NFL Combine Sleepers
by Trevor Whenham - 02/19/2008
The NFL Combine, a circus so big and spectacular that Cirque de Soleil is jealous, takes place in Indianapolis this week. It's an odd, flawed process, but it's totally fascinating, and it still holds tremendous importance to teams as they try to evaluate talent and pick the NFL Draft prospects that will put them over the top.
Going into the Combine, the big story is usually the superstar players who will, or won't, be working out. Guys like Chris Long head to Indianapolis with everything on the line - a good performance in the drills and he could lock up the top spot in the draft. The stakes are just as high for a lot of much lesser-known players, too, though on a different scale. There are guys out there that the public hasn't heard of and that scouts are skeptical of. A good Combine performance can move them into the NFL Draft if they are on the outside, or up a few rounds and hundreds of thousands of dollars of they are currently a late-round prospect.
Michael Allen, a tight end for Whitworth University, a tiny Division III school in Spokane, is an example of what can happen with a strong Combine workout. He got himself invited to Indy, shone in the drills, and beat the odds to get drafted by Kansas City despite having played in such a low level of college ball. His story also provides a bit of a warning about Combine enthusiasm, too. After he blew away much of the competition at the Combine people wrote glowing things about him and expectations were high. He still had a lot to overcome, though, and spent most of the season on the practice roster. A nice Combine, in other words, doesn't guarantee an instant pro impact.
Here are five players that have the potential to use the Combine to elevate their stock dramatically:
Players from major programs that are off the radar
Paul Smith, QB, Tulsa - Smith had an excellent senior season at Tulsa, and a solid career. He's the son of a coach, and he plays with intelligence and athleticism. He has a few knocks against him, though. He plays in a system that creates gaudy offensive numbers, and so he doesn't get as much credit for his numbers as he otherwise might. He's also a little bit smaller (6'1", 195) than the prototypical NFL quarterback. He is far from a lock to get drafted at all, but he's smart enough and throws well enough to potentially contribute. He could put himself in excellent position to get picked up with a strong performance in Indianapolis.
Devone Bess, WR, Hawaii - Colt Brennan put up the incredible numbers at Hawaii, but someone had to catch all those passes. In the eyes of many scouts, Bess, a slot receiver, is a better NFL prospect than Brennan. He's smaller than ideal at 5'10", though, and he doesn't have the flat-out speed of some of the top prospects. He has great hands, though, and he is a master at making people miss after the catch. Bess could very easily be a better prospect than several receivers currently above him on the board, and he could have a chance to prove that if he can show that the concerns about him aren't as much of a problem as they might seem. If he can run a faster 40 than scouts expect, and shine in the receiving drills, he could jump up a round or two.
Players from small schools who could turn into Combine stars
Jerome Simpson, WR, Coastal Carolina - Simpson is building buzz and showing up in more and more places as one to watch. He piled up the career records at his school and in the Big South Conference. This past season he had 96 receptions and 14 touchdowns despite missing three games due to injury. He can leap like a gazelle, and he's quick after the catch. There are a couple of big questions, though. He has that classic knock - he's more quick than fast. He's also lighter by 10 pounds or so than he needs to be, and he clearly lacks the muscle he needs at the next level. He's been working very hard on Combine preparation, and he could ease many of the concerns scouts have if he impresses when it matters.
Heath Benedict, OT, Newberry - Newberry is the smallest school in Division II, so Benedict is taking a gigantic step up in class with his attempt to make it into the NFL. He has a lot going for him. He was heavily recruited out of high school, and he spent a year at Tennessee before dropping out with academic problems. After a year out of football he landed at Newberry, and he hasn't looked back. He's big, strong, and athletic, and he came into his own the last couple of years. He got a Senior Bowl invite, and was impressive at both tackle positions. He has the potential to put up the top numbers of any offensive lineman in some of the drills. He plays very valued positions, and he could make himself some serious money if he does what he is capable of at the Combine.
Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tennessee State - Teams love cornerbacks, and this year's crop of corners is solid but lacking in real blue chip, drool-worthy prospects. That opens the door wide for this stud DB out of Division 1-AA. He's another player who was given a shot at the Senior Bowl and made the most of it. He looked at least as good as the expected first rounders in the DB class, and could find his way into that round with an exceptional showing in Indianapolis. He has the added advantage of having the size potential to be shifted to safety if need be. He could cement an early pick with huge showings in the Combine drills. That potential certainly exists - he is also a college track star, and he should be able to put up a 40 time that will rival the top receivers. That, combined with good showings in the strength and athletic tests, would be huge for him.