Thursday, February 20, 2014
Big Ten storylines at the NFL combine
By Brian Bennett
The NFL scouting combine -- also known as the world's most dissected job interview session -- began Wednesday in Indianapolis, and workouts begin Saturday. The hopefuls include 36 players from Big Ten schools, 38 if you count Maryland and Rutgers.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter will work out as a receiver at the NFL scouting combine.
Here are some of the top storylines to watch as the league's contingents run, lift, jump and shuttle for NFL executives:
How many first-rounders can the Big Ten produce? Last year was arguably the worst draft in league history, as only one player -- Wisconsin's Travis Frederick -- heard his name called on opening night, and not until the 31st pick. The conference should definitely do better in the first round this year, with Michigan left tackle Taylor Lewan and Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard widely viewed as locks to go early. Some others could work their way into the first round with strong showings in Indy, including Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman (whose physical-freak traits should translate well into workouts), Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier and running back Carlos Hyde and Penn State receiver Allen Robinson.
Speaking of Robinson, he's one of eight Big Ten players who will work out as a receiver, and that group includes ultra-productive college wideouts such as Wisconsin's Jared Abbrederis, Michigan's Jeremy Gallon and Indiana's Cody Latimer. This is viewed as a deep draft for receivers in general, so the Big Ten contingent will have to post good times in the 40 and other drills to stand out.
One player who will work out as a receiver is Northwestern's Kain Colter, who primarily played quarterback in college. Colter, of course, has been in the news because of his fight to unionize college football players. How will NFL general managers and executives view the stance taken by Colter, who should interview extremely well? And how will he perform as a wide receiver in drills?
Linebacker is probably the strongest group the Big Ten will send to Indianapolis, which is fitting because that was the best position group in the league in 2013. Many scouts already love Wisconsin's Chris Borland, but his height could remain an issue for some. I think his overall athleticism should shine through this weekend and relieve some of those questions. Michigan State's Max Bullough has excellent height and size, but faces some concerns over his lateral quickness and probably even more regarding his Rose Bowl suspension. Will Bullough publicly reveal the reason for his suspension? It will also be fun to see how Iowa's standout trio of James Morris, Christian Kirksey and Anthony Hitchens compares in their testing.
Lewan figures to go in the top 15, but he does have some character issues to address in his interviews. Speaking of offensive linemen, how healthy is Nebraska All-American guard Spencer Long after his season-ending knee injury? Ohio State's Jack Mewhort was a great leader for the Buckeyes but must show he's athletic enough to play tackle in the NFL. And after interviewing Penn State's John Urschel, will some team ask him to skip his playing days and just run their front office?
Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz earned rave reviews at the Senior Bowl. While he wasn't hyper-productive in the passing game with the Hawkeyes, some team easily could fall in love with his size and athleticism and make him an early-round pick.
Defensive back is another deep group from the Big Ten, with seven players invited. Dennard simply needs to not hurt his stock, and Roby could improve his after a good, but not great, junior season. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste will be intriguing with his 6-foot-3 frame, especially after the success of the Seattle Seahawks' tall defensive backs. Guys such as Michigan State's Isaiah Lewis, Minnesota's Brock Vereen and Purdue's Ricardo Allen are viewed as late-round picks at this point; they need to make an impression and not lose any more ground in the eyes of scouts.
All these questions and more will begin to be answered this weekend.