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2022 NFL Scouting Combine preview - 12 skill position players to watch

Which wide receivers, tight ends, and running backs should you watch out for?

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Georgia vs Alabama Joshua Bickel-USA TODAY Sports

The 2022 NFL Scouting Combine takes place this week, with over 300 of the top prospects in the country flocking to Indianapolis Indiana. The prospects will undergo medical exams, have interviews with teams, and go through the much-publicized on-field workouts.

The wide receivers and tight ends (and quarterbacks) will be among the first players to arrive in Indy, and their on-field workouts will take place on Thursday, March 3rd.

The running backs will take the field on the 4th, along with the offensive linemen and specialists.

For our purposes, I decided to group all of the receivers, tight ends, and running backs together in one “Skill Positions” preview. Which ones are among the most intriguing as we look forward to the Combine?

Wide receiver

George Pickens (Georgia)

Pickens is one of two receivers who’s draft stock could hinge wildly based on his week at the Combine.

When healthy, Pickens has the potential to be one of the top receivers in the draft. He has size, athleticism, and ball skills — and performed against some of the very best cornerbacks at the college level. However, his medical exams and on-field tests will be key for his draft stock.

Pickens suffered a torn ACL last spring and missed most of Georgia’s championship season. He was able to return for the College Football Playoffs, which is a mark in his favor and speaks well to his competitive toughness. However, teams will be keenly interested on the current state of his knee, his long-term prognosis, and just where his athleticism is less than a year after major knee surgery.

Justyn Ross (Clemson)

The other receiver who’s draft stock will likely depend on favorable medical reports. Ross burst onto the scene as a true freshman, racking up a 1,000-yard season and averaging an absurd 21.7 yards per catch.

But he lost his entire 2020 season when a congenital neck condition was discovered during spring football. What was initially believed to be a stinger turned out to be fused bones in his spine — a condition that had gone unnoticed since birth. Ross had surgery to repair the issue, but his long term health and safety could be in question.

What’s more, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot during the 2021 season, which ultimately cost him the last three games of the season.

Ross has the skill set to be a good starting receiver in the NFL. The big question for him is just how much risk is associated with him taking the field. He has plenty of size, athleticism, and route running savvy. The concern is whether or not he can play football safely, and if he’ll be able to stay on the field.

Jahan Dotson (Penn State)

Penn State’s Jahan Dotson seems to have slipped below the radar as the team as a whole stumbled down the stretch in the 2021 season. However, he has the skills to be one of the best receivers to come out of this class.

Dotson’s athleticism is easy to see on tape — he has great burst, great agility, and enough speed to just run away from a defense. However, it’s how he uses those tools that set him apart. Dotson is also one of the best route runners in this receiver class, executing with precision, nuance, and great savvy. He is one of those route runners who plays chess and uses his routes as a tool to create separation that his athleticism enhances. He also happens to have great hands and run-after-catch ability.

Expect Dotson to perform well in the measurable drills and in the field drills.

Christian Watson (North Dakota State)

Despite being a powerhouse that has dominated the FCS for a decade, North Dakota State is consistently overlooked at the national level — precisely because it’s the FCS that they’re dominating.

So a lot of people were surprised when Christian Watson showed up at the Senior Bowl and wowed everyone in attendance. He is a big receiver at 6-foot-4, 211 pounds, but he doesn’t move like a “big” receiver. Watson is a natural athlete with fantastic lower-body flexibility and body control. He is able to drop his hips and cut sharply, generating separation out of his breaks in ways that big receivers generally struggle to do. He’s also fast as well as agile, and has the kind of ball skills you want to see from a big receiver.

Watson could make a lot of money for himself if he performs as well as some of the big-school big receivers like Drake London (USC) or Treylon Burks (Arkansas).

Tight End

Jalen Wydermyer (Texas A&M)

Wydermyer is going to be one of the most interesting tight ends in the Combine. He is big, long, athletic, and just jumps off the field on tape. His potential has already started to generate a buzz as it looks like he could be both a “complete” tight end and a playmaker at the NFL level. He has the length and speed to attack the seam and stretch the field vertically, while his 6-foot-5, 265 pound (listed) frame could allow him to develop into a reliable blocker.

Wydermyer is still figuring things out and scratching the surface of his potential, but the Scouting Combine is a great place to show off just how much potential he has.

Isaiah Likely (Coastal Carolina)

Likely has the chance to be the next “big” hybrid tight end to hit the NFL. He has solid size for a hybrid TE at 6-foot-4, 240 pounds, with 33-inch arms and 10-inch hands. Likely has enough mass to block linebackers and smaller EDGE defenders, but he will make his hay in the NFL as a receiving weapon.

The success of non-traditional tight ends in recent years could have teams looking for a player with Likely’s skill set. He has been Coastal Carolina’s big-play weapon for years now, and he has the potential to rocket up boards with a strong Combine.

Jeremy Ruckert (Ohio State)

The way Nick Falato and I divided up the workload for the Combine Previews, I (obviously) wound up with the skill position players. But I wanted to give a shout-out to “his guy” in the tight end group.

It’s understandable that Ruckert was under-used in OSU’s offense. After all, when you have receivers like Chris Olave and Garrett Wilson (either of whom could have been on the wide receiver watch list), it just makes sense to throw to them. Likewise, when you have a tight end who can block like Ruckert, you let him block.

However, Ruckert shows sneaky upside as a receiver, with surprising subtlety to his route running and solid hands. I’m looking to see how well he times in the measurable events and how well he moves in the field drills.

Tre McBride (Colorado)

McBride was the best tight end in college football last year, so I had to put him on this list. It’s safe to expect him to show out, have a great Combine, and keep his status as TE1. There are few real weaknesses in McBride’s game and really isn’t anywhere he can’t line up in a modern offense.

That said, there are enough good tight ends that he could find his position in jeopardy with a sub-par day.

The big question with McBride is whether he can do enough to crack into the first round. He’ll obviously want to impress teams during the interviews, and a strong workout could vault him into the top half of the second round, and perhaps even into the fringe-first area.

Running Back

Dameon Pierce (Florida)

Pierce was almost criminally underused at Florida. Weighing in at 5-foot-9, 220 pounds, Pierce is the Muscle Hamster 2.0, and his game looks a lot like Doug Martin’s coming out of Boise State back in 2011. Full disclosure here, I really enjoyed what I saw on film from Pierce, and it was legitimately frustrating that he wasn’t more involved in the offense. That said, what I saw on tape suggests that he can do most everything a modern NFL offense would ask of him.

Teams will likely want to talk to Pierce to find out why he was barely used in Florida’s offense over his four years there. They’ll also want to see just how fast he is, and how natural a receiver he is, making his on-field workouts important as well.

Kenny Walker III (Michigan State)

Walker absolutely exploded onto the scene in 2021 for the Spartans. He racked up an impressive 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns on 263 carries (6.3 yards per carry), after carrying the ball just 209 times combined in the two seasons before that. His efforts earned him the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back, as well as the Walter Camp Player of The Year Award. He was also named First Team all Big 10, the Big 10 Running Back of The Year, and a unanimous All-American.

Walker has the potential to be the first running back drafted this year, but he will need to prove to the NFL the his game is well-rounded enough to fit into a modern offense. In particular, he only made 19 receptions in his whole career, 13 of which came last year. Walker only averaged 6.8 yards per reception last year, and teams might want to see if he can be a reliable contributor in the passing game.

Kyren Williams (Notre Dame)

Williams is likely the other candidate to be the first runner off the board at the end of April. Where Walker is a bigger, more powerful back, Williams is smaller, athletic and offers known upside in the passing game.

He’s caught 77 passes and averaged 8.7 yards per catch over the last two years, in addition to picking up 27 touchdowns on the ground over that span. Williams has the potential to be a dynamic runner at the NFL level. The big questions will be just how big Williams is — he is listed at 5-foot-9, 195 pounds — and what kind of running back teams are looking for.

James Cook III (Georgia)

James Cook has a big shadow looming over him. His older brother, Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook, is one of the best runners in the NFL, and that’s a lot to live up to.

James Cook has the skills to be a good runner in the NFL, and should be able to stand on his own two feet. He’s athletic, has good vision and balance, and the ability to contribute as a receiver as well as a runner. This week won’t exactly be “key” for him, but a strong performance at the Combine will be a good start to paving his own way in the NFL.