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NFL scouting combine: 25 things to watch in Indianapolis

By Jeff Reynolds, The Sports Xchange   |   Feb. 23, 2016 at 11:54 AM
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INDIANAPOLIS - Prove It Week is here for 332 draft prospects invited to the 2016 NFL Combine.

NFL front-office executives and their cadre of scouts began formulating rankings and reports on the class of 2016 about 10 months ago. The NFL Combine serves to confirm the building player analysis or send scouting departments back to game tape for another look.

The combine begins Wednesday at Lucas Oil Stadium and Indiana University's downtown medical complex and players run the gantlet during the three-day stay from on-field workouts to private interviews in team hotel suites that can simmer until boiling into a full interrogation.

With college resumes complete and what amounts to mid-term grades compiled by all 32 teams, this week's myriad challenges all rolled up represent the ultimate job interview.

Sagacious general managers claim the combine changes very little on their player-by-player draft board.

Invitations to this event are no trophy or guarantee considering 108 players on the 2015 combine list went undrafted and 41 who didn't get the call to Indy were picked in the '15 draft.

The goal for scouting staffs is to test the best in apples-to-apples situations ranging from the 40-yard dash to psychological evaluations and medical testing to private player interviews. Every player at this stage has a weakness. Will he try to cover up shortcomings by bowing out of the on-field testing in favor of the cushioned comfort campus pro day? Will he buckle when the head coach and general manager dig into personal issues?

Days begin early for prospects here - wakeup calls for drug testing are as early as 4 a.m. - and end late, with interview blocks ending at 11 p.m.

Only the players who rise to the occasion under this unfamiliar intensity will realize a lasting adjustment to draft grades mostly determined by their play on the field and background checks in the fall.

Here are 25 things to watch at the 2016 NFL Combine:

--Five players to pull for in Indy

1. OT Shon Coleman, Auburn: Five years ago, Coleman was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. He didn't debut for the Tigers until 2013 but has 25 starts the past two seasons.

2. Artie Burns, Miami (Fla.): Break out the pompons for Burns, who needed to line up care for his two younger brothers and his son to travel to Indy this week. Burns became the legal guardian on his brothers when his mother, Dana Smith, died of a heart attack in October 2015. His father is incarcerated. The top-ranked hurdler in the nation when he came to Miami three years ago, Burns could be a top 50 pick.

3. DT Jason Fanaika, Utah: The former Utah State linebacker left for his LDS mission in Indianapolis but cut it short when his father was diagnosed with colon cancer. Feeling it was his responsibility to support the family during his father's treatment, Fanaika got a fulltime job as a credit counselor, putting football on pause. As his father's health improved, Fanaika got back to the weight room and walked on at Utah. A year on the scout team served him well and Fanaika became a standout defensive end. Coach Kyle Whittingham said in January Fanaika is "the strongest guy on our football team. He's explosive."

4. RB Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State: The shortest player (5-8 1/4) likely to be measured in Indianapolis this week, Coprich is training in the city after back-to-back seasons as the Missouri Valley player of the year. He said he's been timed at 4.47 in the 40 and scored 60 touchdowns in 52 games with the Redbirds. The success of Arizona Cardinals running back David Johnson out of Northern Iowa could be a good omen for Coprich.

5. DE James Cowser, Southern Utah: Scouts who found Logan on a map came away with strong reviews of Cowser, who broke recently retired defensive end Jared Allen's Big Sky conference record for tackles for loss with more than 40 the past two seasons alone. At 6-3, 255, Cowser might have to take the long way to an NFL starting spot as Allen did.

--Five guys who should ace on-field testing

1. WR Kolby Listenbee, TCU: It would be a surprise if Listenbee runs anything slower than high 4.3s, which is the range he hit during the Horned Frogs' spring testing day in 2015.

2. WR Corey Coleman, Baylor: He might choose not to run but claims full health. That could be a blazing 40.

3. LB Darron Lee, Ohio State: Explosive traits define Lee as a prospect. Three-cone agility tests and anything in a straight line is Lee's cup of tea.

4. DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: You can't be an Olympic jumper unless you can jump. There's a lot to love here - vertical leap might be 37-40 inches.

5. FB Andy Janovich (Nebraska) and DT Andrew Billings (Baylor): Billings can bench press a Prius and squat a small SUV. Janovich looks like a sleeper candidate to fling up 35-40 reps of 225.

--Five prospects I like more than you

1. DB Jalen Ramsey, Florida State: Hands down the best cornerback and safety in the draft, he's a cinch to go in the top seven picks barring wheeling and dealing by a team or two desperate for a quarterback. Ramsey would be my pick as the best player available at No. 4 for Dallas and a consideration for the Jaguars, too.

2. OLB Noah Spence, E. Kentucky: Slapped with the character concern label, he does have some 'splainin' to do during interviews considering multiple failed drug tests at Ohio State and confessing to addiction. He wowed at the Senior Bowl, showing the flair and explosiveness that made him Urban Meyer's first five-star recruit at Ohio State. Remember Robert Quinn left North Carolina with the character red flag - then promptly snapped it in half on his way to a 19-sack season with the Rams.

3. OG Vadal Alexander, LSU: He clearly enjoys the postgame spread (Alexander is a massive mauler at 6-5, 340 pounds) but earns every bite and could sneak into the top 35 ala Xavier Su'a-Filo (33rd, Texans, 2014).

4. Su'a Cravens, USC: He's a light and lightning fast junior and played a hybrid linebacker-safety spot for the Trojans. The 59th overall prospect in NFLDraftScout.com rankings, his versatility will be coveted and there are some similarities in his game to former Trojans and Steelers safety Troy Polamalu, including the fulltime accelerator.

5. QBs Cardale Jones (Ohio State) and Brandon Doughty (W. Kentucky): Gravity finally caught up with Cardale Jones after his Disney-movie postseason in 2014 in which he went from third-string to national title game winner. He spent the offseason working with QB whisperer George Whitfield - previous pupils include Jameis Winston and Andrew Luck - and has every imaginable tool to be molded into a very good to great NFL starter. Ranked 140th by NFLDraftScout.com, he's a candidate to be selected in the top three rounds along with Mississippi State's Dak Prescott (115).

Doughty is a third-day arm with enough size and but more touch than velocity as a passer and arrives by way of the Hilltoppers' video-game offense - he had consecutive seasons with 4,000 yards and 40 TD passes. Coaches call him a coach on the field and praise his competitive spirit.

. Similar evaluations were penned of Kirk Cousins coming out of Michigan State minus the massive numbers.

And just one more: West Virginia LB Nick Kwiatkoski: A high school running back and safety who beefed up to 238 pounds, the likely spot for him in the NFL is middle linebacker. WVU's strength coach predicted a 4.5 in the 40, but here's what scouts already like. In WVU's 3-3-5 defense he had more responsibility than any player, and was asked to blitz, cover, stop the run, make adjustments and calls and did it all well.

--Don't I know you? Next-gen NFL hopefuls

1. LB Ian Seau, Nevada: Junior Seau's nephew transferred from Kansas State and might not be drafted until the final rounds, but his bloodlines and 18 total sacks the past two seasons make this Seau worth a ring.

2. OT Pearce Slater, San Diego State: Jackie Slater's son is 6-7, 340-plus with a wingspan of 85 inches. Only Baylor defensive end Shawn Oakman (6-7, 270, nearly 11-inch hands and 84 1/4-inch wingspan) can look the "little" Slater in the eye this week.

3. OT Brandon Shell, South Carolina: Former Raiders coach and Pro Football Hall of Fame offensive tackle Art Shell is the uncle of Brandon Shell, who just turned 24.

4. FB Derek Watt, Wisconsin: He's not invited to the event but here's a hunch: J.J.'s little brother will be in camp with the Houston Texans in Bill O'Brien's offense, which employs a fullback.

5. QB Stephen Rivers, Northwestern State: By way of LSU and Vanderbilt, Rivers wants to chase the dream of joining big brother Philip Rivers in the NFL. After going to the NFLPA all-star game and Arizona regional combine, he wasn't invited to Indy.

--Mic checks: Popular podium peeps

1. New England Patriots: In his annual February cone of silence, Bill Belichick and his front-office compadres continue to pass on podium time. Other than the New Orleans Saints (see: Bountygate), every other NFL team sends at least one representative to the podium. Maybe Belichick has less to talk about. The Patriots forfeited their 2016 first-round pick as league-mandated punishment for lessening the PSI in football used in the AFC title game two years ago.

2. QB Carson Wentz, North Dakota State: His star is on the rise and as per usual in February, quarterbacks are crashing the conversation about the No. 1 overall pick. Jared Goff of Cal is a choir boy and very much in that debate. Wentz is a relative unknown from an FCS program but like evaluators, media will fall in love with a prospect some view as a cross between Cam Newton and Ben Roethlisberger.

3. Coach Jeff Fisher, Los Angeles Rams: Former USC safety who was at the helm of the Oilers-turned-Titans, Fisher is on the move again from St. Louis to Los Angeles. He's also the chair of the competition committee. Fisher's Thursday session is a safe bet to go long and stretch beyond the how's it going tone of some others.

4. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss: Offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil could be the first Ole Miss player drafted but Nkemdiche is arguably the most talented player in the draft. Even before his draft stock crashed in the well-known hotel tumble that led to a bowl game suspension, evaluators had questions about Nkemdiche and his motivation to turn natural ability into greatness.

5. Coach Ben McAdoo, New York Giants: Criticized by N.Y. media for an ill-fitting suit in his intro presser, the former offensive coordinator gets his first go at the national huddle since replacing Tom Coughlin as head coach.

--Jeff Reynolds (@ReynoldsJD) is Managing Editor of The Sports Xchange and has covered the NFL and draft since 2001.

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