Mississippi offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil is the consensus choice to be the top pick of this year’s NFL draft, even if he had all manner of off-the-field issues this past season.
Because when it comes to talented offensive linemen, the guys with massive yet lithe bodies and the graceful feet of a dancer, NFL teams will overlook a few flaws, including a seven-game suspension by the NCAA for receiving improper benefits. Tennessee holds the No. 1 pick of the draft, and the Titans have made it known they need a blocker to protect quarterback Marcus Mariota, their franchise.
Count on Tunsil to be the most analyzed player at this year’s scouting combine, which starts Wednesday in Indianapolis. If Tunsil isn’t the most analyzed, then it might be California’s Jared Goff, who is projected to be the top quarterback prospect in the 2016 draft.
Beyond Tunsil and Goff, the Big 12 could boast of a banner first round this April. Or the league may be so much background noise again as players from the SEC, Pac 12 or Big Ten dominate the draft.
It all depends on how well a group of Big 12 standouts performs at the combine. In all, there will be 332 players, 33 of them from the Big 12, who will be gathered at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis for a days-long job interview that includes position workouts, agility and speed drills and medical testing.
In each of the past three drafts, the Big 12 has produced only a pair of first-rounders. Last year, the league’s marquee player was West Virginia receiver Kevin White, who earned a $10.3 million bonus when he was the seventh pick overall. Texas defensive tackle Malcom Brown was the 32nd and final selection of the first round.
In 2014, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert (eighth) and TCU safety Jason Verrett (25th) were the Big 12 first-rounders. In 2013, it was West Virginia receiver Tavon Austin (eighth) and Texas safety Kenny Vaccaro (15th).
But before the Big 12 contracted to 10 schools, the league was a player in the draft. Look at 2012, when five players were selected in the first round, including three in the top eight. Or in 2011, when seven players were picked, including three in the top 10. And in 2010, the Big 12 had nine players selected in the first round, with four of the top six overall.
This year, the league’s first-round chances ride with the following players:
Andrew Billings, DT, Baylor: Billings likely will be the strongest player at the combine. He was a record-setting power lifter in high school, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t dominate during the bench press. He’s also a tackle, and that position is given premium status by the NFL.
“Billings strength-wise should be through the roof at the combine,” said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. “I think he’s a borderline first-round pick.”
Mike Mayock, an analyst for NFL.com, describes Billings as the “best pure nose guard in this draft.”
Corey Coleman, WR, Baylor: Coleman is made for the combine. Two years ago, he topped a list of most gifted college athletes. Coleman earned the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wideout this past fall, but his production fell off in November, probably because he was playing with a sports hernia. He had surgery in December and should be healthy in Indianapolis.
The knock is whether Coleman is a legitimate pro receiver or a beneficiary of the prolific Baylor offense.
“You need to define your role at the NFL level as a route runner and understand what you’re doing at the pro level as opposed to a Baylor offense,” Kiper said. “If he runs a blistering 40, he could be in the late first-round discussion.”
Mayock considers Coleman and Mississippi’s Laquon Treadwell as the top two receivers in the draft. Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard also will be vying for a first-round grade.
Josh Doctson, WR, TCU: Doctson must run a good 40 to solidify his status as a first-rounder. He had amazing numbers at TCU, which like Baylor, runs an offense made to generate gaudy statistics. He missed the final month of his senior year because of a wrist injury. Like Coleman, he had surgery but should be healthy.
Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor: Oakman likely will be the biggest enigma of the combine. At 6 feet, 9 inches and 280 pounds, he’ll attract attention. And he’ll probably find a way to show off his six-pack abs. Oakman will post a tremendous vertical leap and will be among the fastest linemen, but he’ll also be asked why his production slipped so drastically from his junior year to this past fall, going from 11 sacks to 4.5. It might be about motivation, since Oakman had two sacks in the Senior Bowl.
Emmanuel Ogbah, DE, Oklahoma State: Ogbah was considered the top defender in the conference last fall. He turned pro a year early and is in the conversation about possible the late first-round picks.
Cody Whitehair, OL, Kansas State: Mayock ranks Whitehair as the top guard available, although Whitehair was a tackle with the Wildcats. Another offensive lineman to watch will be Baylor All-American Spencer Drango, a high school star at Cedar Park who’s expected to shift from tackle to guard.