10 players to watch at the combine

February 22, 2017

The following article is a part of the USA Today Sports Weekly preview for the NFL Draft Combine.

With the Super Bowl in our rearview mirror, the football world turns its attention to the NFL draft and the scouting combine.

The seven-day combine has taken on a life of its own over the last several years with day-long coverage on NFL Network, close to 1,000 media members attending and player and coach news conferences drawing packed rooms.

The 40-yard dash and vertical leap get the most attention from football fans, but on-the-field workouts, medical testing and interviews of the more than 300 prospects makes this an important week for scouts, general managers and coaches.

Prospects can see their stock increase with a strong performance, and that could translate to millions of dollars in contracts.

Brian Johannes of NFLDraftGeek.com examines 10 prospects with the most on the line:

Marshon Lattimore CB, Ohio State

When the defensive backs run the 40-yard dash, keep an eye on Lattimore, who could go down as the fastest player in this draft.

Lattimore, 6-1, 192, has shown the quick-twitch ability to snap his hips and run, along with the ability to play the ball in the air. If he can show he’s one of the fastest players at the combine, that should solidify his position as the top cornerback in the draft and a potential top-10 pick.

DeShone Kizer QB, Notre Dame

Kizer will check all the boxes at the weigh-in and in on-the-field drills. At 6-4, 230 pounds and with good athleticism and a strong arm, Kizer has all the tools NFL teams crave from the quarterback position.

But the interview sessions also will be key. After his production dipped in the Fighting Irish’s 4-8 season, he will need to explain why he didn’t build off a good 2015 season. Kizer still has time to get back into the discussion about top quarterbacks, but he’ll first need to win over general managers in Indianapolis.

David Njoku TE, Miami (Fla.)

He was a surprise entry into the 2017 NFL draft, and the buzz has been building about him being one of the best upside players available. The hype could only get bigger if the former high school national champion high jumper puts on a show in the athletic testing.

If he adds elite test results to countless highlight plays on the field, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Njoku emerge as the top tight end in this loaded class and a surefire top-20 selection.

Malik McDowell DT, Michigan State

Talent has never been a question for McDowell. He has shown the ability to take over stretches of games and dominate the middle of the field. His explosive burst and agility are rare for someone his size, and the athletic testing shouldn’t pose any issues.

McDowell will have his biggest test in the meeting rooms as he will need to answer team executives’ questions about his work ethic. How McDowell does in the interviews could determine the difference between being drafted in the top half of the first round or possibly falling to Day 2 of the draft.

Takkarist McKinley DE, UCLA

McKinley displayed explosive speed on tape and has the potential run in the high 4.4’s in the 40-yard dash, which would contend for the fastest of any defensive lineman.

Having elite speed will help, but teams also will be interested in the medical exams on the torn labrum he has played through the last couple of seasons. Depending how the exams go, teams might end up passing on him in the first round if they determine the injury will affect McKinley’s ability to play during his rookie season.

Deshaun Watson QB, Clemson

Coming off dazzling performances in consecutive national title games and a stunning upset of Alabama, Watson has the “it” factor that only elite quarterbacks possess.

If Watson wants to lock in as the top quarterback in the draft, he’ll need to win in the meeting rooms to show he is capable of running an NFL-style offense.

On the field, Watson has stated his intentions to throw and could use this opportunity to prove he can drive the ball downfield with accuracy.

John Ross WR, Washington

Ross used his breakneck speed and ability to make plays in the open field to light up the Pac-12 for 17 receiving touchdowns, ranked third in the nation. He was named a first-team All-American.

Ross has first-round ability, but teams could be concerned about his lengthy injury history. Ross missed the 2015 season after having surgeries to repair two meniscus tears, plus he needed microfracture surgery. He also might need surgery after the combine for a torn labrum. That could be too much for teams to overlook.

Alvin Kamara RB, Tennessee

After playing a limited role for most of his Tennessee career, Kamara thrived when finally given the chance to be the featured back.

Kamara can use the on-field drills to showcase his quickness, lateral agility and ability to catch the ball.

He’ll need to explain his off-the-field issues at Alabama that included him being kicked off the team. If Kamara can keep the focus on his growth and maturity at Tennessee, teams could look past the earlier issues.

Adoree Jackson CB, Southern California

Jackson fell a few inches short of qualifying for the Rio Olympics in the long jump. There is no question he has world-class athletic ability and could put on a show during tests.

But scouts will be interested more in the on-the-field defensive back drills. Jackson was much improved last season and won the Thorpe Award as best cornerback. With a good combine, he could end up locking down a spot in the first round.

Christian McCaffrey RB, Stanford

McCaffrey broke Barry Sanders’ single-season record for all-purpose yards during his sophomore season and would be a versatile addtion to an NFL team.

His change of direction has been his biggest weapon in college, and that could lead to some eye-popping numbers in the short shuttle and three-cone drills.

If he has good numbers and a quality showing catching the ball, McCaffrey will be in the equation for a late first-round pick.

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