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Five Takeaways From the NFL Combine, Day 6: Derwin James Jumps Up the Draft Board

Plus: Bill Belichick goes on TV, Minkah Fitzpatrick disappoints, and the no. 1 pick remains up for grabs

NFL: Combine Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports

We can’t believe it, either, but “Nick Foles, Super Bowl MVP” is old news. The 2018 NFL combine is already here, and a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide you with a collection of five thoughts from each day in Indianapolis.

1. Derwin James Backs Up His Play

The Jets took defensive back Jamal Adams sixth overall last year despite his 31-inch vertical jump. In the past five years, top-10 picks like Justin Gilbert and Dee Milliner had pedestrian combine testing, too—neither jumped 40 inches in the air nor 11 feet on the ground. NFL teams have not made otherworldly athleticism a prerequisite for drafting a defensive player—but maybe they should.

A recent study showed that a defensive back who jumps 40 inches in the air has a 5 percent better chance of an NFL career than one who doesn’t. And in the crapshoot world of the NFL draft, that’s a bigger number than you think. Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey, last seen dominating at cornerback for Jacksonville’s league-best defense, also dominated at the combine. Two years ago, he jumped 41.5 inches in the air and 11 feet, 3 inches in the broad jump before the Jaguars selected him with the fifth pick.

Derwin James will naturally draw comparisons to Ramsey—he’s a Seminole and he’s viewed as having similar positional flexibility, though he will probably play safety or slot cornerback in the pros, while Ramsey has spent most of his time at outside cornerback. James is also, like Ramsey, one hell of an athlete. He posted an 11-foot broad jump and 40-inch vertical on Monday, which means that any team that wants to take him in the top 10, where he personally projects he’ll go, should feel great about doing so. James said he’s comfortable covering tight ends or playing deep in pass coverage, and he could conceivably line up anywhere on the field. In an era when offenses are getting more flexible every year, a player like James is as valuable as any non-quarterback.

And this:

Oh, and there’s this:

James jumped seven inches higher in the vertical jump and nearly a foot longer in the broad than fellow top-10 prospect Alabama defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. It’s not a career death sentence to lack this type of athleticism. Tre’Davious White jumped 32 inches at last year’s combine and finished second in Defensive Rookie of the Year voting for Buffalo. When I talk with NFL decision-makers about athletic testing, they say it’s about marrying the metrics with the tape: If a guy looks athletic on the field and is confirmed to be athletic at the combine, then he’s an easy guy to pick. If, like Fitzpatrick, his tape is great but his athletic testing is less than great, it’s a tougher call. During NFL Network’s broadcast on Monday, Daniel Jeremiah said he thought Fitzpatrick would test out as more explosive than he was, and I thought so, too.

Both James and Fitzpatrick will be first-round picks, and you can find room for both in any defense in the league given their versatility, but if you’re rebuilding your secondary with a top-10 pick, I’d take the more explosive player.

2. Bill Belichick Loves the Media Now

There’s hidden entertainment value in the combine: It’s football, but because there’s so much time when nothing happens, there are plenty of opportunities for attendees to talk and say whatever they want. This revealed itself many times on Monday. For starters, the NFL Network’s Deion Sanders broke down why some players wear baggy shirts (“It means you aren’t proud of your body”) and why some players take off their shirts after drills (“It means you’re feeling it”).

Meanwhile, the surprise of the morning was Patriots coach Bill Belichick stopping by the booth to heap praise on the NFL Network team of Rich Eisen and Mike Mayock. Belichick pointed out that it is hard to make a draft board for one team and “[Mayock] does it for all 32.” He said that the channel’s coverage is so thorough that he can catch many of the drills on television if he can’t make it to the stadium. Belichick’s appearance made for good television. He joked that he didn’t know how to work a cellphone, although it may not have been a joke. And he also told the story of his pre-draft interview with Sanders when he was still an assistant with the Giants. He asked Sanders how he’d handle playing in the shadow of the mega-popular Lawrence Taylor. “I think the fans would have to change—and get used to me,” Sanders told Belichick.

You know what? Belichick is right. The NFL Network coverage is really good. On the surface, the combine should be hopelessly boring. It is just guys jumping and running and catching, after all, yet the network provides tons of context and useful analysis. It is a much harder job than it looks to make the combine interesting, but I’m entertained.

3. James and Fitzpatrick Aren’t the Only Talented Defensive Backs

If athleticism is a good indicator for good defensive backs, this might be a deep class. The broadcast crew (especially Jeremiah and Charles Davis) hailed the workout of Louisville cornerback Jaire Alexander, who ran a 4.38, as well as a handful of other über-athletes. Terrell Edmunds from Virginia Tech recorded an 11-foot-2 broad and a 41.5-inch vertical. Nebraska’s Joshua Kalu jumped 41.5 inches vertically as well. There were seven sub-4.40 40-yard dashes among DBs on Monday. A trio of cornerbacks—Ohio State’s Denzel Ward, LSU’s Donte Jackson, and Tulane’s Parry Nickerson—all clocked in at a combine-best 4.3 seconds, while Penn State safety Troy Apke wasn’t far behind at 4.35.

Not everyone was perfect, though. First-round candidate Josh Jackson of Iowa was dubbed a “loser” of the day by NFL.com. With the exception of James, there doesn’t seem to be sure-fire elite secondary talent in the draft, but there’s a handful of really solid players who’ll be available for the first two or three rounds.

4. Oh No

5. The Next Two Months Are Going to Be Wild

At the end of last year’s combine, we knew Myles Garrett was going to be picked first. His testing confirmed he was the best athlete in the draft, and we spent the next two months taking that information for granted. Not this year. There is no presumptive first-overall pick, even with all the data at our disposal. In fact, we’re only more confused than we were a week ago, as Penn State’s Saquon Barkley may have forced his way into contention for the top spot with an over-the-top workout. The top quarterbacks have yet to separate from each other and there is no obvious, dominant sack artist like last season. Pass rusher Bradley Chubb, ranked as the first overall prospect by CBS, has the potential to rise up draft boards, but with the Browns holding the top spot, he likely won’t get consideration at no. 1 since they selected Garrett last year. There are very, very few sure things over these next few weeks. The only thing we do know is that I’ll be talking about athleticism and jumping.