A Combine of Opportunity

Players are invited to the NFL Scouting Combine based on their potential for the next level. Past performance is thrown out the window in what becomes a basic skills test. Here is a look at 10 players who could see their value increase exponentially with a big time performance at this week's Combine in Indianapolis.

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QB Cam Newton (6-foot-6, 247 pounds) - Auburn
Projected: first round

Typically, a player can most help himself with the physical aspects of the Combine. He runs a blistering 40-yard dash, and, all of a sudden, his stock rises. There are few questions about the Heisman Trophy winner's physical ability. He has a strong arm, can run like a wide receiver and is as big as a tight end. Physically, he's the total package.

He's already projected to be a first-round pick, but if Newton impresses during the interview process, he could find himself in the top five, which is a world of difference from the back end of the first round. NFL scouts don't particularly care about any pay-for-play accusations that surrounded Newton's run to the Heisman, after all, and some NFL team is going to invest millions in him. But he will be asked about his the academic cheating accusations that raise a bigger concern.

Newton has a megawatt smile, a natural charisma. He hasn't always taken the business of being a quarterback as seriously as he did at Auburn, and the results spoke for themselves. If he convinces at least one team that the Cam Newton people saw at Auburn is the Cam Newton his NFL team can expect, he'll see his draft spot rise to the single digits and an extra zero placed on his guaranteed money.

QB Jake Locker (6-foot-2 1/2, 228 pounds) - Washington
Projected: second round

Much has been written about Locker's decision to return to Washington for his senior season costing him a shot at a top-five selection in 2010, but the reality is Locker wasn't going to be a top-five pick last year, either. 

However, Locker's numbers regressed from his junior season, including a drop from 58.2 percent completion rate to 55.4 percent. Locker threw five touchdown passes against Oregon State, but threw only six more, against six interceptions, in the rest of his Pac-10 games.

Individual production revolves heavily around the team. The draft is solely about the individual's talent. In a controlled environment, he has a chance to prove his lack of production was about his team, not his ability. He needs to go out and show off a strong, consistent arm. He always has been capable of making the spectacular throw, but he needs to make the routine throw look routine. Then he would have a chance to sneak into the first round.

TE Luke Stocker (6-foot-5, 255 pounds) - Tennessee
Projected: third or fourth round

Stocker was the best overall tight end at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., last month. He has tremendous size, soft hands and good blocking ability. His production increased every year at Tennessee, capped off by a senior season with 39 catches for 417 yards. Stocker still looked as though he was lumbering off the line of scrimmage, at times. He presented a big target but not necessarily a big, fast target. Stocker could improve his stock tremendously with a sub-4.7 40.

DT Marvin Austin (6-foot-3, 305 pounds) - North Carolina
Projected: second or third round

Austin was Scout's No. 1 defensive tackle prospect in the class of 2007. His agility for a player of his size is what first-round draft picks are made of. He had upped his production in each of his first three years at North Carolina, but then he was suspended for the 2010 season. With no senior film to be graded, Austin needs to show that he is still the athlete who warranted such recognition to begin with. If he has been working hard and comes to Indianapolis in the best shape of his life, he can show teams he is a first-round talent. If his time off has been spent poorly, Austin's best days could be behind him. 

RB Jamie Harper (5-foot-11, 235 pounds) - Clemson
Projected: third round

Physically speaking, Harper has all the tools. But as a runner, he always reminded me of Auburn's Stephen Davis. Davis had elite physical talent with big-back size but ran like a scat back. Davis was drafted in the fourth round by the Washington Redskins and learned to run tough. He was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. 

Harper can go to the Combine and lay down a 4.4 40 at 230 pounds and convince a team that he's willing to make the transition to a power back with speed the same way Davis made the transition in the NFL. Davis was a steal in the fourth. If Harper can follow in Davis' footsteps, he won't be around in the fourth. 

WR Leonard Hankerson (6-foot-1 1/2, 205 pounds) - Miami
Projected: second round

Hankerson has average size and appears to have average speed, but he's hugely productive. When I think of Hankerson, the infamous Buddy Ryan line criticizing Cris Carter always comes to mind: "All he does is catch touchdowns." Hankerson set the Hurricanes' touchdown reception record with 13 last year previously held by Michael Irvin. He had six straight Atlantic Coast Conference games with a touchdown. There doesn't seem to be anything about him physically that screams first-round pick, only his production. He is a precise route runner with good hands, and if he can lay down a sub-4.5 40 at the Combine, he could see himself taken in the first round. 

WR Dane Sanzenbacher (5-foot-11, 180 pounds) - Ohio State
Projected: seventh round or undrafted

Although Hankerson is average physically, it would be a stretch to call Sanzenbacher even average. He's undersized and doesn't have great top-end speed. All he does do, though, is get open and catch the ball, two seemingly overlooked characteristics when scouting players. 

The comparisons to New England's Wes Welker are inevitable, but Welker was even shorter at 5-foot-9 but stockier at 185 pounds. Often glossed over when discussing Welker's overachieving on the field is that he has elite quickness. Welker posted a 4.01 short shuttle and 7.09 three-cone. In layman terms, that means his change of direction is as good as anyone in the league. Sanzenbacher can go a long way to cementing the Welker comparisons with a similar Combine performance. Does anyone think, with the benefit of hindsight, Welker would go undrafted again?

RB John Clay (6-foot-1, 255 pounds) - Wisconsin
Projected: fourth or fifth round

Clay put up big numbers at Wisconsin, rushing for more than 2,500 yards the past two years. But as dominant as the Badgers' running game has been, questions about Clay's pro potential will revolve around his speed. Is he another plodder from Wisconsin, or can he be the hammer that teams crave in dual-back roles? Clay's Combine performance will be made or broken entirely by his measureables. He can break a lot of Big Ten stereotypes with fast times.

DT Ian Williams (6-foot-1 1/2, 311 pounds) - Notre Dame
Projected: fourth or fifth round

At the Senior Bowl, there were times when Williams was the best defensive lineman on the field. Then there were times when he disappeared for stretches. Still, his performance was impressive, considering he missed the last month of the season because of an MCL sprain. If Williams can show he is fully recovered and his lateral movement is good, he can move up considerably on draft boards. 

DE/LB Sam Acho (6-foot-2, 257 pounds) - Texas
Projected: sixth or seventh round

Versatility is a hot commodity, with teams running different defensive schemes. Acho drew praise from the defensive coaching staff at the Senior Bowl for his burst off the edge at defensive end and his ability to drop back and play outside linebacker, as well. If he can run 4.7 or better at the Combine, he'll move up into the middle rounds, at worst.

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