Underclassmen hoping to gain entry to the NFL Draft are in the midst of applying for eligibility, and in just a few weeks the process will be underway. By late January we’ll know the full list of draft entrants, and a month later the NFL Combine will be held. This is the time for prospects who might not be as well known, or who might even be doubted by folks in the NFL to make their moves and climb higher on the draft boards.
From a Fantasy perspective, Combine risers are interesting players to keep an eye on, as they can become relevant Fantasy options who won’t necessarily be drafted high. Here are some names to keep an eye on in that regard.
Cardale Jones, QB, Ohio State Buckeyes: The hero of the inaugural CFP National Championship should wind up being one of the most interesting prospects in the NFL Draft. CBS Sports did an interesting write-up back in October addressing the question of how Jones’ benching affects his NFL future, and really that’s the key question here.
Did losing his starting spot to J.T. Barrett at Ohio State hurt his status so much that his NFL future is in doubt, or will talent win out? Either way, he walked off the field feeling like a winner (see video below). Jones is a bit of a conundrum in terms of strengths and weaknesses. He throws hard, but sometimes too hard; he’s a great leader, but his inexperience shows; he can run, but he’s not really a running threat. If he exceeds expectations athletically, Jones could make serious impressions at the Combine, and with his size people might begin to trick themselves into thinking that they ‘re looking at a young Cam Newton. The better comparison may actually be a young Ben Roethlisberger.
Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas Razorbacks: Williams may not participate in the Combine depending on the status of an injured foot that kept him out for the 2015 season. But if he does participate he’ll be a fascinating player to track. Williams could have been among the year’s top runners if healthy, and possesses all the tools to succeed at the next level. At about 5’11” and 225 pounds, he’s got a tantalizing mix of size and speed, and he’s a little quicker laterally than his bulk might suggest.
If healthy, Williams could do well for himself at the Combine. Size-wise he’s actually not unlike Todd Gurley, though a better comparison as a player might be that Williams is a less shifty Jay Ajayi (who showed flashes of brilliance as a rookie in Miami this season).
Sterling Shepard, WR, Notre Dame Fighting Irish: There have been times when Shepard looks like a can’t-miss prospect. He’s got great speed and quickness, soft hands, and an intelligent game. The issue is that he’s only about 5’10” and 190 pounds, which could limit his role in the NFL.
Showing some strength and toughness at the Combine will go a long way for Shepard, though he may already have a nice NFL comparison working in his favour: Tyler Lockett. A speedy WR out of Kansas State, Lockett has become a real threat for the Seattle Seahawks as of late, and he’s one reason oddsmakers give the Seahawks the fourth best chance of victory. For much of the year Seattle has underachieved, but its offense and special teams have come on and Lockett has been right in the thick of it. If Shepard gives scouts reason to believe he could have a similar impact, he’ll definitely move up on draft boards.
Nick Vannett, TE, Ohio State Buckeyes: Vannett is an interesting case. He’s considered a big time TE prospect despite not really having the breakout season some expected at Ohio State. But at roughly 6’5” and 250 pounds with a nice combination of blocking and receiving skills, he still projects as an attractive option. A nice Combine performance could conceivably vault him toward the top of the TE position in this draft (ESPN’s Mel Kiper has him at sixth for the position), and given how the position seemed to become more relevant across the NFL this season, Vannett could become a Fantasy option overnight.
It’s tough to make NFL comparisons for young TEs until you see them in action, because a lot of them wind up relegated to blocking roles. But one to keep in mind for Vannett is Tyler Eifert. Eifert is a little leaner, but both players are natural pass catchers who’ve learned to block, and they’re similarly sized.
The great thing about the Combine is you never know which players might surprise everyone, and who might capture the attention of NFL scouts. But these all look like good candidates to move up draft boards the closer we get to the main event.
Now it’s your turn. Which players will you be keeping a close eye on at this year’s Combine?
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