The NFL Scouting Combine, the league’s annual exhibition for putting players through a battery of drills, interviews, and medical tests which may or may not have anything to do with how well they can play football, was just put to bed this week, and as always, there’s news to report that could affect the draft.
Some pundits joke about the Combine as the “Underwear Olympics,” to highlight the fact that working out isn’t the same as playing football (and that the game is played in pads, not underwear). While this is true to a degree, and NFL history is littered with players who were drafted highly after a great workout but didn’t pan out, the Combine still has value to teams. The medical tests can reveal unknown injuries or conditions that could affect a player’s long-term potential. The testing matters because athleticism does matter. Testing well won’t change a bad player into a good one, but it can tell you whether or not you’ve got an NFL athlete on your hands. (I’m less optimistic about the interviews, since I think teams have a narrow idea of what constitutes an acceptable personality. I’m reminded of the rumor that in 2005, the 49ers took Alex Smith over Aaron Rodgers because then-head coach Mike Nolan thought Rodgers was too cocky. Now Rodgers is the best quarterback in the league, and Smith is the QB equivalent of baseball’s Mendoza Line.)
Of course, you’re probably wondering how the Combine will affect the Texans. I’ve decided to look at three positions I think the Texans will target, and how the Combine results might affect what they can do.
In my defensive backs article, I mentioned Obi Melifonwu of Connecticut as a potential second-round target for the team. After he tested as a top athlete at the Combine, though, the team’s almost certainly going to have to take him in the first round if they want him. He’s a great example of how a workout can properly cause a player to rise: Melifonwu’s film is very good, but the concerns were that playing for a school outside a Power 5 conference, he may have looked good in part due to inferior competition. His testing, however, revealed that he’s in the very top echelon of NFL athletes at his position.
Two great resources I use for this are MockDraftable, which collects Combine measurement and testing data and allows you to compare players, and Zach Whitman’s SPARQ scores at Three Sigma Athlete, a measure of overall athleticism based on the same metrics. Looking at Melifonwu’s “spiderweb” on MockDraftable reveals that he’d not only be one of the biggest safeties in the league, but one of the fastest and most explosive. He didn’t do all the drills, so SPARQ doesn’t have an official rating on him, but if you look at the page and compare him to Utah’s Marcus Williams, in the 93rd percentile of athletes at safety, you can see that in the drills they both ran, Melifonwu showed up as stronger, faster, and more athletic overall.
So Obi Melifonwu is a guy whose workout confirmed what the tape said. For the opposite direction, we look at another player I mentioned, St. Francis’ Lorenzo Jerome. He came with even more pronounced concerns about competition level, since he played in the FCS, college football’s second division. And unfortunately for him, his athletic testing suggests his film looks good because his competition was weak. I still trust the film in that he can still play, but it looks like his ceiling will always be limited. I’d move him from a day-2 pick to a fourth- or fifth-rounder.
Short- and long-term, the Texans need tackle help. Right tackle Derek Newton’s devastating knee injuries (he tore both patella tendons in an October game at Denver) are career-threatening. Chris Clark replaced him and had one of the worst seasons of any right tackle in the league. At the left side, Duane Brown still performed admirably, but his age showed a little and might be catching up to him soon.
The biggest riser from the Combine at tackle was Utah’s Garett Bolles. Concerns about his off-field history and his age (he’ll be 25 in May, which means he was regularly blocking players 3-5 years younger than him) were offset by his testing. (He may be old for a prospect, but he’s an athlete; non-athletes don’t turn into athletes.) Bolles was the top-rated offensive lineman by SPARQ, and his performance in the quickness and agility drills suggests he has the footwork and the short-area speed needed to block NFL pass rushers. Before I thought he would be a reach at the Texans’ first pick (#25 overall); now I’m not sure he even makes it that far.
However, second on the SPARQ list is Forrest Lamp, who I still think is a little underrated because he played for smaller Western Kentucky. Teams talk about moving him to guard, but I think he can play right tackle in the NFL, and his athletic testing seems to confirm it. He wouldn’t be a sexy pick in the first round, but he would be an immediate starter at a position of need.
One tackle who might end up being drafted later than expected is Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk. Seen as a potential left tackle and one of the top-three options in this class at the position (along with Bolles and Alabama’s Cam Robinson), Ramczyk was recovering from hip surgery and did not participate in the Combine drills. Between this and previous shoulder surgeries, his medical history may cause teams to pass on him, especially if he doesn’t work out at all before the draft. If Ramczyk falls to the second round, he could be an option for Houston as a future left tackle.
And of course the great mystery at the game’s most important position remains. It’s not a given the Texans will draft a quarterback (and by the time you read this they might have already signed Tony Romo or Jay Cutler), but I can name five quarterbacks in this draft I’d rather take a chance on than anyone on the current roster.
Unfortunately, the rest of the league is getting wind that those guys are good, too. Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, my two top quarterbacks in this class, were highly praised for their Combine efforts. For my money, the Combine didn’t teach us anything new about Watson; as a three-year starter who put up great numbers while leading Clemson to two national championship games (winning one) and coming through when it counted the most, I thought he was easily a top-5 pick in this draft. But teams have a way of nitpicking quarterbacks who don’t fit a certain mold (one might say stereotype). Watson likely locked himself into the top 5, and I think Mahomes — whose talent on film is obvious, and who also reportedly blew away his interviews — will get selected in the first half of the round, whereas before the Combine he stood a good chance of falling to the second.
DeShone Kizer’s loss could be the Texans’ gain. The highly talented but inexperienced Notre Dame product reportedly looked poor in his drills and didn’t interview well. Again, though, I don’t regard interviews highly, and I’m less concerned about drills for quarterbacks, because the most important skills-- specifically, being able to make accurate reads and throws and good decisions while under pressure-- don’t show up in a workout. But if Kizer’s workout performance causes other teams to shy away from him, the Texans could pick up their quarterback of the future at No. 25.
The other two quarterbacks, for the record, are North Carolina’s Mitch Trubisky and Miami’s Brad Kaaya. Trubisky won’t be available at the Texans’ pick; I think he’s overrated (I worry about players who can’t win a starting job until they’re seniors), but he shows enough in his limited experience that I’d be fine with the team taking a shot on him if he does make it to 25. Kaaya hasn’t been hyped as much as the other two quarterbacks, but he’s a three-year starter with a pretty good, if not great, record of performance. “Pretty good, not great” is why he won’t go in the first round, but if the Texans haven’t addressed their quarterback situation by the time their second-round pick comes around, Kaaya is a solid option who stands a good chance of winning the starting job as a rookie.
Of course, all this could become moot, as free agents are officially available to sign with other teams as of 3 p.m. Thursday. If the Texans fill all their short-term needs in free agency, we might be looking at an entirely different set of players and positions for their draft needs. Time will tell soon enough.