2023 NFL Draft: Prospects who could shine at the scouting combine

The 2023 NFL scouting combine is quickly approaching, as the players arrive in Indianapolis on Monday, February 27th.

The combine is the place where hopefuls have a chance to make their mark and emerge as stars right before the NFL draft.

It happens every year! We are bound to see some stocks rise and fall whether it´s through the measurables testing or the individual drills throughout the week.

Let´s dive into some players who are likely to see their stocks rise next week:

Aidan O'Connell, QB, Purdue

(Rich Janzaruk/Herald)

As it stands right now, Aiden O’Connell is a day-three prospect. He’s a 6-foot-3 pocket passer who fits the mold of an old-school quarterback. He would rather drop back into the pocket than take off running but will certainly use his legs if he has to. O’Connell has only rushed 16 times this year for 64 yards, but 23 of those yards came after contact. So, he can take a hit!

He’s completed 64.1% of his passes this year for 3,490 yards, 22 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

Even though he has thrown his fair share of interceptions in his collegiate career, his accuracy should not be overlooked; and that is what will shine next week at the combine.

One of the drills that the quarterbacks must participate in is throwing the route-tree, but the most scrutinized is the ‘slant’. Teams want to see if receivers have to break stride to make the catch.

We shouldn’t expect O’Connell to move up too much considering his deep ball is not a strength. His current QBR is sitting at 57.2. His current rank is #273 according to The Draft Network.

But his current strengths should work well for him this week. He’s likely to raise his stock if he can show off his consistent throwing ability.

Tyjae Spears, RB, Tulane

(Naomi Skinner/Times)

Tyjae Spears rose his stock considerably at the Senior Bowl last month and expect more of that at the combine.

Spears is one of the most explosive offensive prospects in this year’s draft. Right now, he is sitting 13th in the DraftWire running back big board; but that is because, in 2020, he suffered a season-ending knee injury after only playing in three games. In 2021, Spears rushed over 100 yards in four of the last five games of the season.

He ran for 1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns in the 2022 season and caught 22 receptions for 256 yards and two touchdowns. So not only can Spears run from behind the line of scrimmage, but he’s also a fantastic pass catcher.

It really doesn’t matter if Spears has the ball or not, he’s going to get space in the open field. He does this with his bend, flexibility and explosive movements.

Spears showed how sudden he makes his cuts when changing direction which should prove to increase his stock in the agility drills.

This is the drill where Spears can show his quick feet, balance and jump cuts:

Sean Tucker, RB, Syracuse

(Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports)

They say speed kills, and this is especially true in the NFL. When it comes to Sean Tucker, he could be considered as a ‘satellite’ back. Bill Parcells originated this term for backs who excelled in open space, “where satellites roam.”

Tucker ran track and field at Syracuse while also setting the single-season school record in football with 1,496 rushing yards.

If there is one area he should completely demolish, it’s the 40-yard dash.

Once Tucker makes a single cut, he can usually outrun defenders with his linear speed. He can thank his offensive line for the huge gaps up the middle.

“That’s why he gets those giant bursts because the O-Line gives him that crease, and on top of it he makes guys miss,” said Syracuse quarterback Tommy DeVito.

Players like Mecole Hardman, Daxton Hill, Terry McLaurin all raised their stock by outperforming in the 40-yard dash and expect Tucker to do the same.

If there is one skillset coaches cannot teach, it’s speed.

Payne Durham, TE, Purdue

(Alex Martin/Journal and Courier/ USA TODAY NETWORK)

Payne Durham will blow some evaluators away with his catching this week. With his best trait being blocking, it’s going to be a pleasant surprise to see how much his athleticism will help raise his stock.

Durham is not a super fluid or agile mover, but he can get separation at all three levels, off the line of scrimmage, at his breaks and at the catch point. He can also concentrate when catching while on the move, and hold onto the ball through contact.

During the Senior Bowl practices, he had one of the best touchdowns of the entire week:

He’s also shown the ability to move with the ball in his hands post catch. In the clip below he is running a towards the sideline, catches and stride and hurdles a defender to gain a few extra yards.

This is very unusual for a blocking tight end.

Durham has 560 receiving yards in the 2022 season with an average of 10 yards per reception and a 72.7 catching percentage.

As of today, PFF does not have Durham in the top ten, and Walterfootball had him sitting at 17th. But there is a good chance that he could rise up the boards after preforming ‘corner route’ and redzone’ drills. Durham will have the chance to show off his catch radius, field awareness and skillset in the open space.

Puka Nacua, WR, BYU

(Brian Losness-USA TODAY Sports)

Puka Nacua spent two years with BYU before now joining his brothers to become the third brother in his family to make it to the NFL. His brother Kai played safety for the New York Jets and Samson was an undrafted free agent receiver who played for the Indianapolis Colts.

Puka is currently ranked #147 on the Draft Network big board, but after next week, he has a chance to raise his stock.

He is a 6-foot-2 receiver weighing 205-pounds with a specialty in body control and his toughness at the catch. According to PFF, Nacua has the sixth best contested catch win-percentage from the 2023 class.

Expect Nacua to show his field awareness, speed and soft hands throughout all the receiver drills.

There was a game this year where he clocked in a speed of 20.7 mph on a jet sweep.

There isn’t anything Nacua can’t do and expect him to jump up the boards similar to how Cincinnati’s Alec Pierce (selected in the second round of the 2022 draft by the Colts) did after his combine performance last year.

Jalin Hyatt, WR, Tennessee

(Jamar Coach/News Sentinel / USA TODAY NETWORK)

There are some analysts that aren’t sold on Jalin Hyatt, and its simply because the lack of versatility in his alignments. He was so explosive off the line of scrimmage from the slot, defenders rarely played him in press. He actually only had one reception against press coverage in the 2022 season. So, his skillset outside of those specific situations are still in question.

Luckily for him, he won’t see that at the combine either. Therefore, his current rank at fourth, per, should not waiver, just based off his natural speed alone. He will be the guy catching the deep balls from the big arm quarterbacks ‘wowing the crowd.

Hyatt is elusive in-and-out of his breaks, especially on the post and corner routes. He wasn’t running a huge route tree at Tennessee, but that’s okay in the NFL as a field stretcher. He averaged a whopping 18.9 yards per reception in the 2022 season.

Nathaniel 'Tank' Dell, WR, Houston

(Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports)

Nathaniel ‘Tank’ Dell was one of the top performers at the Senior Bowl this year. Every chance he could, he was making defenders look silly off the line of scrimmage and throughout his routes.

In the clip below, he showed everything evaluators look for. Manipulative release, swiping with his hands, stacking the receiver, he fakes at his break… everything except for making a catch. He was too short to get to the high pass.

Dell will be one of the most anticipated prospects at this year’s combine. This is because as a senior in 2022, in 12 games and led the nation with 102 catches and 1,355 yards averaging 13.3 yards per catch with 15 TDs, giving a QB rating, when targeted, of 132.0.

The only issue is that he had 20+ drops over the last two seasons!

If he can show a high catch percentage at the NFL combine, he will have a chance to move up from a fourth-round value to a viable third-round pick.

Jake Bobo, WR, UCLA

(Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports)

Teams looking for a red zone threat should look no further. Jake Bobo is an experienced a 6-foot-5 receiver who seems more like a tight-end but with excellent hands. Offenses that are using a lot of 12 personnel, or 22 personnel could put him behind the line of scrimmage, at the end of a line to seal an edge, or even outside to fake a block then get downfield at the boundary.

Bobo really knows how to get the most of his height utilizing his entire frame to extend his catch radius.

This is what should impress scout the most next week.

Redshirt senior Bobo led UCLA receivers with 54 catches, 789 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. The year prior, he was a captain with Duke.

In 2021, he was a third-team All-ACC selection. He started all 11 games for the Blue Devils and hauled in 74 passes for 794 yards (ninth in the ACC) and a touchdown. Bobo posted three 100-yard receiving games and averaged 66.17 yards per game last year.

Jack Campbell, LB, Iowa

(George Walker IV / USA TODAY NETWORK)

NFL teams looking for a prototypical inside linebacker who can fill gaps and stop sideline-to-sideline threats will be fighting over Jack Campbell.

Campbell is the 2022 Dick Butkus award winner who played in 12 games recording 77 tackles, 47 stops and allowing only a 70.6 passer rating when targeted.

Inside linebackers aren’t known for their overwhelming athleticism, but this is the exact reason why Campbell will surprise throughout the combine next week. His sideline-to-sideline range can be attributed to his long arms that we will soon learn the measurements of. Height and length can be a huge appeal to NFL general managers.

This touchdown was unfortunately called back, but Campbell seems to always put himself in the right position at the right time.

PFF ranks Campbell as the 10th best run defender (min of 200 snaps) with a rating of 85.6 and the number one rated pass coverage linebacker, 92.9.

DJ Turner, CB, Michigan

(Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

As a defensive back, skillsets like fluidity, speed and toughness are more important than length and height. DJ Turner is a 6-foot explosive cornerback who has great instincts in man coverage.

He can mirror any receiver he lines up across from. In the clip below, he is at the top of the screen and stays hip-to-hip with his opponent despite several turns, then ends up grabbing an interception.

Turner’s 40-speed is highly anticipated. Here he is against one of the fastest receivers/performers at the Senior Bowl last month, Jayden Reed.

Turner started in 14 games and made 36 tackles, one tackle for loss, one interception, 11 pass breakups and one fumble return for a touchdown.

Anthony Johnson, CB, Virginia

(Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports)

One cornerback who is being overlooked is Anthony Johnson Jr. from Virginia. Right now, he is looking like a Day 3 pick but was still fortunate enough to receive a combine invitation. This was likely after his day three performance of Senior Bowl practice and his interception on gameday.

On day one, he clocked the third fastest time of the day with 19.37mph via Zebra Technologies.

Johnson is instinctive in open space and a reactionary defensive back. He stays square up until the very last moment into receiver’s release. He makes up for any missteps with his length and speed.

At times his hips seem tight when working up field, which is why the ‘hip-flip’ drill at the combine will be vital to his draft stock.

Johnson started all 10 games at corner for UVA, he ended with 51 tackles, two interceptions and 12 pass break ups. His 14 passes defended (12 break ups & 2 interceptions) were the second-most among ACC defenders and his 1.4 passes defended per game are the eighth-best in FBS. Johnson’s 38 career passes defended tied for the fifth-most among active FBS defensive backs.

Will McDonald IV, EDGE, Iowa State

(Bryon Houlgrave/Des Moines Register-USA TODAY Sports)

Another prospect who helped raise his stock during the Senior Bowl is Will McDonald IV. He is 6-foot-4 and currently holds the Iowa State record for sacks, with 34, which also tied the Big-12 career-record. He drew double and triple teams and finished the 2022 season with five sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss. He had four pass breakups, forced a fumble and has a recovery in his final college season.

His high-motor and hand fighting helped him against one of the top offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl, Darnell Wright.

McDonald gets the most of his length using several different pass rush moves in order to get to the quarterback including, cross chop, rip, swim move, and spins. We should expect to see these and a variety of moves in the combine.

PJ Mustipher, IDL, Penn State

(Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

If there is a player that will bring tenacious strength and grit to the NFL combine, its PJ Mustipher. He missed the majority of 2021 after experiencing a season ending knee injury. He is an ex-high school wrestler with quick feet and great hand work that he utilizes when lined up inside. Mustipher has a brother that played on the other side of the ball for the Chicago Bears, and his father played football for the West Virginia Mountaineers.

Mustipher is 6-foot-4 and 315-pounds. As a fifth-year senior he played 12 games in 2022 and added 20 tackles, 10 assists, and 9 stops. As a pass rusher, he totaled 3 pressures, which included 2 QB hurries, no QB hits, and one sack on the season.

As it stands today, Mustipher is likely to get drafted on Day 3 (#260), but after the combine, his stock should rise. He is just a guy who moves really well for his 300+ pound frame. He should impress some evaluators with how well he can off his feet.

Here he is showing his quickness off the line during the East-West Shrine Bowl practices this year:

In last year’s combine, interior lineman Jordan Davis was able to move up the rankings with his incredible movements for his body type. We shouldn’t expect Mustipher’s results to be identical to Davis’, but we can expect him to impress us with his quickness, for his size.

Story originally appeared on Bills Wire