32 things we learned from 2021 NFL draft prospects' pro days
With less than a month until the 2021 NFL draft, the pro day circuit is almost complete.
The workouts provide prospects a final chance to show off for scouts, coaches and general managers. And with the COVID-19 pandemic prompting the NFL to cancel the scouting combine, the spotlight on the sessions only intensified.
But while pro days naturally spark a lot of hype, they're only a small part of the overall evaluation puzzle and often only amount to an exercise in confirming one's scouting report. Think of them as more of a Rorschach test than a litmus test.
With that in mind, here are 32 things we learned from NFL draft prospects' pro days:
1. The spectacle-over-substance nature of these events was once again evident in various quarterbacks' workouts. It's hard to glean much from a glorified game of catch, and the buzziest moments from the sessions were basically backyard throws.
2. It was only fitting that projected No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence was first up on the circuit on Feb. 12. The Clemson quarterback set a high bar, showcasing his arm strength with a nearly 70-yard heave.
3. The hype really escalated, however, when BYU's Zach Wilson rifled a downfield, cross-body strike that wowed onlookers.
4. Never one to back down from competition, Ohio State's Justin Fields – who also ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash – responded with his own highlight-reel throw.
5. All of these plays were impressive displays of raw capability. But they also evoked memories of former Baltimore Ravens first-rounder Kyle Boller and notorious bust JaMarcus Russell – the No. 1 overall pick in 2007, ahead of Calvin Johnson, Adrian Peterson, Darrelle Revis and others – chucking passes 60-plus yards from one knee. Enjoy the entertainment factor, but don't overreact: The body of work and overall skill set are what really matter in assessing these passers, as well as North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones, who look bound for the early first round as well.
6. While no other player in this class can compare to Lawrence in potential and production, Florida tight end Kyle Pitts might be in the same arena – albeit at a less-valued position. The Mackey Award winner dominated Southeastern Conference competition, and his pro day reinforced that he's a nearly singular prospect as a pass catcher. At 6-5 and 245 pounds, Pitts measured in with a monstrous 83⅜-inch (that's 6-foot-11⅜) wingspan, topping Seattle Seahawks wide receiver DK Metcalf's mark for the best of any receiver or tight end in the last 20 years, according to Pro Football Focus. He also ran a 4.44-second 40-yard dash – on par with former Florida teammate Kadarius Toney, who's billed as one of the most explosive receivers in the draft.
7. Another prospect who fits the bill: LSU's Ja'Marr Chase. The wide receiver opted out of last fall's campaign after lighting up future NFL defensive backs throughout 2019 for 1,785 receiving yards and then-SEC record 20 touchdowns. His pro day served as a reminder of his explosiveness, with sterling marks in the vertical leap (41 inches) and broad jump (11-0) and an impressive 4.38-second 40.
8. Those marks affirm what was readily apparent: Pitts and Chase are each top-tier talents who shouldn't last beyond the top 10 picks. And if Pitts cracks the top five, he'll be be the first tight end to do so since Riley Odoms was selected by the Denver Broncos in 1972.
9. Chase grabbed the headlines, but fellow LSU wide receiver Terrace Marshall also solidified his case for the first round by running a 4.38-second 40 at 6-3, 205 pounds.
10. Hard to fault Alabama's DeVonta Smith for merely running routes at the second of the Crimson Tide's two pro days. Same goes for Jaylen Waddle sitting out both workouts. Smith is still recovering from a finger injury sustained in January's national championship game, though he wanted to show the ailment was not an issue, while Waddle played in the title tilt despite a gruesome ankle injury suffered earlier in the season. As two of the most proven entities in the draft, there wasn't much left for either to demonstrate.
11. Penn State linebacker Micah Parsons also provided a refresher on his superlative skill set after he sat out the 2020 season. He ran a receiver-like 4.39-second 40 at 6-3 and 246 pounds. Offering rare athleticism and playmaking ability, Parsons has as good a shot as anyone to be the first defensive player taken – perhaps in the top 10.
12. Look no further than Kentucky's Jamin Davis for an example of the wide variance on some pro day times and measurements. The linebacker was clocked anywhere from 4.37 to 4.49 seconds on his 40, depending on who was timing. Regardless, that range is stellar for a 6-3, 234-pounder who also notched a 42-inch vertical and 11-0 broad jump. The first round is within reach.
13. Even independent of its impact, Josh Imatorbhebhe's 46½-inch vertical leap was something to behold. Had the Illinois wide receiver replicated it at the combine, it would have set a record for the event.
14. As a likely late Day 3 pick or undrafted free agent, however, Imatorbhebhe might not go down as much more than a fun trivia fact unless he can develop into a more consistent pass catcher.
15. The unofficial title for fastest 40 goes to Auburn wide receiver Anthony Schwartz, who clocked in at 4.26 seconds. The former Florida high school sprint champion's speed will afford him opportunities in the NFL, but he needs to become more developed as a receiver.
16. At 4.41, Clemson's Travis Etienne didn't secure the 40 time some might have expected from one of college football's best breakaway threats. But the running back bulked up to 215 pounds from his listed weight of 199, and he highlighted his multidimensional abilities. Etienne might be poised to outrace Alabama's Najee Harris to be the first back off the board, maybe in the first round.
17. There's somewhat of a pecking order for the top prospects at several position groups in this class, but that doesn't seem to be the case for the edge rushers. Miami's Jaelan Phillips certainly helped himself by putting together a stellar all-around day: 4.56-second 40, 36-inch vertical leap and 10-5 broad jump. But at 6-5 and 260 pounds, the numbers that really stood out were his short shuttle (4.13 seconds) and three-cone drill (7.01), which underscored rare fluidity at the position.
18. But those figures are only a fraction of Phillips' overall evaluation. Though he established himself as a prospect on the rise by recording 11 tackles for a loss and 6½ sacks in his final four games, the former five-star recruit retired from football at UCLA after dealing with concussions as well as ankle and wrist injuries. Phillips revived his career after transferring to Miami, but his stock could hinge on how comfortable teams are with his medical outlook.
19. The Hurricanes' other marquee defensive end prospect, Gregory Rousseau, left some questions with a few of his marks. The 6-7, 266-pound former high school wide receiver and safety demonstrated enticing upside after recording 15½ sacks in 2019. But after sitting out last season, Rousseau posted uninspiring pro day numbers in drills that tested his flexibility and explosiveness. Overwhelming interior linemen with his length won't come as easy at the next level, and Rousseau is very much still a project as an edge rusher.
20. One number has hounded Penn State's Jayson Oweh for much of the pre-draft process: zero, as in the number of sacks he had in 2020. Yet the hyperathletic pass rusher now might be closely tied to another number: 4.36, his astonishing 40 time. Now it's up to talent evaluators to decide how to balance his explosiveness and straight-line speed with the lack of polish from a player who didn't begin his football career until his junior year of high school.
21. Also in the mix in the first-round edge rusher conversation are Michigan's Kwity Paye and Georgia's Azeez Ojulari, who both took advantage of the pro day stage. Paye, already renowned for his overall athleticism, posted 36 bench press reps, a 35½-inch vertical leap and a 4.52 40. Ojulari, meanwhile, turned heads with a 10-7 broad jump and 4.60 40.
22. Another position with some uncertainty is cornerback, where several players are vying to be the first player at the position to be selected. Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley was once seen as a potential front-runner even after opting out of the 2020 season, but he underwent a microdiscectomy and missed his pro day.
23. There's a good chance, then, that Alabama's Patrick Surtain II will be the first defensive back off the board. The son of former Miami Dolphins standout Patrick Surtain showed he's more than a technician by compiling a well-rounded testing profile: a 4.42 40, 10-11 broad jump, 39-inch vertical leap and 18 bench press reps. Don't expect him to last past the first 12 picks.
24. Surtain might have some formidable competition in another former SEC standout with a rich family history in football. South Carolina's Jaycee Horn, son of former New Orleans Saints wide receiver Joe Horn, was already known as one of the stickiest defenders in man coverage before a pro day performance (4.39 40, 42-inch vertical, 11-1 broad jump) that set the bar for all other cornerbacks.
25. Greg Newsome II of Northwestern likely won't leapfrog Surtain or Horn, but he seems bound for the mid-to-late first round after continuing his ascent with a 4.37 40 and 40-inch vertical leap.
26. Newsome and offensive tackle Rashawn Slater should give Northwestern a pair of first-rounders in the same draft for the first time in the school's history. Only five Wildcat players have been taken in the first round, and none since the San Diego Chargers selected Luis Castillo in 2005.
27. Purdue wide receiver Rondale Moore might be one of the more polarizing prospects in this draft. He was one of college football's most dynamic players when healthy, and his 4.29 40 and 42½-inch vertical leap reinforced his rare explosive ability. But injuries limited Moore to playing in just seven games in the last two years, and his measuring in at 5-7 might concern those already worried about his dearth of experience working downfield. Still, if Moore lands with a team willing to use him creatively and get him in space, watch out.
28. Size concerns might prove more troublesome for another one of college football's premier big-play threats in Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell, who measured in at 5-9 and just 155 pounds. The last combine invitee that light to be drafted was former Kansas State wide receiver Aaron Lockett (also 155 pounds), who was selected by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the seventh round in 2002.
29. Milton Williams' name might only be recognizable to draftniks, but the Louisiana Tech defensive lineman isn't flying under the radar. In an underwhelming class for defensive tackles, Williams stands apart from many of his peers with a tantalizing set of tools. His blistering times in the three-cone drill (6.93 seconds) and 40 (4.62) were befitting of a much smaller player, and he also displayed his power (34 bench press reps) and explosiveness (38½-inch vertical). Keep an eye out for him on Day 2.
30. While many of these testing marks can seem impressive, teams get annual reminders of getting overly invested in them. After his star turn at the combine in 2017, safety Obi Melifonwu went on to become a second-round pick. But the Oakland Raiders parted with him after just one year, and he spent 2020 out of the NFL. Now teams face a similar assessment in evaluating his brother, Syracuse cornerback Ifeatu Melifonwu: Is it worth taking an early flier on a 6-2, 205-pound coverage man who hasn't yet played up to his potential?
31. Pro days are rarely a showcase for offensive linemen, but Oklahoma's Creed Humphrey deserves some kudos. The standout center answered criticisms about his athleticism by running a nimble short shuttle (4.46, better than some running backs' times) and notching a 33-inch vertical leap and 9-4 broad jump. And he used his 29 bench press reps to raise money for Save Pets at Risk, an organization based out of his hometown in Shawnee, Oklahoma.
32. The award for best capper to a pro day goes to Alabama's Landon Dickerson. Just a few months after tearing his ACL in the SEC Championship Game, the center stole the spotlight from his quarterback, Mac Jones, by cartwheeling in the background of his live television interview. That's one way to show off a promising recovery.