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Across the Middle with Andrew Dannehy: Who/What to Watch at the Combine

| February 24th, 2016

Kevin White

Editor’s Note: I will not watch any of the Combine. My thoughts on the charade are well known. So thankfully, Andrew is around.

I don’t care what anybody says, the NFL combine is a valuable part of the predraft process. It has become popular to understate the value of the NFL Combine but if it didn’t matter, teams wouldn’t send every scout and coach they have. The common theme amongst former scouts is that the workouts are mostly to confirm what they have seen on tape. A lot of times, however, it makes them re-watch the tape and, sometimes changes their views on certain players. We, as fans, and NFL teams are going to get a lot of valuable information this week.

The best skill position players in the league are almost always athletic freaks. Two years ago, Aaron Donald went from being a guy mocked in the third round to a consensus top-15 pick just by putting on a show at the combine. There are certainly exceptions to the rule, but not many.

The elite talents are usually obvious on tape, but the numbers are about more than separating the elite. NFL teams have minimums or bench marks that they look for at each position. Just last year, Greg Gabriel deemed current Baltimore Ravens tight end Maxx Williams as being not good enough to be selected in the first round seconds after he ran the 40-yard dash, claiming Williams needed to break into the 4.6-range to be drafted in the first round. Greg was right.

The two most important parts of the combine are the physicals and the interviews, neither of which we get to see. But there’s still valuable information that we can learn.

Here are a few things to watch for the Bears this year:

Defensive Linemen

The Bears had one of the worst defensive lines in the league this year and the draft is stacked at that position.

The headliner is DeForest Buckner and, with a good performance, he’ll solidify himself as a top-10 pick. My guess is he’ll do just that.

One specific player to watch is Alabama’s A’Shawn Robinson. Robinson has been mocked to the Bears his scouting report reads a lot like that of Ego Ferguson. Both are big guys who are hard to move out of the way, but neither puts pressure on the quarterback. It’s possible Robinson was just held back by Alabama’s scheme. At the combine, he has a chance to prove he has potential to do more.

Other guys to watch include Andrew Billings, Jonathan Bullard, Vernon Butler, Austin Johnson, Bronson Kaufusi. Robert Nkemdiche would be on the list, but the most important information for him is going to come in the interview.

Pass Rushers

One of the noteworthy things Ryan Pace said during his postseason press conference was that the Bears needed to improve their pass rush. This year’s draft doesn’t look very strong at the top, but it could hold some surprises.

At this time last year, the 2015 draft was being praised as being loaded with pass rushers. None of them turned out. This year, there are some interesting prospects, like Shaq Lawson, Carl Nassib, Kevin Dodd and Shilique Calhoun.

Historically, athleticism directly links to success as a pass-rusher. Justis Mosqueda of Draft Breakdown has a formula which he uses that has proven nearly fool-roof, based solely on the athleticism of the players. As I wrote last year, the three-cone drill is one of the biggest tells for pass-rushers.

Length Is King

Whether it’s a defensive lineman or pass rusher, the Bears are going to value players with long arms. Throughout John Fox’s time with the Broncos and Vic Fangio’s time with the 49ers, neither team drafted a single player at either position who had arms shorter than 33 inches. That’s 13 players. This is not a coincidence.

What does that mean? Don’t expect the team to look very hard at Noah Spence, Sheldon Rankins, Jarran Reed or Sheldon Day, all measuring under 33 inches as the Senior Bowl. Guys they’re more likely to look at include Kaufusi, Jordan Jekins, Vernon Butler and Adolph Washington. Of course, this is also where Robinson can show he’s a better prospect than Ferguson. By that standard, the Bears wouldn’t have touched Ferguson.

The Need for Speed

The Bears will be able to make up for their lack of speed on offense with the returns of Eddie Royal and Kevin White, but they still have a major issue on defense.

The Fangio defense usually has four big guys up front, with his outside linebackers being larger than the typical 3-4 outside backer. It worked in San Francisco because they had Bowman and Willis covering so much ground. The best individual performance the Bears got from a linebacker last year was Jonathan Anderson against the Packers simply because he was too fast for them to block him. Of course, that’s all Anderson was.

According to Football Outsiders, the Bears were the best team in the league at forcing teams to throw short of the first down marker. Yet, they were among the worst teams in the league at stopping teams on third down because they couldn’t catch them. It isn’t just the inside linebacker position, it’s the entire defense that needs to be faster.

Speed isn’t just about the 40-time. The measurable varies for this based on the position. Neither of Denver’s inside linebackers ran better than  4.8 in the 40, but they had great 20-yard shuttle times, showing they can change directions. They need to change directions, they rarely need to run 40 yards. The distances they put up in the jumping events are also important because that shows explosiveness, important for linebackers to get to a spot quicker than the offensive player.

For defensive backs, the 40-yard dash has proven much more crucial and former NFL GM Ted Sundquist put together a list about what is most important for each position.

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