The top players to watch at the NFL scouting combine

It’s the spectacular in spandex, the battle of the bench (press), the Wide World of Wonderlic, the clash of the 40-yard dash — or, if you want to be lazy, the NFL Scouting Combine.

This is the event that will be the epicenter for the official push to the NFL draft in April, with team executives, coaching staffs, scouts and doctors getting a close look at the top prospects in college football.

They’ll go through tests, mental and physical. They’ll be examined — again, both mentally and physically. And, they’ll participate in a mixture of on-field drills and specific events like the bench press and 40-yard dash.

While NFL teams began their preparation for the 2018 draft just after last year’s ended, this is when everyone converges to figure out what’s the most important question in talent evaluation — will this person make it?


Here are 10 names that will be at the combine and will have scouts and fans talking until they hear their names called on draft day:

Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, quarterbacks

It doesn’t seem right to separate these two, yet that’s exactly what scouts and coaches will be tasked with doing.

According to reports, they won’t get to see Darnold throw — something he’ll save for his pro day at USC and for private workouts. That puts him in the same company as Matthew Stafford, Matt Ryan and Derek Carr — and Johnny Manziel, Tim Tebow and Brady Quinn — who didn’t throw here.


Instead, Darnold will concentrate on the physical elements and interviews with the quarterback-needy teams at the very top of the draft.

Rosen’s challenges probably won’t be on the field either. A gifted thrower, he should do fine in the quarterback drills. Where he’ll be picked and prodded is in the medical examinations and interview rooms.

Vita Vea, defensive tackle

Playing last season a few burgers shy of 350 pounds, this Washington standout is a massive human being. But there’s more to Vea than bulk. He could leave jaws agape when he gets on the field for speed and agility drills.

He’s a quick answer for a team that’s soft defending the run — the Chargers perhaps? — but if he tests as well as expected he could lock himself into a top-10 draft spot.

Saquon Barkley, running back

A video of Barkley doing a power clean lift at Penn State went viral on the internet — a space normally reserved mostly for adorable videos of cats and dogs — so that’s an indication of how strong he is.

He’s generally regarded as the top running back available and could even be the No. 1 overall pick — which would be the first time a running back was selected first since Ki-Jana Carter went to Cincinnati at the top of the 1995 draft.


Quenton Nelson, guard

There’s some conventional wisdom that you don’t use early draft picks on safeties or offensive guards, but last year the New York Jets broke from that by taking Jamal Adams. And he looks like he’ll be a star — sooner rather than later.

Nelson, from Notre Dame, has been called the top player in the draft by some evaluators, and with the way teams have started to bring pressure from the center of the field, there should be little hesitation taking him in the top 10.

Leighton Vander Esch, linebacker

Vander Esch came off the basketball court to walk on as a football player before blossoming into a tackling machine at linebacker for Boise State, where he earned Mountain West Conference defensive player of the year honors as a junior.

He’s expected to leave here as one of the hottest names at his position thanks to supreme athleticism and length. He’s the rare combination of superior production and combine talent that scouts don’t see that often.

Ronald Jones II and Rashaad Penny, running backs

After Barkley, two West Coast runners should get plenty of attention this week.


Jones is a blazer, and was arguably USC’s best player on the field the past two seasons — Darnold included. He’ll shine on the field but some of the questions about him will center on the heavy workload he took at USC. Clean medical exams would be a big help.

Penny, who put up huge numbers for San Diego State last season, worked himself into the fringe of Heisman consideration and should get a chance to be an every-down back in the NFL.

In the meantime, he’s a dynamic kick returner and could be used as a weapon on special teams.

Lamar Jackson, quarterback

The annual debate about the hyper-athletic quarterback who would require a team to be more creative on offense will continue with Jackson, who won the Heisman Trophy as a sophomore at Louisville before finishing in the top three last season.

He’s a touchdown machine and will run well here, but the questions around him will be similar to the ones asked of most quarterbacks of this style: Is he durable enough to take the hits and can he succeed enough in the pocket?

It’s hard to imagine that a team in the first round won’t bet “Yes” on a player with his talent.

Minkah Fitzpatrick, defensive back

Fitzpatrick could be an absolute blessing to the defensive coordinator who ends up with him.

The Alabama star is a big-time playmaker who can succeed at cornerback, safety and, maybe in some schemes, as a third-down linebacker. While the “tweener” label has been used against players in the past, it seems versatility is increasingly viewed as a strength.

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports

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