By Paul Wanecski
The PAC-12 is all the rage this time of year, perennially featuring the large group of 1st round NFL talent. Looking down the line, we are going to cover names you should know going into the scouting combine and which drills will either hurt or help their stock.
Dante Pettis – Wide Receiver, Washington
Pettis needs to show that he isn’t just a great route running wide out. His production dropped off after he lost John Ross to the draft last year. He is great as a punt returner. If Pettis can push a 4.45 forty-yard dash, it will do wonders for this draft stock. He could stand to add some more meat to his frame, standing 6’1” but just a shade above 190lbs. He is shifty enough to give defensive backs trouble but he needs to show that he has the ability to go deep. He might have the best pure hands in this draft at the receiver position. A good showing could push him up to the second round.
Justin Reid - Safety, Stanford
Comparable in size to coveted Minkah Fitzpatrick, the projected top safety from Alabama. The issue for Reid is that scouts will talk about being concerned with his range. He also has dropped down to play slot corner but really didn’t look great, giving too much space. He did finish with 99 tackles, 6.5 for loss and 5 interceptions. He can produce but the speed drills will help improve his stock. Primarily, he has to beat Fitzpatrick. If Fitzpatrick puts up a 4.50 forty-yard dash, Reid HAS to beat it. Anything short of .05 within Fitzpatrick and his stock will slide. He should be taken in the second round unless he impresses in interviews and if he can smoke the competition. Teams will see the speed and think they can teach him coverage.
Hercules Mata’afa – Defensive Line, Washington State
Aside from having the coolest name in the PAC-12 of players with combine invites, Mata’afa has a real opportunity to prove he can make a position change in the NFL. He needs to show he can drop into coverage when needed. While his college production was very solid, scouts are going to have concerns about his size. He checks in at 6’1” and at 250lbs, simply too small to stay at the defensive tackle position. He won a lot battles because he is quick but he might show the burst that teams will look for on the edge. Showing great in agility drills will do a lot for him, otherwise, he is probably a 6th round player. What will get him drafted is his motor; the guy just never stops.
Kolton Miller, Tackle, UCLA
UCLA had a pretty terrible offensive line the last several seasons but Miller would have stood out even if they weren’t bad. He stood nearly 6’9” with an 82 ½ inch wingspan (yes, you read that right…that’s a few inches short of 7 feet). He isn’t top or bottom heavy but has some mechanical issues at left tackle. Truthfully, his tendencies say that he could slide to right tackle with no problem. He isn’t the quickest getting to the outside and because he is so tall, edge defenders can get position on him because he plays really vertical. Hammering agility drills will show that he isn’t as average an athlete as his tape shows.
Ronald Jones – Running Back, USC
While a lot of NFL folks will want to see how he catches the ball in skill drills, that won’t be the drill that really helps or hurts him (news flash, he will catch just fine). First off, Jones is really fun to watch. He really churns for yardage and can wiggle his way out of a lot of problems. He also only fumbled twice in almost 600 carries. He loves to fight for yards but misses opportunities each game because he wasn’t patient enough. Jones is an effective player in pass protection which immediately makes him a candidate as a 3-down back. Durability is his biggest question mark, as most teams don’t think he is strong enough to endure 20 touches a game. Slamming down iron on the bench and flashing an elite broad jump could prove them wrong. The combine for him is about finishing at or above the results of Barkley from Penn State. (Update: Skipped the Bench Press. Barkley slammed 29 reps on the Bench. No way he could come close to that but still not a great idea to skip this unless he cant do 15 reps at 225lbs)
James Looney – Defensive End, California
Looney has the pedigree that teams love to see, but is falling into a strange category of player; too small to play inside, not strong enough to play outside. He is already sitting at 6’3” and should be around 280lbs with really fast hands but no pop behind them. He is too big to play outside linebacker, no small to play defensive tackle and not strong enough to play the edge in either a 3-4 or 4-3. He needs to flash strength and show up with more lean muscle then he played with all last season. He got pushed around against power lineman. He is hovering in the Undrafted Free Agent group given his lack of power he showed in 2017 (and even in 2016), but he has good instincts, is really athletic, and has enough pass rushing moves to be dangerous…if he could just simply get the size to take advantage of it.
Kalen Ballage – Running Back, Arizona State
Don’t let his numbers fool you; he will be an absolute freak at the NFL combine. With a frame like Latavius Murray, Ballage is 6’3” and will come into the combine close to 230lbs. He is strong, catches the ball really well and will make you think “wow, why did this guy have to split carries the last two years?” The truth is he has really poor vision, something you won’t see at the combine. He will need to absolutely destroy every drill he does, namely the skills drills since he will need to prove that he has the potential to be a primary target on a team. He will likely post near the top in vertical, broad and bench press drills. Truthfully, he would make a good slot wide out but as a running back, he is a 6th round selection.
Isiah Oliver – Cornerback, Colorado
Oliver has great speed and near prototypical measurable but has some mechanical issues in coverage. The most important drill for him will be the speed turn, a drill where the defensive back will backpedal, stop, charge forward, then turn and burn while trying to pick up the ball in the air for an interception. This drill is done alone so some of the biggest flaws in Oliver’s game will be put to the test here. One is he stands very vertical while going backward. Two is his ability to stop and start. Oliver has the ability to make up ground but he is always running a full speed and will struggle to slow pace when necessary. This drill will highlight if he has the ability to gear down or not.
Royce Freeman – Running Back, Oregon
Usually, the “Interview” section is reserved for players with off-the-field problems who will use this time to try and convince teams that everything that got them in trouble is long behind them. For Freeman, this platform is going to speak to his knee injury that slowed him down and allow him to answer questions on why he looked so different from his freshman and sophomore seasons (where he had 3,707 all-purpose yards and 38 touchdowns) compared to his junior and senior seasons (where is had 2,728 all –purpose and 26 touchdowns). Overall, Freeman is a good, patient running back. He doesn’t have another gear in the open field but he would bring solid, dependable contributions to a team in need of an early down runner who isn’t boom or bust. He was used a LOT in college, so teams will be concerned about his previous workload.
Sam Darnold – Quarterback, USC
Darnold has decided not to throw with the other quarterbacks, which is a very wise decision for him. When a QB throws at the combine and are in the conversation as a top selection, they are betting on themselves to be the best of the group. Anything less could hurt them. Not throwing doesn’t actually hurt him here. The combine for him is all about the interviews. He will need to show folks that he has a great football mind. He will need to show that he is willing to make adjustments to his game. His throwing motion we could spend 10,000 words breaking down, but the truth is it is not changing. If teams are impressed with his interviews, expect him to get a lot attention from teams afterward. Attendance at his Pro Day March 21st will be a good indicator of how he moved the needle with teams.