Feb 23, 2015; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Connecticut Huskies defensive back Byron Jones catches a pass in a work out drill during the 2015 NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Today was the final day of on-field action at the NFL Scouting Combine in 2015, as defensive backs completed their on-field measurable tests and position drills in an effort to raise their draft stocks and show their stuff to NFL scouts and evaluators. Some players separated themselves from the pack, while others fell behind, and a few names have either emerged or disappeared while other names aren’t going anywhere.
The Combine probably matters more for defensive backs than any other position group. Defensive backs, especially corners, have to have great speed, great movement, and great athletic ability to compete at the NFL level. While they may show great football IQ, great ball skills, and competitive fire in college, it takes all that plus uncanny physical ability to compete at the next level.
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With the Raiders still not entirely secure in their future at cornerback, as well as some question marks about the long-term future of both safety positions, it stands to reason that Reggie McKenzie – who has drafted four defensive backs in his time as the Raider GM, including three last year – was keeping a close eye on this group to potentially find some good fits. Here are some things that stood out to me.
1. Josh Shaw and Byron Jones Aren’t Going to Fall Very Far
Prior to the Combine, I had written that both USC cornerback Josh Shaw and UCONN cornerback Byron Jones could be potential steals for the Raiders in the later rounds. Shaw had some serious character questions stemming from a possible domestic violence situation at the start of last year, while Jones played his college ball away from the limelight at UCONN. Both missed significant time last year, Shaw with both injury and suspension, Jones with an injury.
Both still graded well among most scouting reports I read and looked good to me on tape, especially Shaw, whom I’d seen play in real time. But with the question marks on both, most draft analysts, and yours truly, had them pegged as players who would fall into the 5th round or later. After stellar combine performances from both, that is probably not going to be the case.
Byron Jones is a bigger corner who fits the profile of some of the other corners McKenzie has drafted, and who also possesses the football IQ, instincts and zone coverage skills to potentially move to free safety. The question marks with him were about the health of his shoulder, as well as his physicality and fluidity. He knocked those questions out of the park today with an insane workout.
Jones did not participate in the 40-yard dash for some reason, but in nearly every other drill that he participated in, he was either the leader or among the leaders – for the entire Combine. He recorded a phenomenal 147 inch broad jump – that’s 12 feet, 3 inches – which is likely a record at the NFL Scouting Combine. He followed it up with a stunning 44.5″ vertical leap, demonstrating impressive lower-body explosiveness, and a potential to beat nearly any receiver in the league to a jump ball. He also performed well in the shuttle runs – including a 3.94 second short shuttle – and three-cone drill, and looked smooth and skilled in the position drills.
If Jones can perform the way Sio Moore believes he can at UCONN’s pro day in his 40-yard dash, the relatively unheralded corner could jump up as high as the 2nd round of the draft. This may be too high for the Raiders, who have other more pressing needs to take there.
Josh Shaw was expected to do well at the Combine, of course. The highly-regarded USC cornerback was a top high school recruit and considered one of the five best DB’s of his college class heading into the season. But on Monday he went out and showed scouts exactly what they expected to see and then some, and likely gave some coaches reason to overlook his past indiscretions.
Shaw caught my attention on Sunday, when he put up an astounding 26 reps on the bench, a high for defensive backs. On Monday he went out and turned in a quality performance, if not an eye-popping one. He ran a 4.44 second 40-yard dash, on par with the faster wideouts in this draft class and in the NFL as a whole, if not totally elite. He also ran well in the shuttles and 3-cone, and showed up well in his position drills, showing good, quick movements, ball skills and body control. He demonstrated good lower-body explosiveness as well, with a 130″ broad jump and a 37.5″ vertical.
Shaw, who I thought would be a good fit for the Raiders as a developmental safety behind Charles Woodson, still projects well as that, as well as a good press-zone corner like Jones. But with his proven athletic ability, good game tape, and the negativity of his past getting further and further away, Shaw may work his way back into the top two rounds of the draft, and won’t be much use to Reggie McKenzie that high.
2. Ladarius Gunter and Durell Eskridge Will Be Around Later
I had also pegged Miami cornerback Ladarius Gunter and Syracuse safety Durell Eskridge as potential fits for the Raiders – Gunter as a late round value at corner, Eskdrige as a middle-round safety fit. Both players, after unimpressive combine workouts, likely will fall to about those points in this draft.
Eskridge, who is a big, long player who fits the mold of either a big corner or even a strong safety at the next level, measured at the Combine at 6’3″ and 208 pounds, more than ideal size at any secondary position. Unfortunately for Eskridge, nothing else he did numbers-wise was ideal: he ran a 4.63 second 40-yard dash, which is slow for a corner and free safety and on par with your bigger, in-the-box style strong safeties, not necessarily a Cover 2 strong safety or a slot defender. He also wasn’t overly impressive in his broad jump and vertical, and he chose not to participate in the bench press, which raises a red flag about his upper-body strength.
Eskridge, who came out early, may have benefited from an extra year in college, but his family situation dictated that he go pro immediately. With some glaring issues on his game tape combined with less than ideal Combine measurables, and showing stiff hips and slow feet in his position drills, he may fall well into the later rounds. The NFL.com page on him compares him to Jonathan Dowling, whom the Raiders took in the 7th last year, and that may be the spot for Eskridge, as well.
Ladarius Gunter, a 6’1″, 202 pound corner out of Miami, is another player who looked to project as a 4th or 5th rounder and has the potential to be a fit as a free safety at the next level with his zone coverage skills and range. Unfortunately for Gunter, he had a really underwhelming Combine performance that may keep him stuck down in that 5th round range in the draft. Gunter ran an abysmal 4.69 second 40, which is on par with a faster tight end but not really any wideout in the league. He managed 12 reps in the bench press, which is on the low end of average for a defensive back, but certainly not ideal if you wanted to put him in the box as a safety ever. And he only managed 108″ in the broad jump and a 33.5″ vertical, both also subpar.
Gunter now has both spotty game tape AND a lousy Combine to overcome in order to get his name out there for an NFL team. He does have his good week of work at the Senior Bowl practices, but scouts were not sold on him after that, and now they definitely won’t be. He’ll be drafted, but likely not before the 5th round, though he could still be of value to a team like the Raiders for some young depth at corner and/or safety, at least in Camp.
3. We’re Going to Have to Wait on Derron Smith
Derron Smith was my favorite safety in the draft, especially for the Raiders, who want a safety that can be taken in the middle rounds and groomed behind Charles Woodson and/or Tyvon Branch. Smith, however, recently had hernia surgery, and as such declined to participate in the Combine, saving his talents for Fresno State’s Pro Day.
Smith is a rangy, instinctive safety who has lined up all over the field for Fresno State’s defense. He was highly productive in 2013 when Fresno State’s Derek Carr-led high powered offense was forcing opponents to throw a lot to catch up, but has struggled in 2014 as Fresno State has fallen into mediocrity. He is a willing tackler, but wildly inconsistent and the knock on him was that he may not have the size to play down in the box at the next level, and there are questions about his speed and strength.
Who Dat Dish
Smith was measured and participated in interviews at the Combine. He’s an intelligent player and doesn’t seem to have made any negative waves in his one-on-one sessions, which was unsurprising. But at the weigh-in he had some pretty lousy measurements: he stands 5’11” and weighs 200 pounds, which is sturdy but definitely short. He also has some pretty short arms to go with his 5’11” frame.
Smith will want to really show out at his Pro Day next month. He will need to show good speed, strength and athleticism, as well as good ball skills, otherwise he risks his draft stock falling. While he still has a lot of very good tape, there are also some significant question marks about his physical tools, especially with his less than ideal size. Keep an eye out for some Raider representation in Fresno next month.
4. Justin Cox Is Who We Thought He Is
Justin Cox out of Mississippi State is an exceptionally athletic safety who possesses a wide range of physical tools but has almost no instincts for the position, and is not as aggressive or physical as you’d want an NFL free safety to be. He was highly impressive at the Combine, but he was always expected to be impressive without pads on in a controlled workout.
Still, Cox’s performance was impressive, even for a player expected to impress. He ran the second-fastest 40 time among DB’s with a 4.36, posted a 38 inch vertical and 129 inch broad jump, and posted stellar times in both shuttle runs. He also showed good feet, hips and change of direction ability in the positional drills – to go along with marginal ball skills.
Cox is not a player who I thought Reggie McKenzie would be interested in due to his lack of real football talent and low size combined with his spotty off-field track record. Still, he is an incredible athlete, and when you get into the later rounds of the draft, you find room for incredible athletes on your team. Cox is like Jonathan Dowling with better measurables, and Reggie McKenzie did draft Jonathan Dowling, so keep an eye on him if he falls into the 6th or 7th round.
5. Cody Prewitt is Also Who We Thought He Is
Ole Miss’ Cody Prewitt is the anti Justin Cox. While certainly more athletic than you or I, he is a marginal athlete in terms of a potential NFL free safety. He ran a 4.6 second 40, which matches up perfectly with his lack of elite speed on tape, a trait that got him exposed a lot when forced into single coverage. And while at 6’2″ and 208 pounds he has all the size to be an “in the box” strong safety, he showed with an unimpressive bench press result why he isn’t one – 11 reps was the third-lowest result in the DB’s group, and a guy without good upper-body strength isn’t going to be very effective taking on blockers or jamming tight ends.
Prewitt did show impressive lower-body explosiveness with his 125″ broad jump, but lower body explosion alone isn’t going to do it. Still, on tape he is a very instinctive safety who was very productive and shows a good football IQ and great coverage skills. He looked as tight in the position drills as he does on tape, but he has a good resume and can be a fit for a number of NFL teams. Still, he is less than the ideal athlete at the position, and with Free Safety not exactly an immediate need, a pick shouldn’t be used on Prewitt in the first three rounds, where he will likely be chosen by another team.
BONUS: On to Free Agency
The NFL Scouting Combine is always scheduled in February so that GM’s, coaches and scouts can get a good look at the players they have had on their draft boards since the Senior Bowl. Some players will move up or down, and some players will fall off while others find their way on, but generally the Combine is just a way of making sure what you saw on tape stacks up in a controlled environment with their peers.
With most of the players that teams were looking at now quantified to some degree, GM’s will prepare for free agency. Reggie McKenzie has a number of holes to fill, and now that the Combine is over, he knows which holes he wants to try to fill with draft talent, and which holes he needs to place free agent stop-gaps in. Only once the free agency signing period is complete, and then draft days have been held, will we really get a good idea what the draft board will look like going into Chicago on April 30th.