The 2017 NFL Combine -- or the “underwear Olympics,” if you prefer -- will be the talk of the sports world over the next handful of days. Some of the top prospects will be in Indianapolis getting measured, timed and interviewed by the coaches and team officials that are responsible for making a selection in the 2017 NFL Draft. For a college football fan, it’s a teary-eyed weekend watching your favorite players move on to the next stage of their careers.
Every year, a few college football stars benefit from the NFL Combine’s focus on pure athleticism. Who could forget former UConn star Byron Jones setting a broad jump record in 2015 or Chris Johnson, then a star running back coming out of ECU, setting the 40-yard dash record in 2008 at 4.24 seconds, a mark that still stands today.
Fans of those schools probably saw it coming, but NFL fans surely didn’t. So with that in mind, we’re going to take a college perspective to breaking down the players to watch in this year’s combine.
Takk McKinley (UCLA DL): McKinley arrived at UCLA in 2014 after one season in junior college but didn’t start to break out until the middle of 2015. He finished this season as a first-team All-Pac-12 pick by the coaches. A former high school track star, McKinley started jumping up NFL Draft boards in October when scouts started to recognize his potential as a speed rusher from the outside.
Taywan Taylor (Western Kentucky, WR): Taylor’s straight-line speed made him one of the best deep threat wide receivers in college football over the last two years. He put up 1,730 receiving yards and totaled 17 touchdowns in WKU’s wide-open offensive attack this season and will be one of the players to watch for the 40-yard dash.
Kermit Whitfield (Florida State WR): Whitfield is probably the best bet to run the fastest 40-yard dash. I don’t know if the former Florida State speedster will be able to break Johnson’s time and win his own private island in the process, but his breakaway speed in special teams has been known to college football fans since this game-changing return against Auburn in the 2013 BCS Championship Game.
David Njoku (Miami TE): Njoku caught 43 passes for 698 yards and eight TDs as a redshirt sophomore, electing to capitalize on his rising draft stock and depart as soon as he was eligible. The NFL loves him because of his 6-foot-4, 245-pound frame and incredible upside coming off a strong 2016 season. Njoku left two years of eligibility on the table to join a loaded tight end class in 2017 but is now on track to be the fifth Miami tight end drafted in the first round (and 11th overall) since 2000.
Mike Williams (Clemson WR): While Whitfield and Washington wide receiver John Ross (another one to watch in the 40-yard dash) are going to have a chance to shine for speed, the NFL Combine should be a great opportunity for Williams to showcase his strength. Clemson’s top target spent the entire year using his body (6-foot-3, 225 pounds) to create separation from defenders, while utilizing his God-given strength to go up and snatch balls at the highest point on contested passes. He would have been in the 2016 NFL Combine if not for a scary neck injury at the start of last season, but Clemson is glad (and Alabama is not) that he was on the field for the College Football Playoff National Championship in January.
Jalen Myrick (Minnesota DB): You may not have seen Myrick’s name in the top mock drafts, but he’s got a chance to show out here at the NFL Combine. Myrick had 38 tackles, 11 pass breakups, one interception and 290 kickoff return yards in 2016, his senior season, and is currently projected to be a third-day pick in the NFL Draft. So why do scouts want to get Myrick in Indianapolis? Because he could end up being one of the fastest players in the 2017 draft class. If he’s going to improve his draft stock, a record-breaking 40-time would seems like a good way to sell yourself to future employers.
Solomon Thomas (Stanford DL): NFL teams will fall in love with Thomas during the evaluation process. The Stanford star has built bulk during his college years but retained that freak athleticism that made him a top prospect coming out of high school. His speed and jumping ability have the best chance to create headlines, starting a slow climb up the prospect rankings that could see him end up as a top pick come draft night.
Thomas’ final college game was one of his best as he singlehandedly took over against North Carolina in the Sun Bowl. He even sealed the win with a sack of UNC quarterback Mitch Trubisky, another potential top-10 pick in this year’s draft.
Zach Banner (USC DL): The “underwear Olympics” puts all of a player’s mass on display for fans, meaning there’s going to be a lot of stretchy performance wear needed for 6-foot-9, 360-pound Banner. The USC tackle had a strong 2016 season along with the rest of the Trojans offensive line, but now he’s going to be under tough scrutiny at the combine to show he can back up his size with athletic performance. Speaking of USC ...
Adoree Jackson (USC DB): A superstar in football and track and field with Olympic-level athleticism, Jackson was a unanimous All-American in 2016 (USC’s first since Marqise Lee in 2012) after a season of participating in all three phases of the game for the Trojans. Here at CBS Sports, Jackson was honored as a first team pick for cornerback and punt returner and second team selection as an all-purpose threat and kick returner.
Myles Garrett (Texas A&M DL): Finally, we get to Garrett. It shouldn’t take much effort to find coverage of the potential No. 1 pick in action at the combine. His speed could end up topping some linebackers and running backs, while his measurements for strength should be on par with defensive linemen and jumping could be off the charts.