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Impressions made and questions raised at NFL combine

Xavier Worthy Xavier Worthy - The Canadian Press

Indianapolis – The National Football League combine is an event that leaves as many questions in its wake as it does answers.

This year was no exception, giving the decision makers of 32 NFL teams lots to sort through between now and the opening of the draft on April 25.

That night will likely begin with USC quarterback Caleb Williams as the first-overall pick, a choice that has seemed inevitable since he put up one of the most impressive seasons ever during his Heisman Trophy season of 2022. He is a player with all the versatility and dynamic qualities to fit the modern NFL.

Patrick Mahomes 2.0 may be too strong a comparison for anyone, but the comparisons were everywhere in conversation during the week. Not because of anything Williams did at the combine, as he opted out of workouts like fellow top QB prospects Jayden Daniels of LSU and Drake Maye of North Carolina.

But anything other than Williams going first overall will stand as a shock at this point.

Of course, the other question is where Williams goes, with the Chicago Bears holding the first pick three years after drafting quarterback Justin Fields with the 11th-overall pick.

For a team that hasn’t had a true franchise quarterback since Sid Luckman, who starred with the Bears during the 1940s, this will be too irresistible.

Also declining to take part in workout at Indianapolis were this draft’s two top prospects at receiver, Marvin Harrison Jr. of Ohio State and LSU’s Malik Nabers, whose physical presence belies the fact that he is just 20 years of age.

Those two are the headliners of a class that could see as many as 10 receivers taken in the first round, which is remarkable given that the average number of first-round pass catchers taken over the past five drafts is less than five.

The “wow” moment of the combine was undoubtedly Texas receiver Xavier Worthy running the 40-yard draft Saturday night in 4.21 seconds – not just the fastest time at this year’s event but the fastest in event history.

How that might translate to the next level it hard to say, given that the player whose record he broke (John Ross, ninth overall to Cincinnati, 2017)  failed to amass 1,000 yards receiving in his career, and that this year’s draft is stocked with players with more mass behind slightly less speed, is tough to say.

But one great time in the 40 isn’t going to displace receivers such as Washington’s Rome Odunze, LSU’s Brian Thomas, Oregon’s Troy Franklin or Georgia’s Ladd McConkey from being picked ahead of him.

There were four Canadians at this year’s combine, two offensive linemen and two tight ends.

It’s hard to know what to make of testing scores for offensive linemen, given the nature of the position and the technique it requires to be successful.

But here’s the single more obscure fact from this year’s event – Illinois guard Isaiah Adams and Howard tackle Anim Dankwah became the first teammates from a Canadian minor football team – the Durham Dolphins – to go all the way to the NFL combine.

The other two Canadians also impressed.

Arizona tight end Tanner McLachlan of Lethbridge, Alta., ran the third fastest 40-yard dash at the position as he looks to secure his spot as a late-round pick in the mould of a player who can line up in the slot as often as on the edge.

But the testing star among Canadians – and players at the combine in general – was Penn State tight end Theo Johnson of Windsor, Ont.

The 6-foot-6, 259-pounder became the first tight end in combine history to come in weighing more than 255 pounds while running a sub-4.6 second 40-yard dash (4.58) and recording a vertical jump above 39 inches (39.5).

That demonstration of athleticism from Johnson comes on the heels of a Senior Bowl performance in January where he put some momentum into his stock.

With a Penn State pro day to come on March 15, Johnson has gone from a projected Day 3 (rounds 4-7) to a projected Day 2 (rounds 2-3) pick, with ESPN analyst Matt Miller projecting him to be the third tight end off the board.

Johnson wasn’t especially productive at Penn State, never amassing more than 350 yards in a season, but his proficient blocking makes him an every-down player who can contribute with a unique combination of size and speed.

There were lots of impressions made and lots of questions raised in Indianapolis, all of which will be answered come late April when Detroit plays host to the draft for the very first time.