We take a look at some of the top offensive skill position rookies this week following the NFL combine. The article focuses on how individuals and position groups as a whole performed relative to perceptions prior to the combine and what that could mean for draft status.
Leonard Fournette confirmed his freakish size-speed status running the forty yard dash in 4.51s at 240lbs. Other consensus top pick, Dalvin Cook, disappointed in most drills compared to pre-combine expectations spotlighted by agility and explosion drills near the bottom of the class. Players with this type of athletic profile rarely get drafted early and do not often succeed at the NFL level. It was the type of performance that will have evaluators reviewing film and watching his pro day carefully. Christian McCaffrey shined throughout the combine process highlighted by exceptional agility marks and ultra-smooth receiving drills. The question remains what fit the Stanford Cardinal will play at the NFL level. McCaffrey’s traits profile more as a slot receiver but his diverse skill-set should ensure a significant role wherever he lands. Joe Mixon’s off the field issues are well documented but he has the least on-field questions of any running back in this class. The Sooner possesses prototypical size, breakaway speed, strong athleticism, and superb receiving skills.
Most analysts predicted the running back group as the strength of the 2017 rookie class coming into the season. We seem to have more questions than answers after an underwhelming combine for the group. There are few complete top end prospects without question marks and no one from the lower tier of backs really emerged from the combine as someone challenging the top-tier prospects. The group is very deep with individuals of varying skills who should contribute to NFL teams immediately.
Two top receivers, Corey Davis and Mike Williams, provided very little information at the combine. Davis did not perform due to an injury and Williams did not perform in any running drills. John Ross and Curtis Samuel both blazed incredible forty times highlighted by Ross’ combine record-setting performance. These are completely different players, however. Ross will be utilized primarily as a lid-lifting deep threat whereas Samuel is more of a do-it-all player in the mold of Tyreek Hill and Percy Harvin with value in the receiving, rushing, and return game. Zay Jones turned in one of the more impressive all-around performances of any receiver, excelling across the board in every drill.
This class is shallow at the top of with very few players possessing the ideal size and athleticism of traditional high end receiving options from previous years. This group is in no way without talent, however. The combine brought far more depth into view than many realized coming into the combine and should provide a large number of NFL contributors. Many small school receivers including Jones, Taywan Taylor, and Carlos Henderson displayed NFL-caliber athleticism confirming their college production was more than just scheme-based against inferior competition.
O.J. Howard cemented his place among the top tight end prospects. He possesses NFL size, great speed (he matched Leonard Fournette’s forty-time weighing 11 more lbs), and he scored highest among tight ends in agility drills. Evan Engram produced a workout which would make most wide receivers jealous highlighted by a jaw-dropping 4.42 forty time. Engram is the premier split tight end in this class and a matchup nightmare with comparisons to Washington star Jordan Reed common. David Njoku was considered the best raw athlete among tight ends pre-combine and his performance impressed. The former youth high jump champion from Miami excelled in explosion and agility drills. Only 20 years old, Njoku has room to grow both physically and learning the position. Bucky Hodges possibly raised his status more than any tight end with a great all around performance. He routinely beat college defenders on jump balls and that explosiveness was demonstrated at the combine with tremendous best-in-position numbers in the vertical and broad jumps.
Overall, the combine boosted the tight end position to extraordinary heights. Already considered one of the strengths of the rookie class, many now think the position group is among the best in recent memory. While the top tier of prospects certainly excited, there are intriguing prospects littered throughout the class. 6’-7” 278 lb behemoth Adam Shaheen from Division II Ashland played basketball in college and displays rare receiving skills for someone of his size. Another example from a small school athlete, Gerald Everett out of South Alabama displayed dynamic hybrid tight end/ wide receiver skills throughout the year and at the combine.
I questioned myself about adding athletic results for quarterbacks from the combine. The information provides limited useful data concerning quarterback evaluation except for those QBs who rely on rushing as a major component of their value (think Michael Vick and Tyrod Taylor). The combine results tended to reinforce much of what was already known about the prospects. Deshone Kizer checks the physical boxes for a limited-mobility, prototypical-sized quarterback while Patrick Mahomes, Mitchell Trubisky, and Deshaun Watson displayed very good agility in a somewhat undersized frame. The velocity data featured Mahomes’ (60 MPH) big arm with Kizer (56) and Trubisky (55) displaying solid NFL speed. Watson’s (49) velocity is at the very low end ever recorded at the combine and the results of similarly measured prospects do not provide much hope for Watson at the NFL level. Velocity is certainly not the primary trait concerning quarterback success but the lack of velocity will require a degree of decision-making, anticipation, and accuracy which has, at best, been inconsistent in Watson’s college career.
Overall, the combine did not really change the perception of the quarterback class. This is not a good year for NFL teams in need of a franchise quarterback. In addition to Watson’s issues; Kizer (accuracy), Mahomes (mechanics, decision-making), and Trubisky (experience) possess at least one major red flag that makes each more of a project than an NFL player ready to lead a franchise.
2017 is a far deeper class for offensive skill position players when compared with the 2016 class. Just three rookie running backs from 2016 received 150 touches and only 2 wide receivers garnered 100 targets. Do not expect two rookies to lead the league in rushing again or any wide receiver to see the kind of production of the Saints Michael Thomas, but the talent is available in 2017 to double the number of rookies with the afore-mentioned volume numbers. This class also contains the tight end talent to impact games in a way we rarely see from rookies at the position.
Bio: Bernard Faller has degrees in engineering and economics. He currently lives in Las Vegas and enjoys athletics, poker, and fantasy football in his free time. Send your questions and comments (both good and bad) on Twitter @BernardFaller1.
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