Top prospects speak to members of the media at the NFL Scouting Combine - presented by Lazydays RV.
Mock Draft Season has been in full swing for more than a month, and the NFL Scouting Combine – currently underway in Indianapolis – will take it to another level. If you're favorite draft expert has already published mock draft versions 1.0 and 2.0, expect 3.0 to come out as soon as the Combine wraps up next Tuesday. And expect some significant changes.
MORE: FULL COMBINE COVERAGE
Yes, teams learn new and valuable information from the workouts and interviews that take place in Indy. At the same time, reporters and analysts come across new data that can make them rethink their draft predictions, or in some cases reinforce those opinions. For instance, in a single afternoon at Lucas Oil Stadium on Thursday, I heard several things that made me take another look at some of the mock drafts I'd studied in recent days. Such as…
1. Premise: The Carolina Panthers are going to draft a defensive end or cornerback in the first round.
ESPN draft guru Todd McShay currently has the Panthers going with Clemson defensive end Kevin Dodd at pick #31. That mock draft was actually posted a few days before the Super Bowl, but McShay's ESPN draft-coverage foil, Mel Kiper, more recently matched Carolina up with Clemson cornerback Mackensie Alexander. (Note: Those link is behind the Insider subscription wall.)
Current Buccaneer players during their NFL Scouting Combine - presented by Lazydays RV.
This theory bears significance for the Buccaneers, who may be looking at the same two positions in the early rounds of the draft. Barring a massive and unlikely trade up, Carolina's desires won't affect Tampa Bay's first pick, at #9, but they could swipe a player the Bucs want to get at #42 in the second round.
Surely the retirement of Jared Allen and the advancing age of Charles Johnson, who missed seven games and had just one sack last year, feeds into this theory. However, the Panthers ranked sixth in the NFL with 44 sacks last year and didn't have much problem getting to Peyton Manning for five sacks in the Super Bowl. Carolina Head Coach Ron Rivera says that underscores the depth the team has at that position, young depth that could be poised to deliver a lot more in 2016. The Panthers may not see edge-rusher as one of their most pressing needs.
"If you look at some of the things that went on for us last year, you look at who started for us against Seattle the first time we played them," said Rivera, referring to a rousing 27-23 road win over the Seahawks in Week Six that featured four sacks of Russell Wilson. "We had Wes [Horton], we had Ryan Delaire, we had Mario [Addison], we had those guys on the football field playing for us. We didn't have Charles, we didn't have Jared, so we started these young players who had to step up and play for us, and they did.
"So I feel pretty comfortable. These guys have had some game experience, they've had some opportunities on the football field and they did a great job. You look at what Kony Ealy has done, playing the way he has, having the moments he had during the season where he had that stretch of five straight games, five straight sacks, three caused fumbles, a recovered fumble. There are reasons to be optimistic about that young group of guys. You couple that with a veteran guy in there with Charles and you feel confident that this group of guys can play and they can be productive."
Moreover, the Panthers are headed into an offseason that will be structured to the benefit of developing the younger players. Carolina's 2015 season went well into February, so Rivera isn't even planning to start his offseason program until a week after he is allowed to do so. When the Panthers do take the field again, they'll be monitoring reps to account for the long 2015 campaign.
"We're going to be okay because the truth of the matter is the young guys are going to get opportunities," he said. "We talked about how we've tried to map out this year; we had to change some things because of going five extra weeks. So we're going to look and see how we want to schedule things, how we want to make sure that the focus is on a lot of the younger guys, make sure the quality reps they're going to need. We'll try to be smart with our veteran players."
If defensive end isn't the Panthers' most pressing need, could it be cornerback? Well that would certainly be true of All-Pro Josh Norman escapes via free agency, but that seems like a long shot. Not only can the Panthers use their franchise tag on Norman if they deem it necessary and prudent, but they also think they can get a deal done before having to take that step.
Rivera said that the fact that Norman is already 28 years old as he hits free agency for the first time does nothing to decrease the Panthers' desire to bring back the top performer in their secondary.
"No, not really because again, remember, he didn't play an awful lot earlier in his career, and now he's starting to play a lot," said the coach. "No, I'm not concerned that he's going to be a worn-out body or anything like that. I'm excited about the fact that Dave is talking about what they're going to try to do, the direction they're going to try to take with that whole situation. We'll see how it unfolds, but I'm pretty optimistic."
2. Premise: The Saints, in obvious need for help on defense, will use their first pick on a defensive tackle.
This is a widespread belief. Two of the five mock drafts currently running on NFL.com have the Saints taking Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins and a third matches them with Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed. Kiper says Rankins, McShay says the other Alabama DT, A'Shawn Robinson.
Those that follow the Saints a little more closely can see the same logic, though if defensive tackle is need 1A, they also see a pretty clear 1B.
"Obviously with the Saints it's got to be defense," said Joel Erickson, who covers the Saints for the Baton Rouge Advocate. "They had one of the worst defenses; if it wasn't for the Giants they would have been the worst defense in the league again. A couple positions specifically: They need a defensive tackle, a penetrator, kind of like the Bucs have Gerald McCoy. They need one of those or somebody along those same lines. And then at weakside linebacker, another thing that the Bucs have in Lavonte David, the Saints don't have, a linebacker who can cover tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. The Saints were dead last in the league in giving up receiving yards to both tight ends and running backs; they need somebody who can do something about that."
QUOTES: KOETTER, LICHT AT THE COMBINE
Obviously, it should be considered a good thing if the Saints' top two targets are players of a variety that the Buccaneers already possess. If the two teams had overlapping needs, they might end up fighting for the same players. However, New Orleans may have also created some new depth chart issues with a pair of roster moves, which affect the team's draft strategy in the early rounds. Erickson thinks that's about half-right.
"They're guys that were kind of getting up there in years, but they're big names," said Erickson of the two players recently released by the Saints. "Jahri Evans is a guard who's been one of the best at his position for a decade. We were a little bit surprised they made that cut, but his salary cap number was huge. That means there's going to be a hole at guard; that's another spot they could go in the draft. They could look for somebody there. The other one, it's not official yet but we've been reporting it: Marques Colston. That's pretty much the name everybody associates with the Saints other than Drew Brees. He's on his way out but that's kind of been coming a little bit. He was really the number-three receiver this year and they have an heir apparent in Brandon Coleman. We don't necessarily know that they'll go for a wide receiver to replace him, though, because he'd already gone down to the number three and the Saints have a history of finding guys who are undrafted or seventh-round picks who end up being good."
That's a sly reference by Erickson to cap his thoughts: Colston himself was a seventh-round pick in 2006, the same year that Brees arrived in New Orleans.
3. Premise: Laquon Treadwell will be a top-10 pick.
Now, there isn't necessarily a consensus on this one. Of those five NFL.com mock drafts mentioned above, only one has the Mississippi wide receiver going higher than 15, though in almost every case he is the first receiver off the board. But McShay had him going seventh to San Francisco in his Feb. 2 mock, CBSSports.com's Dane Brugler gave him to Dallas at #4 in his Jan. 10 effort and Rotoworld's Josh Norris said the same thing on Jan. 5.
Note the dates on those Treadwell-affirmative drafts. Brugler, for instance, gave the Cowboys defensive end Joey Bosa in his most recent mock and had Treadwell going to the Lions at #16. Treadwell is now more commonly seen as a possibility right in the middle of the first round, often to the Rams at #15 or Detroit right after. If Treadwell is falling, it could be due to concerns about his speed.
Those concerns will not be alleviated in Indianapolis, because he has chosen not to participate in the 40-yard dash. Treadwell recently changed training facilities and didn't believe he'd had enough time with his new trainers to perfect his 40 technique. Presumably he will run the 40 at the Ole Miss Pro Day on March 28, and in the meantime he's not worried about what his Combine decision will say to potential draft suitors.
"The questions, they don't really bother me," said Treadwell. "I still have to go out there and play and put the production on the field, so I don't really let it get to me. I'll run what I run and just stay confident in myself. I've just got to do what's best for me right now. I think it will all work out if I work my hardest. I think it's going to work out at the end."
Treadwell certainly had no issues with production at Ole Miss, where he capped his career last fall with 82 catches for 1,153 yards and 11 touchdowns. He says he expects to run the 40-yard dash in the "low 4.5s," but a finish around 4.6 could cause some to label him a "possession receiver" on the next level. Treadwell definitely does not agree with that assessment.
"I don't," he said. "I think I'll only get better. I'll continue to work, continue to get the best training at the highest level. I'll just continue to push myself to get better and my game will show it eventually. I wouldn't say I model my game after anyone [but] I do like the way Dez Bryant plays, the way he attacks the football and makes the physical plays. I don't like to model myself after anyone. I like to learn and create my own style of play."
PHOTOS: KOETTER AT THE COMBINE
Why is Treadwell's eventual draft status of any concern to the Buccaneers? Wide receiver would seem like an unlikely target for the Bucs at #9, but if that's the case than Tampa Bay brass would surely love to see Treadwell go anywhere from one to eight. That could help push a player the Bucs do want down the board. Treadwell's 40-yard-dash performance on March 28 may indirectly affect who Tampa Bay ends up with in the nine-spot, even if he's not their eventual target.