A trio of Washington State players took on the NFL Scouting Combine’s gantlet of strength tests, agility drills and private interviews last weekend, completing what most might argue is the most vital stage of the pre-NFL Draft process.
Things went well – and better than well, in some cases – for offensive tackle Andre Dillard, quarterback Gardner Minshew and running back James Williams at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. Dillard wowed with his 40-yard dash time, Minshew impressed in the vertical jump and Williams placed top five among combine running backs in three drills – the three-cone, the 20-yard shuttle and the vertical jump.
“To me, this was a case of the three Washington State players needing to check the boxes, they did as expected helping their cause, but not so much helping their cause that they went (in) as a late-round pick and now are first-round picks, necessarily,” said Rob Rang, a Tacoma-based draft analyst whose work appears on NFLDraftScout.com, FootballMaven.io and elsewhere. “But just kind of crossed the t’s, dotted the i’s, what they needed to do to take that next step to being drafted into the NFL.”
In a phone interview earlier this week, Rang helped The Spokesman-Review evaluate how each of the three Cougars performed in a high-exposure environment at the 2019 combine.
While most draft analysts and media experts are pegging Dillard as the draft’s top offensive tackle prospect – and someone worth spending a top-15 pick on – Rang isn’t part of that camp.
Four years of experience in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense has melded Dillard into the country’s top pass-protector, Rang believes, but it’s also come at a cost.
“I personally struggle with the idea of just stamping a first-round grade on him, because I don’t believe he is the run blocker that some of the other tackles this year are,” he said. “But let’s face it, the NFL is a pass-first league and he is the best pass blocker of this year’s tackle class, so that is likely to keep him in that first-round mix.”
Dillard could become a standout run-blocker at the next level – and he may already be more advanced than people give him credit for – but the pre-draft process doesn’t offer ample opportunity for an offensive lineman to demonstrate that. It could be the reason WSU’s left tackle falls from high to low first-round, or low first-round to high second-round.
Rang calls Dillard a “terrific athlete” who graded out as “spectacular” in Indianapolis. His agility and straight-line speed were evident in drills like the 40-yard dash, where Dillard clocked 4.96 seconds, and both the broad jump and 20-yard shuttle – both events in which he set top offensive-line marks.
Rang said Dillard could still improve his general strength and develop the “nasty physicality” that NFL teams value in a run blocker.
“I think that he has a tendency to get himself a little more narrow than I’d like him to, so that kind of leaves him a little bit off-balance when he gets kind of in the strike position and blocking at the second level,” Rang said.
“Same thing even at the initial level when he’s run-blocking. He’s a little higher than I’d like him to be, and because he doesn’t have that elite strength, then you’re up a little bit too high in run-blocking, and you’re going to lose that leverage battle, and you’re going to fail to move people at the line of scrimmage.
“That is one of the things that he needs to continue to work on, is not just relying on angles, but really developing a little bit of that nasty physicality, and knocking defenders down to pave ways for running backs to exploit.”
Minshew, similar to his WSU predecessor Luke Falk, won’t be leapfrogging any of his quarterbacking peers based on the numbers he posted at the combine. Nor was he expected to.
“I thought that he actually looked a little bit bigger and stronger than when I saw him in person at the Senior Bowl, so I thought that was a positive sign that he’s been in the weight room,” Rang said. “He just kind of is what he is from an athletic standpoint. Nobody is going to be asking him to go out there and run (run-pass options). His job is going to be to basically be a distributor, a point guard in football, and that’s where he tests well.”
The short dump-offs and midrange throws that make up the bread and butter of Leach’s offense were a strong area for Minshew at the combine. He didn’t connect quite as often on the deeper throws he seldom made during his record-shattering season at WSU, but Rang said as NFL teams continue to adopt Air Raid passing concepts, Minshew’s strengths will mask his weaknesses.
“With Minshew, that’s something he could continue to work on, no question,” Rang said. “But at the same time, it was one workout with a bunch of receivers he’s never thrown the ball to probably in his life.
“The combine workout is not something that can really knock you down that far, unless it just really matches the tape. And with Minshew, his production speaks for itself.”
Even without top-end arm strength, Falk displayed the deft touch on his deep passes that Minshew could still gain, Rang said. But Minshew set himself apart from Falk with his quick decision-making – something Rang thinks could be a major asset in the NFL.
“So the fact he did that with only one year, technically speaking, in Mike Leach’s offense,” Rang said, “it is a testament to Minshew’s quick thinking as well as his quick release, is why he may be able to project a little better to the NFL.”
Rang also admires the quarterback’s intangibles – and he’s heard that NFL scouts do, too.
“Let’s face it, every team out there is looking to find the players that can help them win,” he said, “and there’s a lot of folks out there that believe that part of that winning is what’s done on the practice field, what’s done in the film room, what’s done in the locker room and just the building up of relationships and teamwork.”
Like his Washington State counterparts, Williams probably won’t see a surge in his draft stock as a result of his marks at the combine.
But he was strong in two of the drills Rang considers important when he’s evaluating a running back – the three-cone drill and the 20-yard shuttle. Williams came in with a time of 7.01 in the three-cone and clocked a 4.25 in the shuttle – both good enough for fourth among running backs.
“I’m a big believer in the three-cone and the short shuttle for running backs, because it shows a change of direction,” Rang said.
“So that’s obviously a critical trait for the running back position as well.”
The 40-yard dash is also a valuable tool for the running back position, “because certainly you’d like to believe if that back is able to get into the clear, then he has the jets to go,” Rang said.
Williams’ time, a 4.58, was “not great,” Rang said, “but it’s good enough.”
NFL.com’s grading system gives Williams a “better-than-average chance to make an NFL roster” and Rang believes a thin running back class could work in his favor.
“Therefore, I could see a lot of teams that are going to ignore running backs either first round, second round or third round, and you’re going to have a glut on day three,” he said. “Once you start investing picks on day three in running backs, usually you’re not looking for a bell-cow running back.
“You’re looking for a specialist, and there’s not many backs in this draft class (who) catch the ball like James Williams does, so I do believe that he has a chance to be drafted late and if not, then absolutely he will get plenty of interest as an undrafted free agent.”
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