Top Players to Watch at the 2018 NFL Combine

Top Players to Watch at the 2018 NFL Combine article feature image

Photo Credit: Melina Vastola – USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 NFL combine drills will take place on March 2-5. Players will have the chance to improve their draft stock, and gamblers will have the chance to profit on various combine-related prop bets. We’ll take note of some of the event’s biggest names as well as some of the weekend’s potential wild cards in the first of several combine-specific pieces.

Football is kinda back! It’s almost March, which means it’s almost time for scouts to fall in love with a bunch of prospects based on drills that hardly resemble 11-on-11 football. It’s hard to simulate a physical sport with non-contact drills.

The combine should be far from the only factor in evaluating a prospect, but the ability to test, measure, and interview most of the draft’s premier talents is undoubtedly an integral part of any team’s process. Let’s identify some of the combine’s most intriguing prospects based on some of the event’s historical storylines.

Who Has the Most to Gain?

Every combine seems to have at least a few players who shoot up draft boards based on ridiculous performances. These are some players who could see their stock skyrocket with solid workouts.

Kalen Ballage | RB | Senior | Arizona State: Player Profile

Ballage never worked as a true featured back in college, and his counting stats regressed in a meaningful way as a senior. Still, he demonstrated upside with an eight-touchdown performance against Texas Tech as a junior, and he recently balled out at the Senior Bowl with a 10-57-0 rushing line. Ballage’s former head coach Todd Graham has said that he is capable of a 4.40-second 40. He would join Knile Davis and Damien Williams as the only backs weighing 220-plus pounds to run a 40-yard dash in 4.45 seconds or less over the past five combines.

D.J. Chark | WR | Senior | LSU

Ten wide receivers have run a 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds since 2014: 80 percent of those players were selected among the draft’s first 100 picks. The NFL loves speed at receiver.

The quickest way for a team to forget about a receiver’s stone hands or poor route running is to watch that receiver run a blistering sprint in Indianapolis. Chark caught only six career touchdowns, but his career average of 20.5 yards per catch — along with a 5-160-1 line at the Senior Bowl — could suddenly look much more impressive with a top-three 40-yard dash. He could enter early-round consideration with a dominant performance over consensus No. 1 receiver Calvin Ridley, whose 40-yard dash prop opened at 4.42 seconds.

Lamar Jackson | QB | Junior | Louisville: Player Profile

You should take school-reported 40 times with a grain of salt, but Jackson has a chance to become the combine’s fastest-timed quarterback ever (or at least since Michael Vick) if his reported 4.34-second dash last offseason is accurate. One sportsbook seems to think it’s close, as his 40-yard dash prop opened at 4.35 seconds — the second-fastest prop for all players. The youngest Heisman winner ever posted top-flight production during his three years as a starter, and reinforcing the same physical gifts that routinely captivated America could help a trigger a Robert Griffin III-esque rise up draft boards.

Honorable Mention: Georgia running back Nick Chubb was typically viewed as the Bulldogs’ bruiser, and Sony Michel, the scat back. Chubb finished second in the nation in SPARQ testing at the Nike Opening in 2013, and a similar performance this weekend could help teams view him as a featured back. On the defensive side of the ball, Alabama defensive tackle Da’Ron Payne flashed his do-it-all ability during the Crimson Tide’s championship run, and he could solidify a first-round selection by proving he’s capable of moving well at 300-plus pounds.

Who Has the Most to Lose?

The combine helps some prospects get significant pay raises, but some would likely be better off if the draft took place after the first round of mock drafts are released in January. These are some players who could fall down draft boards with unimpressive combine performances.

Sam Hubbard | DE | Redshirt Junior | Ohio State: Player Profile

Hubbard’s background as a former high school safety and lacrosse star would seemingly bode well for his chances at showing off some freakish physical traits. In reality, his motor and technique are probably the traits that most entice scouts. Ohio State wouldn’t have been as dominant without their 6’5″ and 265-pound edge rusher, but he didn’t seem to demonstrate the type of bend or game-breaking athleticism that other ends in this class possess. A lack of burst in the shuttles or strength in the bench press could give skeptical scouts the numbers to confirm their worries.

Royce Freeman | RB | Senior | Oregon: Player Profile

Oregon football is usually synonymous with speed, but Freeman largely powered his way into becoming the leading rusher in FBS history. This isn’t to say he’s slow; he ran a 4.58-second 40-yard dash as a 227-pound high school senior. Still, Freeman is believed to have added 10-15 pounds over his collegiate career, and any lost time in his 40 won’t help his chances at being picked within the draft’s first three rounds:

Freeman’s production and size will certainly boost his chances of joining the above comp group, but proving he’s still got a semblance of breakaway speed will be important to work his way into second-round discussion.

Minkah Fitzpatrick | DB | Junior | Alabama: Player Profile

There have been 23 defensive backs to stand at least six feet tall and be selected as top-10 picks over the past 25 years. Nearly every member of this group to check in under 210 pounds wound up playing mostly cornerback at the next level. Fitzpatrick was used as a hybrid safety during his time at Alabama and played only 13 snaps at outside corner in 2017. He’s almost unanimously the first defensive back selected in mocks thanks to his unrivaled on-field ability, but he’ll add to his positional questions with a failure to meet lofty pre-combine workout totals that include a 4.42-second 40-yard dash and 37.3-inch vertical jump.

Honorable Mention: Liks Joey Bosa in 2016, Bradley Chubb has been the consensus top defensive end of the draft since the season ended. With nowhere to go but down, Chubb could face questions about his first step with a disappointing combine. The likes of D.J. Moore and Ronald Jones II join a bevy of prospects who would greatly benefit from a positive weigh-in or height measurement.

Who Are the Workout Warriors?

Some players don’t let game film or merely one drill at the combine define them. These players are your token freak athletes who thrive during both the regular season and the offseason.

Derwin James | DB | Redshirt Sophomore | Florida State: Player Profile

The Seminoles’ 6’3″ and 215-pound playmaker, like Fitzpatrick, has some positional uncertainty. To call James versatile would be an understatement, as he routinely made plays all over the field in whatever role he was asked to play.

James has been documented with a 40-yard dash under 4.5 seconds as well as a broad jump of 11-plus feet. He has a chance to cement himself among the draft’s top-15 players with an overall dominant performance in all five marquee drills.

Saquon Barkley | RB | Junior | Penn State: Player Profile

Barkley has nothing to prove with three seasons worth of A-plus film as a featured back in the Big Ten, but he’s going to compete in every combine drill anyway. An environment meant to magnify physical gifts should be great for Barkley, given his penchant for jumping over people and power cleaning 400-plus pounds. He’ll be the first running back off the board regardless of his performance as long as no unforeseen legal issues or injuries arise, but Barkley could lock up a top-five pick with multiple appearances atop drill leaderboards.

Marcus Davenport | DE | Senior | UTSA: Player Profile

The eye test won’t be an issue for Texas-San Antonio’s 6’7″ and 255-pound edge rusher, but the former high school track star can cement a top-32 pick if he displays the athleticism he’s reported to have. Davenport’s prop for the vertical jump opened at 34.2 inches, a mark only five defensive linemen managed to best in 2017. He flew around the field in the Conference USA, but NFL teams will undoubtedly be more inclined to take a chance on a non-Power Five prospect if he can confirm what appears to be overwhelming physical traits. Davenport is looking to become just the fifth first-round pick from a non-Power Five conference in the last 15 years.

Honorable Mention: Mark Walton missed most of last season with an ankle injury, but he flashed three-down ability during his time at Miami. He’s expected to come in shorter than 5’10” and weighing less than 210 pounds, but a clean medical examination and strong displays of quickness could be enough to convince teams they’re looking at the league’s next lethal scat back. Meanwhile, Virginia Tech linebacker Tremaine Edmunds can prove he’s more than athletic enough to work off the ball at 6’5″ and 250 pounds and warrant a top-15 pick.

Other Notes

Records are made to be broken: One sportsbook has posted prop bets as to whether certain combine records will be broken.

  • Byron Jones‘s 12’3″ broad jump (No -150, Yes +120)
  • Chris Conley‘s 45″ vertical jump (No -250, Yes +200)
  • John Ross‘ 4.22-second 40-yard dash (No -200, Yes +165)
  • Shelton Gibson‘s 10.71-second 60-yard shuttle (No -140, Yes +110)
  • Stephen Paea‘s 49-rep bench press (No -400, Yes +325).

Top contestants for the 40-yard-dash crown: Last year Adidas offered an actual island to anyone who broke Chris Johnson‘s 40-yard record while wearing their cleats. Ross wound up breaking the record in Nikes, but the magnitude of this specific test is clear. Ohio State’s Denzel Ward is an early frontrunner thanks to a reported 4.23-second 40, while LSU corner/track star Donte Jackson claims to have registered a 4.24-second 40. They’ll face plenty of competition from other track/football stars including Nyheim Hines, Isaiah Oliver, and Tony Brown.

Job interview season: There are plenty of jobs at stake when any organization decides to make a guy in his young 20s the franchise quarterback. Josh Rosen and Baker Mayfield will each have the opportunity to ease any concerns teams may have about their perceived arrogance and/or past decision making. Players will have the chance to explain transfer decisions, and teams will look to identify if players such as LSU defensive end Arden Key are truly committed to the game. Also, as Reuben Foster and Myles Jack have demonstrated in recent years, even the draft’s best prospects are just one bad medical exam away from watching their draft stock plummet.

Photo Credit: Melina Vastola – USA TODAY Sports