General opinion has Kendall Wright (Baylor), Justin Blackmon (Oklahoma State), Michael Floyd (Notre Dame), and Alshon Jeffery (South Carolina) in some order as the 2012 draft's top four wide receivers. Disagreements are common, but in some ways I still think receivers are linked to a stopwatch, and it shows in terms of burst, quickness, and straight-line speed. "Play speed" is most important, of course, but from watching their games I see Blackmon and Floyd playing in the 4.55-4.65 range, Jeffery in the 4.7+ range, and Wright at 4.35-4.45. Wright will surely pique the interest of fans tuning into Combine forty-yard dashes. He's already caught the attention of NFL teams.
Without pads, Indianapolis can turn into a glorified track meet. But it's always entertaining to see whether the top long-speed performers are the ones who can actually play. Florida WR/RB Chris Rainey, who played receiver at the Senior Bowl, North Carolina State WR/KR T.J. Graham, Oregon RB LaMichael James, Miami KR Travis Benjamin, Miami RB Lamar Miller, Virginia Tech RB David Wilson, and LSU CB Ron Brooks are all in the running for the top spot in speed tests.
Another player certain to test well is North Carolina LB Zach Brown, who holds the Tar Heels' 60-meter indoor track record. Keep in mind Brown plays without physicality on the field. His hands resemble pillows on contact, instead of delivering a solid pop.
Though it fails to account for upper-body strength and skills, the 20-yard shuttle effectively showcases which offensive linemen have an ability to bend, plant, and burst quickly in their lower body as well as move in open space. This is important because nimble linemen can react and redirect against quick-twitch pass rushers. Since 2006, Eagles C Jason Kelce, Raiders C Samson Satele, Panthers C Ryan Kalil, Patriots OT Nate Solder, Jets C Nick Mangold, and Colts OT Anthony Castonzo make up six of the top seven clocked times in the 20-yard shuttle. USC OT Matt Kalil and Iowa OT Riley Reiff's athletic playing styles will likely translate well in this test.
Much is made of a pass rusher's initial upfield get-off, but an ability to plant and quickly change direction can be equally effective. The 3-cone drill puts different types of pass rushers on an equal playing field. Since 2006, physical rushers like Cardinals OLB Sam Acho, Texans OLB Connor Barwin, Texans DE J.J. Watt, and Vikings DE Brian Robison make up the majority of the top six 3-cone times with Lions DE Cliff Avril directly behind. In this class, Marshall DE Vinny Curry, Boise State DE Shea McClellin, Mississippi State DT Fletcher Cox, and Oklahoma DE/OLB Ronnell Lewis exhibit short-area quickness when working around offensive linemen.
Two seniors that will make the switch from defensive end to linebacker stick out because they have limited experience in that area. Pittsburgh DE Brandon Lindsey looked out of place at 4-3 outside 'backer during East-West Shrine practices, but displayed a nice upfield move and length off the edge. It was shocking that West Virginia DE Bruce Irvin was not invited to the Senior Bowl. After being miscast at defensive end in the Mountaineers' 3-3-5 scheme, Irvin's best role will be situational pass rusher early in his pro career. Irvin lacks counter moves, but may flash in movement drills. He plays like a running back when rushing the quarterback, consistently avoiding contact.
Air It Out
Stanford's Andrew Luck, Baylor's Robert Griffin III, and Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill will not throw in Indianapolis, opening the door for Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State), Kirk Cousins (Michigan State), Nick Foles (Arizona), and Brock Osweiler (Arizona State) to make an impression. I expect Weeden and Cousins to look the best, Foles to flash arm talent but look uncoordinated in his drops, and Osweiler to show decent footwork but underwhelm with arm talent. Perhaps Osweiler will surprise, but he lacks both the necessary accuracy to lead receivers and velocity due to an erratic release. Misses against air are expected. Cam Newton was heavily criticized for overthrowing sideline outs in Indy last year, of course, so take reviews of these performances with a grain of salt.
I am a big fan of the Gauntlet drill, where pass catchers are forced to secure multiple throws while running in a straight line across the width of the field. Most notably, I look for receivers that struggled to consistently catch the football during their college careers due to locating, laziness, or lack of hand-eye coordination. Three that stand out are Arizona's Juron Criner, North Carolina's Dwight Jones, and Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller, all big bodies that lose focus on easy catches or high targets. It may be the biggest knock on all three.
I'll also be watching to see whether Appalachian State's Brian Quick can rebound from his shaky Senior Bowl performance, where he dropped a couple balls each day. Quick can really locate the football, especially on high targets, so his unreliable hands surprised me. Check out Quick's game versus Virginia Tech to see his immense potential. Another receiver to watch is Stephen Hill, who may catch more passes at the Combine than he did during his entire career in Georgia Tech's option offense. I expect Kendall Wright, LSU's Rueben Randle, Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu, and Cal's Marvin Jones to show very reliable hands in every drill, even on poorly thrown passes.