A week ago we told you about concerns some scouts had about Virginia DE Chris Long and his ability to grow and improve at the next level. Well, those concerns may still be there. But nothing that Long did at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis this week did anything to deter league personnel people from thinking he is one of the top athletes available in this draft. And while his long-range outlook may be sketchy, there is little question that he can make an immediate impact on any of the teams currently sitting near the top of the board.
Long did well in the interview portion of the combine and his marks for character and intensity are high. He followed that up with a 4.75 40 time, a 34-inch vertical leap and some strong work in the drill sessions, though he did not do all the drills. There is little question that based on talent alone he is a top three pick, and Dolphins head man Bill Parcells seems high on him.
But buyer beware. Parcells loves the cat-and-mouse game that is the NFL draft, and historically he hates the first pick in the draft. Jets fans should remember his first draft with the Green & White, when he made two trades to get out of the top pick and take James Farrior at No. 8 in 1997. Don't be surprised to hear Parcells talking up Long over the next few weeks, baiting the hook for a team to trade up and get him. Just remember, it doesn't mean he really loves the kid.
One player who got some surprising love this week was Florida DE Derrick Harvey. Though he has a history of showing up in big games, he has been an inconsistent player throughout his career. But he came into this week's event in excellent shape, weighing 291 pounds, and looked very athletic in drills, showing excellent change of direction.
Harvey also impressed with 31 reps on the bench, very good for a player with such long arms. With the skills he showed in Indy, he can play laterally along the line and could even be used to drop into coverage. The only question for teams now will be that motor.
Notre Dame's Trevor Laws showed good explosion and change of direction in drills and was generally impressive despite running slower than 5.0, which was expected. He made a good showing in the bench press and didn't do anything to hurt his status as a current draft riser. Expect him to be a solid second-round pick.
There is a sizeable "tweener" group here trying to move from DE to LB at the next level. Two who impressed the scouts were Cliff Avril of Purdue and Georgia's Marcus Howard.
Avril, who played linebacker early in his career, ran a 6.90 in the three-cone drill, which is a good measure of agility and ability to play in space. That time was the best among the linemen and sixth-best among the linebackers. He showed a good feel for moving around in space and showed good plant and drive ability.
Howard looked very smooth and changed direction easily, and his 4.5 40 won't hurt him, either. He will be a strong consideration for a 3-4 team in need of a pass-rushing OLB. Don't expect either of these players to fall out of the second round.
We told you last week that Ohio State's Vernon Gholston is a player to watch, and he is still likely a top-10 pick thanks to his outstanding pass rush abilities and a workout that included a 4.7 in the 40, a 35½-inch vertical and 37 reps on the bench. He's an unbelievable athlete.
But teams looking to move him to OLB will have a project on their hands. He looked stiff in his backpedal and when trying to change direction quickly, and didn't show very good ball skills. Expect him to make an immediate impact as a situational pass rusher, but it will take some time to make him a complete linebacker.
The LBs as a whole did not perform particularly well. That may have been because Penn State's Dan Connor, considered the best inside player in this year's group, and Southern Cal's Keith Rivers did not participate Monday. Connor was sidelined with the flu and Rivers is nursing an ankle injury.
Rivers showed very well at the Senior Bowl, so his absence probably doesn't hurt him very much. However, Connor still needs to show he is more than just a hard-working overachiever. Scouts will need to see some elite level of athleticism from him in order to keep him among the top players in the draft.
Another disappointment was LSU's Ali Highsmith. He ran a couple of 5.0 40s, which is DT territory. He did poorly in change-of-direction and coverage drills as well. However, he did show good footwork in the short-area drills, leaving some scouts to think he may be best suited inside at the NFL level. He's an excellent tackler and can fill the hole quickly, so that move may end up making sense.
On a positive note, Auburn LB Quentin Groves is back on track. He struggled due to injury in 2007, and when he returned to action he did so at a new position (OLB). On Monday, his 4.5 40 and 10-foot broad jump point to the kind of explosiveness scouts look for, and he will find a home as a pass-rushing OLB in a 3-4 scheme. He has excellent closing speed, and despite a lack of ideal strength, he has the tools to get to the QB at the next level.
Two other players to keep an eye on are Georgia Tech's Gary Guyton and Stanford Keglar of Purdue. Neither was the best or most productive defensive player on his college team, but both got the attention of scouts Monday.
Keglar's 10'6" broad jump, 29 bench reps, 4.57 40, 6.70 three-cone and 3.98 short shuttle (anything under 4.0 is considered excellent in the LB group) were among the top performances of the day. Guyton was explosive with 36½ inches in the vertical, a 10'6" broad jump and 4.47 in the 40. That kind of athleticism usually lends itself to smaller weakside LBs, but with good size as well (both measure in at 6'2", 245), they can also line up on the strong side and battle the TE. That kind of versatility will make them attractive options for a number of teams early on day two of the draft.
The corners stole the show Tuesday, the final day of workouts, led by Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. The former Middle Tennessee State star flashed the playmaking ability of his cousin (Chargers Pro Bowl CB Antonio Cromartie) at the Senior Bowl and performed extremely well in Indy, ranking among the leaders in several categories, including the 40. Rodgers-Cromartie measures nearly 6'2", very tall for a corner, so scouts were surprised at his speed and smoothness in change-of-direction and coverage drills. Though some see him as a safety, his ball skills may make him an option at corner as well.
Speed was the operative word in the DB workouts. Twenty-one players ran sub-4.4 in the 40, which makes top prospects Chevis Jackson of LSU (4.64) and Brandon Flowers of Virginia Tech (4.57) big disappointments. Penn State's Justin King and UConn's Tyvon Branch tied for the fastest time of the day (4.31).
With speed being essentially equal, Troy's Leodis McKelvin had the best workout of the top corner prospects. He is light on his feet and lightning-quick with the ability to change direction quickly and smoothly, and he did a good job catching the ball.
The safeties did nothing to change the scouts' perception of the lack of talent and depth at the position this year. Miami's Kenny Phillips, Notre Dame's Tom Zbikowski, Michigan's Jamar Adams, Texas' Marcus Griffin and Alabama's Simeon Castille continue to rank among the top safeties, and Arizona State's Josh Barrett ran a 4.35 40 to help himself. But there may not be a first-rounder in this group.