(CBS Local/CBS Chicago)- Football season is never really over.
The games might end with the Super Bowl, but the conversation surrounding the sport has developed into a near year-round behemoth thanks to the vessel of hope that is the NFL Draft. There have been mock drafts for months, of course, as the college stars of this past season prepare for their entry to the pros. But, with nothing left to sustain football fans on Sunday (outside of the too-new-to-be-invested-in-just-yet XFL), the attention turns in earnest to April.
With the NFL Draft comes the hope that teams will identify that missing piece that can take them from also-ran to contender or from playoff team to a Super Bowl appearance. The kick-off to draft season begins next week in Indianapolis when hundreds of prospects descend on Lukas Oil Stadium to run, jump and bench press their way into our hearts.
As always, it's important to remember that top performances at the combine don't always translate to NFL success. But, still, if you're wondering who you might keep tabs on, we have you covered. We reached out to CBSSports.com NFL Draft expert Josh Edwards to get his thoughts on a couple of combine-related topics. You can read Josh's latest Mock Draft here and more insight from him here.
Potential Combine Stars
Javaris Davis, CB, Auburn- A multi-year player in the slot for the Tigers, the 5'10", 180-pound Davis wrapped up his career with a solid senior season, racking up 43 tackles (1 for loss), two interceptions and six passes defensed. His biggest asset is his speed, which has been unofficially clocked at 4.24 in the 40.
"Javaris Davis is a guy that the average draft fan will probably not be aware of. But he does have elite speed," said Edwards.
Fun fact, Davis is the cousin of former NFL players Vontae and Vernon.
Anthony McFarland, RB, Maryland- McFarland's sophomore season didn't match his first in terms of production for the Terps, but he showed enough burst to make you think he'll be fun to watch go through the combine drills. Slowed by an ankle injury this past season, McFarland has been reportedly hand-timed at 4.29.
Henry Ruggs, WR, Alabama- Ruggs has received plenty of airtime over the past couple of years as part of Alabama's quartet of receiving threats, but much of the talk heading into this draft has focused on teammate Jerry Jeudy. While Jeudy may be the more highly sought-after guy, Ruggs' 40 might be the Combine's most-anticipated show. Several teammates weighed in on Twitter with their thoughts, with fellow prospect Trevon Diggs predicting an unheard of time.
A 4.1 has never been officially clocked at the combine. It's unlikely this year too, but it shows just how much his teammates believe in Ruggs' speed. Understandable for a guy that made Bruce Feldman's annual "Freaks List" prior to the year.
KJ Hamler, WR Penn State- Hamler made more than his fair share of plays in two seasons with the Nittany Lions. He caught a total of 98 passes for 1,658 yards and an average of 16.9 yards per catch and left innumerable potential tacklers grasping at air in the process. Hamler was timed by PSU coaches at 4.28 in the spring of last year, so he's likely to be another guy to watch.
Not Combine Superheroes, But Should Be Solid NFL Players
Lynn Bowden Jr., WR/RB, Kentucky- Bowden, as Edwards notes, was a Swiss Army knife of a player for the Wildcats last season, eventually lining up at quarterback when a barrage of injuries depleted the depth chart there. He's listed as a wide receiver heading into Indianapolis, but Edwards thinks there's potential in the backfield as well, comparing him to another former Kentucky do-everything player.
"I have seen a lot of people suggest that maybe running back is where he should play in the NFL. He just has a real natural play-making ability. He reminds me a lot of Randall Cobb, another guy who came out of Kentucky," said Edwards. "He doesn't have elite speed, but he just has this innate ability to avoid tacklers. I think that is what makes him so special. I'm curious to see how he tests. I don't think he is going to be the fastest player, but I could certainly see him excelling at some of those other drills."
Michael Pittman Jr., WR, USC- Pittman enjoyed a breakout season this year for the Trojans despite the churn at quarterback. At 6'4" 220, Edwards notes that he isn't likely to be a "top combine performer," but his combination of technique and size gives him a chance of "being a really solid player for quite some time." He won't necessarily light up Indy, but is still worth paying attention to in a loaded receiver class.
Netane Muti, OL, Fresno State- Being honest, offensive lineman are never really going to get buzz coming out of the Combine. Their 40-times don't provide the same flash or pizzazz as the skill position players. But, Muti does have some good athleticism for his position and could be around for awhile in the league.
"He is a guy that has a little bit more athleticism at the guard position but I'm curious to see how the medicals come back on him, because that has been a concern in the past," said Edwards. "I could see him having a long, prosperous career if he checks out well."
QBs To Know (Outside Of Joe Burrow & Tua Tagovailoa)
As with any year, the quarterback position is the most highly focused on heading into the draft. This year, the top two prospects, LSU's Joe Burrow and Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa, appear to have separated themselves from the pack. But there are a couple of guys behind them that Edwards is interested to watch come Combine and pro day time.
"Jacob Eason from Washington is a guy that I have been throwing into the first round quite a bit. He is kind of that forgotten guy. He has all this potential, a strong arm, but there were some concerns," said Edwards. "He transferred from Georgia, he's a one-year starter. Some people say he doesn't have that quality of leadership the way that Joe Burrow or Tua Tagovailoa do. There are concerns there. But from pure arm potential, Jacob Eason is a guy that I could see a team falling in love with in the first round."
Eason started his freshman year at Georgia with mixed reviews and then was Wally Pipped by Jake Fromm when he got injured in the first game of his sophomore season. After transferring to Washington and sitting out a year, Eason had a nice season for Chris Petersen and company completing 64.2 percent of his passes for over 3,100 yards and 23 touchdowns.
While Eason has questions because of somewhat limited starting experience, Utah State's Jordan Love is more of an unknown because his numbers dropped significantly in his junior year. Was that due simply to a worse supporting cast? Or regression? Either way, like Eason, Love has plenty that scouts and fans will like.
"Jordan Love is a guy that I see some similarities with Patrick Mahomes. I know that is a dangerous comparison because of what Mahomes has done in his first few seasons. But, there are certainly some qualities that bleed over between those two guys," said Edwards. "He is a guy that can move the pocket, has really cool arm angles he can throw from. My biggest concern is that his lows are so low. When he gets frustrated, he just starts throwing the ball up there and it becomes anyone's to grab, which is not something you want from your quarterback."
Under The Radar Guy To Watch
Finally, there are always guys who fly a bit below the radar heading into the draft. Each draft expert tends to have a guy that they're a big fan of whose name begins to gather buzz heading into April. For Edwards, one of those guys is the aforementioned Bowden. The other? Utah running back Zack Moss.
"He has tremendous contact balance. I love the way that he is able to get through those tackles," said Edwards. "He is an adequate pass catcher. His production is interesting because one year, Utah's offense called for him to be more active in the pass game, but he wasn't utilized as much this year."
A 5'10" 222-pound bowling ball of a back, Moss rushed for over 4,000 yards in his time with the Utes. Injuries did slow him at times over the past two years, but his production will earn him a look.
The 2020 NFL Draft Combine begins on Tuesday, February 24th in Indianapolis.
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