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NFL combine standouts: Which QBs are rising? Who helped their draft stock?

INDIANAPOLIS — Realistically, the 2024 NFL Draft cycle has been active for months, dating back to when teams set their initial boards last offseason. In reality, though, arguably the biggest step between the end of the college football season and the draft happened over the weekend, as 321 prospects headed to the annual NFL Scouting Combine.

Which players did the most to help themselves? Our draft team of Dane Brugler, Nick Baumgardner and Diante Lee discuss the standouts …

1. The projected top three QBs (Caleb Williams, Drake Maye and Jayden Daniels) all sat out on-field workouts. Did anyone else at that position move the needle, one way or the other?

Dane Brugler:  This is a boring answer, but nothing really happened on the field at the combine that will drastically alter how I view these quarterbacks. I set up shop at the 30-yard line and had a good view of every throw — there wasn’t anything too surprising.

The seven-step rollout and pocket-movement drills are especially interesting to get a sense of a player’s on-field mobility and how the ball comes off his hand, and I thought Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy had a strong outing. You have to go back five years to find a quarterback who posted a better three-cone time at the combine than his 6.82-second mark.

Nick Baumgardner: We saw some solid performances from McCarthy, Bo Nix and Michael Penix Jr. Some of the throws with which McCarthy was inconsistent Saturday, like intermediate corners and outs to his left, show up on tape. But his deep throws (and middle shots) were mostly on the money. He also hit 61 miles per hour on the radar gun, just behind Tennessee’s Joe Milton (62 mph), and that three-cone time confirmed his movement skills.

The drills helped verify that McCarthy’s a better athlete than Nix, who is a better athlete than Penix. QB-needy teams outside picks 1-3 are looking for reasons to draft McCarthy in the top half of the first based on his size, age and athletic traits. It’s hard to say he gave them a reason not to.

Diante Lee: I wouldn’t say it “moved the needle,” per se, but I enjoyed Penix’s throwing session. His timing and accuracy were mostly on point. There were other QBs clearly aiming the ball or throwing late/inside to ensure completions, so it was nice to watch a guy be clean, without apprehension, while working with new faces.

I’m usually the wet blanket with quarterbacks, though, so I don’t mind being that guy again. I don’t think anyone had expectations that Sam Hartman would blow up at the combine, but you can see a pretty clear difference between his arm talent and the guys I’d expect to be selected in the top 100 or 150. His resume is still enough to get him drafted, and he can carve out a career like Nick Mullens, but watching him in comparison to the others did stand out.

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2. The receivers put on a show, highlighted by Xavier Worthy’s record-breaking 4.21-second 40. Call your shot, post-combine: How many WRs will go in Round 1?

Brugler: The record for receivers in the first round is seven (2004), and I think we’ll match that in April. One of the reasons I’m not guessing more than seven is I think several teams will opt for offensive linemen (because those positions aren’t as deep) and wait on receiver — a loaded group that will stretch into Rounds 2, 3 and beyond.

I’m fascinated with this question, though: After Saturday’s workout, who will be the first Texas receiver drafted? Adonai Mitchell has athletic X traits; Worthy is the fastest player in combine history. Get ready for debates.

Baumgardner: I’ll cheat and say five to seven. The top three (Marvin Harrison Jr., Malik Nabers and Rome Odunze) plus Brian Thomas Jr. and Mitchell, for sure, and I wouldn’t rule out a team falling in love with Georgia’s Ladd McConkey or perhaps Worthy — though the latter’s size is still a concern. By the end of Round 3, though? At least 20.

Some people seemed down on Keon Coleman after he ran a 4.62, but I’d caution against freaking out too much. Coleman’s 10-yard split (1.54 seconds) was good and, most importantly, his on-field testing looked smooth. Coleman ran a cleaner and faster gauntlet drill than Oregon’s Troy Franklin, who had a 40 time of 4.41.

Coleman’s size, burst and body control still make for a very intriguing combination. Remember: Puka Nacua ran a 4.57 40 (with a 1.62 split) last year.

Lee: I’m setting the number at 6.5 — and I think it will be decided by what the NFL thinks of speedy prospects like Franklin and Worthy. Both guys are lightweight but explosive (and those are understatements for Worthy), and they both have concerning issues with drops, in ways that betray their ball-tracking skills. There also are legitimate reasons to wonder whether these guys can add the necessary refinement to their route running to win on a down-to-down basis.

But some teams at the end of Round 1 (Buffalo, Baltimore, Kansas City) will be looking to add instant offense.

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3. Which defensive prospect(s) impressed you the most?

Brugler: At defensive tackle, Florida State’s Braden Fiske crushed the testing, ranking in the 94th percentile in weight-adjusted 40-yard dash (4.78 seconds). Somehow, his positional workout was even more impressive. He won’t be a fit for every scheme because of his size, but he cemented himself in the second round for those teams considering him. Texas’ Byron Murphy II was a close second at the position and reinforced why many believe he is the top DT prospect this year.

Among the edge rushers, Alabama’s Dallas Turner showed why he is the favorite to be the first defensive player drafted. He has a rare wingspan, and his explosiveness was clear, both during testing (4.47-second 40, 40.5-inch vertical) and positional drills. The word “freak” can get overused, but there might not be a player in this draft more deserving — and seeing him move up close only confirmed that status. Houston Christian’s Jalyx Hunt is another pass rusher who was moving just a little differently than everyone else. With his long arms and explosive strides, he dominated the hoop drill. Hunt’s tape says late rounds, but top 100 is possible.

In the secondary, my top-ranked cornerbacks, Terrion Arnold and Quinyon Mitchell, confirmed (in my eyes) they should be the first CBs drafted. One of my personal favorite prospects, Kentucky’s Andru Phillips, was loose and springy in his movements and attacked each drill with a little extra juice than others — he reinforced my belief that he should be a top-75 pick. South Dakota’s Myles Harden was considered a late-rounder coming into the week, but his arrow is pointing up after his workouts.

Among the safeties, Utah’s Cole Bishop was the top performer I saw. Not only did he test well, but his speed translated to the positional drills. His athletic versatility will stand out in a safety class without a clear-cut top guy.

Baumgardner: Fiske was out-of-this-world good Thursday in just about everything he did. His 4.37 short shuttle was elite, and he posted a 33 1/2-inch vertical. On the field, Fiske was routinely the fastest — and smoothest — turning corners against the bags. He is a small DT, but athletically, he’s on par with Michigan’s Kris Jenkins and Clemson’s Ruke Orhorhoro — two of the best in the group.

Michigan talked an awful lot last week about having 18 guys at the combine. Only one of the Wolverines’ skill-position guys competed in every test, though: DB Mike Sainristil, an All-American and two-time captain. He’s small (5-9, 182), but he was at or above expectation on nearly every test, showing good speed, burst and agility (and putting up 14 bench reps). Not saying I’d predict this, but I won’t be shocked if Sainristil is the first Michigan defender selected.

Lee: Chop Robinson showed up and accomplished everything he set out to do, ranking second among edges in the 40 (4.48) and short shuttle (4.25) while tying for first in the 10-yard split (1.54) and broad jump (10 feet, 8 inches). He’s going to have a steep learning curve as an NFL run defender, but he should be ranked alongside or ahead of others who are pure pass-rushing commodities.

Sainristril is just as athletic as he is competitive. He ran a sub-4.5 40, jumped 40 inches in the vertical and nearly 11 feet in the broad and met the necessary thresholds in agility testing. Teams should be excited about the kind of slot defender he can be.

I’m more enthused about Murphy and Jenkins after this week, too. Their explosiveness was impressive, and both guys can probably carry more weight in season than they brought to Indianapolis. I’m confident in their ceilings as versatile defensive tackles.

4. Beyond the O-line names we’ve heard about the most (Olu Fashanu, Joe Alt, Jackson Powers-Johnson, etc.), give us a prospect or two from that group that you’re banging the table for after Sunday’s workout.

Brugler: If I made a list of my draft crushes, Washington’s Troy Fautanu might be the first name I’d write down. Sure, Penix and the Huskies receivers created fireworks, but the real highlight was Fautanu’s movement skills on pin-pull blocks. He was outstanding in each of the combine’s position drills (wave, pass-pro mirror, short-pull power and long pull). He is one of the best offensive linemen in this draft and a lock for the top 25.

Similarly, it was love at first sight this past summer when I watched Amarius Mims (No. 5 overall in my August top 50). He didn’t disappoint this weekend. At 6-7 3/4, 340 with 36-inch arms, he looks like he was built in a lab and has barely any fat on his frame. He is the most fascinating player in the draft because the traits are off the charts but the body of work isn’t there (eight career starts).

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Baumgardner: There are a lot, actually. It’s a loaded class.

Wisconsin center Tanner Bortolini came into the combine with a reputation as a top-notch athlete, and he delivered. The former Badger — a center-only at 6-3, 305 with 31 5/8-inch arms — ran a 4.99 40 with a 1.69 split. He also registered a 32 1/2-inch vertical and moved very well throughout drills as expected. Another guy people need to take a longer look at is TCU guard Brandon Coleman, who put together a great workout (4.99 40 with a 1.73 split, 34-inch vertical and a 9-foot, 6-inch broad jump).

It was a good day, in general, for the top tackles. Fautanu, Tyler Guyton and Mims all looked impressive moving around. Former South Dakota State teammates Garrett Greenfield and Mason McCormick also are very solid prospects.

Lee: People know about Mims, but I’m concerned he’s becoming more of an afterthought among the first-round prospects. He nearly cracked a sub-5.0 40-yard dash, and he has already flashed incredible power and foot speed in his limited time as a starter. He needs time to develop, but there’s scary potential.

There will be quite a few guys with the potential to play multiple spots in the NFL, and that’s a major plus for those who don’t project to be instant starters. One is Coleman, who worked inside at the Senior Bowl and held his own both inside and out during his career. I like his hands and anchor, and this week’s testing showed the lower-body explosiveness is there.

Washington’s Roger Rosengarten is an interesting swing-tackle prospect. A lighter guy, he’s fluid and strong as a right tackle. He led all offensive linemen in the 40 (4.92), and those movement skills are apparent when you watch him play. He needs to add weight to his frame, but I expect one of the Shanahan-tree guys to take and develop him.

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(Top photo of Michael Penix Jr.: Kevin Sabitus / Getty Images)