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February 21, 2011

NFL Combine could be crucial for Dareus, others

TUSCALOOSA _ He hasn't taken a snap in six weeks, and even then essentially played half of the game. He wasn't able to participate in the Senior Bowl and has quietly been working out at the Sonic Boom Speed Conditioning & Strength Training Academy in Jefferson, La.

Yet Mark Ingram's draft stock appears to be on the rise because he's clearly the best player at his position in this year's NFL Draft. That makes the former University of Alabama standout and 2010 Heisman Trophy winner a hot commodity.

"There's one guy, in my opinion, Mark Ingram, who really belongs in the first round," ESPN's Todd McShay said of the available running backs. "You could argue that fifteen is slightly high, I have him as the 18th overall player in this draft. He's going to be a very good back. He has durability issues, he's not going to run real well, he's not going to have ideal measurable if you will, but he's so instinctive.

"The three things that jump out are the instincts, the lateral quickness, he feels the hole opening and is able to get in and out of it so quickly, and finally the yards after contact. He runs at his pad level and he anticipates contact, he's so good in that area. Everyone's comparing him to Emmitt Smith, usually I try and find something different and unique, I just think it's a perfect comparison because Emmitt Smith didn't have all the perfect measurable coming out but obviously went on to have one of the most productive rushing careers in NFL history."

Ingram and five other former Crimson Tide standouts will get their best chance to impress scouts when they participate in the NFL Combine, which runs from Thursday to March 1 in Indianapolis.

Also receiving invitations were James Carpenter, Marcell Dareus, Julio Jones and Greg McElroy, although the quarterbacks won't do much physically after sustaining a hand injury during the Senior Bowl and recently revealed via Twitter that his second metacarpal is cracked.

They'll get another chance at Alabama's Pro Day on March 9, if necessary, and will also be able to participate in individual workouts, but the Combine is when they stand shoulder-to-shoulder with the other top prospects and try to answer any lingering doubts.

The Combine routine goes like this:
Day 1: Arrive, registration, pre-exam and X-ray, orientation, interviews.
Day 2: Measurements, exams, media (press conference), psych tests, interviews.
Day 3: NFLPA meeting, psych tests, workouts (weight room, etc.), interviews.
Day 4: On-field drills (timing, skill drills, etc.), departure

Players report in groups determined by their positions:
Feb. 23: Kickers, special teams, offensive linemen, tight ends.
Feb. 24: Quarterbacks, wideouts, running backs
Feb. 25: Defensive linemen, linebackers
Feb. 26: Defensive backs

So for those who want to see how Jones and Ingram fare in the 40, they should be watching the NFL Network's live coverage on Sunday. Meanwhile, the most important test for Carpenter, who is coming off an impressive showing in the Senior Bowl and is looking more like a third-round selection who can play tackle or guard, may be the bench press.

McElroy, a Rhodes Scholar finalist will get his shot at the Wonderlic, the twelve-minute, fifty-question test used to access learning and problem solving. The average score at the Combine is 20, with most teams wanting quarterbacks to get at least 21. Harvard's Pat McInally, who was a punter with the Cincinnati Bengals, has the only confirmed perfect score of 50.

However, the Combine may be more important to Dareus than the rest put together because of his potential to be a top-five pick, with each slot worth millions.

Last year the top defensive lineman, Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, went second overall and signed a five-year deal with Detroit for $68 million, $40 million guaranteed. Tennessee safety Eric Berry went fifth overall and got a six-year $60 million deal, $34 million guaranteed, from Kansas City. At No. 10, defensive end Tyson Alualu got a five-year contract from Jacksonville for $28 million, $17.5 million guaranteed.

"He has a little bit of a durability concern, obviously he had a two-game suspension, but when this guy's going and is one hundred percent he's as disruptive as any player in this draft," McShay said about Dareus. "He's strong, I think he's a lot stronger than people think, he has great awareness. He's not as big and athletic as Nick Fairley, but he might be a more complete player when he's one hundred percent. I think he could play a 4-3, or a 3-4 for teams that are going back and forth, like Cleveland that wants to do different things I think he's a good fit.

"The bottom line is he can get after the quarterback, he can disrupt and he's a lot stronger than some people give him credit for."

In his latest mock draft, McShay had Dareus going sixth to Cleveland and working with new defensive coordinator Dick Jauron, while his colleague Mel Kiper slated him eighth to Tennessee. However, Mike Mayock of the NFL Network lists Dareus as the best defensive tackle in the draft ahead of Fairley.

"I think Nick Fairley might have a tiny bit more upside than Dareus, but I think Dareus has a higher floor," Mayock explained. "You kind of know what you're getting with Dareus."

Kiper projects Fairley going first to Carolina and Auburn quarterback Cam Newton third to Buffalo. McShay has Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers as the top pick ahead of Fairley and calls Newton the biggest "boom-or-bust" prospect of the draft.

While many believe the physical evaluations are the most important part of the Combine, for the two Auburn players it may be the team interviews, as both are certain to get tough questions and teams will be anxious to see how they handle themselves.

As of now, both Kiper and McShay have Alabama and Auburn combining for five of the first 15 selections.

Kiper has Jones 11th to Houston, calling it a "hunch" pick ("A good option to take advantage of Matt Schaub's growth into an elite quarterback,") and Ingram 15th to Miami. McShay has Jones 14th to St. Louis and Ingram 15th.

"If Julio's there, they'd probably sprint up the podium with the card," Mayock said about the Rams. "I think he's a real logical fit, and they have to start complementing Sam Bradford. They've got to get some talent out wide.

"I think he's the most logical guy at the entire draft for them at 14."

Regardless, the NFL Draft set for April 28-30 no matter what happens with the volatile labor situation and potential lockout in March.


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