NFL Combine 2012: risers and fallers on defense

Subtitled: Vontaze Burfict’s Bad, Bad, Very Bad, No-Good Day. 

Every year there are players whose draft stock tumbles at the NFL Combine. It’s the nature of the business when you take a player out of a team sport and evaluate him head to head against his peers. The one who looks great makes the others look worse by comparison. 

But not every year do you have a player torpedo his own stock so thoroughly that conversation moves him from a fringe first rounder to a fringe bet to go undrafted. Not every year do you have to look for historical comparables for “worst NFL combine ever.” For Vontaze Burfict, this is that awkward moment. 

For the record, Burfict is able to hit people very, very hard. That’s how he made his name as a player in a very good 2010 season. But 2011 wasn’t kind to him on the field, and scouts had already started picking holes in Burfict’s game before the Combine started. “I don’t see first round at all,” pronounced Mike Mayock. “I wouldn’t touch him,” remarked an unnamed NFL personnel man to CBS’s Bruce Feldman. “I could have played better. The coaches messed me up,” said Burfict himself, not helping himself in interviews.

So the stage was set for a fall, and Burfict’s indifference about the physical drills he was being asked to run made it into an epic one. He lumbered to a 5-second 40, failed to shine in any of the other positional drills, and seemed more interested in twiddling with his iPod than with firing himself up for this harshly lit stage. 

In its awfulness, his performance far outshines that of fellow linebackers Brandon Spikes, who interviewed well but ran slow, and Rey Maualuga, who ran well but rubbed many the wrong way. Other highly-touted defenders have fallen at the Combine, only to rise again in the draft, like Joe Haden (indifferent), Terrell Suggs (slow), and Aaron Maybin (both). None of these makes a perfect comparable. 

To find someone who made so thoroughly bad an impression, who so thoroughly sunk his own stock, we’re left with this: Burfict may be the new Maurice Clarett. 

Risers in the defensive front seven

DTs Dontari Poe (Memphis) and Fletcher Cox (Mississippi State)

This was supposed to be a weak class of DTs, especially compared to 2010, which brought us Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy in the top 3. But don’t tell that to 6’4″ 346-pound Dontari Poe. Poe shocked observers with his raw physical might, lifting 225 pounds off the bench 44 times, and bursting down the field with a 4.78 40 yard dash – taking only 1.7 seconds to get the first ten yards up the field. 

That ten-yard split is notable in its ability to completely erase a quarterback’s cushion, even in a shotgun snap. To consistently do so in under two seconds will disrupt even the fastest timing-based offense. Speed and strength off the snap is what propelled Ndamukong Suh to stardom, and his combine measurements (32 reps in the bench press, 4.98 in the 40) pale by comparison. 

Best of all, notes Yahoo’s Doug Farrar, the tape backs up his athletic feats. Rarely does a defensive tackle follow the Warren Sapp path to stardom. Poe may be on it. 

Before Poe stepped into the spotlight, Fletcher Cox’s speed stood as the most eye-opening feat on the day. He clocked a 4.79 40 with a 1.63 split on the first ten yards, moving significantly faster at 298 pounds than a player like Burfict did at fifty pounds lighter. “Impressive,” you say, “but he’s no Dontari Poe.” But like Poe, his stock will be rising significantly after this performance, perhaps climbing into the first round. 

DEs Nick Perry (USC) and Melvin Ingram (South Carolina) 

SI’s Tony Pauline raved that Perry had a “workout for the ages,” impressing in each of the stunts and tests he was asked to run. Perry already carried a rep as a “workout warrior,” though that can have a negative connotation as well for players who aren’t as physical as you’d expect on the field compared to what they can do off of it. But his high motor and agility make him a first-round prospect as a pass rusher.

Melvin Ingram, on the other hand, is considered a total package at defensive end, and who displayed as much style as substance while being put through the paces. Ingram appeared effortless and constantly on balance while running a 4.67 40, and sprinting through technique drills. Ingram was already a highly-regarded prospect who didn’t help himself so much compared to his peers, but compared to higher-risk players in other positions that be candidates for the top 15. 

LB Luke Kuechley (Boston College)

First, we have to learn how to say his name. (It’s “KEEK-ly”). Then we have to readjust our expectations, because Kuechley blew them away.

In our pre-draft preview of Kuechley, we quote Wes Bunting of the National Football Post citing conventional wisdom: “He’s not the biggest, strongest or fastest, but…”

Hold that thought. Kuechley killed the strength and speed drills, with a sparkling 4.58 time in the 40 yard dash and 27 reps on the bench. Throw in the third-highest vertical leap and fifth-highest broad jump on the day, and add in the rest of Bunting’s sentiments – “… ‘plus’ tackler w/ great instincts…top tier future NFL tackler” – and you have a very exciting player. 

Fallers in the defensive front seven

DT Michael Brockers (LSU)

Hubris, for underclassmen, is believing in your own greatness – especially when it’s told to you by an agent – before you’ve earned it on the field. Hubris is launching yourself into the NFL Draft pool because you’ve been told that this is a “weak” class at your position, and because you’ve grown man-size at 6’5″ with 35″ arms. Hubris is calling yourself a top prospect at DT with a career total of two sacks, while playing in the middle of one of the greatest defenses known to college football.

Hubris is Michael Brockers, and it was punctured badly at the Combine. With his youth and frame, Brockers is a “projectable” player with intriguing size and length but holes on his resume, much like Aldon Smith was a year ago. But Smith was far more productive in his first two seasons at Missouri than Brockers was at LSU, and justified a high pick with his production on the 49ers. 

Smith also performed extremely well at the Combine, running a 4.67 after coming off a leg injury. Perfectly healthy, Brockers plodded to a 5.33 time, and lifted the 225 pound weight a mere 19 times. By comparison, WR Ryan Broyles out-lifted him with 21. 

Athletic measurements are all the more important when you’re buying on raw skill. Brockers didn’t give teams much to fall in love with, and appeared to fall firmly out of first round contention. 

DE Quinton Coples (UNC)

In the annals of those who have fallen in the Combine, Coples didn’t fall far. His potential combined with his impressive game tape make him a first-rounder, and probably a high one at that. But because we in the media are in the business of keeping lists, we need names to put on them. Coples didn’t explode athletically the way some of his counterparts did, ranking this as a mildly disappointing Combine for him. 

It may be just a blip. But if he starts to fall a little bit in the draft, we may have seen it foreshadowed here.