FAB 4. COMBINE QUESTIONS FOR BUCS TARGETS
The 2017 NFL Scouting Combine starts next week and there are several questions that Tampa Bay’s front office and coaching staff will need answered in Indianapolis. PewterReport.com’s Trevor Sikkema will be in Indy all week reporting on the action and will speak with general manager Jason Licht and head coach Dirk Koetter.
While the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl allow NFL teams the opportunity to observe and evaluate draft prospects in real live game situations, in addition to the opportunity to interview players, the Combine has been dubbed the “Underwear Olympics” as players perform more track and field drills than they do actual football drills. No helmets and shoulder pads will be found in Indy.
Still, the time at the Combine is useful as speed (40-yard dash), change of direction (three-cone drill), explosion (broad jump and vertical jump) and strength (bench press) are measured. Often times when two prospects at the same position are essentially graded the same, speed or character, which is determined in the 15-minute interviews with the teams every night, are usually the tiebreaker.
Players that the team hasn’t had the chance to interview at either the East-West Shrine Game or the Senior Bowl are met with in Indy. Some intriguing players that were interviewed by an area scout or a position coach at one of the college all-star games are interviewed again with Koetter and Licht present. Interviews were a big part of the Bucs drafting defensive end Noah Spence in the second round because he was so forthright and accountable with his answers about previous ecstasy use at Ohio State, which led to his dismissal from the university.
Medical evaluations, which consist of a battery of x-rays, MRIs, drug tests and a whole host of other examinations, are also crucial. Pittsburgh running back James Conner, who was diagnosed with cancer two years and missed most of the 2015 campaign, will have blood work done to see if NFL doctors’ conclusions match that of the Pitt doctors that have labeled him cancer free.
Alabama safety Eddie Jackson’s broken leg will be x-rayed and Michigan tight end Jake Butt will undergo an MRI to see how quickly his torn ACL is healing. The medical evaluation is just as critical to NFL teams as interviews and 40-yard dash times are.
Here are some players that are on the Buccaneers’ radar that need to test well character-wise, health-wise or athletically in Indianapolis next week.
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook
Cook has the ability and production to be a top 10 pick in April, but might see his stock slip into the 20s unless concerns about his shoulder and character are cleared up in Indy. Cook underwent surgery for his right shoulder that caused him to miss the FSU spring game, but he started all 13 games and rushed for 1,765 yards and 19 touchdowns. There are also some character issues that need to be explored, including the fact that Cook was arrested for allegedly punching a woman in the face in 2015. He was found not guilty, but there are some other alleged character issues with some friends he hangs out with in Tallahassee that need to be examined.
Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon
Perhaps the most complete and talented running back in the draft not named Cook, Mixon is viewed as a potential second-rounder if NFL owners can sign off on the pick. Some teams have him undraftable due to the fact that he punched a female student, which led to a one-year suspension from football in 2014. What’s worse for Mixon is that there was video evidence that was released that makes the incident even more damning. Licht has a reputation for rolling the dice on talented players with character questions, including Tyrann Mathieu in Arizona and Spence and quarterback Jameis Winston in Tampa Bay, so you can expect him to drill deep into Mixon’s character with some very probing questions.
Washington WR John Ross
Ross has had surgery on both knees at Washington after tearing the meniscus in his right knee in 2013, and then tearing the ACL and meniscus in his left knee in 2014. That caused him to miss the entire 2015 season before returning to action last year where he had 81 receptions for 1,150 yards and 17 touchdowns. Now Ross needs shoulder surgery this offseason to repair a torn labrum and won’t be able to bench press at the Combine. Ross, who is expected to run in the 4.3-range and be one of the fastest players in Indy, is a late first-round pick if he doesn’t come back with any red flags from x-rays and MRIs. One concern with Ross is that he underwent microfracture knee surgery three years ago and that usually shortens players’ NFL careers.
Washington S Budda Baker
Tampa Bay and a host of other teams are intrigued by Baker’s playmaking ability, physical style of play and athleticism. But they are curious about his size, which is listed at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds. Baker came to Washington weighing the 170s and has added size and strength in the weight room. While he’ll ace the 40-yard dash with sub 4.4 speed, Baker will need to weigh at least 190 and measure at least 5-foot-10. An inch shorter and a few pounds lighter could mean that he’ll drop from late first-round consideration all the way to the third round and cost him millions. Quite a few draft prospects have their measurements inflated in college to be an inch or two taller and 5-10 pounds heavier. Baker needs to match his college measurements in Indy.
UCLA DE Takkarist McKinley
Bleacher Report’s Jason Cole reports that McKinley needs surgery for a torn labrum, which could hold him out of action for five or six months. That could cost him a shot at the first round of the NFL Draft unless he’s tests well athletically on the field. McKinley is expected to be one of the top athletic performers in Indy and a fast shuttle time, a fast 40-time and shining in pass rushing drills could help and keep him from sliding into the second round. If 100 percent healthy, McKinley was expected to be a top 20 pick, so the labrum issue could actually help the Bucs, who pick at No. 19, if they want to go with a pass rusher in the first round.
Texas A&M WR Josh Reynolds
Reynolds was an incredibly productive receiver at Texas A&M where he broke Mike Evans’ single season touchdown record with 13 scores in 2014 while playing that season with a torn labrum. NFL doctors will examine Reynolds’ prior shoulder injury in Indy, but the more important test for him will be the 40-yard dash. It’s a crowded field at wide receiver in this year’s draft, and there are some questions about his speed. At 6-foot-3, Reynolds is a bit of a long strider. He’s believed to be a 4.5 guy in the 40-yard dash similar to Evans, but Reynolds told me at the Senior Bowl that he’s going to “shock the world” with a fast time in the 40-yard dash – perhaps in the 4.4 range. If Reynolds can run a sub 4.5 time in the 40-yard dash he could become a second-round pick. If he’s 4.5 or over, Reynolds will likely be drafted in the third or fourth round. Added Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin in the Houston Chronicle: “He’s one of those guys who doesn’t look real fast, but I’ve never seen anyone catch him.”
Ohio State FS Malik Hooker
Hooker won’t be participating at the Combine after having surgery for a torn labrum and a hernia after the season. While he’s expected to make a complete recovery, Hooker may not be able to run a 40-yard dash at his pro day prior to the draft. That means that NFL teams are left to evaluate his lone season as a starter at Ohio State during his redshirt sophomore year. At least he has some great tape as Hooker recorded seven interceptions for the Buckeyes, while returning three for touchdowns. Hooker is a top 10 talent, but if he gets red flagged medically at the Combine could that push his draft stock down around where Tampa Bay picks at No. 19 and provide the Bucs with an intriguing option.
There are a whole host of other players that will be relying on interviews and medical evaluations to help improve their draft stock in Indy, and those aspects are just as important – if not more – than the on-field athletic tests. If a player doesn’t perform well at the Combine he can get a second chance at his pro day, but x-rays and MRIs don’t lie, and from a character standpoint, you only get one chance to make a first impression in team interviews.