For most of the 337 combine invitees heading to Indianapolis this week, the baseline goal will be to simply fall within acceptable ranges for size, speed, power, and agility at their given position group. For that majority, the medical tests and interviews will be what truly affects their draft stock. The outliers for the combine’s athletic tests, though―the players who stand out for good or for bad in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump, three-cone drills, and other events―force scouts and executives to go back to take a second look at the tape, and in some cases, dramatically boost (or lower) their NFL draft stock.
Last year, guys like Mecole Hardman, Terry McLaurin, Darnell Savage Jr., Montez Sweat, Devin White, Devin Bush, and a gaggle of others showed off extraordinary speed and athleticism—and made themselves money in the process. Over the next week, players in this year’s class will have the chance to do the same. Here are a few of the prospects with the most to gain from superlative combine performances.
The Non-Headliner Quarterbacks
LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, and Oregon’s Justin Herbert represent the consensus top three at quarterback and should steal most of the limelight in Indianapolis this week, but players like Utah State’s Jordan Love and Oklahoma’s Jalen Hurts have an opportunity to show off their intriguing skill sets on the field at Lucas Oil Stadium. In the modern NFL, in which pass rushers are almost always more athletic than the linemen across from them, teams are increasingly buying in to the theory that quarterbacks need to be able to move around, escape pressure, and keep plays alive. That evolution could push this pair of dynamic signal-callers up boards as we get closer to the draft.
Love is as big of a traits-based prospect as there is in this class: The redshirt junior is coming off of a down season in which he threw 20 touchdowns and 17 interceptions, but there’s little doubt that some team will fall in love with his scintillating upside. He’s a dynamic playmaker with a big arm, the ability to throw on the move, and, as he confirmed on Monday, prototypical size. (He got off on the right foot with an impressive weigh-in, measuring out at just under 6-foot-4 and 224 pounds with big, 10 ½-inch mitts.) Love is no speedster, but if he performs well in agility tests and in the 40-yard dash―anything around the Josh Allen–Daniel Jones mark of around 4.8 seconds―it will be a big win. Like both Allen and Jones, Love comes with red flags around his accuracy and decision-making, but he appears to have the physical profile that coaches yearn to work with.
Hurts can boost his stock with a strong combine performance, as well. He’s been one of the most productive dual-threat quarterbacks in college football over the past four years. He amassed 32 passing touchdowns and eight interceptions at Oklahoma last season while adding 1,298 yards and 20 scores on the ground, and in his 56 career games, he racked up a total of 80 touchdowns through the air and another 43 on the ground. He doesn’t project to be a pro-style pocket passer, so his best chance for success in the NFL may be in finding a creative team that is open to building an offense that embraces his skill set and features both his arm and his legs―as Lincoln Riley did in 2019. The former Sooners and Crimson Tide star doesn’t have electric Lamar Jackson–like elusiveness, but he’s a tough, rugged runner who reportedly posted a 4.48-second 40-yard dash time in Alabama’s spring testing back in 2017. He may not hit that number this week, but if he gets in under 4.6 seconds or so (for context, Russell Wilson ran a 4.55-second 40 back in 2012) it could help the multitalented senior signal-caller capture a team’s imagination.
The Pass-Catching Speed Merchants
ESPN’s Mel Kiper Jr. made waves last week when he predicted that 25 to 30 receivers will come off the board within the first three rounds of the draft. We’ll have to wait until late April to find out whether Kiper’s right―it’s likely he isn’t―but there’s little doubt that the 2020 receiver class brings the potential to be one of the best, and deepest, ever. That group will also be a focal point for combine coverage thanks to its cadre of high-end speedsters.
Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III is the biggest headliner at the combine. The junior pass catcher is the odds-on favorite to run the fastest time in the 40-yard dash (there’s been speculation he’ll run in the 4.27-second range) and he’s even got a real shot at challenging John Ross’s combine record of 4.22 seconds set in 2017. It’s no secret that Ruggs has field-stretching talent―it’s a big reason he’s a projected first-rounder in a majority of mock drafts―but if he runs the 40 in under 4.3 seconds, that would generate enough hype to push him up even further and cement his spot somewhere in the top half of the opening round.
TCU’s Jalen Reagor could push for the fastest 40-yard dash, too, and has a chance to be one of the biggest post-combine risers thanks to his explosive athleticism. The turbo-charged receiver measured in at 5-foot-11 and 206 pounds and has a chance to run in the 4.3s ... or maybe even faster. Recruiting Analytics clocked the TCU star at 22.6 mph on a 93-yard TD this past season―a faster top speed than any player reached in the NFL in 2019, according to Next Gen Stats’ tracking. And speaking of dark horse candidates to post the best 40-yard dash time, don’t forget about Penn State’s KJ Hamler. The 5-foot-9, 178-pound dynamo boasts jitterbug quicks, RC-car acceleration, and should run somewhere in the 4.3-second range. Speed kills when it comes to NFL passing offenses, and both Reagor and Hamler have the chance to separate themselves in that area this week.
A handful of other receivers could create buzz, as well. Keep your eye out for Colorado receiver/running back/wildcat quarterback Laviska Shenault Jr., who might be one of the best all-around athletes in the entire draft class. At 6-foot-1 and 227 pounds, Shenault should light up the 40-yard dash and vertical and broad jump portions of testing (assuming he takes part in the drills; he was diagnosed with pelvic bone inflammation earlier this month, calling into question his status for the combine). Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk is another one to watch: He’s one of the most electric playmakers in this class, capable of taking a short pass to the house with top-end long speed and impressive lateral agility, and is expected to run in the 4.4-second range. And pay attention when Texas’s Devin Duvernay runs this week; the former Longhorn star reeled in 106 catches in 2019, thanks in large part to his elite speed. As a high school senior, Duvernay ran a laser-timed 4.32-second 40-yard dash (tying current Chiefs receiver Mecole Hardman in that event) and won a high school state championship in the 100 meters race, posting a time of 10.27 seconds.
There are a few other less-heralded receivers that I’ll be watching closely this week: Michigan’s Donovan Peoples-Jones isn’t getting a ton of buzz right now, but he’s almost certain to impress in speed and explosion drills in Indianapolis. As a high school junior, Peoples-Jones won Nike’s 2015 Opening event, posting a 42-inch vertical jump and 4.42-second 40-yard dash. And finally, don’t forget about Florida’s Tyrie Cleveland. The senior playmaker ran a 4.32-second 40-yard dash as a high school senior in 2015.
The Breakneck Backs
The explosive receiver class might get more hype, but this year’s running backs group isn’t exactly lacking in speed, either. The biggest draw at the position should be Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor, a massively productive bell-cow back with legitimate track-star speed in the open field. Taylor, a two-time high school state champion in the 100 meters (with a personal best of 10.49 seconds), reportedly ran a 4.3-second 40-yard dash as recently as last spring. For a guy listed at 218 pounds, that’s extraordinarily rare. If he posts anything under a 4.4, he’ll likely cement himself a spot in the first round come April.
Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins could push Taylor in overall athleticism. The former Buckeye won The Opening’s Nike Football Rating title back in 2016 after running a 4.45-second 40-yard dash and jumping 43 inches in the vertical. Dobbins is no longer a 199-pound high school senior, but he’s certainly still an explosive athlete―and could see his stock rise with elite testing numbers this week.
Florida State’s Cam Akers and LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire should both impress, as well. Akers finished third at the aforementioned Nike event in 2016 (behind Dobbins and likely top-10 pick Jeff Okudah, a cornerback), running the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds and jumping 40.6 inches in the vertical. The former five-star recruit was held back by an awful offensive line in 2019, but stands to be a big riser if he posts strong numbers this week. Edwards-Helaire could surprise a lot of people with top-tier speed and explosiveness, too. He ran a 4.47 in the 40 and jumped 37.5 inches in the vertical leap at that same Nike event.
There are a couple of runaway beer-truck-type backs to keep an eye out for in this group, too. Boston College’s AJ Dillon is at the top of that list: The massive 6-foot, 250-pound runner came into the 2019 season running a 4.4-second 40 with a reported 40-inch vertical. He’s not quite on Derrick Henry’s level as an overall player, but Dillon is big and can move―like, really move―and that will pique the interest of plenty of teams. TCU’s Sewo Olonilua fits a similar mold. According to The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman, Olonilua, at 6-foot-3 and 240 pounds, posted a 4.47-second 40-yard dash time for pro scouts and can vertical jump 40 inches. The former four-star recruit could create some buzz this week.
This group features a handful of scat-back types who could break the 4.3-second mark in the 40-yard dash this week, too. Western Michigan’s LeVante Bellamy, Washington’s Salvon Ahmed, and Louisiana’s Raymond Calais each have the type of top-end speed to put their names on the proverbial map heading into the draft.
Speedsters in the Secondary
At the combine, it’s news only if a cornerback runs slow. Cornerbacks need to be fast―ridiculously fast―and most of the top prospects at that position should run in the 4.3s and 4.4s. That said, there are a handful of players at that position who could still stand out this week with elite speed numbers. One is Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr., a Senior Bowl star who should solidify himself in the late second or early third round with a 40-yard time somewhere in the 4.3-second range―but could rise up into the early second round with something better. The former All-ACC track star has his eyes on running in the 4.2s. Pride has been timed as fast as 4.30 at Notre Dame and says he’s even faster now.
Another corner I’ll be watching is Auburn’s Noah Igbinoghene. The former long jump champion has a pair of former Olympic track athletes as parents and, according to at least one sportsbook, sits third on the list of favorites to post the top 40-yard dash time. Finally, Utah corner Javelin Guidry is another one to watch. The 5-foot-9 190-pounder brings track speed to Indy as a former high school state champion in the 100 meter event.
Someone Who Deserves His Own Category: Isaiah Simmons
Athletically, the former Clemson linebacker is, well, unique. He’s big. He’s long. He’s fast. And he’s extraordinarily explosive. As The Athletic’s Dane Brugler put it on Monday, “They might rename the combine after Simmons after he is done with it.” Simmons, who was a two-time state champion long jumper and standout sprinter, has the potential to be a top performer in just about every drill.
Listed at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds by Clemson, the positionless playmaker reportedly runs a sub-4.4 40, jumps 40 inches in the vert, and broad jumps 11 feet. The term is way, way overused, but Simmons has “generational talent” potential and could solidify himself a spot in the top 10 with a strong week.