Eight to Watch at the Combine

Beyond the Matt Ryans and Chris Longs of the world, there is a much larger undercurrent of players whose roles in the 2008 draft are undetermined. Players whose day in the draft could be first or second, and time is running out for that determination to be made. The Scouting Combine will decide a lot for the eight players described here, and hundreds more.

QB Josh Johnson, San Diego

Johnson's Offensive MVP performance at the Shrine Game was a continuation of his amazing 2007 season. Johnson threw for almost 3,000 yards in only 10 games, but the real standout stat was his 43-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio. That's 43 touchdowns. In one season. Those who have seen Johnson admire his poise in the pocket -- unlike most young, mobile quarterbacks, he's not automatically prone to balking and bringing he ball down at the first sign of pressure. His work with Jim Harbaugh has been an advantage. The real question is how the NCAA's all-time passing efficiency rating leader will match up against competition stronger than Valparaiso, Morehead State and Cal-Davis. The Shrine Game was a definitive answer, but if Johnson can show the same kinds of mechanics as other quarterbacks of interest at the Combine, he could watch his stock split for the second time.

What Will Impress: Reads through progressions very well, great long-distance arm, excellent burst and elusiveness as a runner.

What He Needs to Prove: Versatility in his repertoire, especially short throws. Occasionally iffy form (setting his feet and ball release) during Shrine Game practices will be a red flag here.

RB Jonathan Stewart, Oregon

Everyone's favorite Seahawks first-round prospect comes into the Combine as quite possibly the most complete back in the nation. As NFLDraftScout.com puts it, Stewart "has the size of a fullback, the strength of an offensive lineman and the quickness of a sprinter." What he also has is the slightly under the radar designation that he shares with most West Coast players. In truth, the only thing that keeps Stewart from being rated as the best player (read: player, not athlete) at his position is a slightly scary injury history.  Stewart can play through pain, but he's had to do a lot of that for a junior. His ankle problems go back to 2002. However, the LaDanian Tomlinson/Adrian Peterson comparisons are legitimate. Stewart rushed for 1,722 yards, and amassed 2,481 all-purpose yards, in 2007.

What Will Impress: Will most likely show great timed speed, especially for his size (5-11, 235 pounds). 

What He Needs to Prove: The medical tests will be the big obstacle, as will overcoming perceptions if he has to skip any drills. Clearing those hurdles could shoot him a long way up the boards.

RB Matt Forte, Tulane

One of the most impressive prospects at the Senior Bowl in Mobile last month, Forte is one of the players, along with USC DT Sedrick Ellis, who made a lot of money that week. He's got the size to be an every-down back in the NFL while also possessing the athleticism to be explosive when he gets into the open field. Forte runs hard inside and, more importantly he finishes his runs, powering through arm tackles and making defenders pay when they come in for contact. Playing for a team like Tulane, a player can get lost in the shuffle, but Forte is likely to be the top senior back taken in the draft this year after totaling 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns as a senior in 2007.

What Will Impress: Unfortunately, what Forte does best (gaining tough yardage inside the tackles) won't be on display while he's in Indy. However, he can show off his soft hands and put his excellent athleticism on display.

What He Needs to Prove: That his speed is good enough past the first level of NFL defenses. If Forte can run in the 4.5 range, he's probably going to be a second-rounder.

WR Jordy Nelson, Kansas State

A big, tall target (6-3, 215) with impressive speed, Nelson set school records for catches and receiving yards in 2007 with 122 and 1,606. He's fast in traffic with good hands. The Kansas State offense is known as a passing offense, but Nelson's not just a "system player". He impressed at the Shrine Game, and though he's currently projected as an early second-day pick, certain Combine numbers could change that.

What Will Impress: Acceleration, ability to catch the ball, short-area quickness.

What He Needs to Prove: "Better in pads than in shorts" is all well and good, but not necessarily in this case. If Nelson can bring his athleticism to the RCA Dome in the sheer speed tests, he'll become a lot more intriguing to a lot more people. Breaking the possession receiver stereotype by showing deep speed is the first step.

OG Branden Albert, Virginia

The Virginia underclassman picked the right year to declare -- he immediately became the top prospect in a weak guard class. The 6-7, 315-pound Albert possesses a compelling mix of athleticism and sheer size. His quickness and pulling ability have some experts wondering if he might not wind up switching to tackle at the next level. He received head coach Al Groh's blessing to forego his senior season. A team co-captain as a junior. Albert shouldn't have any trouble with those personnel execs that place character in a high position when evaluating prospects.

What Will Impress: Unusual speed and quickness; great ability to pull and block at the second level. Could be a dominant guard in a zone blocking scheme, but the future is wide open from a positional standpoint. You might see him anywhere but center in the NFL.

What He Needs to Prove: The drills will be interesting for Albert. If he can show power and drive-blocking ability to go with that speed, the rush to this player's bandwagon could become claustrophobic. Already a Mike Mayock favorite.

OT Sam Baker, USC

Heading into the 2007 season, Baker, along with Michigan's Jake Long, was thought to be one of the top tackle prospects in the country. However, the football gods didn't shine down on the Trojans' top returning lineman as he struggled with injuries all season while looking average at times versus some of the better defensive ends in the country. Baker's size and his ability to be solid as both a run and pass-blocker make him an intriguing prospects even with his limited athletic ability. When you come from a school like USC, you come out with the rep of being one of the best players at your position, and Baker has worked hard to live up to that moniker.

What Will Impress: His size (6-5.5, 310) and his long wingspan are prototypical for an NFL right tackle.

Cornerback Aqib Talib #3 of the Kansas Jayhawks makes a catch against the Virginia Tech Hokies during the FedEx Orange Bowl at Dolphin Stadium on January 3, 2008 in Miami, Florida. Kansas defeated Virginia Tech 24-21. (Photo by Doug Benc/Getty Images)

What He Needs to Prove: That the injury bug was a fluke this past season and that he has the necessary footwork and athleticism to slide out on the speed rushers he'll face every week in the NFL.

CB Aqib Talib, Kansas

When you talk about the most impressive athletes in the draft this year, Talib's name is at or near the top of the list. He's an intense football player and he's very tough, both mentally and physically. Talib definitely has the necessary balance of confidence and ability to be an outstanding cover-corner in the NFL. He's also an outstanding return man who can take it the distance anytime he gets his hands on the ball. Talib is a player who will give his all on every play and will never back down from a challenge. NFL teams struggle to find players like that every year.

What Will Impress: Talib's size (6-2, 200) and athleticism are rare for a cornerback and NFL teams will drool over his abilities.

What He Needs to Prove: That he has the speed to catch up when he makes a mistake in coverage. If he can run a sub-4.5 in the forty, he'll be assured a top 15 selection in April.

S Jamie Silva, Boston College

An underrated, ruthless, and intelligent defender and special teams player. Silva's is a name you should know. In his senior season, Silva led his team in tackles (115) and interceptions (six). In addition, he allowed the fewest yards-per-reception average (2.26) in Division I football. His dominant Shrine Game performance -- he recovered a Dwight Lowery fumble on special teams and pretty much single-handedly stopped the West's first offensive drive in the second half -- let the nation in on the secret to a point.

What Will Impress: Instincts, aggressiveness, intelligence. The question is whether Silva's talents, both tangible and intangible, will show up in the tests.

What He Needs to Prove: That he has enough speed, recovery ability and hip turn to impress the scouts who didn't see enough of his game tape to know what they'd be getting. Most likely, someone's going to get a second-day steal that can start and make a difference on special teams right away and work his way into becoming a leader in an NFL secondary.

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