The scouting combine, the premier pre-draft event on the NFL calendar, will take place in Indianapolis this week. More than 300 college prospects will be descending on the Midwest city to interview with potential future employers, undergo extensive medical evaluations, and take part in the drills that define the public’s perception of the event.
The medical evaluations and interviews are more critical to the league’s 32 teams, while the athletic testing tends to generate more attention with fans and media because it’s easy-to-understand data that can be directly compared to prospects from past years. In reality, those metrics serve more as confirmation of film-based evaluation that’s been done by scouts the past two years, although the measurables are occasionally surprising enough, either direction, that it forces teams to take a second look at a prospect’s tape.
The televised portion of the event begins 3 p.m. Thursday, with the defensive linemen and linebackers, and concludes Saturday with the running backs and offensive linemen.
Locally, expect interest to be high given the Detroit Lions hold two picks in both the first and second rounds of April’s draft, which will provide the franchise ample opportunity to add pieces to an up-and-coming roster that finished last season with eight wins in their final 10 games.
We’ll be in Indianapolis all week, talking to Lions coach Dan Campbell, general manager Brad Holmes, listening in on several of the league’s other GM and coach media sessions and interviewing as many prospects as we can possibly squeeze in. Through it all, here are five things we’ll be monitoring:
What will we learn from Detroit’s brass?
If we’re being honest, probably not a whole lot. This is the time of year when teams focus on keeping their cards close to the vest to avoid tipping interest in particular free agents or college prospects.
Campbell will inevitably be asked about some of the changes to his coaching staff, which included the recent departures of Duce Staley and defensive line coach Todd Wash to Carolina. The team since has added Scottie Montgomery to replace Staley, as well as Steve Heiden, who will coach the tight ends next year. It’s possible we could learn more about the team’s plan to fill Wash’s role this week.
As for Holmes, this is the time of year when the spotlight is the brightest for the league’s general managers. There’s going to be a natural interest in the team’s plans at quarterback, even if it’s simply how much he’s looking to invest in a backup for Jared Goff.
Holmes probably won’t get into specifics on many topics, including which of his own free agents he’s hoping to retain. We’re more likely to get some wider-angle information, including which positions he feels this draft class offers the best depth.
Much like the coaching staff changes, it will also merit checking in on the plan to replace Dave Sears, the team’s college scouting director who took a job as Arizona’s assistant general manager last month.
Finding an edge
It’s obviously still early in the process, but if you have been following current draft projections, most have the Lions selecting a defensive lineman with the No. 6 pick.
Assuming Detroit holds steady at that slot, the expectation is Georgia’s Jalen Carter and Alabama’s Will Anderson will be off the board. That could leave the Lions to choose between Texas Tech’s Tyree Wilson and Clemson’s Myles Murphy.
Both are big, physical edge defenders, capable of playing all three downs, but are still developing their pass-rush skill sets. It’s easy to imagine either fitting in Detroit’s scheme, which puts value on being able to crush the pocket from the outside, but this might actually be a case where the athleticism numbers could separate one from the other.
Unfortunately, Wilson isn’t expected to do any drills in Indianapolis after needing foot surgery late last year, so we’ll have to wait until his pro day. Could that open the door for someone like Iowa’s Lukas Van Ness to enter the conversation at No. 6?
Of course, we know Holmes won’t overly rely on combine metrics when making these decisions. College production, football character and intangibles carry more weight with this regime. But since we won’t be privy to what’s discussed in those private interviews, we’ll be left to tweak our thoughts based on this week’s performance in the drills.
Visiting the corner market
Similar to the conversation around the top edge rushers, Detroit is in prime position, with a second first-round choice, to land one of this draft’s better cornerbacks.
Many analysts, including my own, initial mock draft, have connected the dots between the Lions and Illinois standout Devon Witherspoon because of his instincts, ball skills and fierce competitiveness. Still, you’d like to confirm he’s meeting certain athletic thresholds through this week’s drills.
And while Witherspoon might be the top corner on some draft boards, others will be quick to make a case for Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. or Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez. Several others, including South Carolina’s Cam Smith, Georgia’s Kelee Ringo and Maryland’s Deonte Banks also figure to be in the first-round mix.
As much as we try to dismiss the value of the drills, we also recognize that a blazing fast 40, particularly when paired with explosive leaping ability, can boost a defensive back’s draft stock. With Jeff Okudah struggling late in the season, and presumably entering the final year of his contract, given the Lions aren’t expected to pick up his fifth-year option this offseason, the prevailing thought is the team will be taking a long look at finding a future starter in this draft.
Window shopping for an X
Last offseason, the Lions were on the hunt for a big-bodied “X” receiver, which they found in DJ Chark. The problem is the addition was a stopgap, a one-year deal, and there’s no assurances the two sides will re-up this March. The market at the position is looking thin, which could push Chark’s price tag well out of Detroit’s range, even if there is mutual interest.
Even with Jameson Williams ready for a much bigger role entering his second season, the Lions could still use that big-bodied target on the outside, particularly one capable of stretching the field vertically. If Chark ends up costing too much, that leaves the draft as the logical spot to find that replacement.
While it seems unlikely, the Lions could go as far as to consider TCU’s Quentin Johnston in the first round. On Day 2, someone like Tennessee’s Cedric Tillman, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, could be a fit.
When Chark was coming out of LSU a few years back, he posted elite results in the combine drills. So despite tallying just 66 catches in two seasons with the Tigers, his physical gifts propelled him into the second round of the draft. We’ll be monitoring if any receivers from this group of prospects show that same kind of untapped potential.
Who will be the talk of the town?
Every year, a player or two wildly exceeds expectations with their athletic testing, and few garner more attention than when its one of the big fellas busting the charts. Last year, Georgia defensive tackle Jordan Davis wowed the league with an all-time combine effort, which included a staggering 4.78-second 40-yard dash at 341 pounds.
Despite entering with some questions about his endurance and pass-rush ability, Davis’ jaw-dropping athleticism got him drafted No. 13 by the Eagles a couple of months later. So we’ll have an eye out for who, if anyone, will be the Davis of this year’s combine?