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NFL combine primer: Position-by-position summaries, players to watch ahead of big week in Indianapolis

February 21st, 2024

The 2024 NFL scouting combine starts next week. Here are the top storylines to watch. (Mallory Bielecki/Yahoo Sports)

The 2023 season and Super Bowl are in the rearview mirror, but the NFL calendar never, ever, ever stops. As the Eye of Sauron of the general NFL fan moves its gaze from Usher and Mecole Hardman’s touchdown in Las Vegas to free agency and the draft, we reach our next checkpoint: the combine.

Next week, the NFL’s personnel follow NBA All-Star Weekend and head to Indianapolis for their de facto convention and annual foray into scouting, interviewing and networking (and way too many pictures on X/Twitter of shrimp cocktails).

I put together an NFL combine primer of where each position group of prospects stacks up and who to keep an eye on as the testing (or opting out) begins in Indianapolis.

2024 NFL Scouting Combine TV/workout schedule

(All times ET on NFL Network)

Thursday, Feb. 29: Defensive line/linebackers, 3 p.m.

Friday, March 1: Defensive backs/tight ends, 3 p.m.

Saturday, March 2: Quarterbacks/wide receivers/running backs, 1 p.m.

Sunday, March 3: Offensive line, 1 p.m.

Quarterbacks

There’s plenty of star power at quarterback in Indy with two former Heisman Trophy winners in USC’s Caleb Williams and LSU’s Jayden Daniels, plus several quarterbacks from College Football Playoff participants and another top-tier prospect in North Carolina’s Drake Maye.

Williams is a strong favorite to be the No. 1 pick — at -1200 with BetMGM; Maye is second favorite at +700 — either by the Chicago Bears or somebody at this point in time, but Maye and Daniels have fans around the league and there’s jockeying at every spot in the hierarchy. How many of the quarterbacks throw or work out in general is anybody’s guess, but the interview and medical processes will still be paramount in helping teams arrange their board at the signal-caller position, with the week of the league’s top brass converging in one location bringing clarity (or more chaos) to the potential 2024 home for Justin Fields as well as the final order for the draft.

Players to watch

J.J. McCarthy (Michigan) and Jayden Daniels (LSU). The weigh-in numbers for Daniels and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy will be important, as evaluators can have hesitations with quarterbacks below 210 pounds because of durability and ability to deliver consistently in the pocket (although smaller-statured Bryce Young went No. 1 overall just a year ago). McCarthy’s performance in general, whether throwing amongst his peers and or via the interview process with coaches, could cement him as a player that certain quarterback-hungry teams with Shanahan influences in their coaching staff outside of the top five target (like the Falcons, Vikings, Broncos and Raiders). I have McCarthy graded as more of a second-rounder, but it is the ultimate premium position and it only takes one team to fall in love.

Other storylines to watch

The race for the best QB outside of the media consensus top three of Williams, Maye and Daniels. Oregon’s Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. both underwhelmed during Senior Bowl practices. Can they help straighten their stock? South Carolina’s Spencer Rattler has fans among evaluators (the arm talent is hard to ignore), and can he continue to help himself with teams after a Senior Bowl MVP and a good week of interviews?

Oregon's Bo Nix and Washington's Michael Penix were both Heisman finalists, and they're competing for the QB4 spot this draft class. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)Oregon's Bo Nix and Washington's Michael Penix were both Heisman finalists, and they're competing for the QB4 spot this draft class. (Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Running backs

This position is filled with more character actors than players with star power for the next level. No running backs cracked my top 40 big board a few weeks ago, but there are plenty of quality role and committee players that teams would love to add to their offensive stable.

Players to watch

Jonathan Brooks (Texas), Braelon Allen (Wisconsin), Blake Corum (Michigan), Audric Estime (Notre Dame), Bucky Irving (Oregon). The testing numbers carry a lot of, well, weight when breaking up the glut of projected middle-round running backs. Brooks is still recovering from an ACL injury, but there are plenty of other backs that can help (or hurt) themselves with a good week at Lucas Oil Stadium. The speed and agility testing for Allen, Corum and Estime can drastically alter their final landing spot in this draft. Same with the size for Irving, a great all-around player whose small frame brings the obvious drawbacks at such a hard-hitting position.

Wide receivers

This wide receiver class is loaded, a Neapolitan ice cream of flavors for teams to pick from at the top and throughout. Marvin Harrison Jr. is considered the crown jewel of the group, but there are other gems, like LSU’s Malik Nabers and Washington’s Rome Odunze, right behind him on big boards. If both decide to run their 40-yard dashes, it could be worthy of the prime time slot of the testing, since they would run back-to-back because of the NFL’s use of alphabetical ordering for players when they test. The race to WR2 status could well start there.

Players to watch

Keon Coleman (Florida State), Brian Thomas (LSU), Ja’Lynn Polk (Washington), Xavier Legette (South Carolina), Adonai Mitchell (Texas). Coleman’s ball skills helped put him in contention for the WR2 slot after Harrison Jr. for the early portion of the season before cooling off (he’s currently my WR5). He has a basketball background and could potentially have some great jumping numbers, but teams will be interested to see where his speed and agility numbers end up.

Thomas’ stock crept up throughout the season (my current WR4), and that ascent could be considered more of a consensus if he tests the way he plays on film. Polk is a useful receiver with inside and outside versatility, but his top-end speed is not overwhelming, and a good week of testing could help him go earlier on Day 2. Legette, meanwhile, was a later-career breakout in Columbia but has excellent traits. Teams will likely want to dig into why exactly it took him so long to produce.

There are about a half-dozen other names I could throw out here (Ladd McConkey! Roman Wilson! Troy Franklin!), but the last one I’ll include is Mitchell. He has stretches of inconsistent play but also a tempting combination of size, twitch and ball skills, along with flashes of advanced route running. A big testing week could see Mitchell vaulting up boards (he’s already doing it for me).

Tight ends

The story is whether Brock Bowers tests, and then everything else. Bowers is listed as a tight end but he’s more of just a pass-catcher/offensive weapon than a guy you use as a sixth offensive lineman. Bowers has below-average size, but for his skill set it will come down to how long his arms measure and how fast he runs. This is just to add more comfort for taking a player at such a usually volatile position so early in the draft, because Bowers’ on-field play and production is undeniably strong.

Players to watch

A.J. Barner (Michigan), Cade Stover (Ohio State), Theo Johnson (Penn State). This trio of former Big Ten tight ends will be compelling to watch. Barner and Johnson both have potential as in-line blockers with large frames and enough juice as athletes to run down the seam and stretch defenses from time to time, and Stover is a raw athlete with multiple position switches who is still learning the nuances of the position. Tight ends seldom have overwhelming production at the college level, so strong testing numbers can carry even more weight than usual when projecting the position. All three could see their draft stock take a bigger leap than people expect in a thin tight end class if they are able to showcase the athleticism that their film hints at.

Offensive linemen

There’s a heaping of big fellas with first-round ability in this draft, with plenty of intriguing projects and potential diamonds that I’m sure teams can’t wait to try and unearth. Do yourself a favor and try to watch the on-field drills with this group of linemen; it’s one of the better groups of dancing bears you’ll get to watch (if they all participate, of course).

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Whether it’s the tackles at the top with Penn State’s Olu Fashanu and Notre Dame’s Joe Alt — teams are seemingly split on who they prefer — or the interesting group of centers like Oregon’s Jackson Powers-Johnson or Duke’s Graham Barton, or the talented tackle-guard tweeners like Washington’s Troy Fautanu, it’s a loaded group of hogs at the top and middle of this year’s draft. Seeing them all side-by-side in drills could provide a fun comparison for coaches and evaluators.

Players to watch

Amarius Mims (Georgia), Tyler Guyton (Oklahoma), Kingsley Suamataia (BYU), Patrick Paul (Houston). Mims and Guyton are two incredibly talented prospects with barely any games played on their résumés. Both could wow on the field and vault themselves into the top half of the first round (Mims potentially even higher). Suamataia and Paul are two more players with interesting measurables and flashes of talent. Both are going to be put to the test in interviews with coaches and personnel presenters to see exactly how much of an investment is needed to harness their incredible abilities.

Edges

There isn’t that ace edge defender to spearhead this group, but more a group of secondary pass rushers and run-first defenders that are currently being slotted in the back half of the first round and on Day 2. It’s still a healthy group of useful players that teams will love to add to their arsenal from this prospect class.

Players to watch

Laiatu Latu (UCLA), Austin Booker (Kansas). Teams will key on Latu’s medicals and also his testing numbers. He was productive in college and wins with quickness, supreme hand usage and technique, but is more of a solid athlete than an excellent one. He could jockey to be the first edge defender off the board if he tests well. Booker, meanwhile, won Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year in his lone season in Lawrence, and has length and flashes burst, bend and quickness to go along with his tangible production. He is still a work in progress, but he could leap up boards with a strong week of testing, especially with this draft lacking players of Booker’s archetype.

UCLA's Laiatu Latu could help his draft stock with a big week at the NFL scouting combine. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)UCLA's Laiatu Latu could help his draft stock with a big week at the NFL scouting combine. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

UCLA’s Laiatu Latu could help his draft stock with a big week at the NFL scouting combine. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)

Defensive tackle

This group is filled with more Day 2 prospects than names who will hear their names early in Detroit, but is still littered with talent throughout draft boards. Texas’ Byron Murphy II and Illinois’ Johnny Newton are currently seen as the top defensive tackle prospects as explosive athletes who could make for a fun watch when the defensive linemen test in Indianapolis.

Players to watch

T’Vondre Sweat (Texas), Brandon Dorlus (Oregon). Murphy’s teammate at Texas, Sweat had his height measured at 6 feet, 4 3/8 inches at the Senior Bowl, but declined to have his weight taken (he was listed at 362 pounds in college). So expect plenty of social media activity whenever Sweat weighs in or performs on the field. Dorlus is a bit of a tweener on the defensive line, which kind of makes him perfect for the modern NFL. He’s a flurry of arms and chaos on every snap, both in a good and bad way. Strong athletic testing will solidify his fun film and help him in the eye of evaluators.

Linebackers

Where are they at? There’s a dearth of linebacker prospects in this year’s draft, a trend that is unlikely to go away considering the current landscape of play in today’s college football. Can a linebacker, any linebacker, perform this week on the field or in the classroom with evaluators and emerge at what is becoming an almost mythological beast in today’s NFL: a starting-quality three-down linebacker?

Players to watch

Junior Colson (Michigan), Edgerrin Cooper (Texas A&M). Colson is currently my LB1, but that is more because of his football awareness and soundness than any outstanding athleticism he shows on film. Stopwatches will really help or hinder his final draft position. Cooper is also in the running to be the first linebacker to hear his name called. If he tests like the athlete he flashes on film, he could make his case as the top linebacker that much easier to make.

Defensive backs

Outside of the premium offensive positions — quarterback, offensive tackle, wide receiver — cornerback is the best position in this draft class, with players from all types of backgrounds and school pedigrees. The safety position, on the other hand, lacks the top-end talent to truly get you excited. Having said that, look for the cornerback group to feature some of the standout players of the week.

Players to watch

Quinyon Mitchell (Toledo), Cooper DeJean (Iowa). Mitchell is the pride of the Mid-American Conference this year and one of the biggest risers already of the draft cycle. I had Mitchell as the 16th overall prospect in my big board after the Senior Bowl and he could continue to trickle upwards with an outstanding week of testing. Whether it’s film, production or traits, Mitchell checks each box in a major way.

DeJean is one of the best athletes in this entire draft, with his film matching that movement ability. He could instantly solidify any spot in the defensive backfield with real impact play potential:

DeJean suffered a late-season lower leg injury in practice and has only recently been cleared. Here’s hoping he tests in Indianapolis, though. If he does, he could put on a real show.

This content was originally sourced and posted at Yahoo! Sports – News, Scores, Standings, Rumors, Fantasy Games »
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