The most important pre-draft event of the NFL offseason is here. This week marks the return of the NFL Combine in Indianapolis following its cancellation due to COVID last year.
While there are always debates about how much the Combine actually impacts the players teams will ultimately pick, the week of workouts, interviews and rumor buzz sets the stage for the draft and free agency.
Purple Insider will be on hand reporting from Indy, so let’s dive into what we’ll be looking for…
GM and HC will talk
The Minnesota Vikings’ new general manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah will take the podium in Indianapolis on Tuesday afternoon and new head coach Kevin O’Connell will be on center stage on Wednesday to discuss their offseason plans. Assuming each follows tradition, they will also have a side session with local reporters inside the Indiana Convention Center.
In past years, Mike Zimmer was illuminating about his view on the roster during Combine media sessions. In 2018, when the Vikings were facing a difficult decision at quarterback, Zimmer was blunt about his concerns about Teddy Bridgewater’s knee, Case Keenum’s potential regression and a big contract for a free agent quarterback (i.e. Kirk Cousins). In 2020, he revealed that he saw the depth chart on defense as being similarly weak to when he first took over the team.
Will we hear the same candor from either Adofo-Mensah and/or O’Connell?
The Vikings’ fresh-faced brass isn’t far removed from introductory press conferences so we may hear much of the same but the Combine gives an opportunity for the GM and HC to dive deeper into their thoughts on the roster.
Will they offer any insight into the quarterback situation, whether that’s in the form of comments on the strength of the QB draft class or Kirk Cousins’ contract situation? Where do they stand with free agents like Anthony Barr, Sheldon Richardson and Patrick Peterson? Where do they see the biggest needs on the roster? What might happen to create salary cap space? What types of players is O’Connell looking for in the draft at specific positions? How different will this team look between the NFL Combine and the end of the draft?
Concrete answers might be few and far between but the aim is to come away from the Adofo-Mensah/O’Connell conversations with a better idea of what’s coming over the next few months.
Rumors, rumors, rumors
When the entire NFL world converges on the same city, that means there will be plenty of hearsay to go around. With a dozen teams being discussed as part of the quarterback draft or trade market, we will be on the lookout for reports concerning which QBs might be on the move and which teams could be aiming to draft the top prospects in the first round.
Will we hear anything more concrete about Cousins’ future? Will the Green Bay Packers show their hand with the Aaron Rodgers situation? Will there be anything that points us toward where Jimmy Garoppolo will land or whether Russell Wilson could be moved? Which free agents might be re-signed by their teams and which ones could attract the most attention. There’s usually a Combine surprise report somewhere along the line.
Quarterback and free agency rumors aren’t the only ones that the Combine produces. We often hear about certain teams being interested in filling different positions through the draft and we generally get insight into the backgrounds of the top prospects and what could make them rise or fall in the draft. Of course, beware of smokescreens.
Who will emerge as the most likely No. 1 overall pick?
This year is unique because there are multiple candidates to be the top selection in the draft. NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah has Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal as the top selection. Pro Football Focus’s top rated player is Michigan pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson. Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux has been routinely mocked in the top three and there’s growing momentum for North Carolina State tackle Ikem Ekwonu. According to Vegas Insider, all four of them have between +120 and +700 Vegas odds to be picked by the Jacksonville Jaguars first overall, which tells us that the outside world really doesn’t know yet.
Will the NFL Combine make it more clear which player should be the first off the board on draft night? Or will someone else emerge as a contender for the No. 1 pick? Safety Kyle Hamilton is ranked third by PFF and Mississippi State tackle Charles Cross rates as PFF’s fifth best player. They are longer shots to be taken at the top but an other-worldly Combine performance could change minds.
The five quarterbacks who have been ranked as potential first-round picks are: Kenny Pickett (Pitt), Malik Willis (Liberty), Sam Howell (North Carolina), Matt Corral (Ole Miss) and Desmond Ridder (Cincinnati). Some have also thrown Nevada QB Carson Strong’s name in the mix. But if you look around the internet, you will find lots of differing opinions and orders in which they are expected to be drafted.
Here’s what each QB is looking to prove at the Combine:
Pickett — Needs to show that his hand size and arm strength won’t fall below the spectrum of successful NFL quarterbacks.
Willis — That he can harness his raw skills and deliver consistently accurate passes during the workout.
Howell — Has to flash some type of standout skill, whether it’s athletically or with his arm talent.
Corral — If he participates following a late-season injury, Corral has to give reason to believe that his athletic gifts can overcome his lack of size and high-end production.
Ridder — Does he have the arm strength to compete with the top picks?
Strong — Is there anything beyond his cannon arm?
Receivers and corners can separate themselves
There is a cluster of receivers and cornerbacks with similar first-round grades that will have an opportunity to rise up the ranks.
On the receiver side, PFF ranks USC’s Drake London as the 10th best prospect, followed by Ohio State’s Garrett Wilson at 13, Alabama’s Jameson Williams 17th and Ohio State’s Chris Olave 19th. Will any of them shoot to the top of the list with a 40 time the way Henry Ruggs did in 2020 or John Ross in in 2017?
As for corners, PFF lists LSU star Derek Stingley Jr. as the third best prospect in the entire draft. Behind him there are three more corners who could make their case to be selected as the second man at their position off the board. Washington’s Trent McDuffie (8th), Cincinnati’s Ahmad Gardner (11th) and Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr (18th). Baylor’s Jalen Pitre is just outside the top 25 as well. At 6-foot-3, Gardner’s shiftiness will be questioned until he puts on a show at the Combine.
These rankings are very much subject to change depending on which players flash exceptional athletic talent and interview well behind the scenes in Indianapolis this week.