Carolina Panthers

NFL Scouting Combine: Who to watch

Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston prepares to hand the ball off while facing Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. Winston is projected to be among the top picks in the upcoming NFL draft.
Florida State quarterback Jameis Winston prepares to hand the ball off while facing Oregon in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1 in Pasadena, Calif. Winston is projected to be among the top picks in the upcoming NFL draft. AP

The only job fair where spandex is required kicks off this week, and NFL hopefuls at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis will have their talents on display for all 32 teams. Players will talk with the media and team personnel starting Wednesday, and on-field drills begin Friday. Here is a look at some players to watch this week:

Top prospects

Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State: A photo circulated around the Internet this weekend showing a rather chunky Winston. Quarterback guru George Whitfield said the picture is a month old. Is he really that out of shape? What has he been doing since the Rose Bowl loss to Oregon? And has he matured enough off the field to warrant Tampa Bay using the No. 1 overall pick on the best on-field quarterback in the draft?

Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon: The reigning Heisman Trophy winner sprained his throwing shoulder during the College Football Playoffs and is still weighing whether to throw at the combine. He probably shouldn’t, though, because he’s firmly locked in as a top-two quarterback this year and if teams really want to see him throw, he’ll do it later in private workouts when he’s healthier.

Paul Dawson, ILB, TCU: You’ll hear plenty about “character concerns” this week, and not all are created equal. Dawson tried to get ahead of his story last week by explaining to USA TODAY that his failed drug test was for Adderall and he was tardy to some team meetings. He’ll get more questions from the media – and more importantly, teams – this week.

Randy Gregory, DE, Nebraska: Gregory battled through injury this season for the Cornhuskers to produce seven sacks. He’s best suited for a 3-4 defense, and he’ll be snapped up in the first five picks. A strong performance in Indianapolis could make him a top-three selection.

Bud Dupree, OLB, Kentucky: The Kentucky pass rusher is one of the best in this year’s draft, but he decided to go into the combine and work with the linebackers rather than the defensive ends. His performance will go a long way in determining if he’s a top-20 pick or if he falls toward the bottom of the first round.

Possible Panthers targets

Brandon Scherff, OT, Iowa: Carolina got a good look at some tackles – T.J. Clemmings and La’el Collins – at the Senior Bowl. Now the Panthers have a shot at the others. Scherff could be a tackle or guard in the NFL, depending upon his arm length measurements and movement this week.

Ereck Flowers, OT, Miami: Perhaps the most likely tackle to be available at No. 25 when the Panthers pick, Flowers has the ability to be a left tackle sooner rather than later in the NFL. He held his own against Gregory when the Hurricanes played Nebraska, and he played well against Florida State’s defensive line as well.

Shaq Thompson, OLB/S, Washington: As the Panthers plan for the future, they may not have to look far beyond Thompson. A versatile player who played running back, safety and mainly outside linebacker for the Huskies, he will fit in well in a 4-3 defense, which the Panthers run. His speed reminds some of Thomas Davis coming out of college.

Breshad Perriman, WR, Central Florida: Perriman has generated more buzz than perhaps any other prospect in the past month. A Central Florida standout, Perriman has the size at just under 6-foot-3 as well as the stats after averaging more than 20 yards per catch in his final two seasons. A good testing day at the combine could make him a first-round pick.

Kevin Johnson, CB, Wake Forest: A corner who could creep into the first round, Johnson is someone the Panthers should have an eye on. At 6-1 he could be taller, but he showed solid man coverage ability in his years with the Deacons.

Top sleepers

Ameer Abdullah, RB, Nebraska: You’ve heard about him, but he’s consistently ranked behind Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon in this year’s class. He’s a ball of muscle and speed who could shoot past Gordon and into the No. 2 RB slot behind Gurley, the consensus top rusher. Watch how well he catches the ball out of the backfield and you’ll see why.

Tre McBride, WR, William & Mary: McBride dazzled at the Shrine Game in January and looks to keep that momentum up in Indianapolis. He’s not considered fast and is only 6-1, but he should get a bump if he runs something better than his posted 4.5 40 time.

Bryan Bennett, QB, Southeastern Louisiana: Bennett is the guy who could have been Mariota. He was recruited to Oregon but lost out on the starting job to the reigning Heisman Trophy winner two years ago. He transferred to Southeastern Louisiana and came on late at the Senior Bowl to establish himself as one of the top passers in Mobile.

Tyler Lockett, WR, Kansas State: Lockett has fought man coverage for most of the past two years and loves doing it. At the combine he’ll get to work in space, but his real talents are on tape. His initial 10-yard speed will be telling.

Laken Tomlinson, G, Duke: No character concerns for this guy. Tomlinson was one of the best linemen at the Senior Bowl and is one of the smartest prospects in this year’s draft. The ACC knows him, but when he tests well, his name will become more popular across the country leading up to draft day.

Jones: 704-358-5323; Twitter: @jjones9

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