INDIANAPOLIS -- Friday marked the second day of on-field events and third day of prospect press conferences at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine. Defensive backs and specialists worked out, while quarterbacks, wide receivers and tight ends stepped up to the podiums. Here are the biggest things we learned from the day's events.
NOTE: Tune in to NFL Network and NFL+ for live coverage of the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine beginning at 1 p.m. ET on Saturday, March 4. Minnesota Vikings WR Adam Thielen joins NFL Network analysts Kurt Warner and Steve Smith on the NFL+ Players Only Combine presented by NOBULL to provide real-time analysis of the 2023 class of quarterbacks and receivers. When the tight ends take the field, Dawson Knox of the Bills and Dallas Goedert of the Eagles team with Warner to share their insights on this year's top prospects at the position.
Live combine coverage continues at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday, March 5, with offensive linemen and running backs participating in on-field drills.
ON THE FIELD
1) A true head-Turner! The early leader in the 40-yard-dash battle at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine is Michigan cornerback DJ Turner II with a time of 4.26 seconds.
The 5-foot-11, 178-pound Turner was expected to run well, entering the combine as one of the favorites in the 40. He opted not to run a second 40-yard dash after his blazing first attempt on Friday.
Vikings CB Kalon Barnes led all 2022 combine attendees with a time of 4.23 seconds, followed by Seahawks CB Tariq Woolen, who ran a 4.26. Only Barnes, Chris Johnson (4.24; 2008) and John Ross (4.22; 2017) have posted a faster 40 time at the combine than Turner's since 2003.
Turner's size -- along with sub-31-inch arms -- is considered below average. Some might project him to play inside in the NFL, as a slot corner. But Turner's obvious athleticism and competitiveness as a player put him in play for a Day 2 selection. The redshirt junior was a second-team All-Big Ten selection for the Wolverines in 2022, which was his first year as a full-time starter.
-- Eric Edholm
2) Hamstring issue sidelines top-ranked CB. Entering the combine, NFL Network draft analysts Bucky Brooks and Daniel Jeremiah both had the same prospect sitting atop a deep cornerback class: Illinois' Devon Witherspoon. Unfortunately, the consensus All-American wasn't able to display his physical attributes during Friday's cornerback workout at Lucas Oil Stadium.
As initially reported by NFL Network Insider Tom Pelissero, Witherspoon was flagged for a hamstring issue during his medical evaluation Thursday in Indianapolis.
"He underwent an MRI," Pelissero reported Friday morning. "I am told it is a minor thing, but just no point taking chances."
Witherspoon, who checked in at 5-foot-11 1/2 and 181 pounds in Indy, expressed his disappointment to NFL Network reporter Stacey Dales during Friday's combine broadcast, saying the setback is "nothing serious.".
"It messes with me," Witherspoon said, observing the on-field workout the sideline. "I want to be out there with the guys, you know, top prospects around the world.
Witherspoon told Dales that he'd like to fully participate in Illinois' pro day on March 10, but if he's not physically ready next week, he'll look to schedule his own private workout.
A feisty corner who excelled in Illinois' man-heavy scheme, Witherspoon didn't give up a single touchdown in coverage last season, boasting a 25.3 passer rating allowed -- the top figure among all FBS corners with at least 40 targets, per PFF. Lockdown work from a man who appreciates true shutdown ability.
"Darrelle Revis is my favorite corner," Witherspoon told Dales.
-- Gennaro Filice
3) Jartavius and Julius can JUMP. We learned two straightforward things about a pair of defensive backs in Friday's on-field workout: Jartavius Martin can jump really high, and Julius Brents can jump really far.
Martin soared an astounding 44 inches in the vertical jump -- not only is that the highest mark through the first two days of on-field workouts at the 2023 combine, but it's tied for the eighth-highest figure at the event since 2003. And that's not all! The nickel/safety hybrid out of Illinois also had an 11-foot-1 in the broad jump. Quite a distance, though not as long as Brents' grand vault. The Kansas State cornerback posted an eye-popping broad of 11-foot-6 -- the longest leap thus far this week and tied for the ninth-longest since 2003. And Brents faired quite well in the vertical leap, too, hitting 41.5 inches. Not to mention the cat-quick time of 6.63 seconds in the three-cone drill.
In a deep group of defensive backs, Martin and Brents found a way to stand out on Friday. But explosive leaping ability isn't the only thing these two have to offer. Although he was overshadowed by fellow draft prospects Devon Witherspoon and Sydney Brown in Illinois' fabulous secondary last season, Martin played an integral role on the FBS's top scoring defense (12.8 ppg allowed), showcasing the kind of versatility that modern NFL teams love to have in the secondary. Meanwhile, Brents earned first-team All-Big 12 honors after leading K-State with four interceptions. And the cornerback offers excellent length at the position, standing 6-2 3/4 with 34-inch arms. Per NFL Research, Brents is just the second CB to be at least 6-2 with a vertical leap of 40-plus inches. The first? Tariq Woolen, who just made the Pro Bowl as a rookie for the Seattle Seahawks.
-- Gennaro Filice
4) Mazi maxes out. As the No. 1 overall player on Bruce Feldman's most recent edition of his Freaks List -- an annual rundown of the most physically gifted athletes across college football -- the Michigan defensive tackle seemed destined to put on a show at the combine. And he did -- briefly.
Smith did not attend his scheduled media session on Wednesday and didn't participate in on-field activities on Thursday, but he sure made his presence felt in Friday's bench press. The 6-3, 323-pounder tossed up the bar 34 times -- the highest number of 225-pound lifts through Friday's activities in Indianapolis.
Ranking Mazi as the No. 48 player on his prospect big board entering the combine, NFL Network draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah says "Smith is a powerful defensive tackle with sneaky quickness." We saw the former on Friday; maybe the latter will be on display at Michigan's pro day on March 17.
-- Gennaro Filice
OFF THE FIELD
1) Young downplays size concerns. Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, who could be one of the smallest first-round quarterbacks drafted in many years, faced a number of questions about his height and weight on Friday. Young told reporters he expects to check in at around "200 pounds" at his weigh-in at the 2023 NFL Scouting Combine and believes the concerns about his lack of mass are overblown.
"I've been this size, respectfully, my whole life," Young said during his combine news conference. "I know who I am. I know what I can do."
What Young can do -- in a two-year span as the Crimson Tide's starter -- is win the Heisman Trophy, lead his team to a 23-4 record and post an 80:12 TD-to-INT ratio while throwing for 8,356 yards.
Although Young apparently isn't throwing at the combine, he's expected to do so at Alabama's second pro day on April 6.
Young also was asked on Friday what the biggest misconception is about his game.
"To be honest, I don't really know too much that's out there about me," he said. "I'm grateful for everyone's opinions and for the media for all the coverage and everything. But honestly, I'm not really on social media that much. I'm not really watching too much about me. You know, I respect everyone."
Even those who question his size.
-- Eric Edholm
2) Levis wears confidence on (cannon-armed) sleeve. If self-assurance is your thing, then have we got a quarterback for you.
"Yeah, I mean, my goal is to win more than anybody," Levis said. "I want to be the greatest of all time. Like, you're crazy if you don't think that way."
Asked why he chose to throw in Saturday's field workout -- Alabama's Bryce Young is one top QB who apparently will not -- Levis wasn't about to hit the brakes on his belief in himself.
"Because I've got a cannon," Levis said, "and I want to show it off."
-- Eric Edholm
3) The return of JSN ... a top five overall prospect? The 2023 NFL Scouting Combine will feature a welcome sight to college football fans and draftniks alike: Jaxon Smith-Njigba back on the football field. After a junior season leveled by injury, the Ohio State product says he'll participate in Saturday's field drills at Lucas Oil Stadium, with the notable exception of the 40-yard dash, which he plans to run at the Ohio State pro day on March 22.
"Just haven't had enough reps in the 40 just yet," Smith-Njigba said at his podium session on Friday, before later supplying a response to the critics who question his long speed: "I think it's a little disrespectful, but I'm ready to showcase that. Wish I could do it here and get it over with, but it's fine -- we'll take more time and surprise a lot of people, I guess."
A year ago, Smith-Njigba was coming off a true sophomore season for the books. Despite playing in the same Ohio State receiving corps as Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave -- a pair of eventual first-round picks who each just eclipsed 1,000 yards in Year 1, with Wilson winning 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year -- Smith-Njigba set school records for catches (95) and receiving yards (1,606). Capping off the prolific campaign with a mind-blowing effort in the Rose Bowl (SEE: 347 receiving yards, the most ever in any bowl game), JSN entered the 2022 college season as a premium prospect on the NFL radar. But then he suffered a hamstring injury in the first quarter of Ohio State's season-opening win over Notre Dame. The talented wideout tried to work his way back on the field, but the ailment lingered and ultimately limited him to just three games and five catches on the season.
"Very frustrating last year," Smith-Njigba said. "Never really had an injury that sat me out for games or even practices, but I feel like I'm gonna come out a better person, better man, better player."
What kind of player is he exactly? Listed by Ohio State at 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, Smith-Njigba did most of his damage as a Buckeye in the slot, aligning there on 87 percent of his snaps during his boffo 2021 campaign, per PFF. As a smooth route-runner with supreme body control and strong hands, Smith-Njigba looks to mimic some of the most polished pass catchers in the game today.
"I definitely watch film of receivers: Davante Adams and his feet; Stefon Diggs and his over-exaggerating, route-running; Cooper Kupp, the way he finds space and takes advantage of the defense," Smith-Njigba said. "A lot of players, I just try to steal little things from."
NFL Network draft analyst Bucky Brooks has Smith-Njigba as this prospect pool's top receiver, while Daniel Jeremiah ranks him as WR2 -- and the No. 25 overall prospect. As for the man himself? Well ...
"I just think my playmaking ability is second to none in this draft," Smith-Njigba said. "I see myself as a top-five player, not just receiver, I see myself as a top-five player in this draft.
"You throw me the ball seven to nine times, I can win you the game."
-- Gennaro Filice
4) The untapped part of a top QB's game. C.J. Stroud has heard the critics. He knows he should probably rely on his athleticism a little more than he did at Ohio State.
"I'll be honest. ... I didn't do it a lot in college," the quarterback prospect said Friday at the NFL Scouting Combine. "I felt like I should have, and it's something that I do regret. I feel like I could've done it a lot more, but I think if you turn on the film and you really watch what I do, you really look at film game-to-game, I have used my athleticism not only just in the Georgia game, but I did it a lot. I've done it in every other game. I've had tough third-down runs, I've had tough fourth-down runs.
"But there are times where I didn't run the ball when maybe I should have. That's something that I've learned. That's what football is about. It's about stepping back up to the plate, going back and working hard and fixing those problems. That's something that I plan to fix."
Much of Stroud's time at the podium featured a blend of three key elements: gratitude, humility and a quick follow-up of palpable determination. He finished his statement on his mobility -- a dangerous, but largely untapped part of his game at Ohio State -- by promising he'll prove the doubters wrong.
"That's something that I'll show at my Pro Day, I'll show my athleticism, I'll show my ability to escape pressure," said Stroud, who had just 88 rush yards on 79 attempts in his two years as the starter. "I've done it before on film, but since people don't think I can do it, I'm gonna do it again."
For a player who pointed to Michael Vick as one of his NFL role models (and the reason he wore No. 7 at Ohio State), it's surprising Stroud doesn't bail out of the pocket and take off more often. He'll need to become more comfortable with extending plays at the next level, solely because of the nature of the NFL game. If he ends up with a team that isn't quite equipped to protect him consistently, it will become essential.
-- Nick Shook
5) Washington brings the heat! Arguably the hottest take from this year's NFL combine media sessions came from Georgia TE Darnell Washington. Asked to name his top three tight ends in the league, the 6-foot-7, 270-pounder unleashed a wild and unexpected trio -- one that didn't include arguably the game's best tight end overall.
"I'm probably gonna get, you know, a little something for saying this, but I wouldn't put (Travis) Kelce there," Washington said. "I feel like he's [not] a hand-down-in-the-dirt guy. I really don't see that (with Kelce)."
So who makes his top three? In order: the Ravens' Mark Andrews, the Packers' Marcedes Lewis and -- the real shocker -- the Chargers' Tre McKitty. Washington admitted he's biased. Andrews is Washington's favorite tight end, and he's rooted for the Ravens. Washington, who described himself as "the most unique tight end in the draft," is often compared to Lewis, style-wise, so that makes sense. McKitty played a year with Washington at Georgia.
The first two might have some merit, but we think picking McKitty, and his 16 career catches, over Kelce, who had 27 in the playoffs alone last season, won't win Washington any new fans in the Kansas City area.
-- Eric Edholm
6) Cam Newton + Lamar Jackson = Anthony Richardson? One of the most intriguing prospects in the entire 2023 NFL Draft class will indeed display his athletic wares in Indianapolis.
During his NFL Scouting Combine podium session on Friday, Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson said he'd be a full participant in Saturday's on-field workout at Lucas Oil Stadium.
"I plan on doing everything," Richardson said. "I trained for everything, so I'm trying to showcase what I'm able to do."
This includes the combine's marquee event, the 40-yard dash. A true dual-threat quarterback who was listed by Florida at 6-foot-4, 232 pounds, Richardson has a simple target on the stopwatch.
"My target time is: Definitely fast," Richardson said. "I'm not trying to play numbers out there. I'm just gonna showcase that tomorrow."
With hulking size, a big arm and rugged mobility, Richardson routinely draws one particular NFL comp.
"Growing up, it was always Cam Newton for me," Richardson acknowledged.
But that's not the only former NFL MVP this prospect looks to emulate.
"When I got to high school, just seeing how dynamic Lamar (Jackson) was, I tried to implement both of those guys in my life. And I started calling myself 'Cam Jackson' in the 11th grade, just trying to make big plays."
-- Gennaro Filice
7) Pushing back on criticism. Tennessee QB Hendon Hooker dismissed the critiques that the Volunteers ran a simple offense that didn't require him to work through a full set of progressions.
"I can't help that defenders can't guard my receivers," he said during his combine press conference on Friday. "My job is to get them the ball."
Hooker, ranked by NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah as the No. 50 prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft, posted an eye-popping touchdown-to-interception ratio of 58:5 over the last two seasons in the Tennessee offense, and was a prime contender for the 2022 Heisman Trophy prior to sustaining an ACL tear in November. He said Friday that the offense did allow him to make pre-snap looks, where he could option to a different play.
"A lot of these questions about one-sided reads and stuff. We have pure progression routes. It's not my fault my first read is getting open," he said. "... These questions, they're cool and all but if you really get into our offense and actually watch the film, then you would understand. It's elevated to a whole other level, how fast that we're going, you have to process a lot of information."
As for his recovery from the knee injury, Hooker told reporters he'll be cleared to throw standing up next week and expects to be 100 percent healthy around the time of NFL training camp.
-- Dan Parr
8) Medical update on top TE prospect. Dalton Kincaid, a possible first-round pick, confirmed Friday that he will not work out at the combine. NFL Network Insider Mike Garafolo reported earlier this week that Kincaid would not participate in on-field drills in Indianapolis.
The reason: a back injury he suffered against Colorado in the regular-season finale. Kincaid said that he plans to work out at Utah's pro day on March 23 and went into some detail on the injury.
"I'm still rehabbing," Kincaid said. "Thankfully, [it was] non-surgical, so I should be fully healed, but definitely didn't want to push it and kind of delay being fully healthy."
Amazingly, Kincaid played the following week against USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game and caught four passes for 40 yards in the Utes' upset victory. He then opted out of the Rose Bowl to prepare for the draft.
"I had two plate compression fractures to my T7 and T8 (vertebrae)," Kincaid continued, "and the doctor overseeing my back has been Dr. (Robert) Watkins, and he's been the same specialist here. So he's been able to kind of oversee the whole process and is very pleased with my progress."
Kincaid had his orthopedic exam following his media session and said, "I think there should be some really good news there."
-- Eric Edholm
9) "Controlled madness" fueling potential first-rounder. Michael Mayer's first passion was basketball. Then, he discovered weight lifting.
"I got a bench press in my basement, started lifting, and I lost my jump shot," Mayer said during his combine press conference. "I couldn't shoot worth anything."
With strength gains came a change in sport, setting him on a course for gridiron stardom as a tight end. Mayer arrived in Indy as one of the top tight ends in his class, but he isn't resting on his laurels, identifying blocking as one area in which he needs to improve.
"I gotta work on my blocking technique, there's no doubt about that," Mayer said. "I feel like this past year, it's something I definitely took a jump on. I started working on it way more than I had my freshman and sophomore years at the University of Notre Dame. It's just going to keep getting better. My technique's gonna keep getting better. I'm gonna keep learning things from veterans, I'm gonna keep learning things from coaches who have been around the game 20, 30, 40 years. At this point, it's only up for my blocking."
Mayer couldn't have hidden his passion for football if he'd tried while on the podium. He certainly didn't hide it on the field at Notre Dame, either, possessing the demeanor that could help make him an every-down tight end in the NFL.
"I just grew up like this," Mayer explained. "… My intensity and a little bit, you could say, controlled anger, controlled madness about the game of football. I don't try to change for anybody. I attack the game of football like I do anything else in life."
Mayer's intensity paid off for him in college, where he set Notre Dame's TE record for receptions and receiving yards in 2021, and finished his career in South Bend as the school's all-time leader in catches, yards and touchdowns at the position. He aims to make a similar impact for his next team, saying his role doesn't matter.
"I think I can do anything any team asks me to do," Mayer said. "I can be in the backfield and I can block, I can be a fullback and block, I can be at the end, I can be out by the numbers, I can be in the slot and run routes. I can do it all, man, and that's really how I feel. I think there's a lot of teams here that believe the same thing."
-- Nick Shook
Bennett was contrite in his responses, acknowledging he cannot afford to make such a mistake, especially with his football future hanging in the balance this spring.
"It was a mistake that everybody's aware of," Bennett said Friday in Indy. "I understand why that can't happen. I've talked to coaches about it, talked to GMs. Apologized to my family. That's who I feel worst about. I felt like I let them down, because no matter where I go now -- and even without all of this -- I've got an obligation. I'm the fourth (Bennett named Stetson). Can't do that if your last name is Bennett, and I know better."
Bennett told reporters on Friday that he's spent the week answering questions from teams regarding his arrest, which will naturally be included in each club's scouting report.
"I just try to be honest," Bennett said when asked how he approached such conversations. "I feel like I don't put a lot of myself out there on purpose, so the stuff that people do get of me, they run with. They try to read into it instead of just seeing what it is. I try to be honest with them, just like I try to be honest with you guys every single time I'm up here. That's what I'll continue to do."
Bennett is already facing an uphill battle. Listed at 5-foot-11, he's been pegged as a probable backup in the NFL, due in part to his size. Winning pedigree aside -- Bennett helped the Bulldogs win consecutive national championships in his final two seasons at Georgia -- most general managers are seeking bigger signal-callers, and if they're willing to sacrifice height, the quarterbacks in question must possess dynamic athletic ability.
Bennett doesn't quite fit that mold. His decision to skip the Senior Bowl, and his arrest -- which occurred on the same weekend during which players arrived in Mobile, Alabama, for Senior Bowl week -- didn't help as he attempts to make his case to prospective NFL clubs.
-- Nick Shook