The NFL Scouting Combine begins this week in Indianapolis, and it brings together 323 of the nation's most draftable players, as well as numerous coaches, front-office representatives, and scouts from each NFL team.
Below we preview the defense, with six players to watch at each position:
DL Arik Armstead, Oregon: His size (6-foot-8, 290 pounds) and physical tools make you drool. But he wasn't dominant at Oregon and didn't really play up to the hype until this season; he then left school a year early. His athleticism has been touted, so his combine performance will be worth watching. He played defensive end in the Ducks' 3-4, and that looks to be his best scheme fit. NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah has Armstead as the No. 13 prospect in the draft.
DT Carl Davis, Iowa: Iowa generally wants its defensive tackles to take on blocks, which in turn frees up the linebackers to make plays. Thus, Davis' tackle stats aren't all that impressive. But Davis (6-5, 315) did impress at the Senior Bowl, when he basically was turned loose and showed an ability to get upfield. A strong combine would increase his chances of going late in the first round; Zierlein already has him as a first-round pick. Davis' size is impressive, and he will be looking to show off his athleticism in the drills. Iowa OT Brandon Scherff is seen as a first-round lock; Iowa hasn't had two first-rounders in the same draft since 1997, with DB Tom Knight and G Ross Verba.
DE Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: Fowler (6-3, 260) should test extremely well at the combine. He was used in a variety of roles by Florida coaches and lined up in different spots, and his versatility is a positive. His best fit in the NFL might be as a 3-4 outside linebacker, and he did do a nice job against the run while an end at Florida. NFL Media analyst Lance Zierlein believes Fowler "has a Pro Bowl ceiling with double-digit sack potential." His combine numbers should feed right into that thought process.
DT Eddie Goldman, Florida State: Goldman is a large man (6-4, 314) who moves well, and he definitely will get first-round consideration because of his strong work against the run. Strong combine numbers obviously will strengthen his case to be a first-rounder -- and potentially be the second pure tackle taken, behind only Washington's Danny Shelton. Goldman's pass-rush skills basically come down to a bull rush and Zierlein says Goldman's "lack of pass-rushing prowess could limit just how high he rises on draft boards." Showing off his athleticism at the combine is a must for Goldman.
NT Jordan Phillips, Oklahoma: Phillips (6-6, 334) had two seasons of eligibility remaining at OU when he decided to turn pro; at the same time, he already had been at Oklahoma for four years. While he was a fulltime starter this season, he redshirted as a true freshman in 2011, was a backup in '12 and played in just four games in 2013 before receiving a medical redshirt for a back injury that eventually required surgery. His medical charts will receive a thorough going-over from teams looking to add a big body in the middle. And Phillips is huge. It also will be interesting to see how Phillips fares in the drills. Zierlein notes that Phillips is "athletic with nimble feet and (the) pursuit speed of a man much lighter." Zierlein and fellow analyst Bucky Brooks have Phillips as a first-round pick in their first mock drafts of the year, and a strong combine performance certainly would not hurt.
DL Leonard Williams, USC: More than a few folks think he is the draft's No. 1 prospect; NFL Media analyst Daniel Jeremiah is one of those. Williams (6-5, 300) played tackle and end at USC, and depending upon who drafts him, he could play either spot in the NFL. He is a big-time athlete for a guy who is 300 pounds, and he should show off that athleticism at the combine. He is dealing with some shoulder issues and has said he could skip the bench-press portion of the combine.
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OLB Alvin "Bud" Dupree, Kentucky: Dupree (6-foot-4, 262 pounds) was listed as an end at Kentucky, played a hybrid end/linebacker spot and likely will be an outside linebacker in the NFL; he will go through the linebacker drills at the combine. He should wow onlookers -- especially given his size -- during the combine tests; his vertical jump has been measured at 40 inches and his broad jump at 10-foot-7. There's also this: Kentucky uses the "Catapult" monitoring system and Dupree was clocked at 20.5 mph in a game in 2013. Yes, he still is learning the nuances of the game, but "wow" numbers in the combine tests can cause folks to forget all about weaknesses.
OLB Hau'oli Kikaha, Washington: Kikaha (6-2½, 246) led the nation with 19 sacks and was second with 25 tackles for loss; he also is Washington's career sacks leader with 36. His left knee is a potential concern; he missed most of the 2011 season with after he suffered a torn ACL, then reinjured the same ligament in fall camp in 2012 (while covering Austin Seferian-Jenkins on a pass pattern). His medical exam will be pored over. In addition, Kikaha is known as a high-energy, high-motor guy who makes plays because of his relentlessness, not necessarily his athleticism. Thus, his numbers in the combine tests will be pored over, too. He played a hybrid end/linebacker position at Washington, and teams are interested in finding out if he can be a "pure" 3-4 outside 'backer.
ILB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: Is he the best pure inside linebacker available (we're among those putting TCU's Paul Dawson in the OLB category, though he seems able to play inside and out)? A strong combine performance will help his case. His size (6-5, 249) is intriguing for an inside guy, but there are questions about his agility and movement skills. Obviously, he cannot alleviate all the concerns in Indianapolis, but he could tamp down some doubts, for sure.
ILB Denzel Perryman, Miami: Perryman also is in the running to be the first inside linebacker off the board. His size, though, is seen as a hindrance; he measured a bit under 5-11 and weighed 248 pounds at the Senior Bowl. He hits a ton, plays with a nasty streak and understands leverage (a good thing when you're under 5-11). Given his perceived limitations, his combine numbers are going to be monitored; his 40 time will be interesting, for sure.
OLB Shaq Thompson, Washington: Thompson is an excellent athlete with a lot of versatility -- so much of both, in fact, that he felt the need to tell people he sees himself as a linebacker and not a running back in the NFL. He should score well in all the combine events, which will lead to talk about how early he will go in the first round. He almost certainly will be the first linebacker chosen.
OLB Max Valles, Virginia: Speaking of highly athletic linebackers, here's Valles. He likely should've stayed for his senior season because he remains raw as a player, but he is an excellent athlete. He had 13 sacks and 18 tackles for loss in two seasons for the Cavaliers; almost 25 percent of his college tackles were tackles for loss (18 of 78, or 23 percent). But Valles needs a lot of refinement as a pass rusher, with NFL Media analyst Lance Zeirlein saying Valles "relies solely on his outstanding athleticism and physical tools rather than an understanding of how to play the game." Still, that athleticism should be on full display, and when that happens, you just known a handful of teams will focus on his upside and not his faults.
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FS Chris Hackett, TCU: Alabama's Landon Collins is the clear-cut No. 1 safety and is seen as a first-round lock. So who's the No. 2 safety? That's a good question, and Hackett could be in the discussion for some teams. He turned pro a year early after a sterling 2014 campaign, when he led the Horned Frogs with seven interceptions (tied for third nationally) and was fourth on the team with 75 tackles. Hackett (6-foot-2, 195 pounds) was a three-year starter for the defense-savvy Horned Frogs, who use a 4-2-5 set, and finished his career with 12 interceptions, 16 pass breakups, 224 tackles, and five forced fumbles. The biggest issue is a perceived lack of top-end speed; thus, his 40 time will be important. He should do well in the other drills.
CB Kevin Johnson, Wake Forest: Johnson toiled for one of the weakest Power Five programs in the nation, but scouts know all about him. His height (he's listed at 6-1) is a plus. But he also is listed at 175 pounds and needs to add weight and bulk. NFL Media analyst Lance Zeirlein says Johnson is "very natural in man coverage" and can be "disruptive in press coverage." He should test well at the combine, though it will be interesting to see his 40 time. Also interesting will be his official weigh-in: How much does he weigh? There is no clear-cut pecking order among the corners, so the combine likely will help teams further establish their lists. Johnson wouldn't mind cementing a spot among the top five at the position.
CB Marcus Peters, Washington: Peters might be the best corner available, but there are red flags flying -- not the least of which is that he was dismissed from the team during the season. Zeirlein says Peters (6-0, 198) is a "talented cover cornerback with size, ball skills and the confidence NFL teams are looking for, but (he) lacks the necessary discipline and maturity on the field and in practice." At the combine, Peters needs to show up, keep his head down and blow teams away with his work in the drills. He almost certainly will be downgraded by most (every?) team because of character issues, but, hey, at least he can make it difficult for teams to do that with a strong combine showing.
CB Quinten Rollins, Miami (Ohio) : He's one of the most interesting stories in the draft. He was a four-year starter at point guard for the RedHawks' basketball team before deciding to try his hand at football as a senior. Rollins had a fabulous season, being named the MAC's defensive player of the year after coming up with seven interceptions, nine pass breakups, 72 tackles, and four tackles for loss; the seven interceptions tied for third nationally. Yes, he is raw. But he also has good size at 5-11 and 193 pounds and looks to have the necessary traits to be a top-flight cornerback. "His ability to change gears instantly gives him a chance to develop into a talented cover cornerback," Zierlein says. His 40 time and work in the drills are being eagerly anticipated by personnel folks.
CB Trae Waynes, Michigan State: Michigan State CB Darqueze Dennard was a first-round pick last year; this year, Waynes seems likely to go in the first round. Michigan State has its corners take on different roles; Waynes was the Spartans' "field" corner in 2013, and the field corner defends the wide side of the field on each play. He replaced Dennard as the Spartans' boundary corner in 2014. Waynes (6-1, 182) has good length and is comfortable in bump-and-run coverage. As with Dennard coming out of college, Waynes is too "hands-on" for some observers, but that is the way Michigan State corners are coached. Waynes is in the running to be the first corner off the board, and a strong combine obviously would help his cause. Dennard ran a 4.51 in the 40 last year; can Waynes beat that?
CB P.J. Williams, Florida State: Williams (6-0, 196) is another who could be in the mix to be the first corner off the board. He has good size and bulk, and plays a physical brand of ball. Zeirlein calls him "a bump-and-run specialist," and his 40 time will be closely monitored. Williams says he is "going to put on a show" at the combine. Fellow FSU CB Ronald Darby seems likely to have the better 40 time, but it's not a stretch to think Williams can run under 4.4 seconds. And with Williams weighing almost 200 pounds, that would open some eyes.