4 Downs: Defensive Preview of the NFL Scouting Combine

Three writers for 49ers.com offer different opinions on the key defensive prospects participating in the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine from Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.

Let's get to the four downs with names you should keep an eye on going into the week of testing and workouts from Feb., 23-29. Remember, this is strictly defensive players.

1st Down: Who has the most to prove?

@Joe_Fann: Joey Bosa, Edge Rusher, Ohio State

People are anxious to see Bosa in action after others rose to the occasion at the Senior Bowl. Yes, Bosa is a junior and wasn't eligible to play in Mobile, Ala. Eastern Kentucky Noah Spence was one of those pass-rushing prospects who generated plenty of buzz with his performance in Mobile. The combine is huge for pass-rushers as measurables from the workouts can be used to differentiate between elite talents from one another. That may be the case for Spence and Bosa.

@TylerEmerick: Robert Nkemdische, DT, Ole Miss

An off-the-field incident led to Nkemdische being suspended from the Sugar Bowl in his final collegiate game. Character concerns are always a hot-button topic at the combine, and Nkemdische is the most high-profile player in this year's draft with a possible "red flag." There is little question about his athleticism, so Nkemdische will instead have to impress teams in the interview room. Although he only produced three sacks last fall, Nkemdische tallied 26 quarterback pressures for the Rebels. 

@TaylorPrice: Jaylon Smith, LB, Notre Dame

If you can't work out at the combine, there's other important ways to solidify your draft status. Smith tore two ligaments in his left knee in the Fiesta Bowl, causing his pre-draft buzz to quiet substantially. Prior to the injury, many considered the talented 'backer to be a top-5 selection. But now Smith will have to impress teams in his sit-down interviews. There, Smith can give 32 clubs his perspective on how he'll plan to bounce back from the setback. Medical evaluations by NFL teams will also be critical in establishing a return time for a linebacker who recorded 115 tackles, nine tackles-for-loss, one sack, five pass breakups and two fumble recoveries in 13 games.

2nd Down: Which highly-ranked player are you most excited to watch?

@Joe_Fann: Myles Jack, LB, UCLA

My fingers are crossed that Jack will workout at the combine. The UCLA linebacker could be full go after recovering from a torn meniscus three week's into his 2015 season. Jack is a rare athlete. He became the first player to ever win PAC-12 Freshman of the Year on both offense and defense. Many draft experts are projecting Jack as the best true linebacker and a possible candidate to be a top-10 pick. Getting to see him perform in Indianapolis would be a treat for all in attendance.

@TylerEmerick: Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor

Everyone saw in the Super Bowl how disruptive a dynamic pass-rusher can be (see Von Miller). Oakman, 6-foot-7, 269 pounds, has a reputation as a freakish athlete, so the combine should be the perfect setting for him to display his gifts. He totaled 15.5 sacks in his final two seasons at Baylor and should finish at or neat the top in every drill in Indianapolis.

@TaylorPrice: DeForest Buckner, DE, Oregon

Arik Armstead's college teammate is generating a lot of pre-draft attention these days. In fact, a Fox Sports analyst believes he could be a top-3 selection. The 6-foot-7, 290-pound pass-rusher is also the No. 8 overall player ranked on CBS Sports' draft rankings. Buckner recorded 10.5 sacks, 17 tackles for loss and 83 total tackles against a number of double-team blocks. Buckner has the makings of a freakish NFL pass-rusher. So will that translate to eye-catching combine numbers? I'll be curious to see how Buckner runs and how many bench-press reps he puts up.

3rd Down: Which small school player are you most excited to watch?

@Joe_Fann: DeAndre Houston-Carson, S, William & Mary

Houston-Carson made the move to free safety as a senior in 2015 after spending his first three seasons as a cornerback. The talented defensive back thrived in his new position as he intercepted four passes, led the team with 109 tackles and earned consensus All-American honors. "DHC" also excelled on special teams with nine career blocked kicks during his college career. It's possible that Houston-Carson stands out more on tape than he does in the measurable workouts, but he could create some buzz as the draft approaches.

@TylerEmerick: Victor Ochi, DE, Stony Brook

An All-American at the FCS level, Ochi led the nation with 13 sacks last year to up his career total to a school-record 32. At 6-foot-1, 241 pounds, Ochi projects as an edge-setting 3-4 outside linebacker. Ochi, by all accounts, has been one of the fastest risers thus far through the draft season. But how he measures up against some of the bigger-name prospects at the combine will go a long way in determining where he is drafted come April. 

@TaylorPrice: Noah Spence, DE, Eastern Kentucky

At 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, Spence has the perfect body type to rush the passer, particularly as a 3-4 outside 'backer. Spence, however, dealt with off-the-field issues which led to his dismissal from Ohio State. The junior defender was able to move on and make the most of his time at EKU. Spence was named Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Ohio Valley Conference with a 11.5-sack, 63-tackle season. Spence left school early because he's a viable first-round talent. Now that he's back on the same stage as his former Big Ten peers, how will Spence perform under the combine microscope?

4th Down: Who will run the fastest 40-yard dash?
@Joe_Fann: Jalen Ramsey, DB, Florida State

By most accounts, Ramsey is the best defensive back in this draft class. Much of that acclaim has to do with his athleticism. NFL.com's bio of Ramsey calls him a "dominant athlete." What's more, Ramsey was a sprinter and champion long jumper for the Seminoles track squad. Some wonder whether Ramsey will settle at cornerback or safety in the NFL, but that won't change his measurables. I'm buying Ramsey's stock that he'll outshine most, if not all, of his defensive counterparts in Indianapolis.

@TylerEmerick: LeShaun Sims, CB, Southern Utah

According to NFL.com, scouts clocked Sims in the 4.30-second range in the 40 last spring. With many more months of training under his belt, it seems like a good bet that he should beat that time in Indianapolis. At 6-feet, 197-pounds, Sims has the size to succeed in the NFL, too. After impressing teams at the East-West Shrine Game earlier this winter, a strong showing at the combine could further vault the cornerback up draft boards.

@TaylorPrice: Artie Burns, CB, Miami

This where I go on a limb by picking a track and field guy to win a track and field event. Burns was a 60-meter hurdler for "The U," and he won a Florida state title three times in the 110 meter as a high schooler. The 6-foot, 197 pound cornerback is in a good pick to win the annual 40-yard race. He has aspirations of competing in the 2016 Summer Olympics, but a blistering 40-time will do wonders in helping him establish his draft standing in the occupation of professional football.

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