Combine Preview: Defensive Prospects

Find out what defensive players to watch for during this weekend's Combine workouts.

The entire football world is about to turn its focus to the Combine. NFL decision-makers and draftniks will pay close attention as a series of 300-pound men with big bubbles run around in dreadfully tight spandex. Though it may seem absurd, the mass obsession over the Combine is well-founded, as it plays a pivotal role in the draft process. The importance of the workouts in Indianapolis can be overstated – the interviews behind the scenes are more important – but many prospects will have their stock surge or plummet based on how they perform in Indianapolis.

One prospect who could see his stock rise is Iowa defensive lineman Christian Ballard. Ballard had a fairly strong senior season, making plays while lining up at both defensive end and tackle. However, what he did early last spring could prove to be the best harbinger of how he'll fare in Indy.

At his junior pro day, Ballard ran an impressive 4.85 40 while weighing 298 lbs. It's unlikely that Ballard will show up to the Combine that heavy. He showed up to the Senior Bowl weighing ten pounds lighter. If he learned the little tricks regarding how to improve his 40-yard dash time, Ballard could easily best his previous time, perhaps even by as much as a tenth of a second. Running in the 4.7s could lock him in as an early second round pick; perhaps even move him into the late first round.

The Combine could be even more important for Ballard's college teammate Adrian Clayborn. Clayborn's stock has dropped after having a disappointing senior season, in which the defensive end only notched 3.5 sacks and 7 tackles for loss. Late in games the big defensive end seemed to be running on empty and didn't display the same burst that made him a dominant pass rusher in 2009.

To solidify a spot in the first round, Clayborn needs to convince teams that they'll get the '09 version. One way to make that case would be to show up in great shape and post better than expected workout numbers. Conversely, if Clayborn comes to town with a sloppy physique and posts pedestrian numbers, teams may conclude that the Iowa product won't be able to return to his '09 form.

One school that seems to send a few workout warriors to Indianapolis every year is the University of Miami. This year is no different, with two raw but physically gifted prospects coming to the Combine. The more well-known of the two physical freaks is defensive lineman Allen Bailey. The athletic big man was the subject of plenty preseason hype last summer, but he failed to live up to expectations. Unfortunately, he failed to improve his timing off the snap and was again held back by poor hand play.

However, Bailey could boost his stock with an impressive workout numbers. If he does exceedingly well in Indy, one or more teams could be convinced that they can refine and improve Bailey's game. In recent years, Miami defensive line prospects Calais Campbell and Antonio Dixon have proven to better players than they were in college. Perhaps the same could be true with Bailey; showing a great deal of athletic upside could help him make that case to NFL teams.

An under the radar prospect who could blaze the turf in Indianapolis is Hurricane defensive back Demarcus Van Dyke. Van Dyke is a tall, rail-thin corner who hasn't always been the most impressive player on the field. However, he's reportedly been timing extremely well during his Combine training. Maryland speedster Torrey Smith has said that he expects DVD to run faster than him, possibly timing in the 4.2s. It would only add to a strong performances already seen by Van Dyke in both of the off season's collegiate all-star contests.

On the other hand, a more polished UM corner could see his stock slide. Much talk has centered on cornerback Brandon Harris's ugly bowl game performance against the physical Notre Dame receiver Michael Floyd. In fact, some have argued that the bowl game in and of itself proves that Harris shouldn't go in the first frame of the draft. While that may be true, his play against Maryland wide receiver Torrey Smith raised some more Combine-relevant red flags.

Smith didn't have a very productive game against the Hurrricanes, in part due to below average quarterback play. Nevertheless, he didn't seem to have any trouble getting separation against Harris, who struggled to keep up with the speedy receiver. For that reason, Harris needs to show at the Combine that he possesses enough speed to run with NFL receivers if he is to maintain a first round grade. Running a 4.5 or slower 40-yard dash could have a significant impact on his stock. A corner who doesn't match up against physical or speedy receivers is going to have a hard time making it into the top forty five picks.

In addition to workouts, the numbers that come out of the player weigh-ins can have a big impact on a player's stock. For instance, two LSU prospects need not only to time well but to show that they fit within a position's preferred height/weight standards. Cornerback Patrick Peterson should run extremely well in Indy. Some have speculated that he could run in the 4.2's. More importantly, he needs to prove that he belongs at cornerback by displaying ideal fluidity in drills and coming in at a weight below his college listing of 6-1 and 222 lbs. If Peterson shows up ten pounds lighter than that and passes the eyeball test, he'll cement his status as the top corner in the draft and a top five pick.

Peterson's teammate Drake Nevis also has size issues, albeit on the opposite side of the spectrum. Nevis isn't the biggest defensive tackle and, at a shade under 6-1, may have already maxed out his frame. He should work out well in Indy, but his weigh-in numbers could be the biggest barrier making it into the first frame. As a result the defensive tackle's ability to get his weight up to or near 300 lbs. could dramatically improve his draft stock, giving 4-3 teams even more reason to think he could be an impact player in their defense.

Meanwhile, the situation of two North Carolina defensive linemen highlights the importance of the team interview component of the Combine. Both Marvin Austin and Robert Quinn lost their eligibility for receiving impermissible benefits, which could be an issue for some of the more character-conscious NFL teams. That is especially true with Austin, who was suspended by the team before the NCAA handed down its punishment.

Both players should excel during the workout phase of the Combine. Austin is a very good athlete for his size and appeared to be in good shape at the East-West Shrine Game practice. Quinn's a physical marvel who should be one of the most impressive performers in Indy. However, both will need to be just as impressive during their interviews, showing that any past issues are behind them. In addition, Quinn's medical evaluation will be important. Teams will want to verify that there aren't any lingering issues stemming for the brain surgery he incurred during high school.

Finally, small school prospects also make their names known due to combining good workouts with their previous production at a lower level. Walsh's Joe Morgan may be the fastest player in this year's draft class. Abilene Christian's Edmund Gates is a step slower than another ACU alumni Johnny Knox (currently starting for the Chicago Bears), but his speed is still tremendous.  Two tight ends should test off the charts in Nevada's Virgil Green and Portland State's Julius Thomas, a former four-year basketball letter winner. These are but a handful of examples.

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