Players make way to combine hoping to impress NFL teams

When more than 300 NFL draft prospects invited to the league’s scouting combine descend on Indianapolis this week, 15 players from southern Louisiana football programs will be among those vying for jobs at the highest level of their trade.

The vast majority of them — 11 — will come from LSU. Two more are from Tulane. There’s one each from Southeastern Louisiana and McNeese State. And a sixteenth player, from Thibodaux High by way of Alabama, will arrive as a favorite to be taken within the first four picks of the draft in May.

Most of the prospects will be trying to attract or validate NFL teams’ interest in them with their performances in a battery of drills and workouts as well as on mental aptitude tests that gauge the ways potential draft picks might react to certain coaching, playing and social situations. They’ll meet and interview with team executives and try to avoid hurting their standing, since the brief gatherings usually leave too little time for much else.

“This is a high-pressure situation for athletes to excel or not excel in,” said Jed Hughes, formerly an assistant for Hall of Fame Steelers coach Chuck Noll and now in charge of the executive search firm Korn/Ferry’s global sports practice. “From a coaching perspective and a front-office one, it’s an opportunity to watch ... players ... react to positivity or failure and how they compare to their peers.”

The players with Louisiana ties who are carrying the loftiest expectations into the combine are Auburn tackle Greg Robinson — a Thibodaux High alum — and wideouts Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, LSU juniors who gave their school perhaps the best receiving duo in college football last year. Players began showing up in Indianapolis for the combine Wednesday, and the event runs through Feb. 25.

The website NFL Draft Scout ranks Robinson, a redshirt sophomore, as the second-best tackle and projects he could be chosen No. 4 overall. He might have the highest ceiling of the draft’s elite tackles; but he’s not as polished as Texas A&M’s Jake Matthews — who could be plugged into any pro offensive line immediately — or Michigan’s Taylor Lewan, NFL Media draft expert Mike Mayock said.

The websites NFL Draft Scout and project Beckham will go in the late first or early second round, and Landry in the second round. Mayock, for his part, called Beckham “tremendous” but ranked Landry higher, labeling him one of his favorite players in the draft, someone who “can play inside and outside” and reminds him of former Super Bowl MVP receiver Hines Ward.

“He’s physically one of the toughest players in this draft in any position,” Mayock said of Landry. “He’s the guy I’d like to have as a teammate.”

Other southern Louisiana prospects invited to the combine are unquestionably talented but have to assuage calms about perceived flaws. Six-foot-5, 235-pound LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger has good size and ability, enough for teams to not be overly concerned about the anterior cruciate ligament the senior tore in his left knee in December, Mayock said.

But, Mayock added, Mettenberger will have to persuade teams he can stop staring down intended receivers and get the ball out of his hands quicker if he wants to be seen as anything more than the third- or fourth-round developmental project he’s predicted to be.

Meanwhile, Mayock believes 6-foot-2, 236-pound LSU running back Jeremy Hill’s sole purpose at the combine and beyond should be convincing teams that misdemeanor guilty pleas to carnal knowledge of an underage girl and simple battery aren’t indicative of a problematic character. That’s if the redshirt sophomore who led LSU in rushing his two seasons wants to be taken in the second round and not drop to the third or fourth, where contracts will be less lucrative, Mayock said.

Others who head into the combine as possible candidates for the third round of the draft are LSU junior defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, redshirt junior defensive tackle Ego Ferguson and redshirt senior strong safety Craig Loston.

Tulane wide receiver Ryan Grant and LSU inside linebacker Lamin Barrow, both redshirt seniors, might go in the fourth round.

According to Hughes, a talent evaluator and ex-Noll assistant, the best way for prospects to improve their stocks is by exceeding expectations in running, strength, agility and position drills.

However, that does expose them to the slight risk of, for example, hurting a knee or straining a muscle; and injuries do prevent some prospects from participating in drills at the combine.

Doing well in an interview with a team won’t have the same effect because the short interactions “are tertiary (and) superficial,” Hughes said. But they can help players keep a club’s interest alive or prompt an organization to fly prospects to their facilities for longer conversations.

There will be no shortage of players with whom teams will want to do that, Mayock assured.

“There’s more depth” than in previous drafts, said Mayock, who said top 20 picks this time are equivalent to top 10 picks last year.

“There are certain positions that are stacked this year, and you can get a quality player at them for three or four rounds.”