A whooping 60 ACC players are scheduled attend the annual NFL Scouting Combine and the pressure will be on every one of them to showcase their skills this week (Feb. 28-March 6) in front of every franchise during the most pressure-packed job interview of the players’ lives. National champion Clemson leads the way for the league in terms of representation with nine high-profile players headed to Indianapolis but Miami (also with nine) and Florida State will be sending plenty of alums to strut their stuff in front of all 32 teams.
Who’s under the most pressure and who’s destined to be a future star on Sundays? Here’s a look at 10 ACC players to keep an eye on when the Combine gets under way in Indianapolis and what they can do to solidify their status.
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
This year’s draft is full of big names but there are none bigger than the quarterback from Clemson who is fresh off a slaying of Alabama’s vaunted defense to win the national title. That’s one reason why Watson has been thrown around as a name for that No. 1 overall selection and how well he performs at the Combine could play a big role in him going first or slipping down in the draft. He’s expected to do the full gauntlet of drills so you can bet that all eyes will be on the college star as he takes his first steps to becoming a pro.
2. Mitch Trubisky, QB, North Carolina
This year’s quarterback class can best be described as intriguing and no prospect better defines that than the Tar Heels’ signal-caller. Trubisky has all the tools to become the first QB off the board this year and should test well given his athletic abilities and strong arm. What a lot of teams will need to figure out though, is if that limited sample size at the college level (just 13 starts) is either a warning sign for the potential top-10 pick — or a sign of things to come.
3. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida State
Cook and Leonard Fournette will be neck-and-neck for most teams in terms of who is the top running back in this year’s draft and the Combine performances could give some insight as to which ultimately ends up being taken higher later this spring. The Seminoles star’s ability to catch the ball out of the backfield could give him a nice leg up when it comes to showcasing his skills during drills but don’t discount how much the freakish athlete can wow folks when it comes to the testing portions either.
4. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
At this point, it would be pretty surprising if Williams isn’t the first wide receiver taken in the draft and he’s good enough to become an unquestioned top-five pick given what he showed in his final season with the Tigers. He’s got the size, speed and hands to impress in every portion of the Combine and if he meets expectations in Indy, it should make for a fascinating next few months as teams fall more and more into love with the terrific pass catcher from Clemson.
5. Jerod Evans, QB, Virginia Tech
Evans was one of the more surprising early entrants to the 2017 NFL Draft, spending just a season in Blacksburg with the Hokies after being a top junior college recruit the year prior. That limited amount of game tape at the FBS level will be something to overcome with teams but there’s little doubt that his great size (6-4, 230 pounds), strong arm, and ability to run the ball will make him among the most interesting prospects at his position. Evans may not wind up a first-rounder but a strong showing at the Combine could cause him to shoot up draft boards given what he brings to the table.
6. Nathan Peterman, QB, Pitt
Every year there’s a quarterback who has a strong showing at the Combine and continues to pick up buzz all the way through to the draft. In 2017, that just might be Peterman, who checks off a lot of boxes for NFL evaluators in terms of size, accuracy and playing in a pro-style system. He may not be the biggest name on the board but when it comes to folks on the NFL side of things, this quarterback is certainly one to watch as a sleeper pick.
7. David Njoku, TE, Miami
The latest star tight end from “The U” doesn’t have the numbers or accolades of some of his fellow Combine invitees but his off-the-charts athleticism gives him a chance to be a first-rounder this year. He was a difference-maker for the Hurricanes on the field this year and not only brings the ability to become a top pass catcher at the position but a strong blocker too. The Combine should be a time for Njoku to shine when it comes to testing numbers and if he does well during drills, expect plenty of top 20 buzz to build around him next month.
8. Devonte Fields, DL/LB, Louisville
The Combine is not only a chance for players to showcase their athletic skills but also get in front of teams and the media to discuss their college careers. That off-the-field portion in Indianapolis will be crucial for Fields given some of the incidents that led him to Louisville after bursting onto the scene at TCU as the Big 12 Defensive Freshman of the Year back in 2012. The testing portion should allow him to show off his terrific athleticism but he will also have to prove to teams that he isn’t a tweener between an undersized defensive end and an outside linebacker who isn’t quite quick enough.
9. Brad Kaaya, QB, Miami
There might not be a more divisive quarterback prospect in the draft than Kaaya. He’s what you want when you’re talking about size, strength, intelligence and the fact that he played in a pro-style system. However there are issues when it comes to accuracy and the fact that he forces plenty of bad throws when under pressure. He could go just about anywhere in the draft but the first step comes when he goes through the Combine process.
10. Ryan Switzer, WR/KR, North Carolina
There are a ton of great prospects coming out of the ACC this year but there might not be a more fun one to watch than Switzer, who is a bit of a Swiss Army knife coming out of Chapel Hill. His small stature will give some teams pause but he should test off the charts given his blend of quickness and speed. Expect to hear plenty of Wes Welker/Julian Edelman comparisons but the Combine should be the first step in Switzer carving out his own role.
Don’t sleep on: James Conner (RB, Pitt), Kermit Whitfield (WR, Florida State), Isaiah Ford (WR, Virginia Tech), Josh Harvey-Clemons (DB, Louisville), Amba Etta-Tawo (WR, Syracuse), Ejuan Price (DL, Pitt), Ken Ekanem (DL, Virginia Tech), Wayne Gallman (RB, Clemson), Ben Boulware (LB, Clemson)
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.