Washington capitalizing on opportunity

ATHENS, Ga. -- Cornelius Washington realizes he is something of a walking draft-season cliché, but the former Georgia pass rusher seems OK with that notion. The formerly off-the-radar prospect was simply hoping for an opportunity to impress scouts -- and once that opportunity arrived, Washington was able to capitalize.

He didn’t generate much NFL buzz with a quiet senior season (22 tackles, three tackles for a loss, half a sack), but Washington has turned heads across the league with a series of impressive performances in pre-draft workouts.

“I was kind of at the bottom,” Washington said. “Between the Senior Bowl and the combine and what I’ve been able to do [last week at Georgia’s pro day], my stock I feel like is rising and I’m very proud of that.”

Although his record-setting performance at last month’s NFL combine generated the most attention, Washington’s momentum started in January at the Senior Bowl -- and it was an opportunity that almost didn’t come his way. Someone had to drop out of the game for Washington to receive an invitation to compete in the nation’s premier college football all-star game, but he accepted the invitation nine days before the game.

Washington immediately impressed personnel execs at the Senior Bowl weigh-in with a muscular physique that looked very much like a future NFL defensive end or outside linebacker. Then he held his own against some top-flight offensive tackles in the game’s all-important practice sessions. And finally, he recorded a sack and a forced fumble in the game itself.

But it was his performance at the combine that likely propelled Washington up some draft boards. At 6-foot-4 and 265 pounds, he needed only 4.55 seconds to complete the 40-yard dash -- a time that was second among all linebackers competing in Indianapolis. He tied Ronnell Lewis’ combine record for linebackers by bench pressing 225 pounds 36 times. And he finished second among linebackers with a 39-inch vertical and was third with a 128-inch broad jump.

In doing so, Washington confirmed what former teammates and coaches had always said about his dynamic athleticism.

“I pretty much did what I expected to do,” Washington said. “I knew I was going to run well in the 40. The only thing that I was kind of blown away about was my broad jump. I didn’t expect it to be that good, but I was blessed to be able to jump out there pretty far. It’s just kind of an adrenaline rush, heat of the moment.”

Those numbers clearly impressed the NFL Network analysts during the combine broadcast, but ex-Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo actually joked that he was disappointed by Washington’s performance. He thought he could do even better.

“I came in with Cornelius, so I knew what he could do and when he ran that, I was kind of disappointed because I thought he was going to run faster,” Rambo said. “But he ran good for his size, so I can’t say nothing bad. When you’re 265 running a 4.5, that’s pretty impressive. But I knew he had that in him the whole time. Cornelius is a freak. It’s just in him.”

ESPN Scouts Inc. now lists Washington as the No. 14 defensive end prospect for next month’s draft and just outside its list of the top 115 prospects -- a status that likely means he will be a middle-round pick in next month’s draft.

Most draft analysts seem to believe that he will be able to fill a role as a third-down specialist in the pros, using his pass-rush ability to find a niche. That was largely his role last season at Georgia, which is one reason his draft stock isn’t even higher -- and part of the reason he said he isn’t even more thrilled with his combine results.

Washington realizes that after struggling to contribute more in college, he still has a lot to prove to NFL suitors about his ability to actually produce as a pro.

“You’ve got to take it all with a grain of salt,” he said. “I did do well, but I still feel like I have a lot of things to prove. It takes one team to like you and once I get there, I’m definitely going to show what I’m made of. I can show what I can do, so I think I’ll be fine.”