Cleveland Browns: 10 Players to Watch at 2017 NFL Combine

Feb 26, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Oklahoma State defensive lineman Emmanuel Ogbah speaks to the media during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Here are 10 players to keep an eye on for the Cleveland Browns at the NFL Scouting Combine.

The time has come for the NFL to descend upon Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine. Players will be poked, prodded, not given much of a chance to sleep as they are analyzed like so much meat by all 32 teams trying to figure out who the best athletes are from the inside out.

Even beyond the medical, the so-called underwear Olympics are an important evaluation tool. For the Browns in particular, they value certain athletic traits as they evaluate players and this is their first chance to get numerical data in an apples to apples comparison with players competing on a level playing field.

Based on the actions of the past year, the Browns value explosion in their players as measured by straight line speed and the ability to jump, which will be worth keeping an eye on over the next week, whether watching live or just checking in on results. With that in mind, here are ten players that could be on the radar for the Browns this week.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide defensive lineman Jonathan Allen (93) reacts during the second quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

10. Jonathan Allen, DL – Alabama

There is little question with Allen’s tape. He was a dominant player all season long for the Tide up and down the defensive line. Some may quibble with where Allen is best suited to play in the NFL, but the vast consensus believes he’s a terrific player. The Combine and athletic general is where many (myself included) believe that Allen will have the most difficult time. The belief is that, while outstanding on tape, Allen will look relatively average compared to prospects like Myles Garrett of Texas A&M or Solomon Thomas of Stanford.

That doesn’t mean Allen won’t be a good player, but for a team that has the top pick in the draft, the goal is to get a player that is not only outstanding on tape but athlete that has the potential to be one of the best in the league.

If Allen tests better than expected, he becomes a legitimate discussion with the top overall pick. If he’s pretty average, teams may hesitate to take Allen that early because while they believe he’s going to be a good, solid player, a pick that high comes with the pressure to get a player that can be one of the best in the league at his position.

While outliers exist, if it turns out that Allen is an average athlete, he will not project to be a great player and he could slip down to the teens of the draft. Allen may be an excellent player, but he has as much financially at stake on the Combine and athletic testing as any player participating.

The Browns can’t use the top pick of the draft to get a player that ends up along the lines of Dan Wilkinson, who was a pretty good player and had a long career, but was always considered a bust because he didn’t live up to the expectations of the top pick.

Solomon Thomas 2017 NFL Draft

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9. Solomon Thomas, DL – Stanford

One of the big mysteries for this draft class is just how big Thomas is. Listed 6-3, 273 pounds and he played a hybrid role in the Cardinal defense. Much of the time, he was playing at a 3-tech tackle but he was also utilized as an edge player.

The issues are on two fronts. If he’s too short—around 6-1 as some have suggested—it limits his viability as an edge player and he would be moved to the inside. And while he appears to have the frame to add weight with ease, teams want him to test close to where he will actually play. 273 pounds, unless he’s got the necessary length to play outside, is pretty useless as an evaluation tool, because he’ll need to gain at least 10 pounds and that would change his athletic testing.

If he’s closer to 285, there can be a legitimate conversation about what he can do as a 3-tech in the NFL and, suddenly, he becomes a real option for the Browns with the 12th pick. Some have compared him to Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams where Gregg Williams just coached.

Donald was an outstanding athlete at 6-1, 285 pounds in 2014. He was also a fantastic technician at the defensive tackle position who has become one of the best in the NFL in a short time. Thomas has a lot to prove athletically and a lot of improving to do to get to Donald’s level, but if the Browns like what they see, they could view Thomas like Donald and Myles Garrett like Robert Quinn.

The flip side of this is if Thomas is a legitimate 6-3 and stays around that 275 area. He would seemingly be staking his claim as an edge player to the NFL and if the Browns were going to take him, it would meant hey were going to use him as a base 5-tech in an odd front. Most expect the Browns to play more of an even front this year, but Williams has not suggested anything is off the table defensively.

Jan 9, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end O.J. Howard (88) runs a touchdown during the third quarter against the Clemson Tigers in the 2017 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

8. O.J. Howard, TE – Alabama

At the Senior Bowl, the Browns staff was coaching the south team and it was impossible to miss just how much Hue Jackson was getting the ball to O.J. Howard. Howard impressed throughout the week and measured in at 6-5.375, 249 pounds, which is prototypical size for the position.

Now, the Browns and everyone else will get answers to just how athletic he is. Certainly, the Browns were at least interested enough in Howard to get what seemed to be every third ball to him at the Senior Bowl, but if Howard tests as well as many expect, he may solidify himself a spot in the top 10.

A team like the Tennessee Titans, New York Jets or Buffalo Bills may decide that Howard is too good to pass up, but if he does last to 12, Jackson may see a player in the mold of a Tyler Eifert or Jermaine Gresham, who he had when he was with the Cincinnati Bengals.

Howard can be a true inline tight end that would allow Gary Barnidge to move entirely out to the slot, since the next opponent he blocks will be the first. Along with Seth DeValve, the Browns would have some serious potential for mismatches with that group and their size and speed, plus Howard’s ability as a blocker.

Atlanta Falcons

Oct 29, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Michigan State Spartans defensive lineman Malik McDowell (4) points to the sidelines during the first half of a game against the Michigan Wolverines at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

7. Malik McDowell, DL – Michigan State

Malik McDowell is a player that has some mixed opinions on his tape. His talent, at times, is up there with just about anyone in the class, but he was dominant in some games and invisible in others. He’s listed 6-6, 276 pounds and played nose guard for the Spartans, which is an unusual body type. That is the first question with McDowell. Just what is he going to measure in at?

There aren’t nose guards that size in the NFL. If he truly is that size, he needs to test well athletically as he will be kicked to the defensive end position as a 5-tech that can kick inside to rush on passing downs.

If he’s closer to 300 pounds, he looks like someone who can be a fulltime 3-tech defensive tackle and play up and down the line, which would make him of interest to the Browns. At least sizewise, he’d be closer to Richard Seymour, who was 6-6, 310 pounds when he came out of Georgia.

McDowell’s combine and athletic testing in general is going to answer the question of what position he’s going to play in the NFL. Right now, it’s up in the air and during the lead up to the draft, he may have molded his body to fit one position over the other. Gregg Williams is confident he can get the best out of players with effort questions, calling himself a “motor coach,” so that would likely come into play with McDowell.

Nov 19, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston College Eagles wide receiver Michael Walker (3) is tackled by Connecticut Huskies safety Obi Melifonwu (20) during the second half at Alumni Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

6. Obi Melifonwu, S – Connecticut

Melifonwu measured in 6-4, 219 pounds at the Senior Bowl with a 78.375-inch wingspan. Presumably, he will be pretty close to that weight at the combine, give or take a pound. So going in, the question with Melifonwu is entirely on just how athletic he is.

Some have speculated that he will run in the 4.4s in the 40. If he can do that and show good agility, he is a player that would not only interest the Browns but could be in the mix for the 33rd pick at the top of the second round.

To this point, Melifonwu’s tape isn’t as impressive as his potential. He has a ton of upside and if teams had him ranked highly because they expect a certain level of athleticism and he is unable to reach it, he will drop accordingly.

Melifonwu could draw comparisons to Taylor Mays or George Iloka. Both bigger safeties, Mays was an outstanding athlete out of USC and went in the second round of the 2010 NFL Draft that didn’t pan out in San Francisco. Meanwhile, Iloka didn’t test quite as well and went in the fifth round of the 2012 NFL Draft but has been great for the Bengals.

Melifonwu has played largely deep and coming up as a physical presence and the Browns could look to take him to really make an impact at strong safety. He could also be utilized in the box or even as a third linebacker in base packages.

NFL Combine

Feb 29, 2016; Indianapolis, IN, USA; A general view of Lucas Oil Stadium during the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

5. Adam Shaheen, TE – Ashland

Shaheen is a relative unknown except for the most diligent of fans of the GLIAC and those who really follow the NFL Draft. Even fans who are big into football and know a little about the draft will not know who he is. Having playing at a D-II school and declaring as a junior, this will be the first exposure Shaheen will have that puts him in the same galaxy as the rest of the NFL Draft class.

Listed 6-6, 277 pounds, there are a ton of questions surrounding him. Just how big is he? And how fast will he test both straight line and in terms of change of direction skills will he be?

If Shaheen turns out to be a solid 6-5, 260+ pounds, he will not only be a huge story out of the Combine, but there will be talk about him going in the top two rounds. It may not come to fruition given the level of competition, but given how dominant he was on tape, if the athleticism matches the tape, he becomes a real possibility for teams.

There just aren’t that many good ways to defend a player that size who can run and go corral passes like rebounds. The list of players that have come from small schools at tight end, or didn’t even play college football at all is notable and a good week for Shaheen will make it so a lot more people know who he is.

Michael Roberts 2017 NFL Draft

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4. Michael Roberts, TE – Toledo 

Michael Roberts effectively played as a giant receiver for the Toledo Rockets and he was a monster red zone weapon, catching 16 touchdowns this past season. They used him inline a little, but for the most part, he was played in the slot. For the NFL, he is going to slide inside and he spent the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl trying to prove that he could be a viable option there.

Although a little stiff from the waist down, Roberts improved over the course of the practices and showed more than enough will to do the job. That goes a long way in his evaluation alone, but how he interviews regarding the change at the Combine could also be a big factor in his stack. It will take time and effort, but the result could be one where Roberts becomes a dual threat option.

Roberts has the size (6-4.375, 259 pounds at the Senior Bowl) and the question is how athletic he is. If he’s able to showcase a great combination of size with numbers in the 40 and other drills that are above-average, it could make him a highly coveted prospect in a great tight end class. A great week could really bump Roberts up for teams and he is someone that should look pretty good in drills as he shows great hands.

Jan 26, 2017; Mobile, AL, USA; North squad defensive tackle Larry Ogunjobi of Charlotte (95) hits a tackling dummy during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

3. Larry Ogunjobi, DT – Charlotte

Larry Ogunjobi looks promising on tape with what he was able to do at Charlotte and helped his cause at the Senior Bowl. He has massive legs and good looking build for the 3-tech defensive tackle position that can be stout against the run. His performance in Mobile was huge for his value as he displayed that. It was much of the same as what he did for the 49ers in college, but it was the level of competition that was certainly the concern about the big lineman.

Charlotte plays in Conference USA, which is an FBS conference, but not one that gets a ton of respect. The 49ers did play both Temple and Louisville, but plenty of critics still aren’t sure. Thus, the Combine will enable the young man to make teams believers if he can test well athletically.

On top of that, Ogunjobi should leave teams with an extremely positive impression in interviews. He’s charismatic, a brilliant student and knows what he wants to do in his life. Those will all work in his favor as he tries to field the numerous questions from NFL teams. A good week here and Ogunjobi could ensure himself a spot on the second day in the draft—and far more people knowing how to pronounce his name.

Jan 28, 2017; Mobile, AL, USA; North squad safety Lorenzo Jerome of Saint Francis (PA) (22) returns an interception against South squad fullback Freddie Stevenson of Florida State (43) and running back Jamaal Williams of Brigham Young (21) during the fourth quarter at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

2. Lorenzo Jerome, S – Saint-Francis (PA)

Lorenzo Jerome was one of the most impressive players in college football playing at Saint Francis. His statline just between the Senior Bowl and NFLPA Game is absurd as he accounted for four interceptions and a fumble recovery. However, the fact that he played at Saint-Francis is a bit concerning to people. After all, the level of competition there was far from substantial.

With that said, Jerome dominated his level of competition and is was regarded as one of the best athletes on the FCS level. This is his opportunity to prove it. Jerome did everything for the Red Flash, playing all over the defense and returning kicks. He can play free safety or play in the slot with his speed and ball skills. He’s also aggressive to the football. If he can test well, he could find himself selected on the second day of the draft.

For the Browns, they may not want him to be the starting free safety right away, but his ability to contribute in slot coverage and his upside may make him an attractive prospect for the long view. Solid numbers during the athletic testing at the Combine would certainly go a long way in increasing his value and/ore attractiveness as far as Cleveland is concerned.

Sep 25, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; An official puts a football down after a play in a game between the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers at CenturyLink Field.The Seahawks won 37-18. Mandatory Credit: Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

1. Keionta Davis, DE – Chattanooga

Another smaller school player, Davis was outstanding in the 1-on-1s in Mobile. During the season, Davis really put himself on the map with his performance against Alabama. Davis and the Mocs defense frustrated the Tide offense for the entire first half. While Alabama ultimately overpowered Chattanooga to win the game, the performance didn’t go unnoticed.

Davis is a base end that would thrive in an even front that values having a little size. In some ways, Davis is similar to William Hayes of the now Los Angeles Rams, where Gregg Williams just came from. Hayes has never really been a standout player but he’s just been a consistently effective cog up front, be it as a spot starter or rotational player. Davis has that type of ability, especially considering Williams’ experience with a player of his unique skill-set and talents given the Hayes comp.

Davis measured 6-3, 274 pounds at the Senior Bowl and presumably will be around that weight for the Combine. How athletic he can move at that size will be important in determining how early he will go in the draft. But if the Browns are looking for defensive line depth, Davis could be a nice player on Day 3.

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