Get excited, guys. It's already Combine time. Before you know it, the NFL draft will have come and gone, and it will be the start of 2020 training camps and all this no-NFL nonsense will be over with. That's what I'm telling myself, anyway.
Regardless of my internal monologue, the NFL Scouting Combine is the biggest event of the offseason other than the NFL Draft - but why is that? The reality of it is, personnel staffs of all 32 teams have been working tirelessly for months, and sometimes years, on individual prospects already. They've evaluated everything about their game and then some. But the Combine provides an opportunity to either reinforce or rebuke the claims they've made in the countless draft meetings they've already had.
And for the fans, the Combine is a chance to familiarize themselves with 337 prospects that could be eventual draft picks of their favorite teams. This year, on-field drills are even in primetime to maximize watchability. And if you want a few things you should be watching for as a Bucs fan, you're in luck. Scott Smith has you covered on offense, while I break it down for you on defense below with a position by position breakdown of traits to look for and players to watch.
When evaluating defensive linemen, on-field drills like the 40-yard dash are probably not the best evaluators of talent. After all, when is the last time you saw a defensive lineman sprint 40 yards down the field? Oh, wait...
Regardless of those very fun scoop-and-scores by Suh, that's not the bulk of what linemen are asked to do. You'd be better off looking at their 10-yard split than how they fare in 40-yard increments. There will actually be two new defensive line drills added this year while the 'stack and shed' drill goes away. Defensive linemen will now run through five bags in a vertical line and club the first, spin on the second, club the third, rip through the fourth and flatten downhill to slap the fifth bag to simulate a strip in the 'run and club' drill. They'll also 'run the hoop' where two big hoops are laid on the ground a couple yards apart. From a three-point stance, players will run around the first hoop, pick up a towel inside it, cross to the second hoop and drop the towel, then repeat it by picking up a second towel inside the second hoop and cross back to the first hoop, where they'll deposit the second towel and finish through the start cone.
Both of these are better indicators of agility and how a player will fare in the trenches within a game. It will also allow you to see instincts and explosiveness. Bigger is usually better for these guys but how they can move is just as important.
Players to keep an eye on:
-Javon Kinlaw, South Carolina
We've already written pretty extensively about Kinlaw given that many draft analysts have mocked him to the Bucs at No. 14. He's definitely a first-round talent and looked like a man among boys at the Senior Bowl. The 6-5, 315-pound South Carolina product had 6.0 sacks from the interior in 2019, starting the season with a sack in four straight games. He had 10.5 total over his three-year Gamecock career.
-Justin Madubuike, Texas A&M
Madubuike isn't quite as tall as Kinlaw but he's certainly still solid at 6-3, 300 pounds. He was a three-year starter for the Aggies and recorded 5.5 sacks in 2019. Interestingly enough, he also forced three fumbles from that interior spot, showing that he may have that knack for the ball that isn't quite coachable. He likely won't be a first-round pick but could be an option for the Bucs should they choose to go a different route at No. 14 but want to pick up a defensive lineman in a later round.
-Jason Strowbridge, North Carolina
Strowbridge is another guy that will go outside the first-round, but after watching him at this year's Senior Bowl, he's definitely deserving of another look. He moved extremely well for his size in the relatively small amount of reps we got to see in Mobile. Standing at 6-5, his leaner 285-pound frame probably helps with his agility. It almost makes me think he may be better as a 4-3 defensive end than a 3-4 end. Still, he was solid and physical, and also seems to have a knack for the ball too. He batted down multiple passes in practice during the week at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
These are the pass rushers, and just how dire the Bucs need will be at the position will depend heavily on free agency and how many of their current outside linebackers they'll be able to hold onto. Shaq Barrett, Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib are all guys that are due for a new contract. If those three prove to be too pricey to keep, the Bucs could look towards a more economical option in the draft.
You want to see a player's bend and how he uses his hands, both big-time traits scouts look for in pass rushers. These guys will likely do the linebacker drills, as that's what they're classified as on NFL.com's list of combine participants. The pass drop drill has been eliminated, which is fine for these guys as they probably won't be asked to drop into coverage a whole lot. There is a short-zone break drill that has been added this year where players will drop at a 45-degree angle, flatten at five-yards deep and break forward before having a ball thrown at them. Then, players will do the same before breaking inside instead then having a ball thrown their way. Finally, they'll drop and flatten immediately before reacting to a signal from a coach to turn and run with a simulated wheel route before catching a ball. Those underneath routes are much more realistic for outside pass rushers to have to cover.
The second drill added will be a shuffle, sprint and change of direction drill where players will start well outside the hash before shuffling across the field and changing directions as the coaches call it out. They'll then finish by catching a pass. This is better for testing a player's sideline-to-sideline quickness and agility.
Players to keep an eye on:
-K'Lavon Chaisson, LSU
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah had glowing things to say about the LSU product in his media conference call this week. Though Chaisson's resume is limited after he missed a season due to an ACL tear, coming out of school as a redshirt sophomore, his tape from last season reveals an impact player that could easily translate at the next level. The Combine will be a good opportunity to reinforce his readiness and put evaluators at ease that his stellar 2019 season wasn't just a fluke. Plenty of people have mocked Chaisson to the Bucs should they choose to go defense in the first round.
-Zack Baun, Wisconsin
Here's a guy that seems to be climbing up everyone's draft boards. Baun had 12.5 sacks in 2019 and 19.5 total tackles for loss for the Badgers. He was another one that stuck out in Mobile and probably increased his draft stock significantly. He's likely been on scout's radars for some time but with a good Combine performance, he could get more on the radars of the media and general public on his way to a possible first-round selection.
-Josh Uche, Michigan
Should the Bucs not go defense in the first round, they may be able to snag Uche in the second, though like Baun, his stock is also rising. The Wolverine's defensive MVP for 2019, Uche was also twice named All-Big Ten. He appeared in 39 games but only had nine starts for Michigan, so the Combine will be another opportunity for him to prove himself with his measurables.
In this case, we mean off-ball linebackers that could suit the Bucs' 3-4 scheme. These guys should be quick, agile and good in coverage. These guys also have to have good instincts and should be able to process things quickly. They're also asked to play both the run and the pass, which is why fast processing is a necessity. They should be physical enough to get off blocks when playing the run, but also agile enough that they can run with tight ends in the passing game. The two aforementioned drills in the EDGE category will apply to these guys too and will test those coverage skills.
This position group is probably pretty low on the list of priorities for the Buccaneers, having just took Devin White out of LSU with the fifth overall pick in last year's draft. He's been paired with criminally underrated veteran Lavonte David to form one of the most dynamic linebacker duos in the league. If the Bucs do decide to pick up an inside backer, it'll likely be a depth guy, but here's a look at some interesting linebacker prospects anyway.
Players to keep an eye on:
-Isaiah Simmons, Clemson
Truthfully, no one really knows where Simmons fits at the NFL level. He was a positionless player in college, handling duties of a linebacker, pass rusher and even box safety. The NFL has just kind of thrown him into the linebacker category for now but perhaps the Combine will be able to shed some more light on where his true fit lies, if he even has one.
-Patrick Queen, LSU
This is a guy whose stock is rising and Bucs fans should already know how good LSU linebackers can be. They have two currently on the roster in White and Kevin Minter. Current 49er and former Bucs draft pick Kwon Alexander is also a great example of these guys' potential and far be it from me to think Queen isn't the next on the list of NFL success stories at the position.
-Evan Weaver, Cal
Weaver may be available in later rounds should the Bucs feel the need to address their depth at the position. He had a good week of practices at the Senior Bowl and then capped it off with the game where he had multiple tackles.
This is going to be a need for the Bucs regardless of what they do in free agency. Head Coach Bruce Arians said at the end of the season that safety would likely be a place Tampa Bay would look to reinforce. Though that could be the missing piece to really set the defense up for next season, it still may not be a top priority.
When looking for defensive backs, and safeties in particular, you want someone big enough to tackle but still quick and instinctive. This is one of the positions where the 40-yard dash may actually be a good indicator because especially at deep safety, you may be asked to cover a lot of ground. Drills for defensive backs changed the most drastically of any position group at the Combine for this year. The close and speed turn and pedal and hip turn drills were both eliminated, while four new drills were added. The line drill, where players will backpedal and turn their hips at the command of the coach before catching a pass, the Teryl Austin (named for the Steelers secondary coach), where players will back pedal and break at various angles before catching passes, the gauntlet, which is almost exactly like the receiver drill where they catch a bunch of passes from different directions and the box drill, where a player will react and break according to coaching commands before catching a pass.
These drills are obviously meant to test for agility but with all the pass-catching involved, should give a clue as to who has a knack for finding the ball and therefore, perhaps creating turnovers in a game situation.
Players to keep an eye on:
-S Antoine Winfield Jr., Minnesota
One of the best safeties in this year's class, the Bucs would likely have to take a safety with their second pick at the latest to get him. While LSU's Grant Delpit has been the only consensus first-round safety it seems, Xavier McKinney from Alabama isn't too far behind. Both should go quickly, so Winfield will follow. At 5-10, 205 pounds, he's solid, if a little on the shorter side. In college, he did it all. He recorded seven tackles for loss and four sacks in his Gopher career, while nabbing nine interceptions. Two of his seasons were cut short due to injury so the Combine should serve to show he's healthy, though he played and started all 13 games in 2019.
-S Ashtyn Davis, Cal
This was a guy many were excited to see at the Senior Bowl, but he pulled out last minute from participating due to a lingering injury that he ended up having surgery for. The Combine will be the Cal product's chance to show he's healthy now too and perhaps up his stock in the eyes of the media and fans. At 6-1, 200 he's got good size and through his four-year career he had seven interceptions, three forced fumbles and three fumbles recoveries to go along with his 171 total tackles.
-S Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois
This is a guy that could be there in the later rounds, should the Bucs choose to address the position then instead. Chinn is big at 6-3, 219 pounds, albeit a little untested in the Missouri Valley Conference. A strong Combine performance where he could show off his instincts in the various new drills for defensive backs would go a long way given that NFL.com's Lance Zierlein lists his instincts and football IQ as current areas of weakness.