Flag football. Useless and pointless. The underwear Olympics. A stopgap between the Super Bowl and NFL draft.
The NFL Scouting Combine has been called many things over the years--some of them listed above--but rarely do you hear a casual football fan use descriptive terms like "helpful" or "additional research. That's too bad, because the NFL Scouting Combine is an ideal way for scouts and analysts to check their math, so to speak, and confirm the traits and skills they've seen on a player's film. If you suspect a cornerback prospect has loose, flexible hips and excels at turning and running with receivers, you use the Combine's backpedal drill to confirm said suspicion. If he doesn't show you what you're looking for during the drill, you go back, check the tape and see if there's something you missed about the player during your evaluation.
The same goes for the Combine's most popular drill: the 40-yard dash. Let's use a real first-round prospect--Alabama inside linebacker Reggie Ragland--as an example. Ragland's tape show a second-level defender who is a sound tackler, plays with heavy hands, can occasionally blitz and often holds his own in space. His tape also shows that he lacks the athleticism to qualify as a true sideline-to-sideline defender at the second level. That's hardly a deal-breaker, as the exact same thing was said about Zach Thomas, and he did just fine as an impact player at the pro level. Nevertheless, if you're interested in drafting Reggie Ragland--and I am, if the Dolphins can trade down a few picks for him--you want to see how he performs in the agility drills at the Combine, including shuttle drills and the aforementioned 40-yard dash.
Nothing about Ragland's tape suggests he boasts considerable long speed, so we're probably looking at a dash time of somewhere in the 4.8 range. If he can crack the 4.7s, that's a huge win for him in terms of raising his draft stock. If he runs a 4.9 a slower, you're looking at a player who might struggle with pursuit at the NFL level. Again, anything in the 4.8 range would reflect the speed he shows on tape. If he runs faster, consider me intrigued.
Also note that Ragland was 260 pounds at the Senior Bowl, which is quite a load for the linebacker position. As a middle linebacker, you typically want to play in the 245-250-pound range, although there are plenty of interior linebackers who have played lighter and heavier than that range. It will be interesting to see where he measures in at the Combine--will he stick with the bulky frame or will he slim down a bit in order to aid how he performs in mobility drills?
All right, enough with the opening chatter. Here's a starter guide in terms of what to look for and whom to watch during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine.
Yes, quarterbacks, but not for the reason you think. I believe Ryan Tannehill is a decent coaching staff away from being a quality, long-term quarterback in the NFL. So if you're a Dolphins fan, you should root for the big-name quarterbacks (Jared Goff, Carson Wentz, Paxton Lynch) to put on an absolute show in Indy this weekend. Why? Because if they rise up draft boards and get front offices talking, their increased stock could uproot an excellent player or two and push them toward the Dolphins with the eighth overall pick. Seems selfish, but whatever.
2. First-round pass-rushers
This is a no-brainer, as Olivier Vernon' free agency status could result in the Dolphins losing their second-best defensive end. Not good. Fortunately for Miami, this year's draft is ripe with pass-rushing talent--Oregon's DeForest Buckner, Ohio State's Joey Bosa, Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence, Clemson's Shaq Lawson, etc.--so if the Dolphins play their cards right, they could get cheaper and perhaps better at Vernon's spot. That would be a win for everyone in the Dolphins organization.
One more pass-rusher to keep an eye on: Georgia's Leonard Floyd, a talented player whose stock has lost some ground due to Floyd's "tweener" status. However, the recent confirmation that Dolphins defensive coordinator Vance Joseph will use Wide 9 looks with his defensive ends in passing situations totally opens the door for players like Floyd and Lawson, who is also thought to be an edge-rusher at the next level.
Let's get one thing straight here: the Dolphins may take a pass-rusher in this draft; they may take a cornerback on draft night or day two. But the one position they absolutely must draft this spring is linebacker, and preferably more than one. Weak-side linebacker Jelani Jenkins is a talented player, but Miami's middle and strong-side positions were a collective dumpster fire in 2015. If you want to win the AFC East, you can't allow teams to throw and run all over your second level of defense. The Dolphins can reverse that trend with the addition of a linebacker like UCLA's Myles Jack, Ragland, Notre Dame's Jaylon Smith, Ohio State's Darron Lee, etc., so keep an eye on just about every linebacker in attendance at the Combine this weekend. No, really. I am serious. All of them.
Miami's secondary grew stale pretty quickly as a result of poor draft choices, injuries and age. Fear not, as the 2016 draft will boast a wealth of quality defensive backs, especially those who man the perimeter. Florida State cornerback/safety Jalen Ramsey is expected to be long, long gone by the time Miami makes their selection; Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III might be available. If so, the Dolphins can add a player who should quickly become a key piece in Vance Joseph's 4-3 scheme.
Other cornerbacks of note:
- Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
- Eli Apple, Ohio State
- William Jackson III, Houston
Big surprise, I know. The Dolphins could have some promising young pieces in guards Billy Turner and Jamil Douglas, but we saw how they performed when thrown into the fire last season, and it wasn't pleasant. Additional depth is needed, especially close the door on the Dallas Thomas experiment. Kansas State's Cody Whitehair is the top name in this year's guard class, but Stanford's Josh Garnett, Arkansas' Denver Kirkland and Baylor's Spencer Drango are worthy of strong consideration, as well.