Five prospects eager to eliminate red-flag status at Scouting Combine

Stopwatches make headlines at the NFL Scouting Combine, but prospect grades are rarely swayed by sprints in shorts.

As former Patriots and Chiefs general manager Scott Pioli put it, NFL front offices and coaching staff use the combine as a verification tool to confirm what their eyes and ears already know about a prospect from months or years of work on most players.

Former Packers general manager Ron Wolf already knew the personal bio of the top 125-150 players on his pre-combine draft board when he landed in Indianapolis. That’s because work on players with first-round grades was typically voluminous combinations of in-person scouting work, staff research, including conversations with coaches and close connections and follow-up crosscheck reports by either a college scouting director, assistant general manager or the GM himself.

So what’s the point of the combine is teams are already carrying near-final grades on 321 prospects who received invitations?

It’s an opportunity for staffs to meet with prospects face-to-face and perhaps most important, each player goes through extensive medical testing with NFL team doctors who are looking for physical concerns and, in some cases, gauging recovery and progress from major injuries.

For a few players in the 2024 draft, the medical evals will define their draft grade range. It’s common for a player with a significant injury history to be docked a round or more on their final grade if teams aren’t fully satisfied with their medicals.

UCLA edge Laiatu Latu would be a top-15 pick if graded solely on production. But the missing piece of the puzzle is massive.

Latu medically retired with a neck injury at Washington and it seemed like his football career was over. At UCLA he played two years of great football and doubled down at the Senior Bowl, but any doubts about his health could lead to a draft day fall.

If doctors are satisfied Latu’s neck worries are no more, he’ll battle Alabama’s Dallas Turner to be the first edge player off the board in April.

There’s strong buzz from scouts about the high character and size-speed ratio of NC State linebacker Payton Wilson, whose talent on the field is undoubtedly first-round worthy.

But he has had a rough go to get here. He tore his ACL in high school, hurt his knee again as a freshman, was arrested for trying to buy alcohol and resisting an officer in 2019, and suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in 2021. Not all teams will weigh this list as a complete negative, but some certainly will.

In Wilson’s favor could be consecutive seasons without injury issues, impeccable production when healthy, and top football character.

Because Iowa defensive back Cooper DeJean’s success was largely a byproduct of explosive athletic traits, teams are taking extra time to read his recovery from a mid-November leg injury that ended his season. DeJean won’t participate in athletic testing at the Combine. DeJean is being viewed as a safety hybrid by many NFL teams after earning a big-play reputation at cornerback and punt returner for the Hawkeyes.

One of the most high-profile prospects tagged for medical concerns based on his history of season-ending injuries is Washington quarterback Michael Penix Jr.

The Heisman Trophy runner-up in 2023, Penix can plan on several hours with team doctors to start the week. NFL medical teams are extremely concerned with his background. He suffered a torn ACL in 2018, a dislocated shoulder joint in 2019, another torn ACL in 2020, and another dislocated shoulder joint in 2021. Even with a clean bill of health in the moment, his history can’t be completely ignored as a durability downgrade.

Players who don’t satisfy baseline evaluations with recent or healing injuries are requested for a return or “re-check” in Indianapolis three weeks before the draft.

Not all red flags are matters for the crews in white coats to review.

Another Carolina-based prospect, Eyabi Okie-Anoma, was unblockable at times for Charlotte. But he’s a four-time transfer; Okie-Anoma was dismissed from Alabama and Houston and has since played for UT Martin and Michigan before landing in Charlotte. He has fourth- or fifth-round talent, but teams will have a hard time spending the draft pick on a player with this history.

There are maturity questions about multiple quarterbacks who’ll be peppered in the face-to-face interviews with NFL teams. That’s an irrefutable element of the scouting reports for USC’s Caleb Williams and former teammate Spencer Rattler (South Carolina).