Fantasy factors emerge from combine
The NFL scouting combine gets mocked a lot. Every February, you read or hear snide comments about how anyone who gets jazzed up to watch big dudes run around in their skivvies needs to get a life. You also get the obligatory "Why would you change your mind about drafting a player based on his 40 time? Just watch the game tape!" And from a fantasy football perspective, there's a creeping sense that it's much ado about nothing, since so few of these rookies-to-be will make a dent in 10-team leagues.
But listen: Nobody's saying the combine is a substitute for real football. Nobody's saying to ignore game tape. Nobody's guaranteeing these new guys should be first-round picks in your fantasy draft. Do some NFL teams value the sheer physical abilities of these kids too much? Sure, and they're usually bad teams. Most franchises have things in perspective. The combine is a place where you can compare apples to apples by getting a sense of the relative physical abilities of each kid in identical environments, and thus inform the scouting you do of actual college games.
For my part, I know that watching Mike Wallace out of the University of Mississippi run a 4.33 40-yard dash last season didn't instantly make me believe he was going to be a factor in the 2009 NFL season. But the truth was that I'd really never given the kid a second thought, because I'm not an NFL scout. Seeing how fast he was, seeing Johnny Knox run a 4.34, it put those guys on my radar. When their respective NFL franchises (the Pittsburgh Steelers and Chicago Bears) began to use them in preseason games and then early in the regular season, I had some sense of what kind of players they are. And that was very useful.
I wasn't in Indianapolis this past week, and I can't proclaim that I was riveted by all gazillion hours of the NFL Network's TV coverage of the combine. But I do think putting what we saw into some context can help us heading into the April draft, and the 2010 NFL season.
'09 rookie review: Mark Sanchez, Matthew Stafford and Josh Freeman were the No. 25, 26 and 27 quarterbacks in fantasy last year, leading (I'll wager) absolutely no one to a fantasy championship. That's a comedown from 2008, when Matt Ryan was the No. 13 fantasy quarterback, and Joe Flacco was No. 16. To be fair, of course, Stafford missed six-plus games with injury, and Freeman didn't play until his Week 7 cameo, and they basically racked up the same fantasy points as The Sanchize did in 15 games.
• Did you hear there's this guy named Tim Tebow who's coming out this year? More breath has been expended on Tebow than anyone I can remember, with some people making excuses for The Proselytizer (my new nickname for Tebow), and others absolutely convinced he's the next Eric Crouch. Tebow tied a record for the highest vertical jump by a quarterback. The reason you shouldn't get excited? The person he tied was Josh McCown. No matter what you think of Tebow's NFL future, he won't be a fantasy factor for years.
• Dan LeFevour, he of the 149 combined career touchdowns at Central Michigan, reportedly bummed out a ton of NFL scouts by electing not to throw. LeFevour claimed he had mechanics to tweak, an excuse everyone seemed to buy from Tebow, who also didn't throw. But perhaps because LeFevour has zero Heismans in his trophy case, or isn't quite the interview Tebow is, he bore the brunt of scouts' ire.
• There's apparently a lot of buzz -- propagated at least in part by ESPN's own Adam Schefter -- that the Rams are going to take Sam Bradford No. 1 overall. I can't even swear Bradford will be a better pro prospect than Jimmy Clausen. I know it's been a long time since we've seen Bradford healthy, but I can't help feeling there aren't any star signal-callers in this draft.
'09 Rookie review: Nobody's surprised that Knowshon Moreno was the top fantasy point-getter among rookie rushers in '09, or at least they shouldn't be. But I personally know a few folks who are surprised that Beanie Wells translated his impressive '09 combine into a very good rookie season, that LeSean McCoy was respectable in relief of Brian Westbrook, that Shonn Greene's playoff performance made Thomas Jones expendable, and that Arian Foster (who went undrafted in '09 but made my deep-sleeper preseason list) injected himself into Houston's backfield late. On this coin's other side, Donald Brown showed flashes but couldn't stay healthy, Bernard Scott stayed mostly trapped behind Cedric Benson, Glen Coffee was awful in relief of Frank Gore, and Rashad Jennings barely scratched the surface for Jacksonville.
• There's a reason C.J. Spiller is the most coveted rusher in this year's draft: 21 of his 52 career college touchdowns were 50 yards or longer. That's sick. Some scouts reportedly timed Spiller at a sub-4.30 40, but his official number was 4.37, which is still plenty fast. Let the Chris Johnson comparisons begin. Spiller isn't big (5-foot-11, 196 pounds), and he battled a toe problem last season. But he's a lock first-rounder, and he's likely to be the most valuable fantasy rusher on whichever team he lands (Seahawks?), though he's not considered a 20-carry-per-game guy. (Is anyone these days?) Recent comparable: It's not fair to say he's quite at Johnson's level of explosiveness, but Jamaal Charles measured out at almost exactly these same numbers in the '08 combine (5-11, 200 pounds, 4.38 40).
• Jahvid Best is basically the same size as Spiller (5-10, 199 pounds) and ran a 4.35, fastest among running backs. He's had durability problems as a collegiate, including a concussion and subsequent neck issues that kept him out of his final four games. It's possible Best carries with him a slight stigma as a Cal running back: Neither Marshawn Lynch (12th overall in 2007) nor J.J. Arrington (second round in 2006) has lived up to advanced billing (to be fair, not a lot was expected of Justin Forsett, a seventh-rounder in '08, nor Joe Echemandu, a seventh-rounder in '04). If Best stays healthy, he's every bit the home-run threat Spiller is. Recent comparable: Reggie Bush never ran at the combine (he submitted a 4.33 at his pro day), has battled injury troubles, and will likely never live up to the hype of being the No. 2 overall pick in '06, but you can't argue that he's not explosive.
• Spiller and Best are the game-breakers in this draft, but it will be very interesting to see where Ryan Mathews lands. Mathews, who led college football with 150.7 rushing yards per game, is bigger than those first two guys (6 feet, 218 pounds), yet still ran a 4.45. There are a lot of intriguing big backs in this draft, guys who are bigger than Mathews. But only one (Ben Tate; more on him in a moment) timed out faster. Recent comparable: Mathews screams "Matt Forte" from the rooftops. Of course, there's a question of whether he's '08 Forte or '09 Forte.
• Montario Hardesty has the whiff of a one-year wonder about him, and had a serious knee injury at Tennessee, but there's no denying how impressive he was as a fifth-year senior: 1,345 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns, seemingly out of nowhere. Hardesty had the best vertical leap and broad jump of any running back at the combine, and ran a 4.49 at 225 pounds. He'll begin his rookie year somewhere as a complementary back, hopefully in a one-cut, downhill-type system. Luck and circumstance will dictate whether he becomes a fantasy factor. Recent comparable: I was saying the same thing about Andre Brown last spring, and he tore an ACL for the Giants. So let's be more optimistic and say Rashard Mendenhall.
• Ben Tate turned in the most surprising 40 time among running backs: 4.43 at 220 pounds. Tate also tied for the most reps, at 26, at his position. If you watched Tate at Auburn, you didn't always come away with the sense that he was a dominant player (despite 1,362 rushing yards this year); maybe that's just a lingering sense that before his senior year, he was pretty much a disappointment. But hey, he just guaranteed he'll be drafted in the third or fourth round in April. Recent comparable: DeShawn Wynn was another underwhelming SEC guy who surprised with a fast 40 time despite his size. Hopefully things work out better for Tate.
• Dexter McCluster was a cause celebre at the Senior Bowl, but there's no way to spin his 4.58 at the combine. At just 172 pounds, there's no question he was supposed to run faster than that. He has great hands and could be a really diverse weapon, but I've officially grown a little skeptical. Toby Gerhart ran an unofficial 4.53, fast enough to give him a crack at being an NFL halfback, but not fast enough to boost his draft stock to the point that he'll get near the top of a pro depth chart soon. Anthony Dixon, LeGarrette Blount and Jonathan Dwyer are all very big backs who could luck into fantasy-relevant circumstances as the '10 season claims backfield injuries. But Dwyer has to be disappointed to be in this company, speed-wise. Joe McKnight and James Starks should also be drafted.
'09 rookie review: Let's face it: Compared to running backs, it's significantly less likely that any rookie wideout is going to be a fantasy star this year. That said, four rookies made the top 30 in receiver scoring last year: Percy Harvin (No. 21), Hakeem Nicks (No. 27), Mike Wallace (No. 28) and Austin Collie (No. 30). That was better than '08, when only Eddie Royal cracked the top 30. Michael Crabtree did good things once he finally signed, and Jeremy Maclin, Kenny Britt and Brandon Gibson looked like players on the rise late. On the flip side, Darrius Heyward-Bey was a combine workout warrior who, for one season, flamed out completely, Brian Robiskie is a cautionary tale to yours truly about falling in love with an unheralded guy's strong combine, and Deon Butler showed that running fast doesn't necessarily mean you'll get on the field.
• Since Dez Bryant didn't work out, the battle for best receiving prospect at the combine was up for grabs, and there's no consensus winner. My money is still on Arrelious Benn, but it's hard to argue that he really set himself apart with a 4.48 unofficial time. Benn didn't play in a good passing offense at Illinois, but he was terrific going up and getting the ball, he's certainly still fast for his size, and he's scary to tackle. Recent comparable: How about Dwayne Bowe?
• Golden Tate is getting a lot of pub for having a good combine, though everyone was hyperventilating over his 40 time, which was unofficially in the low 4.3s but wound up at a more reasonable 4.42. Having watched just about every game this kid played at Notre Dame: He's going to be an excellent pro. You heard a lot of people who said that at 5-10, the best Tate could be was a slot receiver. You're not going to hear that much anymore. Recent comparable: At the risk of contributing to the hyperventilating, it's the Panthers' Steve Smith. Smith's combine workout: 4.41 at 5-9, 184 pounds. Tate's: 4.42 at 5-10, 199 pounds, and he has that same kind of ferocity to the ball.
• The only offensive prospect at this year's combine to crack the 4.30 barrier was Jacoby Ford, a track star from Clemson who showed flashes of extreme speed a few times during his senior year, but who (as they say) doesn't always play as fast as his 4.28 this weekend might indicate. Put it this way: Heyward-Bey running 4.30 at 210 pounds is more impressive than Ford running 4.28 at 186 pounds. And we know how DHB has worked out so far. Recent comparable: His agent will say DeSean Jackson, but Ford never showed playmaking skills like that. His detractors will say Yamon Figurs.
• Mardy Gilyard is a former defensive back turned wide receiver, and the driving force behind Cincinnati's undefeated regular season. He isn't purely a "measurables" guy; at 6 feet, 187 pounds, he's not particularly big, and he ran an estimated 4.56 on Sunday. Frankly, he's a little bit scary. He's one of those college "playmakers" everyone says is going to be a ferocious open-field threat, but once those guys get to the NFL, if they don't have elite speed they tend to disappear. But there's no question he was a game-breaker in college. Recent comparable: You sometimes hear Chad Ochocinco, who at his combine was 6-1, 193 pounds and ran a 4.45 40. I'm not buying it. Maybe he's Mario Manningham.
• Another guy that raises doubts as a rookie is Brandon LaFell. He unofficially ran in the 4.60s at 210 pounds, significantly slower than his boosters hoped he would. Maybe he'll make up for it at his pro day, and maybe he'll land somewhere perfect to take advantage of his size (6-3) and exceptional hands, and make him a red zone threat right away. But I've heard that story before. Recent comparable: He has the size to be Mohamed Massaquoi, and maybe he could be an Austin Collie-type if someone decides to use him as a nontraditional slot type of guy. He could also be James Hardy at first.
• A roundup of receiver prospects should include USC's Damian Williams, a terrific route runner without top-end speed; however, those pitching him as another (Giants) Steve Smith definitely wanted to see Williams run a better time (unofficially he was mid-4.50s, compared to Smith's 4.37). Taylor Price fast became a coach's favorite during Senior Bowl practices, and he ran 4.41 at the combine, second-fastest among all receivers. He has stellar hands and is over 200 pounds, so while he doesn't have that gangly range you love from a top wideout (he's 6 feet), he has the capacity to be a scary athlete. Remember his name. Dez Briscoe has some nice size and good hands and benefited from Kansas' tendency to throw it all over the field, but he isn't fast and hasn't always caught it well in traffic. Kyle Williams of Arizona State could be a nice slot guy after running 4.43.
• Finally, let's look at a few more obscure players who could someday have big-receiver No. 1 upside. (Think Vincent Jackson and Brandon Marshall.) It's tough to argue that any of the following players will be favored to contribute right away in fantasy leagues, but their names still may be worth knowing; after all, if you'd had your eye on unheralded big guys like Mike Sims-Walker (né Mike Walker), Miles Austin and Sidney Rice last summer, you'd have been ready to pounce when they broke out. (And please continue to remember the name Marko Mitchell.) First up among the big guys with future No. 1 potential is Marcus Easley. He's known as having occasionally spotty hands, but running 4.46 at 6-3 and 210 pounds is impressive. Carlton Mitchell will be well worth a redshirt year in the NFL; he's coming out as a junior having caught only 40 passes for 706 yards at South Florida, but he's 6-3, 215 pounds and ran a 4.49 40. Whether or not he can follow guys like Marshall and Jackson into fantasy greatness in a few seasons will depend on his landing spot and his work ethic. Stephen Williams of Toledo falls into that same camp: he's 6-4 and 210 pounds and unofficially ran in the low 4.50s. Of the six guys named "Williams" who worked out at receiver this weekend, Stephen has the most upside.
'09 rookie review: Let's not get carried away. Rookie tight ends are almost never worth drafting in fantasy leagues. Brandon Pettigrew was a first-rounder last April but is as much blocker as he is receiver, plus he tore his ACL in November and looks unlikely to be ready for Week 1. Jared Cook and Shawn Nelson could have nice futures as pass-catchers, but they did next to nothing in '09. And don't get me started on Richard Quinn.
• Jermaine Gresham, Rob Gronkowski and Garrett Graham all lifted but didn't run, ceding the field to combine star Dorin Dickerson. Not only did Dickerson out-lift all three of those bigger and more-heralded players, but he went out and ran a 4.40 40, faster than all but one of the wide receivers this weekend. Dickerson played wideout at the Senior Bowl and didn't distinguish himself, so the question will be whether he can make it as a tight end, or if he has to play some kind of hybrid H-back role. We probably won't find out for sure in 2010.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner. You can ask him questions at www.facebook.com/writerboy.
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• NFL scouting combine fantasy review