This week in Indianapolis, many of the brightest stars from the previous college football season will display their skills at the NFL combine. The week-long event is about a lot more than just sheer athleticism, but the numbers from the workouts and position drills still play an important role as teams ramp up their evaluations. Here’s our best guess for the 10 guys with the best chance to make some jaws drop in the workout portion of the combine, from Heisman candidates to overlooked workhorses.
1. DL Kentavius Street, NC State: Bradley Chubb is the Wolfpack D-lineman that will get most of the attention in Indy—and he is a special talent bound for the first round—but Street is the biggest Freak. Street is expected to weigh in at 6'2" and around 285 pounds, and don’t be surprised if he’s clocked in the 4.5s in the 40-yard dash. At 281 pounds last year, he ran an electronically timed 4.58, vertical jumped 40 inches, benched 475 pounds and squatted 700. He’s also the most flexible guy in the NC State program according to strength coach Dantonio Burnette. “It’s almost like a big receiver,” says Yo Murphy, a former NFL wideout who has helped train Street for the combine over the past two months. “He can stay in the drive phase so long.”
2. RB Saquon Barkley, Penn State: The expectations for Barkley are sky-high. “[Barkley’s] the best RB prospect I’ve seen since Adrian Peterson,” NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah wrote in late December. “Peterson’s power and violence is on another level, but Barkley’s combination of lateral quickness, top speed and elusiveness is off the charts. I don’t like to use the ‘can't-miss’ label, but Barkley seems about as safe as a prospect as you’ll find.”
The nation’s best all-around running back will top just about every category for his position group in Indy this week if he can replicate his best testing results from college, which are competitive with the 2017 combine’s top finishers. Last year, he clocked a 4.33 40 at 228 pounds. His best 20-yard shuttle time—4.00—is much quicker than the 4.18 produced by the the quickest running back at the 2017 combine, Kentucky’s Boom Williams, and his 30 reps on the bench matched Samaje Perine’s bar-setting result last year. Barkley’s 38-inch vertical and 10'10" broad jump would come in just a shade behind 2017’s top RB finishers.
3. LB Leighton Vander Esch, Boise State: A 0-star walk-on who excelled as a quarterback and basketball player at Salmon River High School in Riggins, Idaho, Vander Esch emerged as a tackling machine for the Broncos in 2017, making 129 stops and earning Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors. He’s a rangy 6'4", and I’m told he is up to 252 pounds and has gotten a lot stronger. His vertical should be in the mid-to-high 30s, at least. Training with a loaded crop of draft prospects down in Arizona, Vander Esch is reportedly out-jumping some gifted skill position prospects.
4. DL Vita Vea, Washington: My TV crew at FOX Sports saw some talented defensive players, but Vea was, by far, the most impressive defensive player I saw in person this year. A one-time 280-pound high school running back that saw himself as another Jerome Bettis, the 6'4" Vea has shed about five pounds after beginning his combine training in Arizona about seven weeks ago around 350. His trainer Jon Barlow said he’s “very comparable” to another supersized Freak that Barlow trained years ago: Dontari Poe. “Vita’s just a massive human being, but he carries it very well and he’s extremely coachable.” Like Poe, Vea’s a powerhouse, and that will be evident on the bench press, but he also has a chance to crack the 5.0 barrier in the 40, which is remarkable for someone that size.
5. DB Donte Jackson, LSU: There’s a couple of blazing fast defensive backs from the SEC coming to Indy with legit track credentials. Alabama’s Tony Brown is much stronger than Jackson, but the hunch here is the Tigers will lay claim to having the fastest man in Indy. Jackson, a sprinter on the LSU track team, ran a 10.22 100 meters at the 2017 SEC Relays and said he’s run as fast as a 4.24 in the 40s. That makes him the best chance for this class to give John Ross’s 4.22 combine record a run.
6. DB Derwin James, Florida State: When I spoke to James last summer, he was at 222 pounds with a 41-inch vertical, could bench press 450 and power clean 360. It’ll be very interesting to see the kinds of numbers James puts up across the board in Indy.
7. TE Mike Gesicki, Penn State: A former high school basketball and volleyball star, the 6'6", 252-pound Gesicki was a matchup nightmare for defenses and will be one of the most explosive athletes in Indy. At Penn State, he vertical jumped 37.5 inches and has broad jumped a ridiculous 10'11", one inch more than Barkley’s best last year.
8. G Braden Smith, Auburn: Here’s hoping the 6'6", 303-pounder will break the combine record in the bench press. The reason? He’s making a donation to Autism Speaks for every bench press rep that he does at the combine.
Smith can put up 500 pounds on the bench, but he’s also got pretty nifty wheels. Auburn strength and conditioning coach Ryan Russell said Smith has been clocked at 4.95 in the 40, vertical jumped 33 inches and broad jumped 9'9½". If he replicates that last mark in Indy, it will be the best broad jump showing by an O-lineman at the combine in the past four years.
9. LB Genard Avery, Memphis: The former Mississippi high school state champion powerlifter is a pretty explosive dude, and he quietly put together a huge senior season with 22 tackles for loss for a Tigers defense that gave up yards and points in bunches. At about 6'1" and 245 pounds, he’s a name to keep an eye on in the 40, where he may outrun several defensive backs.
10. OT Connor Williams, Texas: A former three-star recruit, Williams won the starting left tackle job as a freshman and in 2016 became the first Texas sophomore to receive first-team All-America honors since Earl Thomas in 2009. A knee injury ended his junior year in September, and he played for three O-line coaches in three seasons in Austin, but in a few months he will become the first Texas O-lineman drafted since ’08. The 6'6" Williams has great length and a tenacious playing style. He should turn heads in the position drills because of his flexibile hips, but he also could approach the 4.55 shuttle time that Broncos first-rounder Garett Bolles produced last year and shine in the 40, broad and vertical jumps.