The NFL season never ends. While the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory is still fresh, the NFL combine, this week in Indianapolis, gives us an opportunity to start looking forward. To keep you informed, a rotating cast of Ringer staffers will provide a collection of thoughts from each day of the event.
Jonathan Taylor Backed Up the Hype
The running backs worked out in prime time on Friday night at Lucas Oil Stadium―showing off their speed and explosiveness in the 40-yard dash, the vertical jump, broad jump, and agility drills―and there’s still a palpable buzz here in Indy (and all over Twitter) about Taylor’s impressive performance. The prolific Wisconsin runner exceeded already-high expectations, posting a position-best 4.39-second 40-yard dash at 228 pounds, a number that puts him into rarefied air at the running back spot. He joined only Saquon Barkley as one of just two backs since 2014 to run 4.40 or faster in the 40-yard dash at 225-plus pounds.
Taylor showed incredible burst and agility, too, adding a 36-inch vertical jump (which tied for 11th) and a 10-foot-3 broad jump (ninth) while timing in at 7.01 seconds in the three-cone drill (fourth) and 4.24 seconds in the short shuttle (sixth). Tack those athletic numbers onto his incredible career at Wisconsin, in which he rushed for more yards (6,174) than any other player in a three-year span while scoring 50 touchdowns, and Taylor may have cemented himself as a future first-round pick. It didn’t hurt either that, after catching just 42 passes in three seasons, the former Badger looked comfortable catching the football in passing game drills, likely assuaging some scouts’ concerns that he’s an early-down back only.
A Few Other Runners Boosted Their Stock
Taylor’s top competitors for the honor of first running back chosen in this year’s draft are likely Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Georgia’s D’Andre Swift. Dobbins, unfortunately, declined to take part in testing, but Swift put to rest any doubts about his long speed and overall explosiveness by posting an impressive 4.48-second time in the 40-yard dash while jumping 35.5 inches in the vertical. Swift’s numbers weren’t quite as eye-popping as Taylor’s, but his strong showing means he’ll head into April’s draft with a chance to come off the board on opening night.
A handful of other less-heralded backs came away winners from Friday’s testing, too. Florida State’s Cam Akers impressed, running a 4.47-second 40-yard dash while jumping 35.5 inches in the vertical at 217 pounds. The former five-star recruit looked quick and agile in the drills portion of the evening, and showed off his chops as a pass catcher, reeling in one pass with one hand. Boston College’s A.J. Dillon was another potential draft riser: After weighing in at 247 pounds (the heaviest back in the group), he posted a 4.53-second 40-yard dash (11th) and hit position bests in the vertical jump (41 inches) and broad jump (10-foot-11). Dillon fits the Derrick Henry mold as a big, tackle-breaking runner who can carry a heavy load, and teams looking for a physical identity should look to add the former Golden Eagle somewhere on late day two or early day three.
Appalachian State’s Darrynton Evans and Maryland’s Anthony McFarland both established themselves as intriguing sleeper candidates in Friday’s on-field testing, too. Evans notched an electric 4.41-second 40-yard dash—second only to Taylor—while adding a 37-inch vertical jump (10th) and a 10-foot-5 broad jump (tied for fifth). And McFarland showed off his jitterbug quicks and impressive burst, notching a 4.44-second time in the 40-yard dash. I’d expect both to come off the board somewhere in the middle rounds. And I’ll add one more name to the sleeper list: South Carolina’s Rico Dowdle. In addition to having an excellent name, the former Gamecock posted upper-tier athleticism numbers on Friday night, notching a 4.54-second 40 (12th), a 38-inch vert (eighth), and a 10-foot-7 broad jump (third). Dowdle was slowed by injuries at times during his career in Columbia, but you can see his burst and short-area punch on tape.
Rico Dowdle battled some injuries at South Carolina but tested well (4.54 40, 38" vert, 10-7 broad) and had some intriguing burst and agility on tape. Could be a day-3 sleeper pic.twitter.com/8I4JkCevjO— Danny Kelly (@DannyBKelly) February 29, 2020
Dowdle’s strong performance gives him a good chance of getting drafted.
Planet Theory Will Be a Theme in the First Round
Former Giants executive George Young popularized “planet theory” as a part of his strategy for draft scouting, hypothesizing that there are only so many 300-plus pound human beings on the planet who have the requisite athleticism to make an impact on the football field—so you better grab them when you can. That will get tested come April, when defensive linemen like Auburn’s 6-foot-5, 326-pound Derrick Brown or Missouri’s 6-foot-4, 302-pound Jordan Elliott are projected to be early first-round picks. But with uber-athletic behemoths populating some of the best defensive lines in the NFL, teams will be on the search for offensive linemen with enough power and agility to block those game-wrecking pass rushers, too. The good news?
Freakiest group of height/weight/length/speed OLinemen I’ve ever seen. Not close.— Lance Zierlein (@LanceZierlein) February 28, 2020
Iowa’s Tristan Wirfs and Louisville’s Mekhi Becton set new standards for unbelievably athletic offensive linemen on Friday night. Wirfs, who measured in at 6-foot-5, 320 pounds, set a new combine record with a 36.5-inch vert, tied another with a 10-foot-1-inch broad jump, and his 4.85-second 40-yard dash was the fastest by a 320-plus pound player ever.
Becton, meanwhile, was somehow even more impressive. After measuring out at 6-foot-7, 364 pounds (with an impossibly low 17 percent body fat), the big man rumbled to a shockingly swift 5.1-second 40 yard dash, the fastest ever for any player over 350 pounds.
Both Wirfs and Becton brought plenty of hype into the combine this week, but coming out of it, it’s tough to see either of them dropping out of the top-10 picks.
Despite the CBA Stalemate, the Salary Cap Is Expected to Rise
The typically steady flow of contract extensions that we see during the week of the combine has ground to a near stop this year as NFL clubs await some sort of resolution on the pending collective bargaining agreement. Facing unprecedented uncertainty around revenue, roster sizes, playoff structure, and a potential 17-game season, teams have pushed pause on handing out contracts as they await more clarity on all those crucial variables. But despite all the uncertainty around both the short- and long-term future of the league, there’s one thing that seems to be a reliable constant: The ever-growing salary cap.
NFL Network’s Tom Pelissero reported Friday that the NFL and NFLPA are projecting a salary cap of roughly $200 million per team in 2020. That would represent a nice jump from the $188.2 million cap in 2019, would be the seventh straight year the cap has grown, and could grow further still if the league and players union agree on a 17th regular-season game.
The Cowboys Aren’t Going to Lose Dak Prescott; Amari Cooper Is a Bigger Question Mark
Speaking of ongoing negotiations stalemates, the game of chicken between Prescott and the Dallas front office showed few signs of ending this week. But one thing was all but confirmed on Saturday morning: There’s really no way the 26-year-old signal-caller will be in any other uniform in 2020. According to NFL.com’s Ian Rapoport, the Cowboys will use the exclusive franchise tag on Prescott if a long-term deal cannot be reached by March 12.
That would keep Prescott in Dallas for at least one more season, but it’d also bring potential uncertainty to ongoing negotiations with pass-catcher Amari Cooper. The team would reportedly love to ink Cooper to a long-term deal, but without the leverage that the franchise tag creates for Dallas, the 25-year-old pass catcher would have far more leverage for extracting long-term guarantees. Additionally, if the currently proposed CBA does get ratified before the start of free agency, the Cowboys would lose the ability to use both the franchise tag and the transition tag—further eroding their negotiating position with Cooper. The elite receiver’s future―and as a corollary, Dallas’s high-octane passing attack from 2019—remains in flux. In the meantime, I expect that the Cowboys’ scouting department is doing its due diligence this week on what could be the deepest wide receiver draft class in a decade.