For the next five days, the eyes of the football world will be focused on Indianapolis, where the sport’s much-anticipated annual survival of the fittest showcase—the NFL Combine—will take place. 335 NFL hopefuls have descended upon the city, looking to show off their skills for scouts, coaches and key front-office personnel to see.
With a record 98 underclassmen having declared for the 2014 draft, this year’s class is arguably the deepest and most talented group of prospects we’ve seen in at least a decade. That’s what makes this year’s combine so intriguing and exciting.
Plenty of big-name stars should shine during workouts, but as always, there will likely be a few lesser-known breakout performers who make a name for themselves on the big stage as well.
So what are the key storylines to watch out for?
Which players are poised to post the best results in the highly scrutinized physical tests?
And most importantly, which prospects will ultimately cause the biggest buzz?
Here’s a look at the predictions for the 2014 NFL combine.
- Johnny Manziel Will Be Unfairly Criticized for Not Throwing
It’s not unusual for the top quarterbacks in a draft class to decline the opportunity to throw at the combine.
This year will be no different.
The most captivating signal-caller in this year’s class, Johnny Manziel, won’t be throwing in Indianapolis. Instead, he’ll wait until his pro day on March 27 to show off his arm for scouts to see.
Manziel—a player who is already a magnet for criticism—will likely be called out by analysts and the “anonymous scouts” and be painted as someone who is fearful of pressure. But that’s not the case.
Is it a disappointment that one of the biggest stars of the class won’t be showing off his full array of skills? Yes. But the decision to wait is understandable, considering how much money is at stake.
Ultimately, we’ve seen enough of Manziel in live game action over the last two years to get a good feel for what he has to offer on the field. If we don’t get to see him in a t-shirt and shorts throw to receivers he’s not comfortable with, it’s not really that big of a deal.
- Jadeveon Clowney Will Live Up to the Hype…And Then Some
For the past year, Jadeveon Clowney has been the face of the 2014 NFL draft. He’s been the most talked-about and polarizing prospect in the class. After turning in a rather disappointing junior campaign, the enigmatic end has gained a few critics along the way. However, he should be able to silence them with a huge performance in Indianapolis.
The freakish physical specimen is the type of rare athlete who could put together a memorable and potentially historic workout, which would help him gain back a bit of the luster he seemed to lose in 2013.
If Clowney puts on the type of show he’s capable of at the combine, he should reassert himself as the clear favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in May.
Here are my predictions for the type of numbers he’ll put up.
40-yard Dash: 4.51 seconds
Vertical Leap: 39 inches
Broad Jump: 11’1”
Bench Press: 23 reps
3-Cone Drill: 7.07
- Sammy Watkins Will Clock a Sub 4.3 40-Yard Dash
“I will definitely have the fastest time or one of the two or three fastest at the combine.”
That’s the bold proclamation that Sammy Watkins made this week in an interview with Josh Kendall of OrangeandWhite.com.
Some may say that Watkins sounds a bit cocky, but if there’s anyone out there who can back up that type of gutsy statement, it’s the most electric and explosive receiver in this year’s draft class.
This past June, Watkins claimed that he clocked a 4.27 time in the 40-yard dash during team training.
Ran a 4:27 on grass without training Wat a great day still got more in me #autofast
— Sammy Watkins (@sammywatkins) June 18, 2013
What’s scary is that in the interview with Kendall, he now claims to be “10 times faster” than he was in college.
Last year, only one receiver—Texas’ Marquise Goodwin—was able to break the 4.3 second-mark in the 40, which goes to show just how difficult and rare of a feat it truly is. It takes a special speedster to clock that type of time, but the former Tiger definitely has the wheels to do it.
Watkins doesn’t need to light up scouts’ stopwatches in order to ensure a spot in the top 10. He’s already done that with his play on the field. Still, he’s obviously motivated to leave no doubt that he is the fastest and most dangerous player at the position. That’s why there’s a great chance he’ll clock a sub 4.3 time.
- …And So Will Robert Herron
Sammy Watkins is already considered by most analysts and draftniks to be the top overall receiver prospect in the 2014 draft, so if he runs a blazing 40-time, it really won’t do much to change his already elite status and alter how he’s already perceived.
The same can’t be said, however, for a somewhat unheralded player like Wyoming’s Robert Herron.
Herron hasn’t yet received nearly the same amount of attention or publicity as Watkins or some of the other top receiver prospects in the 2014 class, but that doesn’t mean he’s not worthy of praise.
The speedy 5’10”, 187-pound pass-catcher has many similar physical qualities as DeSean Jackson—most notably his game-changing speed and playmaking ability.
Though I personally projected Herron to be a first-round pick in my last mock draft, I also realize that few others consider him a legitimate first-round prospect at this point in the process.
That will change after the combine, though. If the explosive wide out can clock a sub 4.3 time in the 40-yard dash like he’s capable of, he should soon become a household name, just like Watkins.
- Greg Robinson Will Enter the No. 1 pick Conversation
Before the start of the 2013 season, Jake Matthews, Taylor Lewan and Cyrus Kouandjio were widely considered to be the top three offensive tackle prospects for the 2014 NFL draft. However, over the last few months, Auburn’s Greg Robinson has stated his case and shown why he deserves the title of “top tackle prospect.”
Robinson has already gained the respect of personnel evaluators with his consistently dominant play during the Tigers’ surprise run to the BCS title game. Now, he’ll have the chance to solidify his status as the top tackle prospect with his workout in Indianapolis.
The 6’5”, 320-pound mauler may not be able to fully display his true tenacity and nastiness without pads on. Nevertheless, he should be able to show scouts that he’s the complete package and the best all-around prospect at the position.
Blessed with incredible quickness, agility and natural athleticism for an athlete his size, Robinson should shine in both positional drills and physical tests. Not only will the gifted blocker prove that he’s the top offensive lineman in the 2014 draft class, there’s a good chance that Robinson could begin to garner legitimate No. 1-pick buzz following his showing at the combine. He’s a better overall prospect than both Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel—the top two picks in the 2013 NFL draft.
- Michael Sam’s Press Conference Will be a Spectacle
So you thought Manti Te’o’s whole “fake girlfriend” Q&A session at last year’s Combine was pretty wild?.
Well, just wait until you see the type of media frenzy that breaks out once Michael Sam steps to the podium at this year’s combine.
When Sam made the decision to become the first openly gay NFL draft prospect, he knew that intense media scrutiny would come with the territory. Sam has gone from being an overlooked average pass-rushing prospect to now being involved in one of the most scrutinized storylines leading up to the draft.
He’s already handled himself tremendously well, and there’s no reason he shouldn’t handle the spotlight in Indianapolis with the utmost finesse.
Given the unprecedented nature of the situation, hopefully the many media members can handle themselves with the same type of decorum and not spout out any insensitive inquiries.
- Stephon Tuitt Will be The Most Disappointing Prospect
At every combine, there are always a few big-name prospects who lay an egg and turn in a disappointing performance which drops their stock.
When trying to figure out who could be a potential dud of the 2014 combine, Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt is a name that immediately comes to mind.
Tuitt was already one of the most disappointing players of the 2013 season, looking slow, overweight and not coming close to producing at the rate many were expecting.
To be fair, the 6’6”, 312-pound DE was recovering from offseason hernia surgery. Still, his lack of explosiveness was definitely concerning.
Unless he’s somehow made some surprising strides during his postseason preparation training, Tuitt’s clearly a candidate to be one of the combine’s biggest disappointments.
- Dee Ford Will Ace His Team Interviews
Dee Ford was one of the biggest stars during Senior Bowl week, boosting his name into the first-round discussion with a breakout performance. Ford now has plenty of momentum heading into the combine, and he should be able to capitalize and build on it with another stellar skills exhibition in Indianapolis.
While the focus may be on what Ford does on the field during workouts, don’t be surprised if you ultimately see some reports pop up about how well he handles the interview phase as well.
ESPN’s Louis Riddick has already reported that teams are very impressed with the former Auburn DE’s character.
Hearing more and more about how exceptional the football/personal character of #Auburn DE Dee Ford is. Going to go over well at combine..
— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) February 8, 2014
Ford’s stock is already soaring following his sensational showing down in Mobile. If he continues to flourish both on the field and in his critical meetings with personnel evaluators, Ford could soon garner serious traction as a potential top-20 pick.
- Small School Stars Will Steal the Spotlight
One of the things that’s really great about the NFL combine is that it offers a chance for lower division “small-school” standouts—who didn’t get the opportunity to be seen on national television every week like their peers from FBS schools—to show off their skills for both fans and scouts to see.
This year’s group of small-school prospects is one of the deepest and most talented groups we’ve seen in years. There are plenty of under-the-radar players who could make a name for themselves on the big stage.
Here’s a list of the must-watch small-school prospects who could potentially steal some of the spotlight away from the boys from the big-name programs.
- QB Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois)
- RB Terrance West (Towson)
- RB Jerick McKinnon (Georgia Southern)
- WR Jeff Janis (Saginaw Valley State)
- TE A.C. Leonard (Tennessee State)
- OT Billy Turner (North Dakota State)
- DE Howard Jones (Shepherd)
- DE Larry Webster (Bloomsburg)
- DT Zach Kerr (Delaware)
- DT Caraun Reid (Princeton)
- LB Tyler Starr (South Dakota)
- LB Jordan Tripp (Montana)
- CB Kendall James (Maine)
- CB Brandon Dixon (Northwest Missouri State)
- Dri Archer Will Clock the Fastest 40-Yard Dash Time
At the 2013 NFL combine, there were 12 players who clocked an official sub 4.4 time in the 40-yard dash. With plenty of super-speedsters in attendance, there will likely be many more this year. There’s a chance we could even see Chris Johnson’s record time of 4.24 seconds fall.
So who will be the fastest player in Indianapolis this year?
My pick is Kent State’s versatile ultra-weapon Dri Archer, who has already said that he has his sights set on breaking Johnson’s record.
Here’s a look at the other players who could potentially put up sub 4.4 times as well.
Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State
Tevin Reese, WR, Baylor
Brandon Dixon, CB, Northwest Missouri State
L’Damian Washington, WR, Missouri
Corey Brown, WR, Ohio State
Marqueston Huff, FS, Wyoming
Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State
Jeff Janis, WR, Saginaw Valley State
John Brown, WR, Pittsburg State
Lache Seastrunk, RB, Baylor
De’Anthony Thomas, RB, Oregon
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
Kendall James, CB, Maine
Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Martavis Bryant, WR, Clemson
EJ Gaines, CB, Missouri
Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss
Kyle Fuller, CB, Virginia Tech
Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
Odell Beckham Jr., WR, LSU
- Davante Adams Will Outjump Everyone
Before Davante Adams became a star on the football field at Fresno State, he was a well-known basketball standout at Palo Alto High School in California.
Adams’ basketball background is certainly evident in his game, as he possesses incredible leaping ability and overall athleticism.
According to his official school biography, the 6’2”, 216-pound pass-catcher has a 42” vertical leap, which is a higher mark than any receiver from the 2013 NFL Combine was able to achieve.
The prolifically productive former Bulldog has to be considered one of the favorites to win the honor of highest vertical jump at this year’s combine. Although he’ll likely face a formidable challenge from fellow receivers Tevin Reese and Kelvin Benjamin, who should both top the 40” mark themselves.
- Ryan Carrethers Will Rock The Bench Press
Weight room strength is impressive, but it certainly doesn’t guarantee that a prospect will have a successful pro career. The case in point there is former Eastern Kentucky DT Justin Ernest, who holds the combine record with 51 reps on the bench press, yet only lasted one season as a reserve player in the pros.
One player who has both impressive weight room strength as well as the on-the-field skills to be a difference-maker at the pro level is Arkansas State DT Ryan Carrethers.
Though he may not challenge Ernest’s record, Carrethers is definitely a candidate to be the top performer on the bench press this year.
The massive 6’2”, 332-pound behemoth made Bruce Feldman’s preseason “Freak List.” Feldman noted Carrethers’ impressive accomplishments in the weight room, most notably his 400-pound power clean, his 664-pound power squat and 400-pound incline bench press.
The powerful DT is a player who has the natural strength to develop into a dominant run-stuffer at the next level.
- Tyler Starr Will Have the Fastest Time in the 3-Cone Drill
“I think I can blow that drill out of the water.”
That’s what South Dakota LB Tyler Starr recently had to say in an interview with CBSSports.com about his expected performance in the 3-cone drill.
In the interview, Starr’s trainer Scott Reall indicated that there’s a good chance Starr could even break the all-time combine record of 6.42 seconds set by former Oregon receiver Jeff Maehl in 2011.
“Once I’ve been able to teach him proper technique and steps, he’s been brushing all-time records in the [three-cone] L-drill. His ability to explode off a change of direction and not lose a lot of time is remarkable. He is just so explosive. The first time everybody saw it here, people were like ‘Holy crap!'”
The 6’4”, 250-pound outside ‘backer has said that he’s clocked times as low as 6.29 seconds in training.
Starr is an ascending prospect who could boost his stock even higher by burning up scouts’ stopwatches with an off-the-charts time in a drill that’s considered to be a crucial measuring stick for linebackers.
- Jimmy Garoppolo Will be the Most Buzzworthy QB
With notable quarterback prospects like Johnny Manziel and Derek Carr choosing not to throw at the combine, the door will be open for a second-tier quarterback prospect to step up and make some serious noise.
That quarterback could very well be Eastern Illinois’ Jimmy Garoppolo, who is this year’s most intriguing small-school prospect.
Garoppolo already has plenty of momentum heading into the combine, following strong performances during practices for both the Senior Bowl and the East-West Shrine Game. He should continue to turn heads in the scouting community with another solid showing in Indianapolis.
The strong-armed 6’3”, 222-pound signal-caller has all the prototypical physical traits it takes to become a successful starter at the next level. If he displays the same level of arm strength, accuracy and touch on his passes during throwing drills at the combine that he did throughout his collegiate career, Garoppolo could soon start to build the same type of buzz that Joe Flacco did when he came out of Delaware back in 2008.
- Charles Sims Will be the Most Buzzworthy RB
This year’s running back class may lack a true bona fide star prospect at the top, but with so many talented underclassmen choosing to declare, it’s one of the deepest groups of backs we’ve seen in years.
Thus far, Tre Mason, Carlos Hyde and Ka’Deem Carey have been the three rushers who have received the most attention, but once the combine is over, Charles Sims’ name will likely be mentioned as one of the top prospects at the position as well.
The 6’0”, 214-pound Sims is one of the fastest and strongest backs in this year’s class, and he should dominate during drills in Indianapolis.
Last summer, scouting legend Gil Brandt said that Sims would put up “Adrian Peterson speed-strength numbers at the combine.” If Brandt’s right, the former Mountaineer’s stock could soon start to skyrocket.
- Kelvin Benjamin Will be the Most Buzzworthy WR
Though he may not be able to beat out fellow receivers Sammy Watkins and Robert Herron in the 40-yard dash, and he may not be able to top Davante Adams and Tevin Reese in the vertical jump, Florida State’s Kelvin Benjamin should still put together the best all-around performance of any receiver in Indianapolis.
Benjamin is physically built to inspire awe among onlookers at an event like the combine.
The towering 6’5”, 234-pound pass-catcher possesses tremendous natural athleticism, explosiveness and leaping ability for an athlete his size, and all those traits will be on full display during workouts.
After putting together an eye-opening breakout campaign in 2013, in which he averaged 18.7 yards per catch and hauled in 15 touchdowns, Benjamin has now put himself firmly in the first-round discussion.
If he puts on a spectacular show at the combine, the big, athletic playmaker could overtake fellow receivers such as Texas A&M’s Mike Evans and USC’s Marqise Lee and become the new favorite to be the second receiver selected after Watkins.
- Troy Niklas Will be the Most Buzzworthy TE
North Carolina’s Eric Ebron is the clear-cut top tight end prospect in this year’s draft class. However, what’s not so clear is who the next best prospect at the position really is.
At this point, many would likely say that player is Texas Tech’s Jace Amaro. However, they could be changing their tune after the combine if Notre Dame’s Troy Niklas puts together the type of performance he’s capable of.
Though he hasn’t received the same amount of national publicity during his junior campaign as former Irish TE Tyler Eifert did during the 2012 season, Niklas looks to be every bit as talented as Eifert, who was the No. 21 overall pick in last year’s draft.
The 6’6”, 270-pound former high school offensive lineman is the nephew of legendary tackle Bruce Matthews, and he’s been blessed with some of the same DNA and natural physical ability that helped Matthews become a standout at the pro level.
Niklas may not light up the running drills like Ebron will. But “Baby Gronk” should still put together an impressive overall showing in Indianapolis and make a case for why deserves to be considered the second best tight end in the 2014 class.
- Joel Bitonio Will be the Most Buzzworthy Offensive Lineman
Nevada is a program that has produced some mighty impressive athletic specimens in recent years such as Colin Kaepernick, Dontay Moch, James Michael-Johnson and Virgil Green.
Given his 6’4”, 300-plus pound frame, obviously, OT Joel Bitonio isn’t going to put up the type of eye-catching numbers that some of his Wolf Pack brethren did at the combine. Still, Bitonio does have the agility, quickness and athleticism to really catch the attention of scouts in Indianapolis.
Not only should the fundamentally-sound technician flourish in position drills, he should also be one of the fastest lineman in the 40-yard dash, the 3-cone drill and the shuttle runs.
Greg Robinson may solidify his status as the top lineman in the draft at the combine, but Bitonio will be the lineman who actually make the biggest move up draft boards with his performance.
- Ra’Shede Hageman Will be the Most Buzzworthy Defensive Lineman
Jadeveon Clowney may be the most freakish athlete in this year’s draft, but there’s another extremely intriguing defensive lineman—Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman—who possesses plenty of rare physical tools as well.
This past summer, Hageman was ranked right behind Clowney at No. 2 on Bruce Feldman’s list of College Football’s Craziest Athletes.
Feldman’s article states that Hageman has put up some truly incredible workout numbers for an athlete his size, including a 36-inch vertical jump, a 465-pound bench press and a 1.57 second 10-yard dash. Those are even more impressive numbers then what the promotional flyer which helped create the swirl of initial buzz for the DT had originally claimed.
For the past year, there have been plenty of whispers among draftniks about what type of workout numbers the 6’6”, 318-pound former tight end would truly put up. If the rumors turn out to be true, and Hageman does have the type of dominant performance many are expecting, he could end up being a Ziggy Ansah-esque figure of the 2014 Combine.
- Telvin Smith Will be the Most Buzzworthy LB
Right now, Khalil Mack, Anthony Barr and CJ Mosley may be considered the cream of this year’s linebacker crop. But don’t be surprised if Florida State’s Telvin Smith is the linebacker that everyone ends up talking about in Indianapolis.
Though Smith may be undersized in terms of what the NFL looks for in a prototypical linebacker, what the 6’3”, 218-pound outside ‘backer lacks in bulk, he makes up for with his explosive athleticism.
The Seminoles’ top tackler in 2013 was the true heart and soul of Florida State’s defense during its run to a BCS championship, displaying top-notch instincts, tenacity and closing speed.
Smith is one of the most physically gifted defenders in the 2014 draft class, and he has a great chance to be the fastest overall linebacker at the combine.
- Bashaud Breeland Will be the Most Buzzworthy DB
Throughout the 2013 season, Bashaud Breeland never received nearly the same amount of attention as his Tiger teammates—Sammy Watkins and Tajh Boyd. However, he’s a player who is starting to emerge as one of the must-watch corners during the offseason phase of the process.
Two of the most respected draft analysts in the game today—ESPN’s Kevin Weidl and NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah—both recently praised Breeland’s ability and potential.
Clemson CB Bashaud Breeland has a lot of appeal as a prospect. Extremely long arms, easy mover w/ + range. Won’t make it far past the 2nd rd
— Kevin Weidl (@KevinW_ESPN) February 6, 2014
2 games into my study of Clemson CB Bashaud Breeland…really like him. Good size, quick feet & fluid. Can play press and off cov.
— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) February 4, 2014
The 6’0”, 185-pound junior, who totaled four interceptions and 10 pass breakups in 2013, is starting to generate some serious buzz in the media. He can capitalize on that positive feedback with a strong showing at the combine.
Not only should the fundamentally sound corner excel in position-specific drills, the former 4-star recruit should also put up some of the best numbers in workouts of any player at the position.
While he may not be able to ultimately overtake the top two corners in this year’s class—Darqueze Dennard and Justin Gilbert—it may not be much longer before Breeland is considered a legitimate contender to be a first-round pick.