Bold predictions: 2018 NFL Scouting Combine studs and duds

By Rob Rang,
Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield rolls out against the Georgia Bulldogs on January 1, 2018 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI
Oklahoma Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield rolls out against the Georgia Bulldogs on January 1, 2018 at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, California. Photo by Jon SooHoo/UPI | License Photo

As the world watches athletes from all over the globe compete at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the NFL is preparing for its version -- the annual Scouting Combine -- coming up February 27 to March 5.

Yes, aka the annual NFL underwear Olympics in Indianapolis.


Scouts will say the most important tests at Indianapolis are the medical evaluations and interviews, but they will keep those results to themselves as much as possible.

Contemporary media, with a nudge from the NFL's ever-present self-marketing machinery, will press to evaluate the raw athleticism of prospects competing in tests like the bench press, vertical jump, three-cone drill and, of course, the 40-yard dash -- the Combine's top draw and arguably the most celebrated race in modern sports.

But what fun is it to wait for the actual events?

Canvassing the litany of industry sources acquired over nearly 20 years in the business, offers 10 Bold Predictions as to which players will leave Indianapolis with scouts buzzing, as well as a few who could have them grumbling.


10. All of the top QBs will throw (and throw well)

The 2018 NFL draft has been characterized as the year of the quarterback -- and for good reason. currently projects five quarterbacks to get drafted in the first round. Only the famed 1983 class produced more (six). It was once common for the top quarterbacks to wait until their individually scripted Pro Days to throw, but in a class packed this tight at the top expect Sam Darnold (USC), Josh Rosen (UCLA), Josh Allen (Wyoming), Baker Mayfield (Oklahoma) and Lamar Jackson (Louisville) to each compete in at least the throwing session. Rosen and Mayfield figure to be the most accurate, Allen's size and arm strength will likely earn rave reviews, and Darnold and Jackson should fare best on throws while on the move.

9. Freak athletes of every size and shape

The best part of the Combine is that all the athletes are competing in the same events, giving scouts a true "apples to apples" comparison unique to the rest of the pre-draft evaluation. Speedy sub-200 pounders Donte Jackson (DB, LSU), Quadree Henderson (WR, Pittsburgh) and Ronald Jones (RB, USC) will light up the track, with burly strongmen Da'Ron Payne (DL, Alabama) and Will Hernandez (OG, Texas-El Paso) proving just as impressive on the bench press. In terms of overall athleticism, it will be easy to see why clubs are so enamored with the upside of defensive tackles Vita Vea (Washington) and Taven Bryan (Florida).


8. LSU's Jackson is 2018's Fastest Man

John Ross set the track ablaze a year ago by setting a Combine record for the 40-yard dash in just 4.22 seconds. Jackson may not time quite that fast -- the quickest reportedly clocked at former Olympian Michael Johnson's facility was 4.24 seconds -- but should be fast enough to lead the pack this year.

7. Introducing Leighton Vander Esch -- this year's Combine star

With all due respect to Jackson and Vea (among others), it will be Vander Esch who proves to be the best pound-for-pound athlete in Indianapolis this year. If you're asking, "Who?" don't feel bad, as Vander Esch fell through the recruiting cracks after playing eight-man football for a tiny school in rural Idaho and didn't break out as a dominant performer for Boise State until 2017, when he exploded to be the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. Don't be surprised when Vander Esch produces some of the top marks in 40-yard dash, shuttle drills and laps (among similarly sized prospects), regardless of position.

6. As it turns out, size DOES matter


Some of the "biggest" news of the Combine each year is how many underclassmen shrink when their actual measurements are compared to the heights and weights used by their respective college programs. Among the players scouts are most eager to get accurate height, weight, hand and arm sizes include potential first-round picks like LSU running back Derrius Guice (officially listed by the school at 5-11, 218), Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams (6-6, 315), Georgia's Butkus-Award winning linebacker Roquan Smith (6-1, 225) and a pair of former Buckeyes -- cornerback Denzel Ward (5-10, 191) and Jerome Baker (6-1, 225).

5. "Key" pass rushers get stuck

LSU's Arden Key and Washington State's Hercules Mata'afa are two of the more explosive pass rushers in this year's class, but the first-step quickness that helped each terrorize opponents might not translate into impressive workouts. Key needs to perform well after questions about his conditioning and passion for the game came into question during an injury-shortened season; if the poor workouts leading up to Indianapolis continue (per sources), do not be surprised if he opts to wait until LSU's Pro Day. Mata'afa will impress in the bench press and measure in at around 245 to 250 pounds, but questions about his fit at the next level will only escalate if he runs more like a defensive tackle than a linebacker.


4. Keeping up the All-Star momentum

An impressive week at the Senior Bowl, East-West Shrine Game or NFLPA Collegiate Bowl can spark a meteoric rise up draft boards (remember Haason Reddick and Fabian Moreau last year?) if the athletes are able to maintain momentum in Indianapolis. This year's all-star game standouts who are turning heads during Combine training include LSU wide receiver D.J. Chark (Senior Bowl), Penn State tight end Mike Gesicki (Senior Bowl) and a pair of defensive linemen -- North Carolina State's Kentavius Street (East-West) and Tulane's Ade Aruna (NFLPA).

3. All-Star studs, turned Combine duds?

There will be plenty of players who fail to build upon their flashy all-star game performances and settle back down on draft boards. Take North Carolina State's do-everything weapon Jaylen Samuels, for example. The 6-0, 223-pound dual threat was arguably the best running back at the Senior Bowl, but scouts are expecting 40-yard dash times in the mid-4.6s, which might put a Day Three cap on his draft stock. Slow times for a pair of Big 12 pass-catchers -- Oklahoma State's Marcell Ateman and Iowa State's Allen Lazard -- could have the same effect on their draft stocks.


2. Some draft-worthy players left off Combine list

Every year there are talented prospects who do not get the required 16 votes (each of the NFL's 32 teams get one) to earn a Combine invitation or are stuck out in the cold because above-average depth at their position capped the number of players invited to Indianapolis. Despite flashing in all-star games or earning plenty of praise during distinguished college careers, the following players were not invited to the Combine and will have to take advantage of their Pro Day workouts: Colorado RB Phillip Lindsay, Vanderbilt RB Ralph Webb, Southern Mississippi RB Ito Smith, Alabama OL Bradley Bozeman, Washington State OL Cody O'Connell, Texas DT Poona Ford, San Jose State LB Frank Ginda and Oregon CB Arrion Springs.

1. Sleepers ready to make a big splash

Given the way that NFL draft coverage has exploded over the past 10 years, it is more difficult to be a true sleeper, but there are a number of prospects invited to the Combine who have not yet received the media attention their talent deserves. The following players were some of the biggest surprises when the invitation list was initially sent out, but the tape and talk suggest each could cement draft selections next week. One player is listed per position:


--QB Chase Litton, Marshall

--RB Lavon Coleman, Washington

--TE Jordan Akins, Central Florida

--WR Tavares Martin Jr., Washington State

--OT Geron Christian, Louisville

--Interior OL Salesi Uhatafe, Utah

--DT Khalil McKenzie, Tennessee

--LB Oren Burks, Vanderbilt

--CB Dane Cruikshank, Arizona

--S Troy Apke, Penn State

Latest Headlines