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Who Has the Most to Win at the NFL Combine?

The physical tests are often overrated, but a few players could bump up their draft stock with a standout performance

AP Images/Ringer illustration

The combine is a multiday job interview for prospective NFL players. The speed, explosiveness, and agility testing it’s best known for represent just the tip of the iceberg for the players this week—and in many cases, are of secondary importance to other facets of the event. Franchises place a high value on the information they get out of medical checks, interviews, and on-field drills the prospects go through. And unless a player tests really poorly relative to his peers, his 40 time or vertical jump scores aren’t likely to make or break his grade.

That said, players who truly stand out in the athletic testing portion of the event—those who challenge for a combine record in one category, or even better, exhibit rare athletic ability across them all—can dramatically boost their stock going into the draft. Last year, Washington receiver John Ross shattered the all-time NFL combine 40-yard dash mark by running it in 4.22 seconds, a performance that helped turn him into top-10 pick, and Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu saw his stock rise after he posted a combine record in the broad jump (11-foot-9) and hit 44 inches in the vertical jump with a 4.40 40-time. This year, a handful of combine participants have the potential to blow the doors off Lucas Oil Stadium, and over the next few days, they could shoot up draft boards around the league. Here are a few names to keep in mind.

QB Lamar Jackson, Louisville

Jackson is a 6-foot-3, 200-pound playmaker with a quick-flick throwing motion and the ability to pick up big chunks of yards with his feet. And as ThreeSigmaAthlete’s Zach Whitman told me, the 2016 Heisman Trophy winner (and 2017 second runner-up) has the potential to be one of the best athletes the combine’s ever seen at quarterback. Let’s put it this way for all you degenerate gamblers: The over/under for Jackson’s 40-yard dash time is set at 4.35 seconds. That’s a high bar—only two quarterbacks since 2000 have run faster (Michael Vick in 2001 and Robert Griffin in 2012)—but Jackson ran a 4.34 at this time last year for the Louisville combine (on a track) and has spent the past couple of months preparing for this event. We’ll have to wait to see if he can hit that mark on field turf.

RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State

Barkley looks like a top-five pick, and the hype around the versatile Penn State running back prospect could hit a fever pitch this week if he performs as expected in a few of the tests. Barkley measured in at 6 feet, 233 pounds on Wednesday—heavier than most of the other “big backs” in this draft like Royce Freeman (229 pounds), Bo Scarbrough (228 pounds), Nick Chubb (227), and Derrius Guice (224), by the way—but he’s got a shot to break the 4.40 mark when he runs the 40 on Friday (Penn State posted a video which hand-timed him at 4.33 last spring, for what that’s worth).

Barkley’s likely going to test really well in the agility events―the three-cone and short-shuttle―and may jump over 38 inches in the vertical jump. Oh, and he’s probably going to blow up the bench press, as well.

RB Derrius Guice, LSU

The consensus no. 2 back in the draft is no athletic slouch, either, and his over/under in the 40 is set at 4.38 seconds. The 5-foot-10, 224-pound Guice looked a tick slow in 2017 as he battled through injury, but he was hand-timed at 4.32 at 219 pounds back in 2014 and reportedly has been running in the low 4.4s of late. Most recent mocks have Guice going somewhere in the late first round or early second, but if he could break into the 4.3s this week, he could see his stock jump into the teens.

RB Nyheim Hines, NC State

Hines has caught the attention of scouts this year with a combination of explosive cuts and vision, and the former track star’s pure speed should be on full display in Indy this week. Hines boasts sprinter’s speed—he ran the first leg for the Wolfpack’s 4x100 relay team and posted a personal best time of 10.42 seconds in the individual 100-meter event last year. Don’t be surprised if the 5-foot-8, 198-pound former NC State star who ran for 1,112 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2017 breaks the 4.40 mark in the 40.

RB Kalen Ballage, Arizona State

”Mark this down,” an NFC director of college scouting recently told NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, “nobody will be talking about [Ballage] until he gets to the combine, where he will lift well, run well and jump out of the stadium. Then, he’ll be the hot name.”

He weighed in at 6-foot-1 and 228 pounds on Wednesday, and now has a shot to live up to ASU head coach Todd Graham’s prediction from last spring that Ballage would run a 4.4 at the combine. The former Sun Devil may not hit that mark, but he’ll jump well and should challenge for some of the best agility scores in his position group (he posted vertical jumps of 37-plus inches last summer and clocked in at 4.03 in the short shuttle, which would’ve led all running backs at the 2017 combine).

RB Nick Chubb, Georgia

As a high school senior, Chubb finished second in the 2013 national SPARQ championship, clocking in at 4.47 seconds in the 40-yard dash with a 40-inch vertical. The elite athlete became a star at Georgia as a freshman in 2014, but his path to the draft was disrupted when he dislocated his knee and tore three ligaments (MCL, LCL, PCL) early in his 2015 campaign. He still ran for more than 1,100 yards in both 2016 and 2017, but he didn’t look like quite the same guy—apart from a few flashes last year. The combine gives the 5-foot-10, 227-pound Chubb a great chance to prove to NFL teams that he’s close to being back to his pre-injury form, and he’s set his sights on a time in the low 4.4s in the 40-yard dash.

RB Ronald Jones II, USC

Jones is an über-athletic back who rushed for more than 3,600 yards and 39 touchdowns in three seasons at USC, emerging as a dangerous home run threat with a combination of lateral agility, a nifty jump cut, and top-end speed. He measured in a little lighter on Wednesday (5-foot-11, 205) than some would want to see from a potential three-down back and early-round pick, but he’s got a chance to put concerns about his size to rest on Friday with an outstanding performance in the speed and agility drills.

WR D.J. Chark, LSU

Chark’s a prototypical deep threat. At 6-foot-3 and 187 pounds, he averaged 20.5 yards per reception over the past two years for the Tigers before lighting up the Senior Bowl to the tune of five catches for 160 yards—including a pair of deep-ball catches, one of which went for a touchdown. He’s got a chance to break into the 4.3s this week, and if he does, it could provide him a nice bump come draft weekend.

WR Dante Pettis, Washington

Pettis used his quickness and burst to set a new NCAA record with nine career punt return touchdowns, and those traits helped him rack up an additional 24 career reception scores. The 6-foot-1, 192-pound wideout ran the 40 in 4.39 seconds at the UW combine in 2016 (for what it’s worth, Ross ran a 4.25 at that same event, then ran 4.22 here in Indy the next spring) and should challenge to run in the 4.3s in that event this Saturday. He could find himself among the leaders in the three-cone and short-shuttle drills as well.

WR Courtland Sutton, SMU

At 6-foot-4 and 218 pounds, Sutton’s one of the bigger receiver prospects in this year’s draft, and with an outstanding combine performance, he could move more firmly into the first-round discussion. Sutton predicted that he’ll run in the 4.4s this weekend, and if he can hit a solid vertical-jump number, say 35-plus inches, he’s going to make plenty of teams pay attention.

TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State

Gesicki is going to be the next Jimmy Graham, at least in the fact that every time he does anything cool in a game, you’re going to hear about his background in basketball (he was the New Jersey Player of the Year and won the state’s slam dunk contest in high school). Like Graham, Gesicki has the potential to turn into a unique red zone target for the team that drafts him, and he could get chosen as high as the early second or late first round if he posts outstanding numbers this weekend—especially in the explosiveness events.

As NDT Scouting’s Benjamin Solak told me, “[Gesicki’s] got the chance to broad-jump somewhere around 11-feet and vert around 37 inches, which is wild for a guy who’s already 6-foot-5.” It’s hard for any defender to match up with that combination of size and speed, so Gesicki could see his stock rise with a big performance.

OT Brian O’Neill, Pitt

O’Neill’s got a background in basketball, too—the winner of the Delaware state Player of the Year award in high school. Offensive line numbers are never quite as important as those from other positions, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the 6-foot-7, 297-pound O’Neill break the 5.0 mark in the 40-yard dash and test out as one of the most athletic tackles in the class.

CB Donte Jackson, LSU

Jackson’s another former track star, and the former Tiger corner could challenge for the new combine record in the 40-yard dash. Jackson hit 6.63 seconds in the 60-meter event and claims to have been timed in 40-yard dash at 4.24 seconds. A blazing 40 time could help distract from the fact he measured in at just 5-foot-11, 175 pounds.

CB Tony Brown, Alabama

Brown won the high school Texas state Class 4A championships in the 110-meter hurdles back in 2013, was named a first-team All-American as part of Alabama’s 4x100 track team in 2015, and was reportedly clocked at 4.38 in the 40 last year during Alabama’s spring testing.

DT Vita Vea, Washington

I’ll just let the venerable Mike Mayock lay this one out: On Mayock’s pre-combine media conference call, he spoke excitedly about Vea’s chances of blowing up the testing portion of the combine. “He’s a dancing bear. He’s a freak,” said Mayock. “He’s 340 pounds and everybody says he’s going to run a sub-5.0 40. The last defensive lineman to do that was Dontari Poe. He went at no. 11. Vea is a better player than Poe was coming out of college. ... If he runs 4.85 or 4.9 at 342 pounds, to me, that’s more impressive than watching John Ross run 4.22.”

Insert *eyeballs* emoji.

DE Kentavius Street, NC State

Street can generate some hype this week with an eye-opening performance, and that’s something that both NBC/Rotoworld’s Josh Norris and Bleacher Report’s Justis Mosqueda think could happen. Per Bruce Feldman of Sports Illustrated, Street jumped 40 inches in the vert last spring—at 6-foot-2, 283 pounds—and ran a 4.58-second 40.

DE Josh Sweat, Florida State

As Jared Stanger of Seattle SeaMocks writes, Sweat may be the best athlete in this defensive line group. At the Nike SPARQ Combine as a high school senior, Sweat ran a 4.41 40-yard dash, registered 4.0 seconds in the short shuttle, and jumped 38.5 inches in the vertical. Sweat never managed much production in college—14.5 sacks in three seasons—but he’s still got plenty of upside in the pros. He can bend around the edge and knows how to convert speed to power to go right through a block.

LB Malik Jefferson, Texas

Speaking of players that could end up being better in the NFL than they were in college, Malik Jefferson was another standout from that 2014 SPARQ Combine, running a 4.39 40 at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds and jumped 39.5 inches in the vert. Jefferson’s listed at 230 pounds now and it wouldn’t be shocking if he runs in the 4.5 range or better. That could be enough to help him generate a little bit of hype as a potential run-and-chase ’backer in a 4-3 scheme.

S Derwin James, FSU and DB Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama

Both James and Fitzpatrick are potential top-10 picks, so neither of these names should be new to you. But both guys are top-echelon athletes that should impress in every event across the board. Feldman notes that James weighed in at 222 pounds last summer and claimed he was hitting 41 inches on the vertical and benching 450 pounds. Meanwhile, the over/unders on Fitzpatrick’s 40-time and vertical jump are 4.42 seconds and 37.5 inches.