Now that we’re well on our way to the 2023 NFL Draft, one of the most exciting events for fans is the Scouting Combine. The workouts are often more for the media than for scouting purposes, but they can still create buzz for certain prospects who perform well. Behind the scenes, teams are doing the real tasks: learning players’ measurements, performing medical exams, and interviewing them. The visits teams have with these players do not count against their top 30 visits, and they allow teams to learn about a ton of prospects at one place and time. Therefore, I thought I’d look at the players who really helped themselves at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. This could be through their workout performances or in the interviews. Let’s go!
Nolan Smith, DE, Georgia
Smith was the clear headliner on Thursday after the 6’2″, 238-lb defensive lineman ran a ridiculous 4.39-s 40-yard dash. Seriously; LOOK AT THIS. Before that, he posted a 41.5-inch vertical leap, foreshadowing his stellar workout to come. Though Smith didn’t participate in the on-field drills due to an injury (he’ll do them at his Pro Day), he successfully showed what he needed to show. He isn’t a large, imposing DE that stuffs the run; he’s a pass rushing specialist. Showing his speed and twitchiness was always going to be key, and he did that and more. His comp is Haason Reddick, another slightly lanky but swift edge rusher who most recently starred for the Eagles. That comparison looks even more favorable now. With his athletic ability confirmed, Smith may have jumped from a day 2 pick to the back half of round 1.
Calijah Kancey, DT, Pittsburgh
If you watched the Combine all day Thursday, you’d be forgiven if you forgot about Kancey once you watched Smith run his 40. Don’t worry: I’m here to remind you! Kancey had a fantastic day. First, it turns out that his listed height was LOW by an inch (he’s now 6’1″), he added 11 lbs (bringing him to a more sturdy 281 lbs), and he ran well, with a 4.67-s 40-yard dash that gave him the best time for a DT in 20 years. That time happened to be .01 seconds less than that of another Pitt DT: Aaron Donald. You can’t help but compare the two Panthers due to their nearly identical times, their alma mater, and the fact that they’re undersized DTs with surprising strength. I can’t say that Kancey comes close to Donald as a prospect (Donald was my #1 overall player in his class), but any connection he can make with Donald is helpful. He does have good burst and shiftiness, but he’s a likely 2nd rounder.
Bryan Bresee, DT, Clemson
Not too long ago, Bresee was the #1 recruit in the nation. He had a stellar first year but didn’t produce as much in subsequent seasons. There are good reasons for that though. He has dealt with numerous injuries and more recently missed time due to a kidney infection. Worst of all, his younger sister Ella died of brain cancer during his senior year, which had to be incredibly difficult to play through. Thus, some teams feel that with a change of scenery and some time to recover, he could return to the player that we all saw on tape at one time. If his Combine performance was an indicator, he’s working his way back very well. Bresee ran a 4.86-s 40 at 298 pounds, and he looked really fluid and powerful in his drills. That athleticism plus his Clemson pedigree has him primed to earn first-round consideration this April.
Adetomiwa Adebawore, DL, Northwestern
Among all Combine participants, nobody boosted their stock more than Adebawore. Seen mainly as a large space eater on the interior of the defensive line, he demonstrated to scouts that he possesses the athleticism to play on the edge as well. A 282-pound man running a 4.49-s 40, posting a vertical jump of 37.5 inches, and leaping 10 feet, 5 inches in the long jump is not normal. I had to go back and look at his tape because I had no comp for those stats. His numbers have improved each year, reaching 5 sacks and 9 TFLs in 2022. Adebawore certainly plays with a good amount of burst on film, so this athletic performance shouldn’t be as shocking as it seemed. It’s still really rare though, and it might vault him into the 1st or 2nd round.
Bryce Ford-Wheaton, WR, West Virginia
Following a 675-yard, 7-TD season, Ford-Wheaton struck me as an intriguing prospect. I love big-bodied receivers that can box out opposing corners, and this 6’4″, 221-pound player fit the bill. I wondered though whether he offered anything more. Wow…he certainly does. This large man ran a 4.38-s 40 and topped all receivers with his 41″ vertical jump. The only players of his size to ever post those numbers are both Seahawks: DK Metcalf and Tariq Woolen. Those two worked out quite well. In addition to being a great athlete, Ford-Wheaton demonstrated good hands in the drills. I saw an ever-so-slight bit of stiffness in his movements, but it would’ve been odder had he shown none at all. This is a real sleeper WR that could become a better pro than he was in college.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Florida
A while ago, I commented that Richardson would look really good in the offseason, especially at the Combine due to his athleticism. Record-breaking is another story. He set a QB record with a 40.5-inch vertical jump, and at 6’4″ and 244 lbs, he ran a 4.43-s 40. For comparison, Cam Newton ran it in 4.55 s. It’s absolutely ridiculous that Richardson’s closest comp isn’t even that close to him in terms of athletic freakishness. I fully expect him to go in the top 10. Someone will think that they can fix his mechanics and improve his accuracy (I’m not sure, but I’m not making the pick). Others will simply refuse to let an athlete of his caliber get by them. CJ Stroud and Bryce Young are the likely top 2 QBs taken, but Richardson might have passed Will Levis now.
Stetson Bennett, QB, Georgia
Numerous factors have worked against Bennett throughout his college career. His size, his arm strength, and his general ability to play the position have all been questioned. Then, after winning his second consecutive national championship, he partied too hard and got a DUI. Thus, his stock seemed like it would be irreparably sunk. Not so fast! I’m told he handled that off-the-field issue very well in interviews, taking full accountability and convincing teams that it was youthful stupidity while not making excuses. Some teams may still shy away, but others will acknowledge that these kids grow up and not be phased. Bennett then measured at 5’11”, which is taller than Bryce Young. Finally, his arm looked plenty good. His deep ball might have been the best of the day, and his 59 mph velocity tied Will Levis for the maximum in his group. His road to becoming a starter in the NFL remains long, but he still stands a chance of being chosen in the later rounds as a developmental backup.
Matt Landers, WR, Arkansas
As with Bryce Ford-Wheaton above, Landers always struck me as a big possession receiver. I love what the Arkansas program has done with WRs (see Treylon Burks), and Landers performed great as the new WR1, finishing with 901 yards and 8 TDs in 2022. He too got his chance to show he could do more, and he likewise took advantage. At 6’4″, his 4.37-s 40 looks sublime, and it felt like easy speed. Landers didn’t look tired, suggesting that he has even more in the tank. His drills were very smooth, and his hands did not let him down. Based on his combination of size, speed, production, and coaching, I personally have him as a second-round prospect. He could be a really good value for a team that misses out on Quentin Johnston.
DJ Turner, CB, Michigan
You know the fastest man at the Combine had to make this list. Turner BLAZED through the 40-yard dash, posting a 4.26. The reason this is important is that you can teach technique and coverage skills, but you can’t teach speed. Players who run sub-4.30 40s tend to get picked in the first couple of rounds, even if they’re risky choices. For example, the Bengals selected WR John Ross after he ran a record 4.21 40, but he was a complete bust and couldn’t stay healthy. Last year’s fastest man, Baylor WR Tyquan Thornton, didn’t have a great rookie year for the Patriots but was selected in the second round. Turner isn’t considered a first-round talent, but his speed likely makes day 2 his floor.
Broderick Jones, LT, Georgia
Every year, a few players who were considered decent but unspectacular prospects end up experiencing meteoric rises up teams’ boards throughout the draft process. Jones might be in the midst of such a rise. Initially a day 2 prospect, Jones has earned rave reviews for his protection of Stetson Bennett and his viability as a true LT prospect. My mock draft already had him in round 1. His Combine performance won’t do anything to slow that momentum. He measured taller than expected at 6’5″ and 3/8, and he was the fastest lineman with a 4.97-s 40. Admittedly, 40 times are mostly useless for players who earn a penalty for going even a few yards downfield. However, those numbers and his drills demonstrated his excellent movement skills for such a big man. With Peter Skoronski looking more and more like a guard, Jones and Paris Johnson Jr may be vying to be the first tackle taken.
Evan Hull, RB, Northwestern
I had no idea that Hull, a 5’11”, 209-lb back, was going to run a 4.47-s 40. When you watched him in college, he looked like a quality back who ran hard and picked up a bit more than what was blocked. He didn’t seem like he had another gear. His testing results, which also included a 37″ vertical jump, showed that there’s plenty more athleticism to unlock. Hull also looked good in the receiving drills. That combination of size and speed should allow him to become a 3-down starter with the power to drive through contact and the agility to evade defenders. Don’t sleep on him becoming this year’s Dameon Pierce: a mid-round RB who wildly exceeds the expectations placed upon him.
All of the TEs, Various
I actually couldn’t single out any one TE for this spot. The group as a whole looked really good, and though it’s not top-heavy with elite talent, it’s a deep group that will likely produce a bunch of NFL contributors. I suspected as much when I wrote about my TE sleepers, but I was pleasantly surprised with everyone at the position who attended the combine. Some are better receivers or blockers than others, but there’s something for everyone. I still like my original 3 players (Dalton Kincaid, Sam LaPorta, and Darnell Washington), and they all have done well during the draft process. Just know that whether you take an athletic marvel like ODU’s Zack Kuntz, a top prospect who has been forgotten due to injury like Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave, or a media darling like Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, you’re probably going to be happy with the player you selected.