Four-Day Mad Dash: The Five Types of Players With the Most at Stake at the NFL Combine

Jonathan Moore/Getty Images Matt Barkley

Four years ago, Andre Smith got off a plane in Indianapolis as the best left tackle at that year’s NFL combine. The previous season, he was awarded the Outland Trophy, given to college football’s best interior lineman. He’d been named an All-American by every outlet with a printing press or an Internet presence. And come draft time, it was expected that Smith would be one of the first five players off the board.

Then he left.

Before completing any of his workouts, Smith was back on a plane to Alabama, without telling anyone. Later, his explanation was that in switching his representation, he’d lost some time to prepare for the drills. He didn’t feel ready.

This excuse was hardly enough for those involved. He was skewered — for a lack of maturity and a lack of attention to detail. Smith’s pro day in Tuscaloosa didn’t help much, either. The video of his jiggle during the 40-yard dash is still Internet legend. A tumble down hypothetical draft boards began. Smith went from the best tackle in the draft to the consensus no. 3. By March, Mel Kiper had him clear out of the top 10. In botching the “pre-draft process,” Smith had done himself in.

What he’d actually done was nothing. The Bengals drafted Smith sixth overall, and although the difference in guaranteed money between Smith and second overall pick Jason Smith was $12 million, the tumble ended up as more of a slight shift. The thing about offensive tackles is that they don’t have to look like underwear models. A 5.28-second 40-yard dash does not preclude a man from mauling people at the line of scrimmage. For Smith, an entire season of tape was infinitely more valuable than a couple runs through the three-cone drill. And now at the end of his rookie contract, he’s developed into one of the best right tackles in the league (recent legal trouble notwithstanding).

There are players, though, for whom this weekend’s NFL combine can be a make-or-break sort of affair. History has shown that certain types of players are buoyed by strong showings at different points along the line of tests. In a draft with plenty of depth but little defined hierarchy, these are the five types of players who have the most at stake in Indianapolis.

The Burner

That combine Andre Smith bailed on was packed with wide receiver talent like few drafts in recent memory. Michael Crabtree had just finished a record-torching season at Texas Tech, Percy Harvin was the secret to Urban Meyer’s success, and Jeremy Maclin had just finished bringing Missouri football to relevancy. Kenny Britt and Hakeem Nicks were further down on most boards, but many still expected that both would go in the first round.

Coming up behind that crop of first-rounders was Maryland wide receiver Darrius Heyward-Bey. In his junior season with the Terrapins, Heyward-Bey caught just 42 passes for 608 yards, but still, he had the frame and athleticism of a typical NFL receiver.

At the podiums that weekend, the joke among the top wide receivers was who would clock the fastest time in the 40. Crabtree’s dominance relied more on his size and hands, but Maclin and Harvin had both been lauded for their straight-line speed. When it came time to run, both came away with relatively disappointing times — Maclin with a 4.45, and Harvin with a 4.41. In the end, it was the bigger Heyward-Bey who finished with the best time — a blistering 4.3 that no one saw coming.

How much that time mattered to all 32 NFL franchises is up for debate. Heyward-Bey’s combine performance had undoubtedly raised his profile, but most still ranked him third among the available receivers. When the Raiders took him seventh overall, many shrugged it off as an appeasement of Al Davis that belonged 30 years in the past. Amid the ridicule of Heyward-Bey going in the top 10, what was lost is that before his performance in Indianapolis the same ridicule would have been warranted 20 spots later.

If Davis’s presence compromises the legitimacy of any argument, Troy Williamson may be a better example. When the Minnesota Vikings grew tired of Randy Moss and shipped him to Oakland following the 2004 season, it left a massive hole on the outside of their offense.

When Williamson decided to leave South Carolina a year early, he was graded as a second-round pick. Then came the combine. Williamson’s 40 clocked in at 4.32 seconds, and on draft day, with the seventh overall pick they’d procured in the trade for Moss, the Vikings chose Williamson to be their next star receiver. Four years and just 87 catches later, Williamson was out of the league.

This year, it’s the lack of top-tier talent at the position that could place increased importance on how players run. No wide receiver is slated to go in the top half of the draft, but with the direction of the league (and the late-season success of Baltimore’s deep passing game), the idea of a team reaching a bit isn’t out of the question. The two guys who have a chance to emerge from the pack after this weekend are probably Tennessee’s Cordarrelle Patterson and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin.

Patterson’s road to Knoxville was a winding one. After one year (during which he didn’t play football) at North Carolina Tech Christian Academy, he spent two seasons at a community college in Kansas, where he was a two-time All-American. In his one FBS season after transferring to Tennessee, he scored touchdowns in just about every way imaginable. He had five through the air, three on the ground, and one each on kick and punt returns. With prototypical 6-foot-3, 205-pound size, an eye-popping time may be enough to encourage a team to take a chance near the top 10.

What Austin lacks in Patterson’s size he makes up for with a body of work that barely seems real. Austin said earlier this morning that he considers himself the best player in this draft, and based on what he did last season at West Virginia, he might have a point. The 5-foot-8 receiver tallied more than 1,900 total yards and 15 touchdowns as the focal point of the Mountaineers’ offense, and if he can turn in something south of 4.4, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him move from the end of the first round to the top 20.

The other name people will be mentioning when the wide receivers start their workouts is Marquise Goodwin. A former track star who got a late invite to the Senior Bowl, where he performed well, Goodwin may be this year’s version of Jacoby Ford. There are plenty of examples of players who shot into the top 10 by showing great speed, but there are just as many who have moved from the sixth to the third round. That’s the type of jump Goodwin could be looking at over the next two months, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him become a Mike Wallace–type pick for a contender.

The Refrigerator

Originally, it was a nickname given to first-round pick William Perry back in 1985, but it’s also how Warren Sapp referred to Dontari Poe in the lead-up to last year’s draft. At Memphis, Poe’s production never quite matched his talent, but after his showing at the combine, that disconnect seemed to matter less and less. Weighing in at 346 pounds, Poe ran the 40 in less than five seconds. He put up 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. In short, he was inhuman. Originally considered a late first-round pick, Poe went 11th overall to Kansas City — the team’s third top-15 defensive lineman in four years.

Other defensive tackles have turned in similar performances (Brodrick Bunkley in 2006, for instance), but many of those players were already expected to be top-10 picks before working out. Poe’s ascent mirrored players like Ziggy Hood in 2009 (late second to late first) and Igor Olshansky in 2004 (late second to early second). But the player who might best mirror Poe’s rise is in this year’s draft.

A year removed from a defense with four first-round picks, Alabama still put together a championship-caliber unit, and it was Jesse Williams who stood right in the middle of it. The 320-pound Australian thinks he’ll set the bench-press record in Indianapolis, and on top of that, it’s believed he’ll also turn in a 40 time of less than five seconds. This draft, with Star Lotulelei, Sharrif Floyd, Sheldon Richardson, and Sylvester Williams all among the top 25 prospects, is a deep one at defensive tackle, but as we saw with Poe last year, a head-turning day from Jesse Williams might be enough to put him in that same group.

The Liability

The commonly held belief about the combine is that, relatively, the workouts matter very little. For NFL teams, the benefit of one weekend with every prospect in a single place is that they get the chance to learn exactly what they want to know. The interview process allows teams to address whatever outside issues a player brings to the table, and there are executives who’ve created a unique approach to doing so.

Former Packers executive and current ESPN analyst Andrew Brandt would ask a series of what Mike Garafolo and Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today described as “seemingly inane questions” to cut through the extensive training players get from their management. When it comes to players with notable past transgressions, teams’ questions are often designed to see if a player can remain composed in giving an explanation.

Last year’s first-round prospects featured two cases in which off-field issues led to a heightened importance on player interviews. Notre Dame wide receiver Michael Floyd had three alcohol-related incidents while in school, including a March 2011 DUI. A month later, Janoris Jenkins was kicked off the team at Florida for his second drug-related arrest in three months. Jenkins (who eventually finished his college career at North Alabama) and Floyd were both considered first-round talents, but each faced questions about his past. Floyd ended up going 11th overall to the Cardinals and Jenkins fell to the second round before having a very good rookie season for the Rams.

There hasn’t been a player in the history of the combine who will likely receive more questions and more attention than Manti Te’o. Yesterday, without mentioning him by name, Bears general manager Phil Emery said that the team plans to meet with Te’o and address the girlfriend hoax that came to light more than a month ago. Teams will likely look to grasp not only more of the situation’s specifics, but what type of person allows this to go as far as it did.

Another player who will be closely questioned this year is actually the other top-rated inside linebacker. Alec Ogletree moves like few inside linebackers do. He has truly rare speed for someone at the position, and the way he throws his body around, he instantly changes the tone of any defense lucky enough to get him. Where the problems arise is off the field. Ogletree was suspended for the first four games of this season after failing an offseason drug test and was charged with a DUI just six days ago.

The Specimen

Any conversation about combine cautionary tales begins and ends with Mike Mamula. Before the 1995 combine, Mamula was an undersized defensive end from Boston College who was considered no more than a third-round pick. After it was over, experts had him going in the top 10. At a time when few other players were specifically training for combine drills, Mamula did nothing but. When the draft came, the Philadelphia Eagles were picking 12th but desperately wanted a shot at Mamula. That led to a trade with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who received Philly’s pick and two second-round picks to swap spots. The Eagles got Mamula at no. 7. And with a bit of extra maneuvering, the Buccaneers ended up with two first-round picks — 12th and 28th overall. Warren Sapp was the first. Derrick Brooks was the second. Mamula was out of the league in five years.

This type of height-weight-speed workout happens across all defensive positions. With a 4.4 in the 40 and 31 reps on the bench, former Arizona State walk-on Adam Archuleta went 20th overall to the Rams in 2001. Vernon Davis spent his time in Indianapolis reeducating everyone on what a tight end could look like, and he turned into one of the best in football.

The modern-day Mamula is probably former Jet Vernon Gholston. Gholston had a very good career at Ohio State — and was probably the only player who ever gave Jake Long any trouble in college — but it was his combine performance that vaulted him into the top five. His 4.56 40-yard dash while weighing in at 260 pounds was enough for the Jets to make him their pass-rushing phenom of the future. This theme seems to keep coming up, but five years later, Gholston isn’t on an NFL roster.

The crowd set to light this year’s combine on fire is a trio of pass rushers who all bring a little something different to the table. BYU defensive end Ziggy Ansah is a 270-pound, 4.6-running, soccer-playing Ghanaian who took home defensive MVP honors at the Senior Bowl. Oregon’s Dion Jordan is a tall, long-armed fit as a 3-4 outside linebacker who’s likely to run well enough to solidify his spot in the top 10. But the most gifted of the three is still probably LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo. At 6-foot-5 and 245 pounds, Mingo has posted 40 times in the mid 4.5’s. Mingo’s production in his final season at LSU dropped enough to give some teams pause, but with the right showing this weekend, he could end up second in the defensive end shuffle behind Damontre Moore.

The Franchise

Several days ago, new Chiefs general manager John Dorsey gave a perfect interview about the thought process teams will go through with this year’s group of quarterbacks. “There is no quarterback where personnel guys can definitely say, ‘He’s a first-round pick,’” Dorsey told the Kansas City Star. Dorsey said that each of the available quarterbacks has a flaw — technical or schematic — that is impossible to ignore.

He went on to say, like many do, that to him, the interview might be the most important part of the combine process:

“The most impressive interview I’ve ever had in the last 25 years of doing this? Russell Wilson,” said Dorsey, referring to the quarterback drafted by Seattle last year in the third round. “Wasn’t even close. You could feel that guy as a person, how strong he was, how intellectually deep he was, how mentally tough he was, that he had the charisma to lead other players. I always try to look at kids like I’m in the locker room and I’m a teammate. It was easy to see this guy leading a team.

“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. 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.”

In other words, Kansas City is desperate for a quarterback, and even if no one deserves to go in the top 10, if someone manages to show Dorsey and new coach Andy Reid that he has what it takes to run a franchise, don’t be surprised if the Chiefs end up reaching. This likely won’t happen with the first overall pick, but it might happen if Kansas City manages to trade down even just a bit.

As the 2009 combine rolled around, Mark Sanchez was considered to be firmly in the first round, but that was about it. There was talk that he might go to the Jets, but if he did, it would be with the 17th pick. When Sanchez stepped to the podium to speak to the media, there was something about him that just made him feel like a quarterback. The Lions were coming off that 0-16 disaster of a season, and as I sat there listening, part of me thought that maybe this was the guy a team should want to start over with. It didn’t end up going that far, but the Jets did trade all the way into the top five for Sanchez, and I can bet that a good part of it was based on what they saw that day.

The latest USC quarterback will be in a similar situation. Like Sanchez, Matt Barkley’s physical tools aren’t considered exceptional. He doesn’t have a very strong arm, and much of his success was based on timing throws that don’t necessarily translate to the NFL. What Barkley has going for him as he begins his move back into the first round is that he’s likely to crush the sit-downs that will come this weekend. Not only is he a smart player who spent four years in a pro-style offense, but he has a quality about him that people seem to gravitate toward. In a draft where no quarterback has pulled away from the rest, the one who eventually does — whether it’s Barkley, or Geno Smith, or Mike Glennon — will likely be the one who impresses at the table and on the chalkboard. In today’s NFL, teams are more likely than ever to talk themselves into reaching for a franchise quarterback. It’s up to this year’s crop to convince a team why they should.

Filed Under: Andy Reid, Kansas City Chiefs, Mark Sanchez, Matt Barkley, NFL, NFL Draft, Russell Wilson

Robert Mays is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ robertmays