We’re quickly approaching the NFL scouting combine and the best athletes in college football are about to prove just how good they are. Players who have thrived in their NFL role like Joe Thuney, Leonard Floyd, and Tyreek Hill measured out in the upper stratosphere for their position group in 2016, while others like Jack Conklin and Eli Apple measured so well that they saw their draft stock soar after the combine. In the shadow of such great athletes, it’s often lost that 2016 was actually a down year on average for players measuring at the combine. With as strong of a class 2017 promises to be, we’re taking a look at some of the players many project to have strong showings this year.
David Njoku, TE, Miami
We’ve spoken before about how strong this tight end class is. 2017 may produce the best draft class at this position in two decades. It’s incredibly strong and one of the two guys at the top is Miami’s David Njoku. Tight end is one of the most athletic ability-dependant positions in the NFL. It is rare that someone gets by on technique and intelligence alone. In fact, using my RAS metric, not a single tight end drafted in the first round since 1999—as far back as my data goes—has rated at or below average athletically. Njoku measures in around 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, but he’s expected to measure out at the top of his position in nearly every measurement. His current status as a first-round tight end would be severely compromised if he doesn’t measure out, but a great showing may see him leapfrog current No. 1 tight end prospect O.J. Howard.
Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
One of the most prolific tacklers in the past few classes, Vandy’s Zach Cunningham has also missed more than his fair share of tackles over the past season. The reason you don’t hear of it as a game-breaking flaw in his game is because many of those misses were situations he had no business being in the neighborhood of anyway. On tape, Cunningham may challenge the likes of recent draft picks like Ryan Shazier. There aren’t any on-field similarities, but Cunningham, athletically, is very similar to former Detroit Lions first-round pick Ernie Sims, despite Sims being a whole five inches shorter. If Cunningham comes anywhere close to measuring how Sims did back in 2006, he’ll push his stock from somewhere in the first round to a near lock in the top 15.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
A polarizing prospect, one thing that most agree upon is that Leonard Fournette should measure out as one of the better athletes at the combine. His size and speed alone are likely to make him a talked about commodity. The combination of 6-foot-3 and 230 plus pounds just isn’t something you see in most drafts, and if you believe the talk of him running under 4.4 in training (a feat accomplished only a handful of times by RBs in the past 20 years), you’ve got a deadly combination. Even if he runs in the low 4.5 range, which even his most vehement critics tend to agree is a floor, that’s incredible speed for an athlete his size. There are questions about both his explosiveness and agility, so those areas are ones Fournette will truly have to shine to turn heads, but he’ll probably be the most watched size/speed athlete of 2017.
Marlon Mack, RB, South Florida
Mack might not be the most recognized name at the combine, but he’s one that I’ve grown increasingly confident will measure out. At 6-feet, 210 pounds, Mack has more than enough size to contend as a running back, but what stands out more with him is his incredible breakaway speed. The guy’s first gear is impressive in its own right but once he really turns on the jets, he creates distance between the poor defenders so fast that Roger Goodell is already working out how to fine him for it.
Adoree’ Jackson, CB, USC
Adoree' Jackson just hurdles the kicker along the sideline en route to a 97-yard kick return TD. No big deal. pic.twitter.com/dmUzQcLpnd— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) November 27, 2016
The weigh-in is probably going to be a bit uncomfortable for Adoree’ Jackson fans, as he isn’t expected to measure much north of 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. The rest of the measurements should be a lot of fun as Jackson is easily one of the most fluid athletes on tape in this draft class. Expected to run in the low 4.4 range and possibly flash below that (a feat that is much rarer than people assume), Jackson flashed exceptional burst and explosion both in closing while playing cornerback and in the return game. Agility drills should also be a strength, as he has shown time and time again that he can stop on a dime and change direction without significant loss of speed. Jackson has been projected in the first round as recently as this week, and while his size is likely to prevent that, a strong combine showing ought to keep him in Day 2 consideration.