With just under two months to go until the 2023 NFL draft, Ohio State’s top eight prospects will have one of their biggest opportunities to impress league decision-makers before the draft at this week’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
C.J. Stroud, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Paris Johnson Jr., Dawand Jones, Luke Wypler, Zach Harrison, Cameron Brown and Ronnie Hickman will all be in Indianapolis for this week’s event, which began Monday and will continue into next Monday. Harrison will be the first Buckeye to go through on-field workouts Thursday, followed by Brown and Hickman on Friday, Stroud and Smith-Njigba on Saturday and Johnson, Jones and Wypler on Sunday.
The value of those workouts is a source of annual debate, as running a 40-yard dash and doing drills in shorts is a questionable indicator of how well a draft prospect can actually play football. Nevertheless, it’s an important step of the draft process as it’s the only event where all the top prospects convene in the same location to be evaluated by NFL scouts, coaches and general managers.
Some of Ohio State’s draft prospects have more to prove this week than others, but all of them could boost their draft stock with a good showing inside Lucas Oil Stadium. We look below at what each of them has to gain this week.
Stroud, Johnson can make case for being QB1 and OT1
Stroud and Johnson don’t actually need to prove much at the combine. Both of them are already considered sure bets to be early first-round picks, and that’s unlikely to change unless something unforeseen goes wrong over the next two months.
Stroud is expected to be one of the first three quarterbacks drafted while Johnson is projected to be one of the first three offensive tackles selected. How they perform at the combine, though, could be a factor in whether they are the No. 1 players selected in their respective position groups.
Going into the combine, Stroud is unanimously projected to be a top-10 pick, but opinions vary on whether he, Alabama’s Bryce Young, Kentucky’s Will Levis or Florida’s Anthony Richardson should be the first quarterback drafted. Stroud has a strong case for being the best pure passer in the draft and could strengthen that case with a crisp throwing session in Indianapolis. Young will not throw at the combine whereas Stroud will, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, giving Stroud a chance to make an impression with his arm that Young won’t make this week.
Performing well in athletic testing could help his cause even more, as his lack of running at Ohio State is the biggest knock on Stroud when he is compared with the other top quarterback prospects.
Johnson is vying with Northwestern’s Peter Skoronski and Georgia’s Broderick Jones to be the first offensive tackle drafted. He should stack up well against them in the combine setting, as Johnson is the tallest and longest of those three tackles and is also regarded as the best athlete of the three. If he can prove that by putting up top numbers at the combine, Johnson could position himself to be a top-10 pick along with Stroud.
JSN can remind everyone how good he is
The last time Smith-Njigba played a full game healthy, he had one of the greatest individual performances in college football history, setting Rose Bowl records with 15 catches for 347 yards and three touchdowns. Problem is, that game was 14 months ago.
Smith-Njigba never got to put his skills on full display during his final season at Ohio State, and his draft projections have varied as a result. Many mock drafts have him falling into the late first round and a few have him out of the first round altogether. Before the season, however, Smith-Njigba was widely projected to be a top-15 pick – and that could become the case once again if he can remind everyone how good he is with his combine workout.
Most importantly, Smith-Njigba needs to show he is fully recovered from the hamstring injury that sidelined him for nearly all of the 2022 season. If he is, he should shine in receiver drills with his route-running skill and hands that caught just about everything thrown his way as a Buckeye. He should excel in timed tests like the 20-yard shuttle and 3-cone drill that test players’ quickness and ability to change directions.
Running a fast 40-yard dash time will also be important for Smith-Njigba to answer lingering questions about his speed. Anything under 4.5 seconds should safely put those questions to rest, while a time of 4.45 seconds or faster would certainly give his draft stock a jolt.
Jones, Harrison can make first-round push
If a fourth Buckeye is to join Stroud, Johnson and Smith-Njigba in the first round, it’s likely to be either Jones or Harrison. Their chances of becoming first-round picks are likely to become more clear based on how they perform in their combine workouts.
Jones already started receiving more buzz as a potential first-rounder with his performance in his first pre-draft showcase, the Senior Bowl, where he was dominant in his one day of practice before a head injury ended his week early. That buzz should only increase if he tests well in Indianapolis.
It’s already known that Jones will likely measure in as the largest player at the combine after he weighed 6-foot-8 and 375 pounds at the Senior Bowl, though he could help himself by weighing in a bit lighter in Indianapolis. If he can put up better-than-average numbers in his on-field testing, scouts will be salivating over his combination of size and athleticism. Jones told Eleven Warriors earlier this month he wants to weigh in at 360 pounds and run the 40 in less than five seconds; achieving both of those goals would make him money.
Harrison hasn’t received many first-round projections as of late, but that could change if he has the combine workout he’s capable of. Harrison was clocked running a 4.47-second 40 back in high school; his draft stock will immediately rise if he can run anything close to that as a 6-foot-6 defensive end who was listed at 272 pounds at Ohio State.
There have been plentiful examples over the years of pass-rushing prospects being drafted higher than their collegiate statistics might suggest because of the physical upside they demonstrated in their pre-draft workouts, and the combine setting is one that should play to Harrison’s strengths.
Wypler, Hickman can show they’re NFL-ready
While it was a no-brainer for Stroud, Johnson and Smith-Njigba to enter the draft as projected first-rounders, Wypler and Hickman were less obvious early draft entrants who arguably could have benefited from another year at Ohio State. Their task this week will be to prove to NFL decision-makers that they are ready to play in the league right now.
Neither Wypler nor Hickman is likely to be a first-round pick – though Hickman did show up in the first round of one recent mock draft – but both of them are expected to come off the board somewhere in the middle rounds. Both New Jersey natives started every game for Ohio State for the past two years, giving scouts plenty of tape to evaluate them off, but this week will give them the chance to show their football IQ in team interviews and show how they stack up athletically with other prospects.
Between the two, the combine is likely more important for Hickman, who could use some positive momentum in the lead-up to the draft after he struggled and Ohio State’s defense was picked apart in his final two games as a Buckeye. Much like Smith-Njigba, Hickman’s 40 time will be particularly important because of the position he plays; anything under 4.6 seconds would be satisfactory, but breaking the 4.5-second mark would be a real momentum boost.
Wypler finished his Ohio State career with much more momentum after handling projected top-five pick Jalen Carter for most of the Buckeyes’ Peach Bowl matchup with Georgia. He should test relatively well athletically based on the mobility he showed during his Ohio State career, but as an interior offensive lineman, his time to shine could come on the very final day of the combine next Monday, when offensive linemen will partake in the bench press before departing Indianapolis.
Brown can demonstrate speed and health
Out of all eight Buckeyes traveling to Indianapolis this week, no one has more to gain than Brown. While Ohio State’s other seven combine invitees are safe bets to at least be drafted, Brown needs a good showing at the combine to ensure he gets selected as a projected late-round pick.
The combine could be exactly what Brown needs to bolster his draft stock, particularly if he runs as fast as he’s said he can. Brown has described himself as the fastest defensive back in college football; if he can back that up by running one of the combine’s fastest 40 times, it would be hard to imagine him going undrafted.
Nothing will be more important to Brown’s draft stock, however, than a clean medical exam. Brown missed 12 games over the last three years due to various injuries and even missed the East-West Shrine Bowl due to a groin injury. That’s a red flag that could deter NFL teams from drafting him, but the battery of medical tests he’ll go through at the combine – the purpose the combine was originally created for – will give teams a clearer picture of whether Brown is predisposed to injuries or if he’s simply had bad luck.
The fact that Brown was invited to the combine, unlike numerous other Ohio State draft hopefuls including Taron Vincent, Jerron Cage, Tanner McCalister, Mitch Rossi, Noah Ruggles and Bradley Robinson, is a positive indicator Brown could be drafted. How well he takes advantage of this week’s opportunity to show why he should be drafted could go a long way toward determining whether he will be drafted.