storm Johnson (UCF), and Charles Sims (West Virginia) should all check in at 215-pounds or bigger. How well will these big backs run in both the forty and shuttle? Will they show some explosiveness in the broad jump?
Then you have a group of exciting smaller backs led by Tre Mason (Auburn), Ka’Deem Carey (Arizona), Lache Seastrunk (Baylor), Devonta Freeman (Florida State) and Marion Grice (Arizona State).
The one guy at this position I will be paying close attention to during testing on Sunday is the ‘Black Mamba’- DeAnthony Thomas (Oregon). He was one of the most explosive recruits I have ever seen at the high school level. Thomas obviously had a disappointing 2013 campaign. Nonetheless, look at his body of work and watch him workout in Indy. He should test off the charts and I think his stock will rise beginning there. Personally, I see him like Tavon Austin last season, a future slot guy and return guy.
Does Robinson catch Matthews?
Jake Matthews (Texas A&M) has been the clear cut top offensive tackle for some time but there’s been a lot of talk that Greg Robinson (Auburn) could catch him on many draft boards. Pay close attention to these two when they test on Saturday.
But these are not the only tackles that will be taken in the first round. Taylor Lewan (Michigan), Zack Martin (Notre Dame), and Cyrus Kouandijo (Alabama) should all go as well. I thought Martin was outstanding at the Senior Bowl and love his versatility see his stock on the rise.
Could there be a sixth or seventh guy that makes a jump upward? Certainly there are a few who could make big moves in Indy like Antonio Richardson (Tennessee), Seantrel Henderson (Miami), Ja’Wuan James (Tennessee), and Morgan Moses (Virginia).
Battle for top OG
There's a battle brewing right now for who really is the top guard in this draft between David Yankey (Stanford), Gabe Jackson (Mississippi State), Xavier Su'a-Filo (UCLA), and Cyril Richardson (Baylor). How they perform during combine could push one guy to the top. Then again, the NFL draft boards could all look different, depending on what they are specifically looking for at this position.
More than just Clowney
There is more to this defensive line class than Jadeveon Clowney. I like the interior guys a tad more than the outside edge rushers.
If you run a 3-4 then I think your guy is Louis Nix (Notre Dame). As pure tackles go I favor a few guys a little more like Aaron Donald (Pitt) and Timmy Jernigan (Florida State). Then you have Ra’Shede Hageman (Minnesota). I think he’s going to test exceptional well and move up. But after watching him in the Senior Bowl I think he’s best suited to be a 3-4 defensive end. I guess it all depends on your scheme and what you are looking for.
There are a handful of solid defensive end prospects in this class. As I mentioned above, I favor Hagemen there in a 3-4 scheme. Another guy that will be scrutinized this week in Indy at this same position is Stephen Tuitt (Notre Dame).
Kony Ealy (Missouri), Dee Ford (Auburn), Demarcus Lawrence (Boise State), Scott Crichton (Oregon State), and Chris Smith (Arkansas) are names to watch. I thought Smith and Ford did some very good things at the Senior Bowl.
There are some exceptional linebackers in this class, led by C.J. Mosley (Alabama), Anthony Barr (UCLA) and Khalil Mack (Buffalo). Those are the top three. Will one separate from the group this week?
I know one thing, I wouldn’t sleep on Ryan Shazier (Ohio State). This kid is as good as anyone at this position and he may test better than most.
Kyle Van Noy (BYU), Telvin Smith (Florida State), Christian Jones (Florida State), Trent Murphy (Stanford), Chris Kirksey (Iowa) are all some good names to watch.
Pound for pound I think Lamarcus Joyner (Florida State) is the best defensive back in this class but I don’t have him rated that way. I see him as a slot corner, similar to Ronde Barber and what he did for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers for a very long time. The difference is that Joyner is bigger and is a much better athlete. But lets face it, Barber was unique, versatile and very intelligent on the football field. I believe Joyner has many of those characteristics. He’s a guy I could see moving up draft boards.
There are some very good safeties up top led by Ha-Ha Clinton-Dix (Alabama) and Calvin Pryor (Louisville). Other safety notables looking for big weeks so they can make big moves are Terrence Brooks (Florida State), Deone Bucannon(Washington State), Ahmad Dixon (Baylor) and Craig Loston (LSU).
Switching over to cornerback there seems to be a lot of really solid players like Darqueze Dennard (Michigan State), Bradley Robey (Ohio State), Jason Verrett (TCU), Justin Gilbert (Oklahoma State), Marcus Roberson (Florida) and Loucheiz Purifoy (Florida). These guys are all corners with good size but not elite size.
With the bigger wide receiver in the NFL more teams are looking for the bigger cornerback, especially after the success of the Seattle Seahawks defense and their secondary. Well, you have some big corners in this draft like Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska), Keith McGill (Utah), Terrance Mitchell (Oregon) and Pierre Desir (Lindenwood) and teams will want to see how they test at this combine.
Former Big Name Recruits
For those that following recruiting there are a handful of former big name recruits that are trying to make it in the NFL. Running back Isaiah Crowell signed with Georgia and had a big freshman season before being dismissed from the team. He ended up at Alabama State. This kid has some serious talent but has to interview well and show teams that he has matured off the field.
There was an enormous recruiting battle between Notre Dame and Florida State for Aaron Lynch. He ultimately picked the Irish and had a monster freshman season. He then transferred to USF so he could be closer to home. This past season was nowhere near his first in South Bend. This defensive end has first round talent.
Jonathan Dowling was part of an Urban Meyer class at the University of Florida that was considered one of the best over the past decade. This safety didn’t last long and got kicked off the team. He ended up at Western Kentucky.
Two prominent defensive ends from the west coast had to battle knee injuries. For Devon Kennard, it happened during his senior season. He was an All-American defensive end from Arizona that injured his knee playing running back. Kennard hasn’t quite been the same but is now a pretty good linebacker. He played at USC.Ronald Powell was the top player in the nation who signed with the Gators. He has played very well in Gainesville but has battled knee injuries. He will now get his chance to play on Sundays.