I can watch the film and tell you, roughly, how good an athlete someone is.
When they are an elite athlete, they pop off the film; when they are a prohibitively poor one, they pop off the film as well. But you don't get to watch every talented NFL hopeful before the NFL combine.
Play speed is different than testing speed, as we very well know, so when test numbers come through, sometimes we can be shocked by the results.
These are my five most surprising performances — both good and bad — from the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine.
Willie Gay Jr., LB, Mississippi State
There has been some love for Willie Gay Jr. deep in draft circle. He's always been a bit on the radar but never prominently enough that we all expected his combine performance to shine.
Of course, there's a reason for a quiet final season: Gay missed all but five games in 2019 due to various suspensions, including academic misconduct. While he may have missed the playing time that would have vaulted him into national visibility, the athletic ability that made his limited reps exciting didn’t evaporate during the suspension. And in the combine, he showed everyone what could have been.
Gay ran a blistering 4.48-second 40-yard dash at 243 pounds, shining to even the top linebackers in the class like LSU's Patrick Queen — who clocked 4.50 seconds at 229 pounds — and Oklahoma's Kenneth Murray, who recorded a 4.52-second time at 241 pounds. Gay did the same in the jumps, hitting 39.5 inches in the vertical and 11.3 inches in the broad, both of which exceeded Queen and Murray's numbers.
It's not enough to just test better than the top players. The film will tell all on Gay, who is challenging a thin linebacker class with elite athleticism and strong enough game film to shake up the first five or so players off the board from the position. The main thing holding him back now? The same off-field foolishness that prevented him from having hype until now anyway.
Derrick Brown, IDL, Auburn
The best player in the draft is Chase Young; after him, it’s probably Jeffrey Okudah, or Joe Burrow or Derrick Brown. Brown was in the middle of Auburn’s defensive front and an elite pass-rushing force with power, quickness and flexibility just like Haloti Ngata.
The comparison isn't nearly as attractive as one might hope for a top-10 pick at defensive tackle. While we shouldn't underrate an illustrious career from Ngata, he maxed out at 5 1/2 sacks in 2010. If Brown has his best season in his fifth year, like Ngata, and it generates 5 1/2 sacks, will we feel he returned value on a top-10 investment?
Brown's a good pass rusher and was flat-out dominant at Auburn, but pedestrian jumps — including a 27-inch vertical and a 9-foot broad — and 1.78-second 10-yard split doesn’t tell the story of the athleticism evident in his tremendous tape. I'm not necessarily concerned about Brown's pro projection. But it was expected that he would test like a quality athlete at 322 pounds, and he generally was average for his size. Brown is not an average player. Why did he put up average numbers?
Hakeem Adeniji, OL, Kansas
I have not watched Hakeem Adeniji's tape yet. He didn't do anything too special in the practice reps that I saw at the Senior Bowl, and I can't claim to have caught a lot of live Kansas games this year. He was on my list, but he wasn't prioritized.
He is now.
Some people like Adeniji as a guard in the NFL. Others want to see him fail at tackle first. Either way, he measured in with comparable athletic ability to players like Houston's Josh Jones and UConn's Matt Peart, who are seemingly certain tackles at the NFL level and have more and bigger fans in draft circles.
Adeniji's stock is in the Day 3 category now — a low-ceiling tackle who likely fits at guard is historically not valued in the top-100 picks. With that said, players of Adeniji's athletic ability tend to stick in the league for a long time, even if it's just as a swing backup.
Hunter Bryant, TE, Washington
Sometimes players work so hard at coming in big, they sap away at the very athleticism that made them exciting prospects. In turn, it highlights the very reason they played at a smaller weight, which seemed to be the case with Hunter Bryant. He impressed during weigh-ins when he tipped the scales at a strapping 248 pounds; and at only 6-foot-2-inches with 32-inch arms, Bryant isn't a lanky 248. He's a stock 248 and likely played around eight pounds lighter.
Accordingly, Bryant's H-back sized frame let to some H-back like testing: 4.74-second 40-yard dash, 32.5-inch vertical jump, 9-foot-7-inch broad jump, 4.46-second short shuttle and 7.08-second 3-cone drill. They aren't bad numbers, but Bryant's entire appeal was predicated on his athletic ability.
He's a bad blocker who wins with route running and yards after catch ability, but in the NFL, it seems like he won't be at such an advantage in open space unless he drops some weight.
Bryant's surprising combine isn't just the fact that he was a lot bigger and a lot slower than we thought; it's also that this approach was the play from his camp. The league is becoming increasingly comfortable with tight ends in the low-240s. If that's really where Bryant played, or if it was even lighter, the NFL would have swallowed the pill if he were an explosive mover with homerun ability. Now, that's more in question than it was previously.
Chase Claypool, WR, Notre Dame
Last, but not least: There was no way we were escaping this list without mentioning Chase Claypool, who is, essentially, Calvin Johnson incarnate.
When Claypool weighed in at 238 pounds, many thought he was a likely candidate for tight end play and he would test accordingly. Claypool has never seemed like a bad athlete, just a solid one for being a big man. It turns out, he's a wicked athlete for a small player too. He clocked a 4.42-second 40-yard dash with a 1.52-second 10-yard split, a 10-foot-6-inch broad jump and a 40.5-inch vertical jump. The explosiveness is off the charts, no matter where you play him.
That's not exactly how things seemed on film at Notre Dame, which makes Claypool such a surprising performer this week. Such was the same when teammate Miles Boykin ran circles around the 2019 field, as the original Notre Dame wide receiver who tested out of his mind. What's different about Claypool? He is a better route-runner now than Boykin ever was, and the special-teams value is nothing to sneeze at either. His floor is very high at the next level.