Expert Analysis


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2023 NFL Combine: 7 Biggest Takeaways From DL, LB Workouts

Adetomiwa Adebawore Northwestern defensive end
Mar 2, 2023; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Northwestern defensive lineman Adetomiwa Adebawore (DL20) participates in drills during the NFL Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

INDIANAPOLIS — After the first day of measurements and on-field workouts, here are some of the biggest takeaways from Thursday at the NFL Combine in Indianapolis:

What We Learned on Day 1

Rick Spielman's Day 1 Takeaways

Biggest Riser: Adetomiwa Adebawore 

Adetomiwa Adebawore measured only 6-foot-2, but he had almost 34-inch arms, which makes him feel a lot taller on the field. He jumped out to me in Northwestern's first game of the season in Ireland against Nebraska, but what really upped his stock was his performance in the Senior Bowl when the coaches there put him inside.

He’s not as tall as you’d like, but he’s long, explosive and plays hard. There has never been any questions about his effort or love for the game, and then he came to Indy and ran a 4.49 40-yard dash at 282 pounds. When teams go back and evaluate him on tape, he’s going to start shooting up draft boards because he’s been trending up over the last month.

He took a big step forward at the Senior Bowl, and he just took another step at the combine. He has a chance to be a unique pass rusher.

Kancey, Dexter Boosting Stock

Pittsburgh defensive tackle Calijah Kancey was bigger than I expected at 281 pounds. He’s undersized with short arms, but he ran a 4.67-second 40-yard dash, which makes him very comparable to former Pittsburgh product Aaron Donald, who ran 4.69. Kancey's 40 time is grabbing people’s attention.

Another defensive tackle who really stood out to me was Gervon Dexter Jr. from Florida. He measured 6-foot-6, 310 pounds. His arms were a little on the shorter side at 32 1/4 inches, but he ran a 4.88, so he can really move. When you watch tape on him, his big body stands out, and he makes eye-catching plays — chasing the quarterback outside of the pocket or running the running back down. But he doesn't do it all the time. The biggest questions I have are not so much about his unique physical traits, but can he play hard down-in and down-out, and is there a part of him that's an underachiever?

Backup to First-Rounder

Iowa's Lukas Van Ness really stood out to me in multiple ways. He impressed in team interviews and came across as a really squared-away kid. 

When you watch tape of him in the Ohio State game, he played a lot of defensive end, and they even stood him up on the edge. Then when you turn on the Wisconsin tape, he was more reduced down inside playing 3-technique, which showed a lot of versatility. 

He measured 6-foot-5, 272 pounds with 34-inch arms, and he ran a 4.58. Everyone in draft rooms will recognize that this kid plays hard and can play multiple positions on the defensive front. He wasn’t a starter at Iowa, and he has some technical issues, but all of his flaws are correctable. You cannot teach this guy’s size, speed and motor. Van Ness made some money Thursday and I wouldn’t be surprised if ends up going in the first round.

Nolan Smith's Eye-Popping Numbers

Nolan Smith ran a ridiculous 4.39-second 40-yard dash for a defensive end. He’s got almost 33-inch arms, so you’re happy with that. He’s also a really good player on tape. He has dealt with injuries and didn’t finish this past season for Georgia because of torn pectoral muscle, so that will be something teams will need to consider. 

After his great 40 time and jumping numbers, Smith didn’t participate in any of the on-field drills, so there will be even more people flocking to Georgia's Pro Day to work him out in Athens on March 15.

Most teams will work him out only as a pass rusher, but I bet a lot of teams will work him out as a stack linebacker to see if he can do that well. When I watched his tape, he was a step faster and a bit more explosive than former Georgia defensive end Azeez Ojulari was two years ago. I think Smith has a chance to potentially eke into the first round.

Mike Tannenbaum's Day 1 Takeaways

LB1 Solidified

Clemson’s Trenton Simpson clearly solidified himself as the first linebacker off the board with his performance Thursday. His was flying in the 40 (4.43), and the way he moved around in field drills looked very fluid and extremely natural. I think the expectations for his performance in the combine drills were a little bit higher than his performance, but his movement skills separated him from the rest of the class, in my opinion.

Anderson Has No Holes in Game

Everyone who follows the NFL Draft at this point knows that Will Anderson Jr. is an elite prospect, but he further entrenched himself as a top-5 pick with his 4.60 40-yard dash and elite 1.61 10-yard split. When you watch Anderson on tape, he really has no holes in his game. He looked as physically impressive as anyone on the field Thursday, and his Alabama game tape backs that up, and then some.

Exceptionally Athletic DL Class

Several defensive linemen tested incredibly well. In particular, Calijah Kancey stood out to me with his 40 time and how explosive he tested. That’s going to bring on a ton of Aaron Donald comparisons. Same school, same size, very similar 40 time. With their similar traits and background, it’s inevitable to compare him to Donald. 

I don’t think he’s quite as explosive as Donald when the pads go on. He’s similar in the sense of being undersized and productive, but I definitely don’t think people should put him in the same class. That comparison will be a consistent narrative, but Kancey isn’t worthy of a first-round pick the way Donald was.

The other defensive tackles who really stood out to me were Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton and Clemson’s Bryan Bresee. Benton continued his great pre-draft process after boosting his stock at the Senior Bowl. He moves really well for an interior player and has pass-rush upside to be a productive three-down player.

Meanwhile, Bresee is another big, strong, tough interior rusher who moves well for his size. His arms measured in on the shorter side (32.5 inches), but I don’t think that’s cause for concern for an interior guy with his skill set. 

And at defensive end, how can you not be impressed by Georgia's Nolan Smith? He’s light (238 pounds at 6-2) and he’s going to have to get bigger in the NFL, but he’s exceptionally athletic and can move well in space. He really helped himself.