Welcome to the third edition of Road to the Draft, a weekly column that will cover it all as the Browns march toward the final week of April, when they have the opportunity to make the No. 1 overall pick and five of the top 65 selections. *[
We're kicking it off this week with some insight from Browns vice president of player personnel Andrew Berry on the importance of a player performing at his best in biggest games and just how much it will matter when it's time for Cleveland to make its picks.
A big game on the biggest stage can change the public perception about a player who's already been in the spotlight for years. And for a player who was previously off the radar, it can vault him into the daily, months-long conversation that leads up to the draft.
That time element -- the space between the last big game a player can potentially have -- and the moment when he's drafted is pivotal. For the front office executives in charge of making such important decisions, it's more than enough to digest the impact of the big-time performance and add it to the large pile of information the team's scouts have gathered on the player over multiple years.
"I would tell you we're all human and we can all get caught up in big moments and the emotion of big games but part of our charge in personnel and as scouts is to make sure we're taking everything in context and taking in consideration the total body of work," Browns vice president of personnel Andrew Berry said at last month's Senior Bowl.
"It's a very impressionable moment when any player responds in some of the biggest games or biggest moments. Ultimately it is just a piece of the total body of work for the prospect. It's not something that should necessarily be weighted too heavily but it's certainly something you remember through the evaluation process."
A number of the top-rated prospects in this year's draft shined brightest on the biggest stage to close out their respective college careers.
In the national championship, Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson dazzled en route to a dramatic, come-from-behind victory over Alabama. On the other side of the field, linebacker Reuben Foster was seemingly everywhere as he racked up 12 tackles and a sack.
Against the toughest competition he faced all season, Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis held his own against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl and finished with 73 yards and a touchdown. Under-the-radar wide receiver Cooper Kupp, who smashed numerous records during his time at Eastern Washington, was at his best whenever he played against Power 5 competition, racking up 12 catches, 206 yards and three touchdowns against Washington State and 15 catches, 246 yards and three touchdowns the previous season against Oregon.
They're big moments that make up a small piece to a massive puzzle that symbolizes the evaluation of every single player on a team's draft board.
"Certainly, the level of competition is a piece of it and I would tell you for any player, any productive college player, context is important," Berry said. "Those are all things we'll take into consideration with any evaluation."
The two or three months between the end of a player's college career is typically enough time to heal up and arrive at the Combine in the best shape of his life. For some, though, that's simply not an option because of injuries or lingering aches and pains that require surgery and ultimately eliminate the Combine -- when it pertains to the physical testing -- as an option. Here are five highly touted prospects who are projected to be limited or completely unable to perform any of the Combine's physical activities.
LB Reuben Foster (Alabama) - The top inside linebacker prospect in this year's class was on the field for nearly every play of the Crimson Tide's 15-game season, which ended in dramatic fashion in a loss to Clemson. According to ESPN's Adam Caplan, Foster recently underwent shoulder surgery and will be only able to interview with teams in Indianapolis.
TE Jake Butt (Michigan) - Once considered one of the top tight end prospects in the draft, Butt suffered an unfortunate knee injury in the Wolverines' bowl game. He underwent surgery in mid-January and is facing an indefinite timeline away from the field. The Mackey Award winner caught 97 passes in his final two seasons at Michigan.
S Malik Hooker (Ohio State) - One of the most gifted defensive backs when it comes to ball skills, Hooker recently underwent multiple surgeries, the most impactful of which being on a torn labrum. It might take four-six months for Hooker to get back to full strength but it hasn't seemed to hurt his draft projections. Many see the former Buckeye going as high as No. 7 to the Chargers.
WR Corey Davis (Western Michigan) - Poised to be one of the top-selected wide receivers in this year's class, Davis enters the Combine with some doubt about his status because of an ankle injury he suffered during training. In recent mock drafts, the former Broncos star is projected as high as No. 5 to the Titans.
OT Ryan Ramczyk (Wisconsin) - After just one year with the Badgers, Ramczyk could be the first tackle off the board in this year's draft, but recent hip surgery likely will limit him in Indianapolis. NFL.com projects Ramczyk to be an early starter with whoever selects him in the upcoming draft.
How many days until the draft?
Take a look at the draft prospects in this edition of Road to the Draft. This week, we are looking at NFL.com's top candidates to break the 40-yard dash record.
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Small school spotlight
DE Derek Rivers (Youngstown State) - In a recent FOX Sports roundtable, Eric Galko, a draft analyst for Optimum Scouting, labeled Rivers as the best overall prospect from the FCS. Rivers seemed to embrace that claim at the Senior Bowl, where he was one of the top-performing defensive players throughout the week of practices. Rivers was a pass-rushing terror throughout his career with the Penguins, averaging 12 sacks in his final three seasons. He was at his best this past year, when he piled up 19.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks on his way to earning third-team FCS All-American status. CBSSports.com considers Rivers to be a top-10 defensive end prospect and sees him coming off the board by the end of Day 2.
Did you know?
Since 1978, when they selected future Hall of Famer Ozzie Newsome in the first round, the Browns have used a pick in the first three rounds on a tight end just once (Kellen Winslow, 2004). CBSSports.com anticipates as many as seven tight ends being drafted in the first three rounds this year.