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NFL Combine: 3 winners and 3 losers on defense

A look back at those defensive players who may have improved their draft stock and those who have lost some value over the weekend.

NFL Combine - Day 6 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

With the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine wrapped up, all prospective draftees have completed weigh-ins, interviews, testing and drills. NFL scouts and coaches have gotten their eyes on the draft class, and while most teams had their minds made up about individual players, we do know that a good — or a bad — combine can make teams go back and take a closer look at the film.

Craig covered the offense (what kind of crazy world are we living in) on Saturday, and now we look at the defensive side of the ball. Here are three winners and three losers on the defensive side of football after their week in Indianapolis:

The winners

DT Justin Madubuike, Texas A&M

Justin Madubuike wasn’t being slept on or forgotten about before the combine. He was just in a mix of guys that were thought of as equals. Madubuike’s film has brilliant flashes of athleticism, but he often plays through some of his length and power rather than raw athleticism.

After the combine, that narrative doesn’t necessarily change, but he changed the outlook on his overall upside by posting an elite RAS score of 9.17.

Checking in at 6 feet 2 and a half inches and 293 pounds, Madubuike not only posted great testing numbers — he was one of the cleanest movers of the entire interior defensive line group. During the new Run and Club drill, he showed off his powerful hands but was able to stay under control while not swinging wide around the bags like many of the other defensive tackles. He and fellow interior defensive line winner Khalil Davis were easily the two smoothest big men to run the new Figure 8 drill, showcasing their bend around the massive hoops.

Madubuike was already thought of as a hard-nosed, physical interior defender with a decent first step, but now the sky is the limit for him. He might find himself in round one consideration.

LB Willie Gay Jr., Mississippi State

Willie Gay Jr. being an excellent athlete capable of rivaling Isaiah Simmons is not a shock to the entire draft community. A lot of people who dove deep into the class knew Willie Gay Jr. was an elite athlete that had explosive ability and just couldn’t stay on the field through some off-the-field issues.

The most significant takeaway with him from his athletic testing numbers is that he took it very seriously and made his mark as a premier athlete at the traditional linebacker position.

His jump numbers of 39.5 inches in the vertical and 11 feet, 4 inches in the broad jump at 6 feet 1 and 243 pounds were incredible. Gay capping that with a 4.46 40-yard dash and above-average agility drills turned some heads in Indianapolis. The best part for him is that when people turn back to the tape, they will see that athleticism pop. As long as his interview process played out well, he could see his name climb up draft boards for teams looking for size and speed at the linebacker position.

DB Jeremy Chinn, Southern Illinois

Jeremy Chinn had some athletic hype going into the combine, but he was being overshadowed by other freaks like Kyle Dugger and Isaiah Simmons. Chinn was right there with those guys in his testing, and the athleticism shows on the film as he has sideline-to-sideline range.

Chinn is looking at a jump in competition level, but his athletic ability clears up any concerns one might have had there. His versatility to play outside cornerback — as he did in Mobile for the Senior Bowl at times — or as deep or box safety fits the mold of the new-age, versatile defensive playmaker.

The losers

DL AJ Epenesa, Iowa

Epenesa entered the 2019 college season as some analysts’ top edge rusher or at worst, second-best behind Chase Young. Epenesa didn’t have a poor season, but as people dove into the tape, it became evident that there were athletic limitations or questions on film. Those concerns were significantly worse than feared, as he tested as an extremely poor athlete for the defensive end position. Average explosive testing helps the overall profile, but the 40 time and 10-yard split are going to hurt his draft stock.

The silver lining for Epenesa is that he is a big, strong, technical-savvy pass rusher that can kick inside and often plays with his length and power. The ability to kick inside could always be a savior for a less-than-ideal athlete on the edge, but I’m not ready to give up on the concept of Epenesa on the edge. I also don’t think Steve Spagnuolo would give up on him either, as Epenesa fits every single primary criterion that he looks for in his defensive ends.

NFL primetime combine slotting

NFL Combine - Day 5 Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

The NFL moved the combine testing to primetime and doubled its TV ratings. While this is great news for the NFL as it is making more money with views, there seemed to be an even higher number of players sitting out some of their testing. Even worse than players skipping tests during the linebacker portion, both Kenneth Murray and Patrick Queen pulled up with hamstring injuries that held them out from field drills. Both of these guys are considered first-round picks and were must-see TV next to Isiah Simmons but came up injured.

A lot of trainers and players have been vocal about how standing around between drills was not good for them. Maybe it takes some time for the agents and players to get the schedule down, but late afternoon-into-evening testing can’t force top prospects to skip drills or the ratings will dip again.

DB Cameron Dantzler, DB

The AP Draft team is respectfully pouring one out for one of our favorite cornerbacks after a poor combine performance.

Dantzler’s 40 time of 4.64 is a huge issue for an NFL cornerback and probably to a level that won’t be highly coveted in the draft. His vertical jump wasn’t significantly better, but it certainly wouldn’t be enough to drop him out of a threshold for most teams.

Similar to Epenesa above, there is some hope for Cam Dantzler in that his lack of speed never showed up on tape. Playing in the SEC with his best football against top competition — LSU and Alabama — Dantzler showed to be more than capable of playing against pro-level receivers vertically. If Dantzler can‘t improve upon this time at his Pro Day, he may not see his name called until day three of the draft.

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