The 2017 NFL combine has arrived, meaning it’s time for prospects to perform drills in their underwear, franchises to chart their futures, and anonymous scouts to provide irresponsible quotes. So who and what is creating the most buzz? The Ringer NFL staff has you covered, providing five thoughts from each day in Indianapolis.
1. John Ross is one fast man. During his media session earlier this week, Ross, the former Washington wide receiver, said that he planned to run the 40-yard dash in “under 4.3” seconds. He wasn’t lying. Ross, who caught 81 passes for 1,150 yards with 17 touchdowns during his final season with the Huskies, ran the drill in a blazing 4.22, breaking running back Chris Johnson’s record of 4.24 set in 2008.
Ross has speed never before seen at the combine, and he’s plenty more than just a burner. He entered Saturday as a projected first-round talent and a candidate to be the first pass catcher taken in the 2017 draft, and that status can’t be built on speed alone. Ross’s ability to create separation and break free from defenders after he gets the ball in his hands makes him the most dangerous playmaker in this entire draft. All that record-breaking 40 time does is show evaluators that he’s even faster than he appears on film.
The only concern about Ross at this point seems to be his durability, and whether he can physically hold up in the NFL. Injury issues hindered him throughout his college career, and he’s set to have surgery later this month to address a labrum problem that plagued him during the 2016 campaign. If teams feel comfortable about his health, though, it might be time to start wondering just how high Ross could be picked.
2. Call Solomon Thomas and Jonathan Allen “tweeners” — in their minds, that’s an asset. Positional flexibility isn’t a new concept in the NFL, but given the amount of different fronts that most teams use, it has never been more important. Thomas, the former Stanford pass-rushing star who finished the 2016 season with eight sacks, and Allen — the best player on a ridiculous Alabama defense — both seem to understand that.
When fielding questions from the media, Allen repeatedly emphasized his ability to line up at any defensive line position, whether as a widely aligned end or a traditional three-technique tackle. NFL teams won’t need to use much imagination when envisioning what his role could be. Allen did a little bit of everything during his career at Alabama, and his game tape should indicate how he could acclimate to a variety of schemes.
Thomas did a majority of his pass-rushing work inside at Stanford, but he made clear that he’s willing and able to play on the outside. Players falling between positions, especially on the defensive line, was long considered a flaw; for prospects like Thomas and Allen, the ability to play all over the place could make them more valuable come draft time. “I don’t take that as a bad thing,” Thomas said of the “tweener” label. “I take it as [a sign that] any team can draft me. I’m not labeled to a 4–3; I’m not labeled to a 3–4 team. I can play any system team and I can play any position on the D-line.
3. Myles Garrett looks — and lifts — like a superhero. The players cycling through the combine this week are some of the best athletes on Earth, but every so often one comes along who looks like he was sent from another planet. Garrett — the former Texas A&M pass rusher who many consider the top talent in this draft — looks CGI’d. The dimensions of his upper body don’t seem humanly possible, and the 6-foot-4, 272-pounder showed Saturday that he knows how to put his physique to good use.
Garrett put up 33 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. For some context, Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (who Garrett has frequently been compared to throughout the draft process) did 21. What makes Garrett’s performance all the more absurd is that his arms measure at 35.25 inches, putting him in the 92nd percentile among defensive ends in Mockdraftable.com’s database. Bench press reps are hardly the most important measure of a defensive end’s worth, but Garrett’s showing confirmed what many predicted: He’s destroying the combine in a way that few players could even imagine.
4. Players are thinking about positional value at younger and younger ages. Former Washington defensive lineman Elijah Qualls dropped a fascinating nugget Saturday. Qualls weighed in at 313 pounds earlier this week, but during most of his career at Casa Grande High School in Petaluma, California, he served as a 285-pound running back who could pound opposing defenses into gravel.
Late in his high school career though, he started dabbling with moving to the defensive line, and as the recruiting process ramped up, he broke down the pros and cons of pursuing both positions. “I kind of just did a little research project trying to see what the long-term [outlook] was like for both running backs and defensive linemen,” Qualls said. “And defensive linemen tend to last longer, have less severe injuries, and honestly, on average, probably make more money. So I decided to be a defensive lineman.”
It turned out to be a lucrative bit of foresight. On average, defensive tackles will make about $1 million more than running backs in the 2017 season.
5. This year’s group of tight ends is the most athletically gifted to come along in years. According to NFL research, this crop of tight end prospects averaged 4.66 seconds in the 40-yard dash, the best mark since 2003. Former Ole Miss tight end Evan Engram led the way with a time of 4.42, but the real winner — as he’s been at virtually every point in the draft process — was Alabama product O.J. Howard.
After weighing in at 251 pounds, Howard clocked a 4.51 in the 40, second best among tight ends and equal to the time of former LSU running back Leonard Fournette. That’s incredible straight-line speed for a player with Howard’s build, and considering the excellent showing he put on for teams at the Senior Bowl, it’s reasonable to think that Howard could go in the first half of the first round.