The scouting combine is a big deal for a lot of people, but there's always a certain group of players who need it the most. Some draft prospects come through the entire process as locks to go high, but we can classify the "others" in four categories: Character concerns, injury concerns, players with limited football experience and small-school players who will have NFL personnel people wondering if they're ready for the big time.
In addition, there's a fifth class this season that probably leads the pack among those players who need great combine performances on the field and in team interviews more than any other. Just one year after there were two lead-pipe locks at quarterback in Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III, the 2013 list of quarterbacks – by far the league's most overdrafted position in down years – leaves little but unanswered questions.
All the quarterbacks: West Virginia's Geno Smith is the best of this iffy bunch in most eyes, but between a second-half drop-off in 2012 (which, as we've pointed out, isn't as bad as it seems), his decision to avoid Senior Bowl week and perceptions that he was aided a lot by Dana Holgorsen's high-flying offense, Smith will need to rock it when he's going through the drills, and when he's asked to draw things up on the boards during team interviews. Some have Smith as the top overall player in their mock drafts, and a solid combine could cement that status.
USC's Matt Barkley, who also passed on the Senior Bowl due to a shoulder injury, will not throw at the combine, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. He may run, but be won't throw until USC's pro day on March 27. This lends credence to the buzz that his shoulder injury is more serious than originally suspected. Nobody questions Barkley's game intelligence or preparation – he'll most likely wow NFL teams when he's asked to draw things up on the board – but his medical status will be more closely and carefully scrutinized at this year's combine.
Of the six quarterbacks who participated in the Senior Bowl week, Florida State's E.J. Manuel probably looked the best going from practice to game conditions. He'll want to show that his accuracy is on point, and that he understands the complexities of an NFL passing offense when asked by teams. He said all the right things and really impressed me in Mobile. North Carolina State's Mike Glennon is a highly regarded prospect from a tools perspective, but he folded all too easily under pressure in the Senior Bowl game, and mobility is a general concern. Syracuse's Ryan Nassib also gets a lot of raves over his basic attributes, but you can bet that pro personnel guys will be watching his deeper throws very closely since Nassib tends to sail everything over, say, 15 feet in the air.
Arkansas' Tyler Wilson will impress in the classroom, and people admire the way he became a team leader in the wake of the Bobby Petrino fiasco, but the deep arm is an issue here, as well. Oklahoma's Landry Jones, who was once seen to be an heir to Sam Bradford for the Sooners, looked like anything but in Mobile.
Zac Dysert of Miami (Ohio), who may have been the worst of the Senior Bowl QBs, will won't throw at the combine due to a recent hamstring injury. That's a problem for a player who desperately needs more proof that he can sling it at the NFL level. Tennessee's Tyler Bray and Arizona's Matt Scott are among those who may take advantage of a field reduced by two.
The Kansas City Chiefs have the draft's first overall pick, and they need a quarterback, but their new general manager, John Dorsey, recently echoed concerns of many about this class.
“There are too many technical flaws, scheme flaws," Dorsey told the Kansas City Star. "There are so many different variables that there are a lot of people all over the place on naming the top four or five guys and who those guys would be.”
[Related: Ranking the NFL draft's top talents]
The narrative is simple: It's a bad year to need a quarterback. These guys have just a couple short months to change that perception.
“A quarterback wants to come across in the interview process as confident, as having a vast understanding and knowledge of defenses, as being capable of leading a group of men," Dorsey said. "That’s what you’ve got to convey to the teams. On film, his physical traits and skills will come out. But you have to over the next few weeks impress on teams the character of his soul, his ability to lead a franchise.”
The clock starts now.
Manti Te'o: Before the catfishing scandal swept the nation, Notre Dame's star linebacker already had one strike against him. In the Fighting Irish's BCS championship loss to Alabama, he looked all too mortal against the Crimson Tide's gargantuan offensive line. Te'o was bulled back and out in key rushing situations, and that's not good for a guy who was listed at 255 pounds. The subsequent fake girlfriend fiasco, and Te'o's apparent refusal to make it public when he knew the truth, probably won't impact his draft stock that much if he's consistent in his answers to NFL teams.
Since Te'o's draft status was heavily based on his character, he will have to prove beyond the shadow of any doubt that this was an isolated incident, that he's not prone to being duped and associating with questionable people, and that there are no dings on his personal integrity. I never bought the idea that Te'o was a sure-fire top 10 pick, but a bad combine could punt him out of the first round altogether.
Alec Ogletree: Ogletree is a ridiculously talented player coming into an NFL that desperately needs his primary skills – the ability to cover half a field with his speed and agility. However, the Georgia standout has a checkered past, to say the least. He was suspended from his first potential start for the Bulldogs after he was arrested for the theft of a motor scooter helmet (no, really), and he missed the first four games of the 2012 season after he violated the school's substance abuse policy. The DUI he got popped with recently means Ogletree has a great deal of explaining to do.
There are teams every year who are sure they can get the best out of troubled players – the Cincinnati Bengals have developed a well-known cottage industry out of this idea – but it's just as sure that by now, Ogletree will have dropped himself off of some teams' draft boards. He may not be able to explain the problems away, but the combine will be his best chance to try.
Tyrann Mathieu: The former LSU star, who was kicked off the team last August after several violations of the school's substance abuse policies, has checked himself into rehab, worked with former NBA star and coach John Lucas (who won his own battle with addiction) to put his life back together, and showed up at the Senior Bowl without an official invitation to answer whatever questions the NFL may have had. Mathieu has also taken the advice of former LSU stars Patrick Peterson and Corey Webster, both highly successful defensive backs.
"They have every right to [be skeptical]," Mathieu said from Mobile. "I'm not really looking forward to people trusting me today or tomorrow. Trust takes time, especially when you've done a lot of things for people not to be able to trust you. It may take two years. It may take five years, it may take until I'm 30 years old for people to start trusting Tyrann again. But the truth is, I'm doing the right things and just looking forward to being a football player ... This is my last shot. You've got to learn when to do things and when not to do things; when to party and when not to party. Every day is football. That's the biggest thing I got out of it. I'm just ready to live a football life."
From a pure football perspective, Mathieu may project best as a slot corner, and the good news for him is that is now a starting position in the NFL. At 5-foot-9 and 178 pounds before his rehab stint, Mathieu will have to ace the on-field drills (the ones for cornerbacks are among the most demanding), and convince teams that he's turned over a new leaf. The physical talent is there – at least, it was – but NFL teams will weigh the risk-reward equation heavily.
Marcus Lattimore: With serious knee injuries in each of the last two seasons (we all remember the gruesome injury he suffered last October), the super-talented running back will need his medicals to come back clean, and the South Carolina alum will need to show the ability to cut hard in agility drills. There is precedent for this sort of comeback. Miami's Willis McGahee was selected by the Buffalo Bills in the first round of the 2003 draft, took a season to recover and has enjoyed a long and prosperous pro career with a physical style. Lattimore would almost certainly be a first-round prospect without the injuries, especially in a running backs class that is generally considered weak this year.
The recent (and miraculous) recoveries from serious knee injuries enjoyed by Adrian Peterson and Jamaal Charles can only help Lattimore's case. His surgery was performed by Dr. James Andrews, who gained even more fame than he had before when Peterson bounced back from a major knee injury at a level we'd never really seen.
Other players with injury concerns: Georgia OLB Jarvis Jones will be asked about his spinal stenosis, through he could tell NFL teams that the condition doesn't appear to have negatively affected Rob Gronkowski, and Marcus McNeill played with the condition for years ... Alabama DT Jesse Williams returned to play in the SEC championship game after a knee injury, and teams will want to confirm that he's OK ... Cal receiver Keenan Allen suffered a PCL sprain in October and hasn't played since ... Duke quarterback Sean Renfree is recovering from a torn right pectoralis muscle, and can't do any pre-draft drills as a result ... Oregon Linebacker Kiko Alonso missed the Senior Bowl because he wanted a wrist injury to heal. And speaking of Oregon kids...
Oregon's trio of athletes: Running back Kenjon Barner did his level best to erase questions about his blocking at the Senior Bowl, and he hopes to hit the combine at 200 pounds after playing much of his career with the Ducks 20 pounds lighter. If he does so without losing any speed and agility, the NFL will perk up. Barner may be the most well-rounded back in this draft class. DE/OLB Dion Jordan has been bulking up with Barner at Travelle Gaines' West Hollywood gym, and wants to do the drills in Indy at 250 pounds after playing at around 230. Jordan has demon speed and has been working on the finer points of his pass-rushing with veteran NFL linebacker Kirk Morrison. A great combine could solidify his status as a high first-round pick.
And tackle/guard Kyle Long, son of Howie and brother of Chris, comes to this combine with just one season of experience on the offensive line. The former baseball pitcher and defensive end looked pretty darned good in Chip Kelly's offense and showed impressive speed, strength and agility at the Senior Bowl after he got over the flu. If Long can show that he understands complex blocking schemes, don't be surprised to see him to in the early second round.
Ezekiel Ansah: The former track star from Ghana is still learning the game, as he showed at the Senior Bowl. During the week of practice, the BYU star was frequently overpowered by the excellent offensive tackles on the field, as his relative inability to hit off the snap with leverage became evident. However, in the game itself, Ansah was the unquestioned most valuable defensive player.
"Now, it's time to stay focused – today will be gone, and tomorrow, I've just got to start training again," Ansah told me after a game in which he amassed six solo tackles, 1 1/2 sacks and 3.5 tackles for loss. "In life, no matter what you do, there's going to be something that will take your focus away. But I will stay focused. I came here to work hard with a bunch of great players. Everyone here is an MVP; that's why we all came together to play here. I came here to learn and to be better."
At the combine, Ansah will be asked to draw up more advanced pass-rush concepts, and teams will want to see how ahead of the curve he is when it comes to the things that still bedevil him at times. He could, at best, validate comparisons to Jason Pierre-Paul. At worst, Ansah could leave Indianapolis as a developmental prospect on the fringe of the first round.
Small-school stars: Every year, kids from smaller schools come to the combine, show out, and find their prospects drastically improved. Among those looking to be this year's Jared Veldheer (Hillsdale), Cecil Shorts (Mount Union), or Amini Silatolu (Midwestern State):
Stony Brook running back Miguel Maysonet, Elon receiver Aaron Mellette, Chadron State guard Garrett Gilkey, Arkansas-Pine Bluff offensive tackle Terron Armstead, Missouri Western defensive end David Bass, Missouri Southern defensive tackle Brandon Williams, Tennessee-Martin defensive tackle Montori Hughes, California (Pa.) safety Rontez Miles, and Florida International safety Jonathan Cyprien.
Cyprien is the odds-on favorite among the smaller-school prospects to make a big splash in Indy, coming as he is off a very strong Senior Bowl week.
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