Mizzou Football in the 2014 NFL Draft: Pro Day offers 15 Tigers a chance to impress

Mizzou's annual Pro Day gets going at 10:30 a.m. today.

GaryPinkel.com: 2014 Mizzou Pro Day

Pro Day is one of the biggest events of the spring football season. Scouts from all 32 NFL teams will be present, in addition to many head coaches and general managers. Everybody who’s anybody in the NFL will be in Columbia, Mo., on Thursday.

Pro Day is basically a university’s version of the NFL Combine. It is a chance for players who weren’t invited to Indianapolis to sneak onto the NFL radar and an opportunity for those who did attend the combine to solidify or improve their draft stock.

While every Division I university in the nation has a Pro Day, Mizzou is known for having one of the best. From an organizational and preparation standpoint, NFL coaches always leave Columbia impressed. Everyone in attendance receives a media guide, list of the 2013 draft seniors, list of the 2014 rising seniors, spring practice schedule, 2014 fall schedule and 2013 on-field and strength and conditioning statistics. And everything — from breakfast to Q&As with trainers to measurements and drills — is laid out in a very organized schedule, a schedule that is followed to a T year after year.

The Trib (Behind the Stripes): Missouri Pro Day to feature 15 former Tigers

The 15 former Tigers expected to take part are as follows:

LB Donovan Bonner
OL Justin Britt
WR Jaleel Clark
OL/FB Max Copeland
DE Kony Ealy
QB James Franklin
CB E.J. Gaines
RB Henry Josey
WR Marcus Lucas
CB Randy Ponder
DE Michael Sam
WR L'Damian Washington
TE Eric Waters
S Matt White
LB Andrew Wilson

Hold up. Offensive line SLASH fullback Max Copeland? Hey, might as well give it a shot. The 300-pound former walk-on/two-year starter/rock and roller/amateur philosopher probably isn't big or athletically gifted enough to latch on with a team as a guard. But if he can show he can move well enough out of the backfield and pancake linebackers coming through a hole, who's to say someone won't give him a look at fullback?

KC Star: Missouri quarterback James Franklin wants to prove NFL doubters wrong at Pro Day
KC Star: Missouri’s L’Damian Washington seeks more vindication

Despite his sterling senior season — in which he served as a valued team leader, by the way — Washington is currently listed as the 33rd-best receiver in the draft, according to ESPN.com’s Scouts Inc. That means he could easily go undrafted.

However, Washington had some things going in his favor. For one, he boasts sufficient size, as he officially checked in at 6 feet 4 and 195 pounds at the NFL combine. He also has good speed, as he ran a 4.46 in the 40-yard dash at the combine, which put him in a tie for the 13th-fastest time among the 37 receivers who ran.

Thing is, Washington — who strength coach Pat Ivey said last spring was Missouri’s fastest player — hopes to run faster than that today. He said said the combine was the first time he had run the 40-yard dash in three months, thanks to a lingering toe injury he suffered against Kentucky in November that limited him in practice for the rest of the season.

Fox Sports MW: Mizzou Pro Day: It's time for Michael Sam to show NFL scouts he can master the measurables

"You'd like to see a guy in the high 20s (in the vertical)," [Ourlads scout Dan] Shonka says. "And he probably would run a better 40 (at Mizzou). ... If he gets in the 4.7s, that's kind of a rule of thumb a lot of people in the league have to (see); to be an edge pass rusher, you have to run in the 4.7s."

But here's the good news for the Sam camp: It's doable. Shonka says he saw unofficial times, individual scout times for Sam's 40 at the combine slotted anywhere in the 4.79 to 4.87 range, which were better than what was officially recorded.

And here's something else that didn't make the headlines coming out of Indy: The shorter the distance, the quicker Sam looked in general. Shonka says the ex-Tiger ran a 1.96 in the rip-rush left drill and a 1.97 in the swim-technique right drill, and that any number under 2.0 seconds is ideal, as far as coming off the edge. Ex-Pitt defensive tackle Aaron Donald posted times of 1.90 and 1.98, respectively, and Donald, at 6-1, 285, is projected as a mid-to-late first-round draft pick.

**********

Of the 15 Tigers running, jumping, shuttling, etc., today at Devine Pavilion, it's pretty clear that Michael Sam has the most to gain. He aced the interview portion of the NFL Combine as well as he possibly could have, but his physical numbers were far from spectacular, as noted by the annual SackSEER column at Football Outsiders.

Sam’s Combine was even poorer than his 4.91 forty-yard dash time would suggest, as Sam scored below average on every drill that SackSEER cares about. Particularly poor were Sam’s vertical leap and three-cone drill, which were the second-worst and the tenth-worst, respectively, among the 320-plus edge rushers in SackSEER’s database. Sam’s three-cone, in fact, was almost a full second slower than teammate Kony Ealy, despite the latter being ten pounds heavier than the former.

Overall, there have been only 14 prospects that SackSEER rating likes less than Sam. Half of those guys had exactly zero career sacks (even if you exclude Brandon Jenkins, who has zero career sacks but was drafted just last year). Only three of those 14 players had, or are on pace to have, double-digit career sacks: Talance Sawyer, Robert Ayers, and Ellis Wyms. Before the Combine, some projected Sam as a third- or fourth-round pick. SackSEER thinks he’s closer to a seventh-round pick or an undrafted free agent.

Granted, the SackSEER article classifies Sam as a one-hit wonder, which I struggle with a bit -- he had seven tackles for loss in both his freshman and junior seasons, and he had 9.5 sacks coming into his senior season -- but that might just be semantics on my part; he obviously erupted late in his career, logging more TFLs in Year 4 than in Years 1-3 combined.

Regardless, from an unbiased, numbers-only perspective, Sam graded out poorly with his Combine numbers, and it would behoove him to improve on them today in Columbia.

Sam wrote a letter to the editor, posted in the Columbia Missourian this morning.

To put it mildly, the love and acceptance I felt was amazing.

The day after the announcement, my name was spelled out in the stadium; fraternities hung #StandWithSam banners; then when I went to the basketball game to honor the football team's Cotton Bowl victory, I worked hard not to cry because of the amazing reception.

I have a long journey ahead of me, a lot of hard work and many dreams I want to fulfill.

But I do it with the confidence that my Mizzou family will be there for me every step of the way.

I will continue to work my hardest; I will strive to make you all proud.

And I will be a Tiger forever.

It was incredibly easy to root for him before this offseason. It has gotten even easier every single day. Hopefully he kills Pro Day, finds a good team, and establishes himself in the pros.

**********

E.J. Gaines and L'Damian Washington also have quite a bit to gain today. Gaines didn't run the 40 at the Combine, and while he's in pretty good shape to be a mid-round pick, that could improve with a strong 40 time; meanwhile, Washington already had a strong 40 time, but he can probably make it stronger. Show enough speed, and you can wipe away a few concerns about your strength or your hands.

Finally ... Max Copeland. Oh, Max Copeland. If you made it in the league as a fullback, it would make me so incredibly happy. Rock on, Max.

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