The 2019 NFL Scouting Combine is upon us, and that means the short-lived hiatus without football is finally here. Well, maybe a bunch of future NFL stars doing drills while wearing shorts isn’t exactly what we hoped for, but this annual showcase will have to do for now. In the meantime, you better jump on the bandwagon and start watching the Alliance of American Football.
Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis plays host to 337 of the top NFL prospects from all corners of the country. A lot them you’ve likely never heard of before, while others hail from college football’s premier conference for NFL talent in the SEC. Once again, the Southeastern Conference boasts the most invites (90) of any conference, and it’s not even close.
The Alabama Crimson Tide are sending 11 players, tied for the most with (shocker) Clemson. Both Georgia and Ole Miss received nine invites, and Mississippi State had nine before potential first-round pick Jeffrey Simmons lost his invitation. Florida, Kentucky and Texas A&M each boast eight. Auburn, LSU and Missouri are each represented by six players. South Carolina sends five, Arkansas has four, and even Vanderbilt will send two.
Sorry, Knoxville. Tennessee isn’t sending a single player to the combine this year.
Every single player has thousands, and in some cases millions, of dollars on the line when they step up for their drills during the first weekend in March. However, some players could go from receiving mid-round evaluations to flying up draft boards by showing out in front of NFL scouts and general managers in Indiana.
Here are eight SEC products who stand to gain the most at the NFL Combine:
8. Jace Sternberger, Texas A&M
It’s rare for a consensus First-Team All-American to NOT be considered the best prospect at their position, but that’s exactly what Texas A&M Aggies tight end Jace Sternberger is up against.
A pair of Iowa Hawkeyes — T.J. Hockenson and Noah Fant — both lead the way at the position according to multiple player rankings. The biggest knock on Sternberger is technique and route-running, both of which are easily correctable when he gets to the NFL. The 6-foot-4, 250 pounder is a naturally-gifted athlete who proved he can block and catch in his only season with the Aggies. (He spent two years at Kansas, then transferred to Northeastern Oklahoma A&M for one season before arriving in College Station.)
Sternberger is projected somewhere in the second round, but if he outshines the pair of Hawkeyes over the weekend, he could easily jump into the back-end of the first round, or even become the top tight end off of the board.
7. Elijah Holyfield, Georgia
The Georgia Bulldogs running back suffered from the same “problem” as many backs to come before him: too much talent on their college team means less opportunities to shine.
Last season, the 215-pounder nearly split carries directly down the middle with D’Andre Swift — Holyfield rushed 159 times while Swift received 163 carries. Still, Holyfield averaged 6.5 yards every time he touched the football and reached the 1,000-yard mark in the team’s final game against Texas.
He may not have the numbers, especially catching the football, but the son of boxer Evander Holyfield is a power back with an excellent burst who makes a perfect change-of-pace back at the next level.
6. DaMarkus Lodge, Ole Miss
As a high school All-American pass catcher, playing in a high-flying Ole Miss Rebels offense is an easy ticket to exposure. That is, unless you played alongside D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown, both of whom could be the first and second wide receivers taken in April’s draft.
Lodge caught 122 passes for 1,790 yards and 14 touchdowns in his career and averaged almost 15 yards per catch in the 42 career games he played. At 6-foot-2 and just over 200 pounds, Lodge needs to impress scouts with his route-running ability and explosive first step to finally step out from his teammates’ shadow as the perennial third wheel at Ole Miss.
He’s ranked somewhere around the 25th-best wide receiver on most draft boards, but all that could change with a strong combine showing.
5. Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Florida
He might have declared early following his junior season, but the Cocoa, Florida native is certainly an NFL prospect waiting to blossom.
The biggest knock on Gardner-Johnson is consistency throughout his career, but Dan Mullen’s coaching staff certainly flipped that script last season. The 6-foot safety filled up the stat sheet with 71 tackles, four interceptions, nine tackles for a loss, three sacks and two defensive touchdowns last year. He capped an incredible junior season by earning Defensive MVP honors in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, which was the second time in his career (2016 Outback Bowl) that he’s earned MVP honors in a bowl game.
The Florida Gators are losing an immense talent on their back end, but one team is going to get a steal when they see the speed and athleticism of Gardner-Johnson at the NFL Combine.
4. Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
Just like Sternberger, it’s rare that a First-Team All-American isn’t one of the top players at their position, but that’s not going to keep South Carolina’s Deebo Samuel from shaking up draft boards.
Samuel’s skills as a wide receiver are still raw, but he could very well run one of the faster 40-yard dash times among WRs at the combine, which always raises a few eyebrows. The explosive playmaker is very much in the mold of Percy Harvin, and he’ll become one of the NFL’s most electric kick returners after he’s drafted.
There are several receivers ranked ahead of him, but Samuel could sneak into top of the second round if he impresses when the wide receivers take the field on Saturday.
3. Nick Brossette, LSU
The 220-pound running back was a captain for the LSU Tigers as a senior, and his first go-around as their starter was more than impressive. After 240 carries, over 1,000 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, he’s far more deserving than mock drafts are giving him credit for.
The four-year letter winner checks all the boxes for an NFL-caliber running back, yet there are at least 20 running backs ranked ahead of the Baton Rouge native. With a good few workouts and impressive interviews, Brossette is going be a mid-round steal for a team that needs a plug-and-play rookie when called upon.
LSU churns out NFL backs like McDonald’s does Big Macs. LSU products Derrius Guice, Leonard Fournette, Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, Spencer Ware, and Stevan Ridley have all been drafted since 2011, and all are still in the NFL. Expect Brossette to join that list.
2. Christian Miller, Alabama
Edge rushers are one of the premier positions in today’s quarterback-drive NFL, and Alabama’s Christian Miller is one of the best despite being a mid-round projection.
The explosive pass rusher missed much of the 2017 season with an arm injury, then returned as a senior to wreak havoc on the SEC. Miller recorded 11.5 tackles for a loss, 8.5 sacks, and led the Crimson Tide with 12 quarterback hurries last season. A hamstring injury against Oklahoma in the College Football Playoff kept him off the field for the National Championship game against Clemson, which likely affected his draft stock.
At 6-foot-4 and 245 pounds, Miller can show that he’s healthy and ready play from day one in the NFL at the combine. Plus any time you’re a Nick Saban product, all eyes are immediately fixated on what you can do.
1. Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Quarterback is the premier position in the NFL, and no prospect fell harder last season than the Auburn Tigers’ Jarrett Stidham. Prior to last year, the 6-foot-3 quarterback was named to the Maxwell, Davey O’Brien, Walter Camp, Johnny Unitas, Earl Campbell Tyler Rose, and Manning Award watch lists, plus he was a preseason third-team All-American.
He didn’t win anything when it was all said and done.
Stidham — just like Auburn’s entire offense — struggled to get anything going in 2018. The 2017 Second-Team All-SEC selection by The Associated Press set an Auburn record with 162 pass attempts without an interception during his career and completed 63.6 percent of his passes under head coach Gus Malzahn after transferring from McLennan Community College and Baylor before that.
Had he posted better numbers in his final collegiate season, Stidham would absolutely be ranked higher on draft boards. It goes to show that the most-recent memory is the most important, and he can remind everyone how gifted of a thrower he is by balling during the 2019 NFL Scouting Combine.