As much as I love the Senior Bowl, no pre-draft event plays as big of a role in the evaluation process than the annual NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. I’ve compiled some of my biggest takeaways from the event, including the impact on the Bucs’ draft plans, thoughts on three big defensive fallers in the class, a sleeper quarterback for Tampa Bay fans to keep an eye on and much more.
1. The Combine Is A Gift – Learn From It
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Whether you like it or not, or whether it affirms the prospects you liked on tape or not, the NFL Scouting Combine has an undeniable value as part of the draft evaluation process. You shouldn’t overvalue the Combine at the expense of a player’s tape, that should go without saying at this point. But maybe the worst thing you can do is stubbornly cling to opinions you held pre-Combine when more information is available to help you form better, more educated opinions on prospects.
Bucs director of college scouting Mike Biehl, GM Jason Licht and director of player personnel John Spytek – Photo by: PewterReport.com
That doesn’t mean a talent evaluator ends up changing a player’s grade, but the Combine can reveal a lot of cracks in a player’s evaluation that become more noticeable when the tape gets re-visited. The objective of an analyst isn’t to be right about a player by the Combine, it’s to be right by the draft. Failing to take into account crucial information for a player’s evaluation by making excuses for their sub-par results, saying you’re “excited for other people to overthink _____ now” or that “you’re still on the bandwagon” of a player 10 seconds after they finish a disappointing 40-yard dash time or three-cone drill is only hurting you as an evaluator.
Take Georgia’s Riley Ridley last year for example. I loved the flashes I saw on tape, but I knew his Combine was critical to his evaluation because of how few routes he ran and how infrequently he was targeted. When he crashed and burned in Indy, he went from an early second-round grade to the late third-round portions of the draft. His combination of minimal production and poor testing helped me see that the risk of having him that high on my board was probably not going to be out-weighed by the reward someday. So far so good on that decision.
Now, nobody is saying you have to change your mind. Ultimately, you may decide to stick by what you saw on tape, and you may be right. But dismissing critical information out of hand is bad practice and will lead to bad results more often than not. If you want to be good at this, it means being able to admit where you may have missed something and taking a small early ‘L’ so you don’t end up taking a bigger one when it counts.
As The Scouting Academy director Dan Hatman often says, don’t cling to a mistake because you spent a lot of time making it.
2. Derrick Brown’s Combine Matters
Hardly a negative word has been spoken about Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown since midway through the college football season, when it was clear that blocking him was about to be a major chore for every offensive line in the country. Sometimes when this happens to the draft community, we go to the tape with such a strong predetermined bias that we fail to see concerns that could be an issue in the NFL.
There is no way around it, Brown’s workout in Indianapolis was an unmitigated disaster. Per MockDraftable.com, Brown’s 40, vertical jump, three-cone drill and short shuttle were all in the 33rd or worse percentile for interior defensive linemen in Combine history (since 1999).
Oregon DE DeForest Buckner – Photo by: Getty Images
Why might that be a concern? Well, as a run defender it probably won’t be. Brown was never billed as a one-gap penetrating type of defensive tackle, instead re-setting the line of scrimmage with power and generally dominating the interior with elite power and technique. Yes, he plays too high at the point of attack, and no, it hasn’t mattered much on tape for the past two years. Some guys can win that way (see Stephon Tuitt, DeForest Buckner, Chris Jones, etc).
Because of that, I feel very good about Brown being a hit in this draft. He is going to be a good starter for a long time in the NFL. What I would question is just how valuable of a starter he’ll be. Brown wins with power and length as a pass rusher more than burst, speed, bend or counters. That’s always been the case when studying him on tape. His Combine performance suggests that he doesn’t possess the athletic upside to really improve in those areas either.
My take? I think Brown will always have some limitations as a pass rusher that will keep him out of the top tier of impact defensive tackles in the NFL (Jones, Buckner, Aaron Donald, Cam Heyward, Fletcher Cox, Geno Atkins, Grady Jarrett, etc). But I think he’s going to be a very strong starter who dominates in the run game and pushes the pocket enough to be effective as a pass rusher, even if high end production pressures/sacks isn’t there.
I wouldn’t consider him if I’m a team drafting in the Top 5, maybe even Top 10, given the needs and other positions/players of greater importance/impact at that range of the draft. But Brown will still be a good player whenever he is drafted, and I’ll be shocked if he doesn’t look like the best defensive tackle from this class during the 2020 campaign. He’s very pro-ready.
3. IDL Depth Is Lacking
After Brown and South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw, I’m very worried about the rest of the interior defensive line class, and Saturday’s Combine showing by the group did little to ease my fears. Sure, some of them ran good 40s, but their testing in other drills was concerning. For a Bucs team that really needs to find some interior defensive line depth in the mid-late rounds (if they don’t go Kinlaw or Brown early), this will be something to keep an eye on.
South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw – Photo courtesy of South Carolina
Missouri’s Jordan Elliott, largely thought of as the no. 3 defensive tackle in the class, ran a solid 5.04 in the 40-yard dash, but tested in the 32nd percentile for the short shuttle and 27th percentile for the vertical jump. All this despite weighing in at just 302 pounds.
TCU’s Ross Blacklock, who had a formal interview with Tampa Bay, weighed in at just 290 pounds, yet still managed to be only average-to-below-average in the agility drills (3-cone, short shuttle) and jumps (vertical, broad). As a small defensive tackle for whom agility is so important, those results hurt a lot.
Oklahoma’s Neville Gallimore ran a historically good 40 (4.79 at 304 pounds), and then proceeded to bomb the agility drills by posting in the 11th percentile for the 3-cone (7.97) and the 3rd percentile for the shuttle (5.01). Considering Gallimore is an extremely raw, undersized interior defensive lineman who relies heavily on athleticism for one-on-one wins in college, those are really concerning numbers.
The Bucs don’t have a big enough drafting sample under general manager Jason Licht to draw many clear conclusions about their prototypes, but I would expect the Davis brothers from Nebraska to be on their radar. Carlos Davis ran an absurd 4.82 in the 40, and a 4.52 shuttle at 313 pounds, while the 308-pound Khalil hit 4.75 in the only on-field drill he participated in. Both brothers lack length for the position, but they might have the explosiveness to make up for it. I’ll be checking out their tape this week.
4. Small School Safeties “Licht” It Up
The Bucs safety room remains incomplete with the unknown quantity of Justin Evans health. They can say what they want about being happy with their current group, but there really isn’t an ideal free safety on the team right now unless Evans returns.
I’ve talked a lot about how Cal’s Ashtyn Davis would be a great fit in Tampa if he gets to No. 45, but two small school safeties might have caught Licht’s eye this week as well.
Lenoir-Rhyne SS Kyle Dugger – Photo courtesy of Lenoir-Rhyne
Lenoir-Rhyne’s Kyle Dugger showed that his highlight reel athleticism on tape can translate just fine to the NFL, with a 4.49 40, 42-inch vert and 11-foot broad jump. He dominated the D-II level as a safety and return man, showing the ability to play all over the secondary. I’m not sure he’s a true free safety at the next level, but athleticism like that will have teams considering it.
Southern Illinois’ Jeremy Chinn was not to be out-done however, posting a 4.45 40, a 41-inch vertical and an 11-foot-6-inch broad jump. Did I mention both of these dudes are around 220 pounds? Chinn was up-and-down at the Senior Bowl, but I’ll be examining his tape closely after those results at the Combine.
The Bucs may pass on the position altogether if Evans is back, but if not, these two small school safeties could be on the radar on Day 2 depending on how the board falls at other positions.
5. Cameron Dantzler’s Fall Could Be Significant
After receiving first-round buzz over the past few months, Mississippi State’s Cameron Dantzler bombed the Combine, coming in with sub 31-inch arms and running a 4.64 40 at 6-2, 188 pounds. Per MockDraftable.com, the number of “good” (by really any definition) cornerbacks that have run 4.64 or slower at the Combine is basically non-existent. Josh Norman ran a 4.66, and after a few good seasons, he’s quickly descended to being one of the worst cornerbacks in the NFL.
There really isn’t a precedent for corners that slow becoming quality players in today’s NFL, but Dantzler’s tape is reportedly impressive (I haven’t studied him yet) and his level of competition couldn’t be better at the college level. Dantzler held LSU’s Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase to one catch for six yards, and did a number on the Alabama receivers as well. Of course, that doesn’t mean those guys weren’t open on him at times, but it’s still worth noting that Dantzler held his own against the best in college. That’s usually a really good sign.
Bucs DBs MJ Stewart and Carlton Davis – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR
Last year, Vanderbilt cornerback Joejuan Williams ran a 4.64 and still went at the end of the second round. That’s obviously very uncommon, but it indicates Dantzler’s stock might just slide rather than tank completely. Still, there are only like three or four average-to-good corners that have ever run slower than even 4.6 flat at the Combine, making it very unlikely Dantzler will be an outlier.
In a deep cornerback class, if his slide heads into Day 3, you have to start wondering if the Bucs are eyeing him up as a best player available type of scenario. They covet press physicality, height and toughness in their corners, and Dantzler sure seems to possess those traits. Mike Edwards (occasional nickel), Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart all ran in the 4.5s and were still Licht draft picks over the past two years, so if Dantzler cleans up his 40 at this pro day, it’s not out of the question he could be a Buc.
Definitely a situation worth keeping an eye on with the Bucs lined up to get a fourth-round comp pick.
6. Offensive Tackles Will Go Early And Often
In talking with team personnel and others at the Combine, the NFL is extremely high on this offensive tackle class, as are most draft analysts. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if 3-4 go in the Top 10, as the Redskins, Giants, Chargers, Panthers, Cardinals and Browns all desperately need tackle help. Even just outside of the Top 10, the Jets could claim one of the top 4-5 tackles where they sit at No. 11 overall.
That’s bad news for the Bucs, who sound very likely to dip into the offensive tackle class if there is anyone left for them at No. 14. It’s easily the biggest need on the roster if they are able to re-sign their key free agents, and given the relative lack of holes Tampa Bay has, could a trade up be in order?
Licht has never been shy about moving around on draft day, but usually that direction has been down, both in 2016 and 2018. With the roster finally in a relatively good place, this may finally be Licht’s window to get aggressive, give up a pick and go get his future star offensive tackle.
Alabama OT Jedrick Wills – Photo: University of Alabama
“I’ve probably watched more offensive linemen than I have in years because there’s a lot of good quality guys up and down the line between centers, guards, and tackles,” Bucs hea coach Bruce Arians said on Tuesday. “I usually like watching skill players more, but I spent a lot of time this year on offensive linemen.”
Another note: free agency will tell us a lot about which teams will still need an offensive tackle by draft day, but the Bucs need to make contingency plans in case they miss out on the premier tackles in the class. That probably means re-signing Demar Dotson on a one-year deal if he’s willing – and it sounds like he is.
7. Sleeper Quarterback To Watch
Florida International’s James Morgan stood out during the throwing session of the Combine on Thursday night, showing plenty of velocity and better accuracy than expected. He fits the physical mold of an Arians’ quarterback at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, and has a rocket for an arm.
There is a lot of molding that will need to take place with his release and pocket awareness, but Morgan could be the Day 3 addition at quarterback that Jason Licht mentioned wanting to add to the roster as a developmental option. Remember that Morgan was one of the East-West Shrine Bowl QBs that played for Tampa Bay linebackers coach Mike Caldwell, who was the head coach of the East squad.
8. Edge Class Remains Weak
In a loaded draft class at many key positions, the edge defender group has been hard on the eyes so far. After Ohio State’s Chase Young, the group falls off dramatically, and even some of the more exciting developmental edge rushers didn’t work out in Indy (LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson, Michigan’s Josh Uche, Notre Dame’s Julian Okwara). Another, Alabama edge Terrell Lewis, just did the jumps.
One the more high-profile edge defenders who did work out was Iowa’s A.J. Epenesa, a player I have graded in the late third round off of tape, while most other analysts have put him in the Top 20 for some time now.
A slide could be in order for Epenesa however, as he struggled mightily to show the athleticism needed to play the position at a high level. Epenesa’s spider graph is tragic:
As expected, Epenesa failed to show the explosiveness or flexibility that most high-end edge defenders possess, while also running a 5.04 in the 40-yard dash. I’m of the opinion that the 40 doesn’t matter that much for edge defenders, but over five seconds is unheard of for a first-round pass rusher.
The best edge defenders since 1999 to run 5.04 or slower in the 40? Josh Mauro, Ronald Blair, Darren Howard, Aaron Smith, DeForest Buckner and Calais Campbell. And before you freak out about Buckner and Campbell, they were 16 and 15 pounds more than Epenesa at the Combine. Legitimate defensive tackle weight at 290. Epenesa isn’t close to that at 275.
On top of the athletic concerns, Epenesa’s going to get tagged for a bad body by some teams, and he might need a year in an NFL weight room. The bench is overrated for how it translates to the field, but his 17 reps does suggest he’s behind where most players at his position should be in their weight room conditioning.
Epenesa might not slide a ton in a weak edge class, but whoever takes him should definitely be buyer beware. Re-sign your edge defenders, Jason Licht. There’s nothing for you here.
9. Don’t Overreact To Clyde Edwards-Helaire’s 40
No, LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire isn’t a burner in the open field, running just a 4.6-flat at this year’s Combine. But also, that shouldn’t impact his stock much at all, as long speed is far down the list of important traits for a running back to possess.
LeGarrette Blount, Arian Foster, Alfred Morris, Carlos Hyde, Devin Singletary, James Conner, Mark Ingram, Kareem Hunt, Travis Henry, C.J. Anderson and Le’Veon Bell are all examples of backs who ran 4.6 or slower and still had successful NFL careers as feature backs. History has shown us that running in the 4.6s isn’t that big of a concern. It’s when you get into the 4.7s that things get dicey.
Edwards-Helaire has better tape than many of those guys, and he also jumped out of the gym in the broad and vertical jumps, testing in the 83rd and 93rd percentiles for his position. I’m looking fo