With the NFL combine commencing later this week, draft prospects, coaches, and front office personnel have already begun to converge on Indianapolis. If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past college football season, you already know the big names to watch: Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridegwater, Jadaveon Clowney, Senior Bowl breakout Derek Carr, and, as of last week, Michael Sam, top the list. There are hundreds of players invited to the Combine, though, so these aren’t the only boys you should be paying attention to. Here, we rank ten of the best relatively unknown prospects going into the 2014 season:
1. Anthony Barr (OLB-UCLA) - You’ve undoubtedly heard of Barr by now, but I think he’s been overshadowed by talk of Khalil Mack. Barr ranks among the best defensive players in all of college football and is sure to be on plenty of team’s radars this week and next. Barr’s an incredible pass rusher and I see him being an immediate asset to any team that takes him come draft day.
2. Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois-QB) - Recently, much has been made of Garoppolo, with several teams around the league noting how impressed they were with his play at Eastern Illinois (if that name sounds familiar, it’s because Tony Romo also made a name for himself there.) Garoppolo has great size for the NFL at 6’3 and about 225 pounds. He’s probably aiming to use the combine to improve his draft stock; currently, many pundits have him going somewhere between the fourth and sixth rounds.
3. Jace Amaro (TE-Texas Tech) - Amaro is already expected to go to the Patriots. Talking heads and mock draft makers have been projecting this move for months already, but we all know there’s no guarantee when it comes to how the draft will actually play out in May. Amaro bears watching at the combine, even if you’re only thinking about how Belichick and his crew might utilize him in the future.
4. Colt Lyerla (TE-Oregon) - Lyerla clearly has talent. His athleticism is undeniable and he can be a real playmaker. The problem here is Lyerla’s penchant to engage in less-than-savory behavior off the field. Among other things, he was arrested for possession of cocaine during his tenure at Oregon. If Lyerla can clean-up his act, he’s one of my favorite relative unknowns invited to this year’s combine.
5. Tyler Starr (OLB-South Dakota) - Starr’s impressive athleticism could bowl some teams over at this year’s combine. Word around the league is that one of his recent three-cone drill times in training was 6.29. The quickest time in Indy last year was 6.52. As long as Starr can make good on numbers like these, I see his draft stock rising considerably by the end of next week.
6. Aaron Donald (DT-Pittsburgh) - Donald won a litany of awards and honors, including first-team All American, first team All ACC, the Outland Trophy, and the Bronko Nagurski Award, in 2013. The main concern most teams have about Donald is his size. Pitt lists Donald at 6 foot nothing and the odds are fairly good that his combine measurements won’t even hit that mark. However, Donald has proven himself to be a definite presence on the field at the college level and is worth keeping an eye on this week.
7. Aaron Murray (QB-Georgia) - Murray’s coming off an injury, but he’s a smart, dedicated football player and I don’t think the surgery will greatly impact his combine numbers. I think Murray could prove to be an exceptional back-up for a lot of teams in the league. Look for him to go in the third through fifth rounds.
8. Ethan Westbrooks (DE-West Texas A&M) - Coming from a Division II school, Westbrooks has his work cut out for him at the combine. Westbrooks’s size, at 6’3 and 264 pounds, is impressive and he’s surprisingly quick. Now, Westbrooks just needs to prove that he’s worthy of some hype in Indy.
9. Loucheiz Purifoy (CB-Florida) - I don’t see Purifoy starting in the NFL just yet; he’s unpolished, but he clearly has the potential to be a playmaker down the road. I anticipate that Purifoy will put up good numbers at the combine, which could be highly attractive to teams who aren’t looking for a CB to insert into their starting line-ups instantly.
10. Dri Archer (WR/RB-Kent State) - At only 5’8 and 175 pounds, Archer is decidedly undersized for the NFL. He also struggled with inconsistent numbers between his junior and senior seasons at Kent State. However, Archer’s speed is incredible and if he can put up the right numbers at the combine, he could easily go to a team looking for a versatile player in one of the later rounds.