I’m in Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine! Anything of interest I hear I’ll be tweeting at @thorku. If you have any questions you’re dying to hear an answer from a prospect on, shoot it over to me and I’ll see what I can do.
I wanted to kick off NFL Combine week with a deep-dive into three offensive players at each position group who have something to gain or lose depending on their showings in specific tests, drills, interviews and medicals, and additionally talk about several players who’ll be skipping tests and why.
Much of Combine testing is quasi-useless. A small bit of it is extremely useful. Let’s take a look at a few prospects who need to ace specific areas of this week’s festivities to move up the board.
Jordan Love (Utah State) – Passing drills
An exciting dual-threat with a whip, Love’s stats dropped off a cliff last season (2018: 32/6 TD/INT, 2019: 20/17). His buddy Darwin Thompson had moved onto the NFL, and so had Dax Raymond and Ron’Quavion Tarvor.
Love returned to play with Paul Crewe’s bunch from The Longest Yard. He did himself no favors by vacillating, in this new normal, between trying too hard or playing YOLO ball.
He didn’t get second dates because the first smelled of desperation – when he did, crazy things came out of his mouth. Love was too young to be a nihilist. And yet there he was, a prodigy turned discontented goth, flinging consecutive passes into blanket double-coverage because
dad Matt Wells left.
The mind-boggling decisions … he can’t erase that tape. But it’s also true that Love’s #haters can’t erase the 2018 stuff, either. Which sets up Mr. Love’s big week in Indianapolis. Folks, this is a fresh start. Justin Timberlake has left N*Synch. JC, Chris, Joey, Lance – they’re back in Logan.
In Indy, Love gets a clean pocket, every throw. In Indy, he gets to step into every throw and let it rip. This is a kid with oven mitt hands (10+ inches), long arms, and a quick-twitch right shoulder socket. "It is just effortless for him," NFL Network's David Carr said. "He has that Patrick Mahomes ability where he doesn't have to have perfect feet or perfect mechanics and he'll make the throw."
But when he can set those feet, watch out. The NFL Combine was made to showcase quarterbacks like Love. If you’re going to be on the field when he walks out, strap on the Kevlar, boys, because bullets are coming.
Jalen Hurts (Oklahoma) – 40-yard dash, 3-cone
Jalen Hurts announced last week that he will only participate in quarterback drills at the NFL Combine. That’s great. He’s not a running back or a receiver. He’s a quarterback.
But posting a sterling athletic profile is more important for him than other signal-callers in this class, because Hurts’ NFL efficacy is going to be so closely tied to his mobility. Hurts is a former Texas prep power-lifter who you can think of as a sort of sawed-off Cam Newton on the ground.
As a passer, Hurts’ hallmark is a categorical refusal to turn the ball over. But here’s the rub: That’s the case because he looks both ways before every throw. You can call that slow processing, but you don’t get the lack of turnovers without the hesitation, so I’m willing to cut a little slack in that regard.
Hurts doesn’t have the gun to scare NFL defenses downfield. And his progression-reading very much remains a work in progress – he prefers to hit primary-read streaking receivers in the intermediate area off play-action. He’s become quite good at this – it was the hallmark of his collegiate passing game.
Ideally, Hurts would have an offense built around him, like Lamar Jackson.* A run-heavy, RPO-heavy attack that freaks defenses out enough horizontally that it opens up space in the quick-strike intermediate area, Hurts’ sweet spot.
*(Very important point: Hurts is not Lamar Jackson).
I compare Hurts to Ricky Rubio. Hurts can’t shoot threes (burn you deep with consistency). But he can do just about everything else. Surround him with talent in an offense that suits him, I don’t discount that working in the NFL – but I think it’s going to take that kind of commitment to make Hurts a viable long-term starter.
Dropping some insane athletic numbers might lock Hurts into a Day 2 slot, the sort of draft equity investment that would suggest his next franchise is at least entertaining the notion of such an offensive transformation.
Expect Hurts to impress this week. “He’s a great athlete, and I think that people are more interested in seeing him throw,” Hurts’ trainer Chip Smith said. “They know he’s a great athlete. He’s probably a 4.5, 4.6 guy in the 40. He runs (fast). He can change directions. He’s strong. He’s not going to lift, but he could.”
“He’s been working six hours a day or more,” said Smith. “He spends two and a half hours a day with (his quarterback trainer). He’s with me for speed work and then he spends two hours in the weight room. Then he does treatment. He’s ready. He’s ready.”
Tua Tagovailoa (Alabama) – Medical
If Tua’s medicals check out, I think he’s going in the top-three, regardless of whether the Lions stay put or trade out of 1.3. If Tua’s medicals don’t check out? … Well, let’s wait to finish that sentence until we hear specifics, shall we?
The good news is that the NFL Network’s Ian Rapaport reported earlier this month that the lefty’s fractured hip has healed and was “looking as good as possible regarding range of motion” on the three-month CT scan. Of course, range of motion isn’t the barometer we’re judging his recovery on – replenishment of blood into the damaged hip is, and for news on that, we may have to wait until next month.
Rap Sheet set Tua’s timeline to return to football activities at around the second week of March. Tua won’t test or work out this week. He said his goal was “not to win the 40, not to win the bench press, but to win my medical. I'm going to go over there looking to win my medical and then go in and interview with the teams." Tua’s medicals are probably more anticipated than any other player’s individual tests.
Won’t participate: Joe Burrow (LSU) – Throwing drills
Burrow, locked into the 1.1 selection, is not surprisingly skipping the throwing drills. This is a non-story. Burrow only really has one opportunity to make news during the pre-draft process. He has to decide whether he’ll accept the responsibility of turning around the Bengals or whether he wants to force the organization’s hand into trading out.
Burrow said on Tuesday he would go wherever drafted and I’d be stunned if he turns tail on that and puts a gun to Cincy’s head. He’s too much of a competitor. Forcing the trade would be an acknowledgement that Burrow doesn’t believe he can be the tipping-point catalyst figure that turns the ship around. I assume, deep down, that the opportunity appeals to him.
I have nothing else to add, but wanted to include, in its entirety, this fascinating explanation Burrow gave the NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah for his one-year improvement this fall. Jeremiah relayed the anecdote to NBC’s Peter King in King’s most-recent must-read "Football Morning in America" column.
“Most grad transfers transfer in the spring. [Burrow] said, ‘I got to LSU after the freshmen had already reported for full camp.’ So you talk about trying to learn everything in a heartbeat and try to get to know your teammates, and then plug in and be ready to play. That’s the first part of it. Second part, he hadn’t played much football in the previous three years. There was some rust. Okay, this makes sense. And then schematically, and this is the big one, they were in a lot of seven-man protection in that offense last year. Burrow, his greatest gift, and you can see it this year when you watch him, is he has the vision to be able to take a snapshot of the entire field, to see everything, to process, and to throw accurately. Well, when you’re in seven-man protection and you limit the number of guys that can get out on a route, you’re limiting the answers you can give somebody. He was handicapped by them trying to mass-protect him. There’s no room for him to use his athletic ability to take off and go if you want. There’s no room for him to slide around, more around, find windows. It was just a congested brand of football.
“And then, you look at this year. He gets [passing-game coordinator] Joe Brady in there. He becomes a master of the offense. At the beginning of the season, they were in a bunch of six-man protection, which he’s playing really well. And he said eventually Joe Brady said in week three or four, ‘Let’s just go five-man protection. Let’s get everybody out into the route.’ When they did that, [he] completed about 80 percent from that point on.
“His super-power is his ability to see the entire field, to work through progressions, and then throw the ball accurately. So they kind of unlocked that super-power this last year. And the rest is history.”
Eno Benjamin (Arizona State) – 40-yard dash, jumping drills
Eno evokes my heartthrob from last year’s class, Devin Singletary. I’m a sucker for these kinds of runners. Like Motor Singletary, Benjamin is undersized and won’t test the best. But each of them is so difficult to get on the ground. Their feet never stop moving.
Like Motor, Eno is a boxer who parries together combinations at high speeds in the open field and stays upright like the spinning top in Inception even when rocked. While diminutive, Benjamin has shown he can handle heavy usage, ala Motor.
But Eno isn’t an athlete. He isn’t going to run away from you. In fact, he can get chased down from behind by larger defenders. He’d do himself a favor by posting a nice 40 time, and also by proving that he’s got burst in the lower half.
Eno’s numbers fell off in 2019, in part because he was working behind a shoddy offensive line and next to a true freshman quarterback. In a zone scheme with a decent offensive line, I think he’ll return value on what will assuredly be a depressed mid-round price tag on draft day.
AJ Dillon (Boston College) – 3-cone, broad jump
While not a stiff, Dillon's game isn’t about making guys miss. And he lacks a quick acceleration. Dillon is a monster to bring down when he has a head of steam behind him – but he needs that head of steam.
Answering questions about short-area agility and burst would aid Dillon’s draft case in a big way. He doesn’t catch the ball (22 career catches) or rip off many monster runs, so the smoother the athletic profile, the smoother the sell on Draft Day.
If Dillon gets popped late on Day 2 or early on Day 3, he can send Mr. Henry a nice gift basket.
Zack Moss (Utah) – Medical
When the pre-draft process began in January, I would write the sentence that Moss was the “most underrated back in the class.” I already have to retire that line, now that folks have found his tape and he’s being widely comped to Marshawn Lynch and Kareem Hunt.
Moss’ rise has begun. It’ll continue if he aces the medical portion of the NFL Combine process. Moss is an odd medical case for a few different reasons. He’s a tackle-breaking machine on the field, one of the most prolific that PFF has charted over the past several season. On the field, he doesn’t say die.
But his body sure gives out easy when he isn’t. In 2018, his knee locked up getting out of bed – that’s the story, anyway – stealing the final five games of the season from him. Moss also has a shoulder separation and right ankle injury in his recent past.
His practice habits prior to this past season reportedly weren’t the best. To be fair, his teammates went to bat for him. Is it possible that more diligence off-the-field will keep the injury monster in the closet?