There will be 327 NFL hopefuls who will make the trip to Indy, along with the hundreds of NFL coaches, scouts and general managers there to watch them work out, interview and be tested medically. We take a look at the story lines you'll want to follow throughout the Scouting Combine.
1. We start, naturally, with the quarterbacks. This will be many NFL writers' first crack at firing softball questions at the revered Andrew Luck and the possibly more intriguing Robert Griffin III. They (the quarterbacks, not the media) predictably will pass on throwing in Indy, an annual rite of passage for the top quarterbacks who by doing so are said to be able to "only hurt themselves" by the NFL literati. But the eyeball test is an interesting one for the media's first impression. Last year, Cam Newton came out a day later than expected (and after all the rest of the quarterbacks, foreshadowing for his post-game ritual of making the media wait a long period before speaking to him) and read a strange, prepared statement about his checkered past. The resulting reception was, at best, a mixed bag, although it clearly didn't affect his standing with the Panthers as the would-be No. 1 overall pick. The biggest thing for Griffin likely is going to be his size. He's listed at 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds but might be as much as two inches shorter and 20 pounds lighter. That could scare off a team or two that have specific minimums for size with their quarterbacks.
2. Luck and Griffin have less to gain at the Combine than any other quarterbacks, or any draft-eligible players for that matter. They are sure-thing top-five picks, barring disaster. But other QBs could score big in their bids to move up the draft totem pole. Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill now is roundly regarded as a strong first-round possibility, perhaps going as high as No. 6 (Redskins), or to whatever team misses out on its big-fish catch at the position (likely Griffin, via trade). The biggest thing for Tannehill in Indy will be the interview process because he's coming back from a broken foot, and teams will grill him on his knowledge of passing schemes considering he was a wide receiver a mere two years ago. Oklahoma State's Brandon Weeden opened eyes at the Senior Bowl, but at 28, is he a first-round possibility? That might be a slight stretch. Arizona State's Brock Osweiler is another intriguing fast riser, and he could decide to throw here. He has a strong arm that could tickle the TV-watching media's fancy from the interview room. So could Osweiler's height — he's nearly 6-foor-8, which should not, for now, evoke memories of Dan McGwire.
3. The first two picks might be those quarterbacks we'll continue to hear so much about, but what about the third pick? The Vikings are in need of a left tackle (and a cornerback and a wide receiver and ...) and are said to be honing in on USC's Matt Kalil if they cannot swing a trade down to pick up more picks. But hold that thought right there. Kalil, the top dog at the position for many months, could be challenged — after all, PFW's Nolan Nawrocki, in his mock draft for Pro Football Weekly's 2012 Draft Guide, had the Vikings taking Iowa's Riley Reiff ahead of Kalil when few others have yet to jump on that train. They soon could; Kalil is not every evaluator's favorite player, despite his obvious upside, and he could be ripe for the overtaking. Also hot on his trail is a pretty good list of tackles, led by Ohio State's Mike Adams and Stanford's light-footed Jonathan Martin.
4. Another top-five possibility is Oklahoma State WR Justin Blackmon, whose one major drawback right now could be a faulty 40-yard dash. Reports suggest he plans to run in Indianapolis, which no doubt will prompt a slow clap behind closed doors from NFL personnel folks who annually bemoan the lack of top talents who work out in full there. One of those people is Vikings GM Rick Spielman, whose semi-famous rant on the subject years ago (when he was with the Dolphins) earned him a lot of quiet praise from his NFL peers. It just so happens, too, that the Vikings need a receiver — and a big one such as Blackmon — quite badly. Will Blackmon's decision to run mean that other top talents will follow suit? Let's hope, but again, like the top QBs throwing, best not to hold one's breath. In fact, save for a few high-round burners such as Baylor's Kendall Wright, this appears to be a strong group of receivers in the size department but perhaps not as much in terms of elite speed. Those teams looking for a Marques Colston-Anquan Boldin type of receiver will be very happy with this crop, led by Blackmon; those seeking the next Steve Smith, DeSean Jackson or Wes Welker might be a little disappointed towards the top of the draft with the type of player available.
5. And you thought the Combine was a draft thing. Lo, even if it is by definition, the fact that the NFL for the second time in three weeks will descend on Indy means but one thing: Peyton Talk. Yes, Manning will be a hot topic, perhaps cooled some from the pre-Super Bowl cooker, but there will be daily updates on the situation to be sure. It affects many things. Teams seeking a veteran, quick-fix quarterback (assuming Manning projects to be fully healthy) will be sniffing around town, and his agent Tom Condon, who is expected in for the event, will be within earshot. Will deals be consummated this week? No, not until Manning and Jim Irsay come to some sort of accord; until then, Manning is a Colt. But groundwork for any potential future dealings could be happening behind the scenes. Let's not be naïve: Tampering happens all the time in the NFL. Guessing that won't change this week.
6. Defense takes a bit of a backseat in this edition of TFF, and it might be that way, to a degree, on Draft Day. Right now, the offense stands to dominate — perhaps sweep — the top five picks. But there are a few potential interlopers to the scoring party, namely LSU CB Morris Claiborne, LSU DT Michael Brockers, Mississippi State DL Fletcher Cox, Alabama S Mark Barron and 'Bama OLB-DE Courtney Upshaw. The first three have the best chance to do so, with some folks saying Claiborne might actually have a higher ceiling as a corner than Patrick Peterson, Claiborne's college teammate and the fifth overall pick last year. Brockers and Cox don't figure to fall to far, and they are in the mix with Penn State DT Devon Still as the top interior defensive talent available. Between lifting, medical evaluations and interviews, those three players will start to separate from one another this week.
7. The media, happy they won't have to attempt pronouncing "Kuechly," merely will throw questions at the top-ranked Boston College linebacker with the following intro: "Luke, talk about (some earth-changing topic) ..." Kuechly is a rarity: An inside linebacker apparently worth taking in the top 20 picks of the first round. One source close to the B.C. program said Kuechly will blow NFL teams away in his interviews. The on-field product will supplement that, and he might just throw up some 225-pound benches for good show. That certainly will impress Cardinals strength and conditioning coach John Lott, who orchestrates the lifting portion of the workouts and lovingly nicknames players things such as "meathead" and "big lug." It's must-see TV, really.
8. Dudes dig the 40-yard dash. It's the workout that gets the most buzz and attention from media and fans. Forget that Boldin's 40-yard dash (4.71 seconds) knocked him down to Round Two or that Victor Cruz ran in the 4.6s in his pre-draft workouts. This is a chest-puffing exercise, one that can make (or lose) players tens of thousands of dollars. Players have been training, for weeks in some cases, for the sprint and will be judged in part by their results here. So who will run the fastest? The odds-on favorite might have been Florida RB Jeff Demps, but he has chosen to go for a spot on the 2012 U.S. Olympic team and might not attend this week. His college teammate, RB Chris Rainey, is said to have once beaten Demps in a backyard race, so he has to be considered a favorite. Wright, Claiborne, Fresno State WR Devon Wyllie, Miami WR Travis Benjamin, N.C. State WR T.J. Graham, Connecticut WR Kashif Moore, Cal Poly CB Asa Jackson, Virginia Tech RB David Wilson and South Carolina State FS Christian Thompson are some other fast guys to keep an eye on. But sometimes you have to look at not just the fastest 40 but the variance from the means. For instance, a defensive tackle who runs in the 4.7s might be more impressive than a receiver in the 4.4s. Some of the quickest players at other positions include North Carolina LB Zach Brown (maybe one of the best pound-for-pound athletes in Indy), Cox (he could break the 4.8 mark), Georgia TE Orson Charles (fast tight ends never have been more popular), Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus, USC DE Nick Perry, Boise State FS George Iloka (a king-sized safety who can fly), West Virginia pass rusher Bruce Irvin and, for fans of running quarterbacks, Griffin (if he so chooses) and Wisconsin's Russell Wilson.
9. There will be some names that become more household as the draft process waxes, including an intriguing crop of small-school cornerbacks. Given the demand for talent at the position, these guys will be small-ponders no longer. Janoris Jenkins landed at North Alabama after a bit of a tumultuous stay at Florida, so he's a big-time talent, but the Combine will be important for him: workouts, interviews, the gamut. If he wants to be the second corner off the board, he needs to come ready to impress. It figures that a player named Ryan Steed, PFW's seventh-ranked corner, would have attended Furman (nickname: the Paladins), but he had better dismount ready to roll here. Questions about his level of play, technique, hip tightness and top-end speed all could come to bear this week. Just below Steed is Montana's Trumaine Johnson, a beautifully sized corner (6-2, 205) who could remind some of a thicker version of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie (who attended smallish Tennessee State, coincidentally), and Johnson could emerge as a riser coming out of the Combine. Farther down the list are other small-schoolers: Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight Bentley, Cal Poly's Jackson, Coastal Carolina's Josh Norman and Hampton's Micah Pellerin. They have a chance to match up against the big boys starting this week.
10. There are other small-school players who will get more attention as the process goes on. Midwestern State OG Amini Silatolu is Nolan Nawrocki's 29th-ranked player (overall, not among guards) and could be a low first-rounder or a high second when it's all said and done. An injury forced him out of the Senior Bowl, but he should be able to lift and maybe do some other workouts to get himself back on track. A couple of talented mid-round receivers, Appalachian State's Brian Quick and Florida International's T.Y. Hilton, will be in town. So too will McNeese State FS Janzen Jackson and San Jose State SS Duke Ihenacho. Tennessee-Chattanooga QB B.J. Coleman is someone worth watching throw and evaluators are said to love his fire as a leader. But the biggest mystery man in town no doubt has to be Regina (Saskatchewan) DT Akiem Hicks. A former LSU recruit, Hicks grabbed some attention at the Shrine Game and heads to the Combine with a little momentum. He's nearly 6-5 and 324 pounds, up from 295 a year ago. NFL teams will be intrigued by his size and upside, although he hardly dominated the D-II competition, which could be a red flag.
11. Is there a blue-chip pass rusher in this year's lot? Maybe not. North Carolina DE Quinton Coples will be a first-round pick, but questions about his work ethic are considerable. Mercilus, Upshaw, Perry and South Carolina's Melvin Ingram are versatile and talented rushers who could slide between the DE and OLB positions, depending on teams' schemes, and might be solid rushers. But right now there doesn't appear to be a blue-chip backfield wrecker in this year's class. Of course, Jared Allens (he was a fourth-rounder) do come out of the woodwork, so keep an eye on Marshall's Vinny Curry, Arkansas's Jake Bequette, Boise State's Shea McClellin and Nevada's Brett Roy as they all try to work their stock values up from the middle rounds.
12. Safety also looms as a so-so position, with Barron headlining a fairly weak crop on early glance. Notre Dame's Harrison Smith and Iloka also are solid free safety possibilities, and strong workouts and interviews could help entrench them in the second-round area. NFL teams are dying for quality safeties; there just are not a lot of sure-fire options, it appears, in this group. Expect some of them to be overdrafted because of that.
13. Other names that could earn some buzz in Indy include RBs Lamar Miller (Miami), Doug Martin (Boise State), Edwin Baker (Michigan State) and Chris Polk (Washington), all vying to be the second back drafted behind Alabama's Trent Richardson. You'll hear talk about Stanford OG David DeCastro and Wisconsin C Peter Konz being two of the most sure prospects down there, almost certain first-rounders, but there are a few others at those positions who could fall closely behind — Georgia OG Cordy Glenn, Silatolu, Wisconsin OG Kevin Zeitler, Wake Forest OG Joe Looney, Utah OG Tony Bergstrom, Baylor C Philip Blake and Georgia C Ben Jones. The DT position is cluttered with talent: Cox, Brockers, Still, Michigan State's Jerel Worthy, Clemson's Brandon Thompson and Memphis' (giant) Dontari Poe all are vying for a first-round call. This position is strong and deep, with all shapes and sizes to fill needs.
14. One of the more underrated elements of the Combine is the fact that more than 30 NFL bigwigs — head coaches and general manager types, some of them new to the job — will be yakking with the media, doing their best not to tip their hands on the draft, free agency or trades. But there will be updates on injured players, talk of quarterback competitions (Denver and Kansas City come to mind, Arizona too) and coaching changes. Stay tuned for the excitement.
15. For the first time ever, fans will be allowed inside Lucas Oil Stadium to watch the Combine. Two-hundred fifty lucky fans will get to watch spandexed athletes run around in fancy shoes versus air. Fun? Interesting? Suppose it depends on one's lifestyle. But it's an experience few outside of NFL employees are bestowed, even with the wall-to-wall coverage on NFL Network. Only in recent years has the league allowed media members inside to "scout" certain players for pool reports, and those are relatively worthless — save for some lesser-known players who don't get their proper attention on TV — because of the network coverage. But the NFL has capitalized on the fact that 5,000 giddy fans watched players conduct interviews on Media Day a few weeks ago in this same city and has realized that fans are bloodthirsty for this kind of exposure. Media Day cost $25; the Combine is free this year, first come and first serve. Don't be stunned if next year's Combine population hits quadruple digits after this initial run is deemed a success — and there is a charge for the experience. Anything for a buck, right?