For all the talk of the NFL Scouting Combine falling out of favor in the evaluation process, both players and league decision-makers have been slow to abandon the annual event that’s been held in Indianapolis since 1987.
Even with the proliferation and accessibility of GPS tracking data, which paints a more valuable portrait of a prospect, players enthusiastically talked all week about running their 40-yard dash. Plus, the specialized training that goes into combine prep remains a thriving industry.
And who is going to argue with the results? The athleticism on display last week was chart-busting. In a league always looking for bigger, faster and stronger, no performance embodied that package more than Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis, who had one of, if not the the greatest combines of all-time.
The 341-pounder — who has dropped 20 or so since the end of the college season — ran as fast and jumped as high and far as a top-tier athlete who weighed 70 pounds lighter, showcasing unseen speed and explosion for a man his size.
But Davis wasn’t alone in resetting the bar at his position. Using Kent Lee Platte’s Relative Athletic Score, which compares combine and pro day measurables, UTSA cornerback Tariq Woolen and Penn State linebacker Brandon Smith’s performances this past week were historically unmatched.
Additionally, metrics posted by Georgia defensive end Travon Walker, Montana State linebacker Troy Andersen, Wisconsin linebacker Leo Chenal, North Dakota State wide receiver Christian Watson and Northern Iowa Trevor Penning fell just short of perfect 10.0 scores using Platte’s metric.
This much is clear: The athleticism at the top end of this year’s draft class is unparalleled. And even though, physical gifts are only part of the equation with the evaluation, they can certainty raise a prospect’s ceiling.
From the local perspective, the combine results should elevate the excitement level for Detroit Lions fans. The contenders for the No. 2 pick — Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson, Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux and Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton — each rubber-stamped their collegiate resumes with strong showings.
Hutchinson, the presumptive front-runner with most analysts expecting the Jacksonville Jaguars to take an offensive tackle No. 1 overall, posted elite metrics in the vertical jump, 40-yard dash (including his 10-yard split) and blew away the field in the 3-cone drill.
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Thibodeaux didn’t participate in nearly as many drills, but posted a very good number on the bench press and ran a blazing 4.58-second 40-yard dash, .16 seconds better than Hutchinson.
Hamilton, who remains the longshot based on positional value, didn’t run nearly as well as many expected coming into the event, but he measured in at a legit 6-foot-4 and proved to be an elite leaper, keeping the playmaking safety in the mix.
I do wonder if Walker also could work his way into the conversation by the end of the process. He’s bigger, longer and arguably more athletic than both Hutchinson and Thibodeaux. The way he was used in Georgia’s scheme limited his pass-rushing production, but his experience playing some of those inside alignments along the defensive line give him added versatility.
Shifting focus to the bottom of the first round and the top of the second, the Lions almost certainly will have the chance to nab a high-end receiver if they want, or still need one, obviously depending on what happens in free agency.
The team has made it abundantly clear they’re looking for a top-tier outside option, capable of consistently winning one-on-one. They’ve also said they don’t care how that receiver gets the job done, but there’s also been enough said that it points to the Lions wanting to add someone with above-average size.
Leaving Indianapolis, if I had to predict which receiver ends up in Detroit, it would be Georgia’s George Pickens. Not only does he have the size at 6-foot-3, but he validated his speed with an impressive 4.47 40-yard dash less than a year after tearing his ACL.
But what truly makes Pickens a clear fit is his on-field demeanor. His competitive fire shows up down in and down out, not only while running routes, but executing his blocking assignments. That will resonate with Detroit’s staff.
Watson will be another one to watch. The small-school standout stands out because of his elite size (6-foot-4, 208 pounds) and aforementioned testing. He ran his 40 only a thousandth of a second slower than Calvin Johnson, while posting elite results in both the broad and vertical jump.
Watson’s production was somewhat muted because of the scheme he played in at North Dakota State, but he has a reputation for being a hard-worker and any position coach would be thrilled to work with that skill set.
Defensively, the Lions have a clear need at linebacker heading into free agency, and are almost certainly going to need a long-term piece there even after the signing period.
The team found a good athlete in Derrick Barnes during last year’s draft and will have a chance to add another one to that mix on Day 2 with a player like Chanel, Smith or LSU’s Damone Clark. In all, nine inside linebackers had an RAS over 9.0.