The NFL Combine kicks off this Wednesday, giving NFL team representatives the chance to gorge themselves on college prospects running 40-yard dashes, having their minds picked over, and jumping up and slapping that vertical leap-measuring device. And presumably, deciding which ones they are going to invest millions of dollars in, even as the league hurtles towards a lockout season. Needless to say, things are bound to be tense.
They'll also be filled with a fair amount of Carolina blue, as twelve former UNC players have been invited to this week's shindig, the most from any school in the country. Of course, three players never took the field for the Tar Heels this season after being permanently declared ineligible for receiving improper benefits; this takes a bit of the bloom off the rose, so to speak. Almost every player has fallen from preseason rankings, for various reasons, but the twelve players can be broken off into three categories:
The Folks We Haven't Seen in a Year: This, of course, would be the three players kicked off the team for their involvement with an agent over the summer. All were the top-rated prospect at their position before this came to light, and now all need to remind the league who they are. Marvin Austin will have the easiest time of this. He played better than expected, if not at is peak, in the East-West Shrine Bowl. He also came off well in interviews, which did a lot to settle skittish corporate guys. Robert Quinn remains the only Tar Heel projected to be a first round pick, for a couple of reasons. One being his position at defensive end, where a lot of teams want his quickness and athleticism. The other reason is that no one at UNC appears to hold any ill will towards him for his suspension, and give him marks for excellent character. He has not taken the field in 2010, however, which means it's even more critical he perform well this week. Then there's Greg Little, who was considered a top wide receiver prospect more for his raw potential and the pedigree of recent successes Nicks and Tate than his actual on-field performance. He didn't get the opportunity of a senior season, and the influx of some junior wide receivers to the draft only knocked him down some more. He's got the most to prove at the combine.
The Walking Wounded: Then there are the guys who did make it on the field, only to be carried off it. Bruce Carterwas the top prospect at outside linebacker before tearing his ACL against N.C. State. He underwent surgery on December 14th, so he probably won't be showing off his skills at the combine, only doing the interview and medical portions. There's not much else he can do but wait, rehab, and hope a team likes his potential. In a similar boat is Deunta Williams, who broke his leg in the Music City Bowl. He's also hampered by a reduction in his more showy stats this season, as he was forced to compensate for the absence of Carter and Austin. There's also Johnny White, who fractured his clavicle against Florida State; he should be healthy enough to run drills, but is mainly a dark horse to impress anyone. He'll need a particularly impressive performance to get on people's radars, as will Zach Pianalto, who broke a fibula against Virginia.
The Names You Recognize, If the NFL Doesn't: The other four players have various chances of being drafted. Quan Sturdivant is the most likely of the group, and also the player who fell the least from his preseason projections. He's the most reliable, if not spectacular, of Carolina's class; if he has anything to worry about it's the interview portion, where he'll get some questions about his arrest over the summer for marijuana possession. Kendric Burney, on the other hand, will be proving himself in the athletic portions. Unfortunately, the biggest knock about him appears to be his height, which is uncorrectable. A good performance in drills could ameliorate a lot of that worry. T.J. Yates almost deserves a post of his own – I'll try to write one later this week – as he's the Tar Heel whose made the biggest improvement over the course of the season. I've seen projections that put him as the QB taken after Tyrod Taylor, and while he's most likely destined for a clipboard job instead of a potential Tom Brady, the fact that he's at the combine at all is surprising to folks who were watching him a year ago. Da'Norris Searcy is projected to go around the same time as Yates. The good news here is that there aren't a lot of names you'd recognize going into the draft at strong safety, so there's a pretty big window for Searcy to move up in draft position. And finally, there's Shaun Draughn. His best path forward is probably the Willie Parker route of finding a team through free agency. He has talent, but could never distinguish himself from fellow players to hold on to the starting job, and had more than his share of injuries.
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