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Five Tar Heels have been invited to the NFL Combine

The next step in the process for UNC’s draft hopefuls

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: FEB 05 Reese’s Senior Bowl Photo by Chris McDill/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

While football season isn’t quite over yet for us fans and 2 out of 32 teams in the NFL, there are 30 teams for which it is, which means that #DraftSZN has begun. We’ve already made it through the Senior Bowl, in which Sam Howell (thanks to some flexibility on the part of the organization) and Ty Chandler participated (Jeremiah Gemmel had been invited, but didn’t show up for unknown reasons). Up next is the NFL’s Scouting Combine, the league’s marquee event for scouting pro prospects and where they get all their official measurements. After being cancelled last year due to where we were in the pandemic, it’s good to have such a cornerstone of draft season back. The NFL dropped their full list of 324 invitees on Wednesday, and five Heels made the list: Howell, Chandler, Gemmel, Joshua Ezeudu, and Marcus McKethan. That’s the second-most of any ACC program, continuing a strong recent lineage of UNC players to the next level — 5 Heels were drafted last year after just 6 total in the three years prior.

Howell is obviously the marquee Tar Heel of the season; as one of the top 3-ish quarterbacks in the draft, he’s guaranteed a lot of attention. Howell did pretty well for himself at the Senior Bowl, with a few impressive throws and solid overall consistency. According to Zach Patraw of Sports Illustrated, he actually led all quarterbacks in tracked spin rate on Day 2 of practice, when rainy conditions made it harder to throw. That’s a positive indicator for his arm talent, which isn’t being thought of as one of his strengths in scouting circles. It’ll be interesting to see how he stacks up against the other quarterbacks in this class at the Combine, if they all participate in throwing drills. It’s been difficult for people to rank them thus far. Howell’s generally hanging around the top 3, but some people have him first and others fifth. A lot of people also seem to think the Steelers will draft him, based on very little but gut feel.

Chandler’s statistical profile is perhaps louder than his actual season was at UNC. On paper, a 1000-yard running back with a 6.0 yard-per-carry rushing average and 13 touchdowns seems pretty great! He probably won’t be remembered in Chapel Hill as fondly as that line would indicate, thanks to a disappointing season for the program and a fairly streaky season for him individually, thanks both to inconsistency from himself and on the sidelines. He was pretty quiet at the Senior Bowl, with a few nice reps in practice especially as a pass-catcher, but will head to Indianapolis trying to boost his stock primarily through athletic testing. He’s fast with good feet, so hopefully he’ll prepare well and raise some eyebrows when the event comes.

Gemmel is trying to become the third Tar Heel linebacker drafted in four years, after Cole Holcomb in 2019 and Chazz Surratt last year. On film, he doesn’t seem to have the athletic range of those two, but he’s a fantastic downhill player with great instincts in space against the run and a sure tackler to boot. His athletic profile will be important to see if he can hit bencharks for agility and speed to be an off-ball linebacker in the league, and, as a team captain who carried the responsibility of communicating defensive calls on the field to the point of sometimes physically aligning his teammates, he’s sure to pique some special interest from defensive coaches when they talk to him.

Ezeudu has been the anchor of UNC’s offensive line for the past 3 years, sliding into whatever position has needed him besides center and being the Heels’ best lineman wherever he’s lined up. It’ll be interesting to see if he profiles more as an NFL guard or tackle based on size (UNC posted target weights rather than measured weights on their press materials, so his listed weight of 325 means nothing — and even less if, freed from his coach’s mandate, he cuts down to a better playing weight ahead of the Combine), and also what he says about his preferred position and/or positional flexibility when asked about it.

McKethan probably has the most to gain of the five invitees, which is to say he was the least likely to be drafted before invites were sent out. He’ll have chances to impress both with his measurements/athletic testing and his positional drills, where he’ll have a chance to show off the agility and light feet that made him an exciting prospect in the first place. He’s definitely got NFL guard size and has had good technique and traits in the past, so it’s going to be his job to do a really good job prepping so he can uncover those after losing them somewhat later in his career in Chapel Hill.

Notably absent is Jordan Tucker, who’s probably hurt in comparison to his offensive line teammates because he played tackle, where the bar is a lot higher, and given his (and the whole line’s) regressed play last year, it’s not hard to see why he wasn’t invited. He’s still got a chance to go to one of the league’s regional combines — Austin Proehl got drafted after impressing at one of them a few years ago. Like McKethan, once upon a time he looked a lot more like an NFL player than he does now. Kyler McMichael also didn’t make the cut, as a player with physical tools but who just didn’t have a good season as a cornerback.

The NFL Scouting Combine will begin March 1st, and we’ll be hoping for all the best for these five Heels.