Unglamorous title it may be, we're talking about the NFL combine. The dog-and-pony show that is the combine is pejoratively known as the underwear Olympics because of how relevant the exercises that the prospects are doing to actual football action- which is to say, not much. There's still important work done at the combine- testing, both mental and psychological, and general health exams and official measurements for underclassmen. It kind of gives teams an idea of what to look for on film- it's by no means a be-all and end-all. This year, Virginia Tech has four players that are at the combine: Dadi Nicholas, Luther Maddy, Ryan Malleck, and Kendall Fuller. The first three are redshirt seniors, Fuller is a true junior. I'll go through some of the official NFL remarks on them, and the things they could potentially do to help their stock.
Fuller's in an awkward position. He's got a LOT of talent- a five-star recruit coming out of high school with proven NFL bloodlines. But it's also been, oh, a little over a year and a half since he's been healthy for a football game and capable of producing at anywhere close to a productive level. Everyone's saying that the Ohio State game pretty much showed he was hurt. Mike Thomas, who is also a likely NFL draft pick, and high at that, burned him multiple times. He'd shown much better work at his sophomore year. Between analysts Daniel Jeremiah, Bucky Brooks, Charles Davis, and Lance Zierlein, he's only in the top 50 prospects for Davis. The caution is obviously due to his injured state, and frankly, his rust. He's only rated as a 5.64 by the NFL's official tracker, which means that he's a ‘Backup or Eventual Starter'. They like the ball-hawk skills and the bloodlines, and they love the fact that he'll tackle and is a sure tackler. But he gets burned over the top- he gave up 16.7 yards per completion against him. He's also not an elite measurables guy- he's only suspected to be about 6'-0", 196lbs, which makes him small for an outside corner in the NFL these days- if he's going up against Brandon Marshall or Julio Jones, he's giving up a lot of size. He's also not believed to be the fastest in the world. Basically, he's a slot cornerback, or maybe even a safety at the NFL level, not a lead corner. They evaluate him as maybe a fit for a Tampa-2 scheme...which isn't good, because the NFL is going away from that type of defense due to how easily it's cut apart by today's savvy quarterbacks. What would really help him out is a clean bill of health, measuring in at 6'-0" or above, and maybe having a longer wingspan than expected. Being able to do all of the position drills and cone drills without discomfort or pain would go a long way in assuaging the worries of the scouts, but only about his body, not about his skillset. Look for cornerback needy teams in the end of the first and beginning of the second to be his landing spots- earliest at all I'd project him would be the Redskins at 21, and that's more if there's a run on cornerbacks. Otherwise, maybe the Steelers, Cardinals, Panthers, Titans, or Ravens.
Bottom Line: Fuller might be caught on the wrong end of a trend in the NFL. The ‘zone, keep the man in front of you, don't give up big plays' corners are losing out to big, physical cornerbacks that can play press man and erase a receiver one-on-one. He's not that kind of guy. For all of his ball skills, his athleticism could knock him down the boards. If he tests healthy, he's maybe a late first round pick, but with the depth at corner in this draft? He might drop into the second round, third round at ‘wow he's not ready' lowest. Still good, but maybe not what he wanted.
Nicholas is the classic Bud Foster Linebacker/Defensive end tweener that plays defensive end in college...but really doesn't have a true fit at the NFL level. Many like James Gayle, Stephen Friday, JR Collins, and Chris Ellis never really found a consistent role or slot. The NFL has him listed as a DE, but when they say ‘looks more like a safety than an edge player', that's remarkably problematic. Even in his ‘strengths', they basically say he's too small: ‘miscast with hand in ground and over-matched physically'. They praise his effort and speed, but he's generally not going to be playing a position he played in college in the pros. Up and down his profile, it's really a thinly veiled shot at his body type- he's too small to play defensive end, and maybe even at rush linebacker, either. But without that, what is he? He better produce in the bench press and any other weight tests- including weighing in at more than their estimated 235lbs, because that's at least 10-15lbs too small for an NFL outside linebacker. I was listening to the First Draft podcast today, and ESPN's Todd McShay was referring to pass rushers in general- there's not much in the way of positive results from ends/outside linebackers that weigh below 240-245lbs. Nicholas's best bet would be to be drafted- probably in rounds 5-7- by a team that could stash him and teach him up and train him up. Pittsburgh, Arizona, or Green Bay would be ideal landing spots. I have a feeling with their need for pass rush help, Arizona with their Hokie Head Coach might help a fellow Fighting Gobbler out. The NFL rates him as a 5.24, or a ‘developmental prospect or special teams potential'. He needs to look fluid in the cone drills and in the motion/position drills at outside linebacker in order to get anywhere higher up a draft board.
Bottom Line: Nicholas is a tweener, and in this case, his between is between in the league and out of it. No matter what we thought of his college production his body type is all wrong for the position that he'd be playing in the big leagues. While pass rush help is necessary at the professional level and he'll get eaten up somewhere, he's not going anywhere to touch the field anytime soon except for in an emergency. He still needs too much work.
You guys are going to get sick of me and hearing the bad news, but the 5.24 grade is back. Maddy's yet another guy that is considered undersized. I never like to see ‘stubby frame' in a defensive tackle. They cite his frequent ‘almost' tackles as a negative, and call him out for his missing length. He's also ‘overwhelmed by big guards who square him up'. It means he's too small and not strong enough on his own to beat that kind of block. He's got all kinds of speed moves, and they praise him with a lot of athleticism and quickness, but if he's ever singled out and blocked in a power scheme, he's pretty much washed out of the way. They say he ‘lacks the size and overall play strength to capitalize on his quickness'. He's only measuring in at 6'-0", 300lbs. They figure him to be a third day draft pick with- and this is the really overly specific qualifier- the ‘field ability and instincts...as a rotational shade nose in a penetrating 4-3 defense'. Damned with faint praise. He's not the right size for a 3-4 defensive end, either. For that he could be a bit lighter, but he'd have to have a larger frame in order to eat space. At least they complement his ‘sweet spin move'. For him, you're looking at a team like the Giants, Seahawks, Cowboys, Vikings, or Dolphins. He better do well on the bench to allay some fears of him getting pushed about- either that or have packed on more muscle.
Bottom Line: Maddy's yet another defensive tweener from Bud Foster's system. Not strong enough to be a rock defensive tackle or large enough to be a 3-4 defensive end, Maddy could end up not having a true spot at the next level. While his attributes in quickness might be appreciated, he would have to defy a lot of conventional wisdom about his body size and type in order to get a spot on a roster. He's likely to be a day three pick, but he might not hear his name called until the 6th or 7th rounds.
Malleck getting a call to the combine was a surprise. For being the second tight end in an offense that didn't use him that much, that shows that at least a few people are intrigued. He's assumed to be about 6'-4", 243lbs, which is definitely in the NFL tight end size/shape mold. Only rated as a 5.16- the tail end of that ‘developmental prospect' level- Malleck nevertheless did enough in college to warrant a look. His best honest hope in the NFL is going to be in the mold of a former VT tight end in the pros- Jeff King. King was a 5th round draft pick by the Panthers that went on to have a reasonably long career, mostly as a blocker for the Panthers and Cardinals. They do say that he needs to work on his lower half and blocking, and they aren't overawed with his athleticism. They like his hands and his intelligence against coverage, and the fact that he runs hard. But it's a short profile that doesn't give much at any level. Honestly it's harder to project a scheme fit for him because just about everyone in the NFL can use a decent run-blocking tight end that can catch a little as a safety valve. He'll have to show out at the bench and maybe the shuttle- just to show some people he might be more athletic than they think- in order to garner deep interest, but he's really looking at 7th round to UDFA. One thing he has in his favor is that the depth at tight end position this year is thin and top-heavy.
Bottom line: Malleck's not going to wow anyone, maybe only get a couple looks, but it only takes one team to get into the NFL. Malleck's going to have to play to a blocking strength- which he can do, as he did it plenty here at VT. His frame's about right, but he's going to have to make his living the hard way.
I do note that the profiles that were written by Lance Zierlein for all four of these prospects tend to point out certain things- especially that the defensive players we've got are a mismatch in size and frame from what the NFL is looking for. And while I do put stock in some of these evaluations, I know very well that any (and I hope all) of these guys can out-perform expectations. I feel that Fuller's rating is too low, probably mostly due to the injury, but otherwise, I can see the logic in a lot of what Zierlein is saying. Do your best to root for all of our Hokie participants in the Combine this week- Workouts are Saturday for Malleck, Sunday for Maddy and Dadi, and Monday for the last Fuller.