NFL Scouting Combine takeaways: Michael Penix and the QBs, a loaded WR class and more – The Athletic

By Bruce FeldmanMar 4, 2024

The NFL Draft process is always fascinating, but when you have this deep of a quarterback crop, that’s when things get juicy. I have never been this curious to see how things unfold as I am with this quarterback class. I spent five days in Indianapolis last week and had many conversations with coaches, scouts, other media folks and the quarterbacks. It seems like almost all of them are polarizing to one degree or another. Maybe that’s just the times we’re in, but I feel like it’s different than most years.

As I get into my biggest takeaways from this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, let’s start with the quarterbacks.

The most intriguing QB in the class is Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. As I wrote in January, the way the Huskies star came through hefty adversity, faced it head-on, has been candid about it and came out on the other side so much stronger bodes well for him. I heard good things from NFL personnel folks in Indy, and Penix looked exceptional in his workout. He threw the ball much better than all the other quarterbacks, according to several NFL sources who were inside watching it live and were granted anonymity to speak about the process. He was accurate, crisp and confident, and the ball jumped out of his hand. For people who hadn’t seen him throw in person, it left a strong impression. Penix got my Heisman Trophy vote last year. Washington’s program was reeling until he arrived, and then he led the Huskies to the national title game. He’s also a better athlete than a lot of people are giving him credit for. Players who worked out with him for the draft process say it wouldn’t surprise them if he ran the 40 in the 4.4s.

Count me in as a believer. He’s worth a first-round pick.

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The next most impressive quarterback who threw in Indy was Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy. He displayed good footwork and fired the ball. Some NFL coaches had told me they were concerned he was something of a one-pitch pitcher, as they think he hasn’t shown enough layering the football and that sort of thing. The word is that he has been working on that, and he looked sharp. He came in at 6 feet 2 1/2 and 219 pounds and was bigger and thicker than many were expecting. His 6.82 three-cone time was impressive.

Michigan quarterback J.J. McCarthy measured 6 feet 2 1/2 and 219 pounds in Indianapolis. (Zach Bolinger / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

USC’s Caleb Williams, the 2022 Heisman winner, is intriguing. Williams didn’t throw or work out in Indy. He was, of course, a hot topic. He’s spectacular with what he can do on the field, and I get the Patrick Mahomes comparisons. Like the former Texas Tech great, Williams played behind a dreadful offensive line and with a bad defense. He picked up some bad habits for a team that went 7-5 in 2024. There was plenty of skepticism about Mahomes when he entered the league, but he’s already a first-ballot Hall of Famer before turning 29. Then again, if you told me Williams was going to a team coached by Andy Reid, I wouldn’t have any doubts about his flourishing in the NFL. Circumstances with NFL quarterbacks matter.

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The best line I’ve heard on him came from an old NFL scout who said it looks like he’s “trying to hit a five-run home run every play.”

Some NFL coaches I spoke to were concerned about some of the things they’ve heard about how Williams’ father is handling his situation. The reports I was told they got out of USC about the quarterback weren’t alarming or even troubling. The coaches there liked him. It seems to be more about the vibe people outside the program have about him, the stuff you might get from a player who was touted as a superstar before he arrived in college, then moved to Los Angeles, where he became a bigger star in the burgeoning NFL world. He’s the first quarterback who has come through the transfer portal and name, image and likeness pipeline. Bryce Young had the hype and some NIL stuff, but he didn’t go through the transfer process and didn’t play in a major media market. Young’s situation was much more understated.

“Do I think there are red flags?” a veteran NFL coach asked. “No. Some guys roll their eyes at what he paints on his fingernails. That’s not stuff you’d expect from an NFL quarterback, but he’s a super-talented kid who put a program on his back, and he knows a lot of people are leaning on him. That’s a lot. On the field, you’d like to see him take the easy stuff when it’s there and make smarter decisions, but he’s still very young, and I just think he’s too good to pass up.”

• The wide receivers class is incredibly loaded, and it looked the part in Indy. The player who stole the show was Texas’ Xavier Worthy, clocking his combine record in the 40 at 4.21 seconds. (He also jumped 41 inches.) It was a cool moment watching him fly down that sideline and light up the crowd. His Texas teammate AD Mitchell also shined, as expected. At 6-2 and 205 pounds, Mitchell ran a 4.34-second 40 with a 1.52-second 10-yard split to go with an 11-4 broad jump and a 39 1/2-inch vertical.

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Florida’s Ricky Pearsall had as good a day as anyone. He ran a 4.41-second 40 but vertical jumped 42 inches, broad jumped 10-9 and had the second-fastest three-cone time at 6.64 seconds. The 6-1, 195-pounder was expected to turn heads in Indy, and he did. So did LSU’s Brian Thomas Jr., who at 6-3, 209 pounds ran a 4.33-second 40 with a 38 1/2-inch vertical and a 10-6 broad jump. An NFL source I spoke to before the receivers worked out said he was impressed with how football-smart Thomas is.

• One last note on the wideouts. I don’t believe Rome Odunze will get picked before Marvin Harrison Jr., but it sounded like some NFL personnel people are more intrigued by the Washington star than Harrison. The 6-3, 212-pound Odunze has elite ball skills, and people I spoke to about the receivers were effusive in how they talked about his makeup and competitiveness. I’d say going into my trip that Harrison is the closest thing to a “can’t miss” in this draft. I still am sold on the Buckeyes’ All-American, but after listening to NFL people talk about Odunze, I might change my opinion to say he’s the closest thing to a can’t-miss project.

• Put me on the Marshawn Kneeland bandwagon. Western Michigan’s 6-3, 267-pound edge ran a faster three-cone (7.02) and shuttle (4.18) than all the defensive linemen and linebackers at the combine. He vertical jumped 35.5 inches and had a 1.66 10-yard split. I doubt he will last past the second round.

It’s hard to believe that in 2022, WMU had Kneeland and one of the other breakout stars of Friday at the combine, Braden Fiske, on its defensive line and the Broncos were only No. 5 in the MAC and No. 42 in sacks. Fiske had six. Kneeland had only 1 1/2. Andre Carter, who led the team with seven, transferred to Indiana last offseason.

Fiske generated plenty of buzz in Indy before he even hit the field. Two defensive coaches we spoke to raved about him from their interviews with him.

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“He’s got a lot of s— in his neck,” said a veteran coach, evoking the cliche that line coaches on offense and defense hold in the highest regard.

Then the 6-3 1/2, 295-pound Fiske broad jumped 9-9, vertical jumped 33 1/2 inches and clocked a 4.78-second 40, all top marks among defensive tackles in Indy. I know his size isn’t ideal in all defensive systems, but he’s so gifted athletically and is relentless for four quarters.

• Another defensive lineman who left coaches raving after their meetings was Missouri’s Darius Robinson. They loved how he talked about playing defense, his role and the passion he has for his position. The 6-5, 285-pounder — who ran a 4.95-second 40 and vertical jumped 35 inches — was a player multiple defensive coaches said they’d love to work with after spending some time with him.

• The biggest MAC star, Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell, backed up all the hype going into Indy. He was expected to run blazing fast, and he did with a 4.33-second 40 (with a 1.51-second 10-yard split) at 6-0 1/8 and 195 pounds. He had a 38-inch vertical and did 20 reps at 225 pounds on the bench press. He’s the latest reminder of just how much high-level talent ends up in and coming out of the MAC.

• I posted my Combine Freaks to watch going into the event, and there were two players I most regretted leaving off. First was Alabama edge rusher Dallas Turner, a fantastic prospect who ran a 4.46-second 40 with a 1.54-second 10-yard split at 6-3, 247 pounds. He had a 40 1/2-inch vertical and a 10-7 broad jump. Second was Louisville running back Isaac Guerendo, who became the fifth-fastest running back in combine history, going 4.33 in the 40. He vertical jumped 41 1/2 inches and broad jumped 10-9 at 6-0, 221 pounds.

GO DEEPER

Feldman’s Freaks List revisited: Who will show off at the NFL Combine?

• No program cranks out as many Freaks as Penn State. Those players then go into the draft process and back up the eye-popping numbers they put up in Happy Valley. It’s a long list, including Saquon Barkley, Mike Gesicki, Troy Apke, Micah Parsons and Odafe Oweh. This year, the Nittany Lions players did what the others have done in Indy. Chop Robinson, No. 1 on our Combine Freaks List, clocked a 4.48-second 40, a 10-8 broad jump and a 4.25 shuttle at 6-3, 254 pounds. (His numbers from last offseason: a 4.47 40, a 4.22 shuttle and a 10-7 broad jump.) Tight end Theo Johnson was almost as impressive. The 6-6, 259-pounder ran a 4.57-second 40 with a 1.57-second 10-yard split to go with a 39 1/2-inch vertical, a 10-5 broad jump and a 4.19 shuttle. Daequan Hardy, an undersized cornerback, ran a 4.38-second 40 and vertical jumped 42 1/2 inches.

• Michigan nickel Mike Sainristil has been a Wolverines fan favorite for his uncanny knack for making huge plays. He’s a favorite of NFL coaches, who rave about his smarts and instincts.

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“He’s super smart and was the leader of a team that had a lot of great leaders and then won a national title,” an NFL coach said. “What’s not to love? Well, aside from his size, but the guy just keeps showing up on film.”

His size is a concern at 5-9, 182 pounds, but no one doubts his toughness, and he tested well, running a 4.47-second 40 with a 40-inch vertical and a 10-11 broad jump. He will make an impact wherever he goes.

• Clemson’s Will Shipley, at 5-11, 206 pounds, didn’t work out in Indy, but one source who has worked with him described him as one of the most explosive athletes in this draft class and believes there’s a lot of untapped potential there.

(Top photos of Marshawn Kneeland, left, Xavier Worthy and Michael Penix Jr.: Stacy Revere and Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)

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Bruce Feldman is the National College Football Insider for The Athletic. One of the sport’s leading voices, he also is a sideline reporter for FOX College Football. Bruce has covered college football nationally for more than 20 years and is the author of numerous books on the topic, including “Swing Your Sword: Leading The Charge in Football and Life” with Mike Leach and most recently “The QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks.” Follow Bruce on Twitter @BruceFeldmanCFB

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