If you have been paying attention to the NFL scouting combine reports, you are fully aware of the top stories from the last week of rookie workouts. Michael Crabtree learned of a stress fracture in his foot that kept him from running at the combine (though he plans to run at his pro day in March). Andre Smith unexpectedly decided to leave the combine early without telling those in charge why and had taken a rather public flogging for it. Matt Stafford did not throw but did run and jump well in the combine and, according to reports on the NFL Network, was most impressive in meetings with team officials while discussing game strategy. Mark Sanchez took advantage of his opportunities and looked crisp in workouts. None of that (save the Andre Smith story) is a big surprise so far. There will be plenty of analysis on the top performers by the time the draft rolls around later this spring.
There are some guys flying a little below (or maybe even off of) the radar who made compelling statements about their ability to translate to the next level.
Hunter Cantwell, QB, Louisville
One of the tallest QBs in this class (standing 6’4”), Cantwell made good throws and showed some flash of potential while leading receivers, a skill offensive coaches covet. He throws with a lot of velocity (which is not always a good thing) but it is easier to coach touch to guys with a cannon than to develop arm strength on guys who do not have it. Cantwell impressed people by refining his mechanics for a post-season all-star game demonstrating his ability to learn and willingness to be coached. He only has sixteen starts under his belt, but the ability to learn (and the lack of wear and tear) make him a very good mid-round prospect for a team with a solid starter that is looking for a quality backup who may turn into a starter in a few years.
Pat White, QB/WR, West Virginia
I admit, I was not sold on White’s ability to play QB at the next level even after his strong performance in the Senior Bowl. He is not very big (6’0”, 197 lbs.), he played in the spread option offense almost exclusively from the shotgun, his deep throws are not great, and he may not be able to absorb the kind of hits he will take in the NFL. All that noted, White impressed a lot of folks at the combine with his crisp throws on short and intermediate routes, his speed, and his hard work. He may be best as a slot receiver and occasionally used as the “wildcat” back taking direct snaps (though the shelf life of that formation is debatable). White plans to work at QB and WR drills at his pro day and if his hands develop, he could be an interesting weapon for some team to grab somewhere in the second to fourth round.
Ian Johnson, RB, Boise State
You probably remember Johnson for the ending of the 2007 Fiesta Bowl where he and the Boise State Broncos won the game with a statue of liberty play. In the meantime, Johnson has built a rather impressive resume despite working through a gaggle or injuries including torn knee ligaments and a punctured lung. His upright running style reminds me a little of Chris Brown (formerly of Colorado and Tennessee Titans fame) and he has tools to be a good complementary back in a number of NFL backfields.
Javarris Williams, RB, Tennessee State
You have probably never even heard of this guy, but he can play football. His numbers are solid (even against FCS competition) and he impressed scouts with his game knowledge. His best attribute is his ability as a short-yardage back – something every NFL teams either wants or needs. He also does not have a lot of wear and tear on his body and was impressive in various drills at the combine. He will be a good pickup for a team in a mid or later round to use alongside an established back to provide relief and short yard production.
Kenny Britt, WR, Rutgers
If you put any weight in his workout at the combine it is hard to argue that Britt is anything but big, strong, and fast. Noted as a strong runner after he catches the ball, Britt addressed some of the criticisms about his strength by throwing the 225 lbs. bench press up 23 times. He also displayed good hands in drills and had a solid vertical leap. He may not be an elite WR in the NFL, but he has the makings of a solid possession guy.
Johnny Knox, WR, Abilene Christian
He is not very big (6’0”, 185 lbs.) and he played in an offense that got him the ball on slants and screens and let him make stuff happen which does not always translate to the NFL. However, his 4.34 40 time and his crisp footwork make him a great prospect as a slot receiver and special teams player. That speedy run will likely get his name called in a later round instead of being strictly a free agent signee.
Lydon Murtha, OL, Nebraska
The only offensive lineman to run the 40 in under five seconds, Murtha projects as a right tackle or perhaps a guard. He battled through various injuries which raise some durability concerns, but his size and speed make him a worthy late round pickup. What he lacks in technique can be corrected with godo coaching and experience.
Cornelius Lewis, OL, Tennessee State
He opened a lot of holes and lanes for the aforementioned RB from Tennessee State. While he does not possess the punch to play tackle in the NFL, his tools translate well to the guard positions. His ability in the second level notes his ability to stay with a play after the initial contact on the line. He has good size and more than adequate speed to work with some of the top running games in the league.
Chris Baker, DL, Hampton
The folks at WalterFootball.com nailed it. How does a guy this size (6’2”, 326 lbs.) move as fast (5.02) and jump as high (35.5 inches) as Baker did at the combine? The biggest concerns on this guy are off-the-field issues that contributed to his departure from Penn State to Hampton. He is worth a mid round pick as a possible role player if a team can help him learn to turn that toughness and mean streak into production on the defensive line.
Terrance Taylor, DL, Michigan
Taylor is stock, strong, and good and plugging the inside lanes by taking up two guys. He is not a pass rusher, but could be a good defender in the middle against the run especially coming from the Big 10 and having faced a number of larger offensive lines and bruisers at running back.
Kaluka Maiava, LB, Southern California
You have heard and read a lot more about his Trojans teammates, but this guy can plays hard and has a great motor. He impressed scouts in the quickness drills (something every linebacker dropping into coverage needs) and what he may lack in size, he makes up for in strength. He is the kind of guy a team can draft, put on special teams, and build his skills to be used in various game situations.
Darius Butler, DB, Connecticut
Butler has good speed (from a group of DBs that largely underperformed in that category at the combine). He can adjust to the ball, jumps extremely well, and has very solid footwork. His abilities led the Huskies to even use him on offense from time to time his senior year (ala Devin Hester) and his skill set may translate well to either CB or FS in the NFL. He will make a good nickel back and special teamer for a team picking in the mid rounds.
So, when you are watching those middle and late rounds in the draft, keep a look out for these guys who may lack in the headlines and flash department, but still have solid NFL qualities.