NFL teams will generally tell you that players who have strong combine drills just have them going back to the tape. That said, players with great athletic exploits up their stock all the time. You can say all you want about how the "Underwear Olympics" have nothing to do with the actual game of football, but don't tell Vernon Davis and others like him. The San Francisco 49ers star tight end and Maryland alum hit the 2006 scouting combine like a ton of bricks, running a 4.37 40-yard dash at 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds. That workout shot him into the top of the first round, and there's no way he would have gone sixth overall without it.
Yes, the league values football acumen, but it's also about height/weight/speed guys, and the combine is where you'll find them. In addition, there are those players who see this week as an opportunity to freshen up their reputations on and off the field. This year's list of combine winners is headlined by just such a young man.
Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU: If Mathieu had put up a Manti Te'o-level combine performance, there was a distinct chance no NFL team would have drafted him at all. You're definitely swimming upstream as an NFL prospect when you get booted off the team for multiple violations of your college team's substance-abuse policy, as Mathieu did before the 2012 season. But Mathieu came to Indianapolis and put up a workout that couldn't have gone much better. Not only did he run a 4.5 40, but he also looked extremely agile in drills. His backpedal-to-turn was smooth, he ran very well in space, and he even showed off a little bit by high-pointing both balls thrown to him. He's a little undersized to be a starting cornerback in the NFL, but I could see a team taking a shot on Mathieu as a slot corner in the third round ... if all the baggage checks out.
"I feel like it has gone good," Mathieu told the NFL Network after his workout. "Everything I have worked for the past two months. To come out here and put it together, be on a football field, I am extremely blessed."
He also talked about his "complicated" past.
"I didn't have everything together back in college. I had everything together as far as football, but when it came to my social life, my personnel life, I didn't have everything intact. I didn't have my emotions intact. Spiritually, I wasn't intact. Once you take football away, you are able to work on the person. These last six months, that is all I had was Tyrann the person. I attacked the person, I attacked my issues. I think that is why I am here at the combine ... Back when I was the Honey Badger, I didn't have everything intact. Going forward, I am going to focus on being Tyrann Mathieu and that is the person I want to control right now."
I've seen a lot of athletes try to put their past behind them with similar testimonials. I think that Mathieu is sincere in his desire to better himself. We'll see how it plays out, but as comebacks go, this was sufficiently impressive.
Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida: Floyd already was a rising star among those watching college game tape -- at his best, he reminds of a young Richard Seymour with his ability to destroy blocks and hand-fight through double teams. But on the field, Floyd just worked those drills over as if they were some poor second-string tackle. He ran a 4.92 40-yard dash at 6-foot-2 and 297 pounds, and looked good enough in agility drills to solidify his status as a top-5 pick. As much as any player in this draft, the sky's the limit for Floyd.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington: Trufant started his rise up the charts with a very strong Senior Bowl. There, he showed excellent overall technique in coverage and a nifty knack for jumping routes. The only real question remaining about Trufant was his straight-line speed, and he put that to rest with a workout in which he ran a 4.38 40, the third-best time among defensive backs. Also, he took his technique to the drills in Indy, looking smooth and quick from station to station. If he has an equally strong pro day, Trufant should expect to hear his name in the first round.
Margus Hunt, DE, SMU: At 6-foot-8 and 277 pounds (he looks like he could easily bulk up to 290), the Estonian star knocked it out of the park in Indy. He ran a 4.6 40, and benched 38 times -- proving his unique combination of athleticism and pure strength. Where he needs work is in his ability to get leverage at the line of scrimmage, and this was evident at the Senior Bowl. He was frequently knocked and pushed out of the action far too easily. However, I could see a team taking a second-round flyer on Hunt and working with him on weight and leverage. I shudder to think what he'd look like alongside J.J. Watt in Houston in a year or two.
Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU: The combine is tailor-made for players like Hunt and Ansah, raw athletes with quick-twitch fibers who can light up a track. Ansah also struggled in Senior Bowl practices, but went off in the game itself. There are times on tape when he appears nearly unstoppable, and that was the case during his workouts. He ran a 4.63 40, which you'd expect of a former track star from Ghana, and burned the best time in the short shuttle with a 4.26. Don't be surprised if some NFL team falls head over heels for Ansah's athleticism, forgets about the raw aspects of his play, and snags him in the top 15.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU: Speaking of athleticism, Mingo beat out every other lineman, and quite a few people at other positions, with his workout. He ran a 4.58 official 40 at 6-foot-4 and 241 pounds, and racked up very nice numbers in the three-cone and short shuttle. Mingo's numbers at LSU were affected to a point by the Tigers frequently resorting to a "mush-rush" and reads as opposed to pure pass rush, but there's no questioning Mingo's burst. The question for NFL teams is whether he needs to bulk up a the next level.
[Also: Best combine performances ever]
Dion Jordan, DE/OLB, Oregon: Another guy who needed to bulk up, and he did. Jordan arrived at Travelle Gaines' West Hollywood gym after Oregon's season at 228 pounds. He entered Lucas Oil Stadium at 248 pounds, but that extra 20 cost him nothing in speed or athleticism. Jordan ran a 4.6 40 (not bad for a guy standing almost 6-foot-7), and added to what his tape shows regarding his pure speed in space. Jordan was frequently asked to cover slot receivers for the Ducks, and NFL teams will covet his versatility.
Matt Elam, S, Florida: Elam was thought to be the best safety in this draft class, and simply confirmed that with a fine workout in which he also surprised with his speed. At 5-foot-10 and 208 pounds, he ran a 4.54 40, and probably pushed himself into the first round.
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