The NFL scouting combine is essentially boiled down to four key phases: medical evaluation, interview, athletic testing and positional workouts.
This year, in previewing the 2020 combine, we decided to highlight one prospect at each position who needs to nail (at least) one phase of the combine.
We also wanted to highlight one smaller-program prospect at each position who could make bigger names for themselves with strong performances in Indianapolis.
The NFL scouting combine workouts begin on Thursday, Feb. 27 and run through Sunday, March 1.
Wide receiver overview
We now get a close-to-full view of the depth of this position. There will be 55 wide receivers attending the combine. At last year’s combine, there were 48 — and it was no slouch of a group itself. But the 2020 WR crop has a chance to rival the draft class of 2014, which boasted Mike Evans, Odell Beckham Jr., Davante Adams, Allen Robinson, Jarvis Landry, Brandin Cooks, Sammy Watkins and others.
If there’s a slight knock on this year’s class, it’s perhaps that there’s no one clear-cut alpha dog with elite physical traits. Even so, Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy are a very strong top two, either of whom could crack the top-10 picks. And the rare depth should last well into Day 3 of the draft, with a dozen or more potential WR1s or WR2 in this class.
Point blank: If your team needs help at the position, there’s really zero excuse for it not to find that this year. The combine will help separate some of these closely ranked players. The athletic testing is only one portion of the evaluation process, but the 40-yard dashes and 3-cone drills tend to matter as much for this position as any, right along with cornerback.
Who needs to nail the medical evaluation
Laviska Shenault Jr., Colorado
This one is huge. Shenault is one of this year’s mystery men — a prospect whom scouts have had difficulty finding a comparison for but also one who carries some measure of risk.
He’s expected to put on a show at the combine, as the 6-2, 220-pounder could be a faster physical clone of A.J. Brown, who last year turned in a strong combine workout and was the only rookie to surpass 1,000 yards receiving last season.
But the injuries are a concern. Shenault missed three games with a foot injury in 2018 and had surgeries on that toe and his shoulder (labrum) prior to the 2019 season. Then last season, he suffered a core muscle injury at Arizona State that caused him to miss only one full game, but that injury — plus a nagging groin . ailment — limited him all season.
The groin is the most pressing current injury. It reportedly won’t require surgery, but it might prevent him from working out or working out fully. For Shenault, a positive medical evaluation and a strong workout could lock up a first-round landing spot. A worrisome report could cause him to fall in this deep group.
Who needs to nail the interviews
Three wide receivers
Evaluators we reached out to listed several players at this position who come in with a lot riding on the interview phase.
Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings was a fascinating breakout player last year after his college football career looked to be on the ropes. He was dismissed from the Vols in 2017 after ripping the coaching staff for his lack of playing time and really only was given a second chance at the school because of a new athletic director and coaching staff.
Jennings made the most of that chance in a 969-yard, 8-TD season in 2019 but also was suspended for the first half of the bowl game after stomping on the helmet of a Vanderbilt player in the final minutes of that game. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt has gone to bat for Jennings, which will help his cause, but some evaluators still want to know if their Brandon Marshall comp hits a little too close to the mark — for both good (football skill) and bad (temper flare-ups) reasons.
Wisconsin’s Quintez Cephus was reinstated at the school after a highly publicized rape case ended in an acquittal following a short deliberation. The staff has defended Cephus vehemently, and that will go a long way. But NFL teams still want to dot their I’s and cross their T’s with the talented receiver in interviews. The expectation is that Cephus could be a third- or fourth-round pick with a strong combine, and that factors in the interview portion.
Jeff Thomas of Miami (Fla.) is a lightning-fast receiver with fascinating skills, but his character concerns run deep. He might run a blazing 40 at the combine, but it might not matter if Thomas doesn’t answer some questions.
After clashing with former Hurricanes coaches (on Mark Richt’s staff) and being dismissed from the school, Thomas was allowed back — after initially saying he’d transfer to Illinois. Thomas is said to be difficult to work with, and he’ll have to convince NFL people that’s not the case, especially with limited production in college and possessing a frame (5-10, 180 pounds) that’s small by NFL standards.
Who needs to nail the athletic testing
Michael Pittman Jr, USC
There are a few receivers who need some good workouts to solidify their statuses in such a deep class. But we’ll nominate Pittman, who has a chance to lock down a second-round draft slot with strong testing. Some NFL scouts question his straight-line speed and lateral quickness, so turning in solid-to-good times in the 40-yard dash (and 10-yard split) and the 3-cone drill would go a long way toward answering those concerns.
Pittman has an NFL pedigree (his father, Michael, played running back in the NFL for 11 years), great size (6-4, 219), strong production (with three different quarterbacks last season) and very good hands. But scouts still want to know just how gifted an athlete he is.
Who needs to nail the positional workouts
KJ Hamler, Penn State
Hamler could be in the running for one of the fastest 40 times by a receiver in Indy. In 2019, he was one of the country’s best deep threats, helping take the top off of defenses for the Nittany Lions. His lack of size will work against him at around 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds, but the biggest question might be his inconsistent hands.
Consistently last season, Hamler appeared to suffer from concentration drops and unnatural hands. Pro Football Focus charted him with a 17.6-percent drop rate in 2019 — one of the highest numbers in the country. That rate was way above his 8.7-percent mark in 2018, which is still below-average.
Hamler’s hand size could be an interesting measurement that answers some of those questions. But turning in strong receiving drills with few or no drops — or body catches, which are frequent on his tape — could be huge for Hamler’s evaluation.
Is he Marquise Brown 2.0? Or the next John Ross or Dede Westbrook?
Omar Bayless, Arkansas State
Two wide receivers surpassed the 1,600-yard receiving mark last season: LSU’s JaMarr Chase, who could be a 2021 first-round pick, and Bayless. Certainly, his level of competition will be questioned a bit, but Bayless showed some competitiveness in games against Alabama and Georgia the past two seasons.
The combine could be big for the 6-foot-3, 207-pound, long-armed receiver. Bayless can be seen making contested catches all over the field last season, but the question is whether he can separate — or whether he’s simply a Corey Davis type of player.
Bayless’ consistency is a concern, but he has shown the ability to make tough catches look ordinary. Running a 40-yard dash in the 4.5-second range would help his cause immensely.
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