INDIANAPOLIS — Thursday marked the first day of on-field events and second day of prospect press conferences at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Defensive linemen and linebackers worked out, while specialists and defensive backs stepped up to the podiums. Here are the biggest things we learned from the day’s events.
NOTE:Tune in to NFL Network and NFL+ for live coverage of the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine beginning at 3 p.m. ET on Thursday, March 2 and Friday, March 3. Live coverage of the event starts at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 4 and Sunday, March 5.
ON THE FIELD
1) A truly EXPLOSIVE edge. There might be questions about Georgia edge Nolan Smith’s size entering the NFL, but every athletic question imaginable was answered Thursday at the NFL Scouting Combine.
Smith, who checked in at 6-foot-2 and 238 pounds, made up for his lack of mass with some eye-popping numbers in the on-field workout. The most alluring figure came in the 40-yard dash, where the versatile defender blazed the track with an official time of 4.39 seconds.
But that wasn’t Smith’s only explosive mark on the day, as he also soared 41.5 inches in the vertical leap and 10-foot-8 in the broad jump. Just extraordinary twitchiness for an edge defender.
A number of undersized rushers have thrived in the NFL in recent years, including the Eagles’ Haason Reddick and the Patriots’ Josh Uche, so perhaps the size-related concerns with Smith might be overblown following his banner workout in Indy.
— Eric Edholm
2) The next Aaron Donald? It’s going to be even harder for Pitt DT Calijah Kancey to avoid the Aaron Donald comparisons now.
Kancey ran an official 4.67-second 40-yard dash at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine, the fastest time for a defensive tackle at the event since 2003, per Next Gen Stats. Kancey topped Donald’s time of 4.68, which he posted in 2014.
The surface parallels between the two players are obvious, as both attended Pitt, are undersized defensive tackles and clearly are athletic marvels for their position.
Kancey (6-foot-1, 281 pounds), whom NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah rated as his No. 30 overall prospect entering the combine, isn’t the same caliber of prospect as Donald was nearly a decade ago, but Kancey certainly has helped himself with his scorching 40 time.
— Eric Edholm
3) Overcoming adversity: On Tuesday night, Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV had a fever close to 104 degrees, per NFL Network’s Peter Schrager. Less than 48 hours later, one of the more explosive edge rushers in the 2023 NFL Draft joined an elite class at the combine.
McDonald posted a broad jump of 11 feet, which tied Tennessee’s Byron Young for the top mark among this year’s combine defensive linemen and linebackers.
Perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised by McDonald’s leaping ability. For one, he’s among the lighter rushers in this year’s class at 239 pounds. Also, McDonald said at the Senior Bowl that he enjoys jumping over cars in his free time.
But even as a practitioner of that unusual hobby, jumping 11 feet two days after spiking a scary temperature is next-level performance.
As NFL Network’s Charles Davis relayed during the combine broadcast, McDonald told him that even such a high temperature wasn’t going to take him out of the combine testing. “‘I was not going to not compete,'” Davis said that McDonald told him.
— Eric Edholm
4) Auburn Tigers torch the track. Nicknamed “The Freak,” Owen Pappoe is the kind of prospect you’d expect to put on a show at the NFL Scouting Combine, and the Auburn linebacker certainly didn’t disappoint in the event’s banner drill.
The 6-foot 1/4, 225-pounder blazed the 40-yard dash in 4.39 seconds, the fastest time in the linebacker group on Thursday evening in Indianapolis. And the lighting-quick 1.52 10-yard split underscores a twitchiness that defined the Butkus Award semifinalist’s game at Auburn, where he served as a rangy linebacker with a knack for lowering the boom on ball carriers.
Pappoe wasn’t the only prospect from the Plains to light up stop watches on Thursday, either.
At 6-foot-3 and 254 pounds, Derick Hall has a reputation as a power edge with heavy hands. But how about this man’s spry legs? Hall posted a 4.55 40-yard dash, showcasing the kind of explosiveness that allows him to consistently convert speed to power. A menace of the edge, Hall piled up 16 sacks and 24.5 tackles for loss over the past two seasons, earning first-team All-SEC honors from the conference’s coaches in 2022. NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah had Hall as his No. 39 overall prospect entering the combine, but the QB hunter could be on the rise after his showing on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf.
— Gennaro Filice
OFF THE FIELD
1) Carter returns to Indianapolis. After being booked and released Wednesday night from the Athens-Clarke County Jail on reckless driving and racing charges, Georgia defensive tackle Jalen Carter made his way back to the NFL Scouting Combine on Thursday to finish his interviews, measurements and other activities, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported, per a source. Carter did not work out on Thursday, but he was on the field while defensive linemen went through drills.
Carter was the subject of arrest warrants in Athens, Georgia, as a result of an ongoing investigation into a fatal Jan. 15 crash, the Athens-Clarke County Police Department announced on Wednesday.
Carter issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon, saying that he intended to return to Athens “to answer the misdemeanor charges against me and to make certain that the complete and accurate truth is presented.”
One of the top prospects in this year’s draft, Carter did not attend his scheduled press conference on Wednesday morning. Some of his former Georgia teammates participating in the combine were asked about the situation during their press conferences on Thursday.
“It was just sad to hear,” kicker Jack Podlesny said of the news. “As I said, it was just, you know … I can speak on Jalen’s character and he’s a great dude. He’s always treated me well.”
Former Bulldogs safety Christopher Smith II declined to go into much detail when asked about Carter.
“All I have to say is I’m praying for him,” he said.
— Dan Parr
2) Draft’s CB1? Say the name Joey Porter, and it’s hard not to immediately picture the Pittsburgh Steelers’ brash, trash-talking, game-wrecking linebacker from a different era of football.
His son, Joey Jr., is a bit of a different player, however. The Penn State cornerback is one of the most physically gifted defensive backs in the 2023 NFL Draft class. He’s smaller than his father was by a few inches and more than a few pounds — and Junior said he has more of his mother’s personality.
“She’s more laid back and poised,” Porter Jr. said. “She likes to smile a lot more.”
But if there’s one thing the younger Porter shares with his talented father, it’s confidence. On Thursday, he made sure everyone knew where he ranked himself among his 2023 draft peers.
“I feel like I’m CB1 for a reason,” Porter Jr. said. “I feel like I’m the best corner here. I’m just here to show my talents and prove why.”
Naturally, there has been a lot of speculation about Porter Jr. landing with the Steelers, the team with which his father was a player for eight seasons and a coach (under Mike Tomlin) for five more, from 2014 through ’18. Pittsburgh figures to attack cornerback this offseason. Might we see another Joey Porter in black and gold?
“I think it [would] probably mean a lot to me and my family,” Porter said. “We’ve been in the Pittsburgh area for a little bit now, so staying at home would mean a lot.”
— Eric Edholm
3) Family business. TCU cornerback Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson was asked Thursday if there’s any pressure that comes with carrying on the family legacy in football — his uncle is NFL Network analyst and Pro Football Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson. Hodges-Tomlinson made it clear, though, that there are only good vibes between him and LT.
“It’s just a blessing, honestly,” the AP first-team All-American said. “It’s not any pressure at all because I know how great I can be, too. My uncle, he did a great job of setting the path and everything like that. So I just want to continue to make the family happy.
“He’s played a great role in my life. Basically, a father figure. We’re with each other a lot. Just being around him and him mentoring me and everything like that has had a great impact on my life.”
Hodges-Tomlinson could begin to create his own NFL legacy when defensive backs work out on Friday, as he is expected to be one of the fastest prospects at this year’s combine.
— Dan Parr
4) Confident cover man Smith taken aback by Pats interview. South Carolina cornerback Cam Smith stepped to the podium and immediately exuded confidence with his first couple of responses Thursday, telling reporters he aims to be the best among a strong group of defensive backs at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine.
“I just consider myself a competitor in all aspects,” the Gamecocks product said. “There’s a lot of dogs in this group. I’m just trying to make sure I come out on top.”
Smith has reason to be confident: He’s answered the bell in the past, blanketing standout Tennessee receiver Jalin Hyatt and helping South Carolina upset the Volunteers in 2022. As he explained it Thursday, Smith wanted all the smoke.
“We came in on Sunday, we already knew what it was,” Smith said of the week of prep ahead of the Gamecocks’ meeting with the Vols. “I said, ‘Put me on him.’ I want that. That’s what I love to do.”
Hyatt arrived in Columbia, South Carolina, having eclipsed 130 receiving yards in four of his previous five games, including a 207-yard, five-touchdown highlight reel vs. Alabama. But against Smith and the Vols, Hyatt finished with six catches for 65 yards and no scores. Despite giving up a touchdown to Cedric Tillman — another talented wide receiver in this prospect pool — Smith walked away with a prominent feather in his cap. Never one to shy away from a challenge, Smith looks forward to leveling up to NFL competition.
“Same thing. It’s going to be even more of that,” Smith said of being tested by professional receivers on a weekly basis. “Now I’m getting paid to do it — it’s my job now.”
When it comes to scheme fit, the cocksure Smith unsurprisingly expressed a preference for press-man coverage, which requires quick reactions and strength to win an immediate physical battle as soon as the ball is snapped. Smith also made it clear he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a difference, much like he did by playing both inside and out at South Carolina.
“If I gotta play zone, I gotta play zone,” Smith said. “It don’t make no difference to me. I’m gonna still ball out.
“A lot of corners are not going to get off the island, don’t want to go into that slot, guard the little, quick dudes, so I feel like I have an advantage right there.”
Despite remaining self-assured throughout most of his media session, Smith admitted an interview with the New England Patriots rattled him a bit.
“It was very, kind of intense. Kind of felt uncomfortable,” Smith said. “But I had to answer a lot of hard questions dealing with some of the stuff I did in college. So I had to make sure I answered those tough questions.”
Oddly enough, the element of the interview that made Smith uncomfortable revolved around him explaining what he’s all about to the Pats staff.
“Some of the questions I was asked, just trying to open up about myself,” Smith said. “I really never have opened up about myself. Just trying to talk to everybody, just trying to open up and make sure everybody knows exactly who I am.”
— Nick Shook
5) Give the ‘King’ his crown! For most of his life, Penn State safety Ji’Ayir Brown has been known as “Tig” — short for Tigger, from the Winnie the Pooh books. Brown was named that by his family because he bounced a lot as a toddler.
But a new nickname has been given to Brown for his play with the Nittany Lions, and it has a little better ring to it: “Takeaway King.” That’s the kind of nickname you earn when you intercept 10 passes and recover three fumbles, as Brown has over the past two seasons combined.
“I definitely like ‘Takeaway King’ as a nickname,” Brown said on Thursday. “That’s tough.”
Brown, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah’s No. 40 prospect in the draft, added a new dimension to his game in 2022: blitzing. Brown excelled quickly in his new role, with seven tackles for loss and 4.5 sacks last season.
So, what does Brown credit his disruption skills to? Believe it or not, basketball — and the nickname could have applied there, too. As a senior at Trenton Central (N.J.) High School, Brown led the state with an eye-popping 6.8 steals per game.
“Basketball, football, I was always getting turnovers,” Brown said. “Always trying to get the ball back for my team, it kind of became my thing. Trying to anticipate where the ball is going and (trying) to get to that spot before the other guys. (That) just led to the (birth of) the ‘Takeaway King.’ “
— Eric Edholm
6) Hyped safety provides versatility on the gridiron … and the ice? Fresh off a stellar week at the Reese’s Senior Bowl, Sydney Brown arrived at the NFL Scouting Combine as one of the buzziest prospects at the safety position, and it’s not hard to see why.
Brown — who played college ball at Illinois with his twin brother, Chase, a highly accomplished running back in this draft class — started a whopping 50 games for the Fighting Illini. This past season, he earned first-team All-Big Ten honors, stuffing the stat sheet with 59 tackles (including three for loss), seven pass breakups, one fumble recovery, one forced fumble and six interceptions, ranking second nationally in that last figure. Densely built at 5-foot-10, 213 pounds with proven ability in man and zone coverage, Brown is the kind of diverse nickel/safety hybrid that’s en vogue in today’s NFL.
“I’m a confident, versatile player,” Brown said on Thursday in Indianapolis. “I can play in the box. I have a natural feel for the line games in front of me … whatever run concepts you’re going to throw at me. I can play in the post, I can play deep half, I can play curl/flat — whatever you need, I can do.”
Yep, versatility is the name of the game for Brown, who says he likes to watch and emulate Antoine Winfield Jr. and Vonn Bell, two established NFL safeties with varied skill sets. The Canada native has long been a resourceful athlete, going back to his days growing up in London, Ontario, where Sydney and Chase spent their early days running track, as well as playing MMA sports, boxing, wrestling and … figure skating?
“Yeah, we did a little bit, some figure skating here and there with my mom,” Brown said with a laugh, revealing that his mother was a gifted figure skater in her prime. “When my mom threw the skates on us, with the toe picks and all that, it was crazy.”
His career in the sport was short-lived, though.
“I was doing some spins, but I stopped before it got too serious,” Brown said, before later re-emphasizing the truth about his brief skating sojourn: “We were young when my mom had us doing that. I don’t think we really understood — we just wanted to skate. And my mom brought out the toe picks …”
— Gennaro Filice
7) CB Forbes downplays weight concerns, points to production. In a deep cornerback class offering prospects of all different shapes and sizes, Emmanuel Forbes’ frame has become a topic of pre-draft discussion.
A long, lean cover man who was listed by Mississippi State at 6 feet tall, Forbes revealed Thursday in Indianapolis that he played last season at around 170 to 173 pounds. While he says he’s looking to tip the scales at about 180 or 185 pounds during Friday’s combine weigh-in, Forbes unsurprisingly faced a number of questions about his slight weight, pointing out that it didn’t stop him from excelling in the conference that annually produces the most NFL draft picks.
“I played in the SEC for three years and missed one game — and it wasn’t due to a football injury,” Forbes said at his combine podium session. “I just feel like I’m durable.
“A lot of people like to go at me for my size, and I’ve showed that my size doesn’t matter and I go out there with an edge and a chip on my shoulder.”
Whatever Forbes did in Starkville certainly worked, as he just earned second-team All-America honors from the Associated Press following his true junior campaign in 2022. NFL Network draft analysts Daniel Jeremiah ranks the 22-year-old as the No. 38 overall player in this prospect pool, writing that “Forbes’ weight will be scrutinized at the NFL Scouting Combine, but his tape is outstanding.” Indeed.
One thing that’s not up for debate: This CB’s insane playmaking ability. Forbes, who credits his tremendous ball skills to playing wide receiver prior to college, racked up 14 interceptions during his three years at Mississippi State, notching an NCAA-record six pick-sixes along the way. Naturally, Forbes says he models his game after another former Bulldog with a true nose for the football.
“Darius Slay is a guy I watch a lot of film on, kind of play the same technique — that’s something I kind of try to model my game after,” Forbes said. “He just does everything right — got really good technique and he drives his man and makes plays on the ball.”
— Gennaro Filice
8) Punter standing on his bench record. Oklahoma punter Michael Turk said Thursday he’s going to punt on the chance to break his own NFL Scouting Combine record.
Back at the 2020 combine, Turk — then a prospect from Arizona State — arrived in Indy as something of a rock star (by punter standards, at least) and took the event by storm when he put up 25 reps on the 225-pound bench press, the most reps for a punter at the combine since at least 2003. This time around, however, Turk said his focus is elsewhere.
“I think there’s no point to do it again,” he said.
Turk’s case is unique. He declared early (as a redshirt sophomore) for the 2020 NFL Draft, participated in the combine and then went undrafted. That was nearly 1,100 days ago, longer than some players’ entire college careers.
After being granted a special waiver by the NCAA, Turk regained his college eligibility and ended up playing three more seasons, one with ASU and two for the Sooners, earning all-conference honors the last two years.
Turk might be skipping the bench, but he said he’s considering running the 40-yard dash and performing the vertical jump.
“If I think I can run a 4.7 or better, and if I can do better than a 34 1/2(-inch) jump, I’ll do it,” he said, noting that the “punting part is much more important. If I do well there, then I’ll make a call on the other workouts.”
Now Turk hopes that his patience pays off in a draft selection.
“God willing, that’s the goal,” Turk said. “I feel like I’ve become so much more consistent since the last time I was here.”
— Eric Edholm
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