2014 NFL Combine: The 10 Top Prospects to Watch
There will be plenty of talented prospects to watch at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
The annual “Underwear Olympics” is already underway with orientation, medical exams and interviews, but the reality on-field action doesn’t kick into the swing until Saturday, Feb. 22. (You can see the full schedule here.)
It’s impossible to keep an eye on all of the 335 prospects that were invited to Indianapolis, so we’ve narrowed the list down to 10 prospects to watch from Saturday through Tuesday.
1. Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel
Manziel won’t be showing off his impressive arm strength in Indianapolis, but the 2012 Heisman Trophy Winner will have to prove he possesses the poise to handle the criticism that’s sure to fly in his face after the very confident remarks he made last week.
In addition to a strange dorito-themed comment, Manziel said the Houston Texans would be making “the worst decision they’ve ever made” if they passed on him with the No. 1 overall pick. He also set a goal of becoming the first rookie quarterback to win the Super Bowl.
The 6’1, 200-pound dual-threat quarterback is expected to bring loads of confidence, talent, natural instincts, a great competitive spirit and tons of excitement to either Cleveland, Minnesota, Houston, Jacksonville or Oakland this offseason. He’s drawn comparisons to the likes of Russell Wilson, Fran Tarkenton and Tony Romo.
2. Oregon RB/WR De’Anthony Thomas
Thomas is facing much different obstacles than Colt Lyerla, but his performance at the combine could have just as much of an impact on his draft stock as his former teammate.
“Because of his speed and playmaking ability, in today’s NFL, he’s more valuable than he would have been six, eight, 10 years ago,” Mike Mayock said of the multidimensional threat. “He probably goes in the fourth-round area.”
Mayock compared him to Tavon Austin, who the St. Louis Rams took with the eighth pick in the 2013 NFL Draft.
“(You) got to have a plan in place for how you use him,” Mayock said. “He’s a kickoff guy, plus we got to get him 10 touches a game. How do we manufacture those 8 to 10 touches a game so he can make those plays for us that he did at Oregon?”
His weigh-ins and 40-time could have a big impact on his draft stock. Fortunately for Thomas, he proved at Oregon that he has a knack for shining on the biggest stages.
[RELATED: Top Small School Draft Picks]
3. Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo
Jimmy Garoppolo showcased “exceptional footwork making throws inside the pocket, while also displaying remarkable athleticism and body control, tossing the ball on the move,” NFL Media Analyst Bucky Brooks wrote following Garoppolo’s impressive performances at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl. “In addition, Garoppolo has made quick, decisive reads with the ball, showing a compact delivery and quick release.”
Garoppolo hails from the same school as Tony Romo, but the 6-2, 222-pound signal-caller is about to be faced with an opportunity to follow in the footsteps of another current NFL starting quarterback who came from another small school and saw a meteoric rise at the combine six years ago—Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco.
The Delaware product took advantage of a lackluster 2008 quarterback class with a strong showing in Indianapolis to vault himself into the first round conversation (selected No. 18 overall) after a solid performance at the Senior Bowl.
4. Alabama QB A.J. McCarron
McCarron is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in the history of college football. He’s also widely regarded as the fifth or sixth-best quarterback in this draft class and has received plenty of mixed reviews.
“When I watch this guy, I keep saying to myself, is this guy Andy Dalton? And I’m trying to make a positive out of that,” NFL Media Analyst Charley Casserly said last Thursday. The former Houston Texans and Washington Redskins personnel executive called McCarron “very productive” and a “smart guy,” but added he wants to see his arm in person and alluded to Dalton being McCarron’s ceiling.
NFL Films’ Greg Cosell referred to the two-time National Champion as “a very mentally aware, but physically limited QB.” Cosell said McCarron has the physical ability of an NFL backup, but added he could transcend into a passable starter in a run-first system. Though the Seahawks will not be in the mix for McCarron’s services, Cosell offered a Seattle’s offensive scheme as an example.
He’ll have a chance to put some of this criticism to rest in Indianapolis and add validity to the AFC Scout who compared McCarron to New England Patriots star quarterback Tom Brady in December.
“Good size, outstanding touch on all throws, can make all the throws but only has average arm strength. Average running ability but very good feet and movement in the pocket to avoid sacks. Outstanding progression-read quarterback, makes throws to his second and third reads consistently. Doesn’t turn the ball over. Winner. Mentally tough. Has the moxie and cockiness most great QBs have.Very similar to Tom Brady in stature, athletic ability, arm strength, touch and the most important category — wins.”
5. Clemson WR Sammy Watkins
Watkins is arguably ”the best wide receiver to come out since A.J. Green/Julio Jones 2011 draft,” according to NFL Films’ Greg Cosell. “He’s got size, speed, hands, shiftiness, explosion. I think that Sammy Watkins is hands down the best receiver in this draft.”
The 6-1, 200-pound star wide out is looking to make scouts salivate in Indianapolis. Although he doesn’t want to predict a 40-time for himself, he says he “will definitely have the fastest time or one of the two or three fastest at the combine.”
Watkins, who capped off his collegiate career at Clemson with 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns as a junior, also adds that he is 10 times faster now that he was while playing in college. “My body was so messed up that I can get 10 times faster. I was using 60 percent of my body, and I have 40 percent more I need to get out,” Watkins said, per orangeandwhite.com.
6. South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney
Clowney’s college coach didn’t exactly give the top-rated defensive end’s work ethic a ringing endorsement on Wednesday. “He was OK. It wasn’t like Marcus Lattimore, you know, every player is a little different,” South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier told NFL Network. “His work habits are pretty good, they’re not quite like Lattimore, maybe Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, some of those guys, but when the ball is snapped he’s got something no one else has.”
Although Spurrier said Clowney’s “production this year wasn’t near what it was last year,” the coach blamed the difference on double- and triple-teaming, which is a valid argument. Fortunately for Clowney, he won’t see triple-teaming at the next level.
Clowney collected 130 tackles, 24.0 sacks and nine forced fumbles during his three-year career under Spurrier. He reportedly ran a 4.54 40 and vertically jumped 38 inches last spring.
We expect the star-studded defensive end to put on a show (along with Khalil Mack and Anthony Barr, the other top-rated edge rushers) as he goes through testing in Indy. Clowney has his sights set on a monster performance and predicts that he’ll remarkably run in the 4.4s, according to Anwar S. Richardson of Yahoo Sports.
7. Louisville QB Teddy Bridgewater
Still seen as a slight favorite in our eyes over Manziel and Bortles for the No. 1 pick, Teddy B remains the most pro-ready QB in this draft class and has the ability to fit any offense. Bridgewater’s ”body build” will be his biggest question in Indianapolis, according to former NFL GM Charley Casserly.
“They worry about his durability, what is his strength and size potential,” Casserly said. The ex-Texans decision maker also pointed out teams want to know about Bridgewater’s vocal leadership.
Rotoworld’s Josh Norris has gone on record saying that these criticisms will be laughed at in a few years, especially the questions regarding his frame and has compared the Cardinals’ former star signal-caller to Russell Wilson, but three inches taller with less explosive movements. NFL Media Analyst Bucky Brooks also praises Bridgewater’s ”high football IQ, management skills and leadership ability.”
“Questions about his slender frame have led to concerns about his durability, but Aaron Rodgers entered the league with similar physical dimensions/athletic traits [6-2, 202 pounds] and things turned out well for the former league MVP,” Brooks wrote.
There will be plenty of QBs to watch in Indy, but Bridgewater will be as exciting and important to watch as anyone.
8. Oregon TE Colt Lyerla
Lyerla probably has more riding on his performance in the workouts and in the interview rooms than any other prospect in Indianapolis. The 6-5, 250-pound tight end is widely regarded as a first round talent, but because of his off-the-field troubles he’s seen as a mid-round prospect by the likes of Mike Mayock, and a late-round to UDFA by others.
“He’s a gifted, gifted kid but he has a bunch of off-the-field issues,” Mayock said. “He’s probably a first- or second-round talent. Whether or not he gets drafted is part of the process going forward. Because of the talent, there will be be somebody on the third day that says, ‘OK, we’re now at the risk/reward part of the program where we’re willing to invest a fifth-round pick in this kid because he’s a first-round talent.’”
Lyerla left Oregon in October and pleaded guilty to cocaine possession on Dec. 27 stemming from an Oct. 24 arrest. He was sentenced to 10 days in jail, two years of probation and 40 hours of community service.
9. Missouri DE/OLB Michael Sam
The 2013 SEC Defensive Player of the Year took a big (and very brave) step in his life last week. Although the response from NFL players has been extremely positive, several anonymous NFL executives expect Sam’s draft stock to drop in the wake of his announcement of his sexual orientation. Aside from the social and cultural aspect, Sam’s skill set will also come under intense scrutiny.
Despite his immense success at Missouri, Sam struggled when he was asked to play linebacker in the Senior Bowl, so showing scouts that he can make the transition from a 4-3 defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker with improved flexibility and change of direction skills will be critical to determining whether he’s taken on the second or third day of the draft.
Here is what NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread had to say regarding Sam at the combine:
For Sam, trainer Travelle Gaines told “NFL AM,” it’s something else.
“Hip flip is the most important thing for Michael Sam to show at the NFL Combine,” Gaines said, “because the bottom line is this, if you can’t turn and run, you can’t play in the NFL.”
The hip flip drill requires athletes to backpedal, then turn and sprint, to show NFL scouts their flexibility in coverage. Sam (6-foot-1, 255 pounds) is undersized to stay at the defensive end position, where he amassed 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a senior at Missouri. As such, he’ll likely have to make the switch to linebacker, which requires an entirely different skill set.
Along with the hip flip drill, Gaines said Sam will also be challenged to show change-of-direction skills, crucial for playing in pass coverage, but not something he required much of as a pass rusher in college.
We fully expect Sam to generate more media attention than any middle-round projection in history.
10. UCF QB Blake Bortles
Bortles will be bucking the recent trend of top-rated quarterback prospects by showcasing his arm strength, quickness and release in front of coaches, scouts and general managers in Indianapolis. It’s a little risky, but presents a golden opportunity for the 6-4, 230-pound former UCF Knights star quarterback to separate himself from the pack.
His goal this Sunday is to be above average at every single drill, which is why he tacked to his wall that shows the average drill showing of every NFL quarterback who has performed at the combine.
“I’m not the fasted guy or I won’t jump the highest or the furthest or any of that,” Bortles said, via the Orlando Sentinel. “But I’ve got that sheet … and my goal is be above that [average] in every single category.”
Many are starting to view the big, tough, athletic, strong-armed and intelligent quarterback as the top choice for the Texans. In addition to being a desirable frame, strong pocket movement and ability to work through progressions, Bortles played under UCF coach George O’Leary, who was a big mentor for new Texans head coach Bill O’Brien.
Other Prospects To Watch: Fresno State QB Derek Carr, Georgia QB Aaron Murray, Clemson QB Tajh Boyd, Auburn RB Tre Mason, LSU RB Jeremy Hill, Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde, Texas A&M WR Mike Evans, Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews, Oregon State WR Brandin Cooks, Colorado WR Paul Richardson, Auburn OT Greg Robinson, Michigan OT Taylor Lewan, Missouri DE Kony Ealy, Auburn DE Dee Ford, Minnesota DT Ra’shede Hageman, Florida State DL Timmy Jernigan, UCLA OLB Anthony Barr, BYU OLB Kyle Van Noy, Wisconsin LB Chris Borland, Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert, Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Lindenwood CB Pierre Desir, Louisville S Calvin Pryor, Northern Illinois S Jimmie Ward and Florida State DB Lamarcus Joyner.
Michael Gartman is a College Football and NFL Senior Writer, the AFC South and NFC West Lead Writer and the Founder, CEO of GridironGrit.com and the lead editor for NFLDraftInsiders.net and Weekly Co-Host NFL Draft Insiders Radio Show. He’s also about to start reporting on topics across all sides of the political spectrum and analyze important issues in the liberty movement for a political website. Follow him @_MichaelGartman on Twitter. Be sure to like NFL Draft Insiders on Facebook to keep up with the latest coverage on college football, the NFL and more!