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8 Prospects to Watch at NFL Scouting Combine

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At Bleacher Report, I broke down eight prospects to watch in next week’s NFL Scouting Combine. Here’s a preview.

The measurables recorded at the NFL Scouting Combine should matter to every NFL team, including the Dallas Cowboys. Measurables are important because they allow us to quantify what we see on the field, which in turn allows for a scientific approach to football.

Science is marked by improvement—namely an improvement in predictions. We can sit and watch game film all day, but how do we improve that process? How do we get beyond “this guy has great hips” to make more accurate predictions?

With analytics, we can run tests to see which metrics are the most important, creating models to aid us in making predictions. The key, though, is that different measurables matter for different positions. The 40-yard dash, for example, is extremely important for players at certain positions, while basically useless at others.

The degree to which a measurable is useful extends only insofar as it helps make better predictions about a prospect’s future. One of the common qualms with a drill like the 40-yard dash is that “players almost never run 40 yards in a straight line during a game.”

Who cares? Employees don’t need to take IQ tests during work hours, but that doesn’t make an IQ test completely useless when screening job candidates. If a measurable helps us forecast the future, it’s useful, regardless of whether or not it occurs during a game.

With that in mind, here are eight prospects who the Dallas Cowboys (and you) should monitor during the NFL Scouting Combine, along with the measurable that might be the most important.

Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State

What to Watch: Arm Length

Tall pass rushers perform better than short ones in the NFL, but that doesn’t mean teams should do everything they can to draft tall ones. Actually, it’s the short pass rushers with long arms who often offer the most value.

Teams pay for height in defensive ends, so those who are tall with long arms often don’t provide a great return. Those who are short with long arms, however, can find a ton of NFL success, but they come with a much cheaper price tag.

Oregon State’s Scott Crichton is relatively short at 6’3” and there are rumors that he has good length, but we don’t know for sure. He’ll be an outstanding second-round value if his arms are long compared to his height.

Allen Robinson, WR, Penn State

What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

The Cowboys should draft a wide receiver in 2014. There are someearly-round wide receiver prospects who should intrigue Dallas, and Penn State’s Allen Robinson is one of them.

If you’re a fan of Robinson, you should root for him to run a mediocre 40-yard dash. Wait, what?

Although teams seek speed in wide receivers, the 40-yard dash isn’t all that predictive of NFL success at the position. Instead, size matters most, and Robinson has it.

Robinson is fighting with a group of talented wide receivers to sneak his way into the first round, but he could drop well into the second with a poor 40-yard dash. If he’s in the 4.55 range, that would be great—slow enough to drop but fast enough to excel in the NFL.

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri

What to Watch: Weight

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam is the exact sort of defensive end who can offer value on draft day because he’s short (6’2”) with long arms (33.25 inches). He’ll drop because of his lack of height, but Sam’s arm length suggests he should be able to produce in the NFL.

Also monitor Sam’s weight, which should be around 260 pounds. That’s up from his playing weight at Missouri, and he’ll need all the bulk he can get to play as a 4-3 defensive end. If Sam reports any heavier than 260 pounds, it will be interesting to see how he moves.

Some are arguing that Sam’s draft stock has fallen since admitting he’s gay, but that’s just another reason to be bullish on him. If Sam indeed drops because he’s gay, too short, or whatever, it will just allow whichever team drafts him to acquire a high-upside player at a bare minimum price.

Antone Exum, CB, Virginia Tech

What to Watch: 40-Yard Dash

Do the Cowboys need a cornerback? Maybe, maybe not. They’ve got a ton of money committed to the position, but all of it is going to players who stand under 6’0” and weigh less than 200 pounds. You can never have too many talented cornerbacks and second-year man B.W. Webb struggled badly in his rookie campaign, so perhaps the ‘Boys will once again look at the position late in the draft.

If they do, Virginia Tech’s Antone Exum should be on their radar. At 6’0”, 220 pounds, Exum is absolutely massive. He’s the type of cornerback who could dramatically help the Cowboys in the red zone right out of the gate.

Speed is so crucial for cornerbacks, though, so Exum’s 40-yard dash will be important. If he can clock in under 4.50, he’ll probably be highly undervalued.

Head to B/R for the other four prospects.

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