This weekend, the preliminary stage of the pre-draft process will shift into full-on draft madness season with the onset of the 2014 NFL scouting combine. Today, weigh-ins and measurements began and buzz is already starting to leak out. The combine is an individually focused event which brings together all kinds of storylines. How will x player fare in interviews, will x player's 40 times hurt his stock, what lesser-known players will show off freakish times and fly up draft boards? It's impossible to know at this juncture for sure, but in this article, I'll do my best to provide a preview of what prospects may dominate the storylines this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Blake Bortles/QB (UCF)
Quarterbacks are not as interesting at the Combine as some would expect. There isn't much the combine can do for them: the interview process can somewhat showcase their personalities, but doesn't do much one way or the other for on-the-field instincts and leadership skills. The throwing drills can show off a fast or a flawed delivery, but unless the passes are wild all day, the throws themselves don't factor in just a whole lot. For quarterbacks, game film tends to be the ultimate deciding factor, but for rising prospects, it can be useful just to get a better look at them. This is the case for Blake Bortles. The top 3 QBs seems set as Bortles, Johnny Manziel, and Teddy Bridgewater in some order. We've pretty much all seen what the latter two can do in game action, but Bortles was a late riser this season and many know him more from scouting reports than actually watching him. Bortles decided to throw this year, and in my opinion, it's a wise choice. He's garnered a little bit of buzz as a sleeper choice for the #1 pick, so this time will be valuable to give scouts a good look at this release and footwork.
Troy Niklas/TE (Notre Dame)
This crop of tight ends is shaping up to be the best one in years. Eric Ebron, Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and Jace Amaro have been considered first-round talents for quite a while now, but a fourth players is generating some buzz about being worthy of an early pick. Niklas, a former defensive player converted to offense while at Notre Dame, had a great year taking the place of Tyler Eifert for the Irish. To me, Niklas' decision to declare early was questionable because of his inexperience at the position and the lack of game film to show scouts what he could do. Thus, this combine is going to be big for him. What sets him apart from other big receiving tight ends is that he's considered an excellent blocker, something many teams still need out of a starting tight end. Niklas, with a big showing at the combine, could cement his place as one of the top tight ends and an early-to-mid-second round talent.
Colt Lyerla/TE (Oregon[sort of])
Another player with a lot to prove at the combine is Lyerla. As a matter of fact, it might be an absolute make-or-break for him. As a Ducks fan who watches every game, I can personally attest to the fact that Lyerla as all the talent in the world. He's a versatile and athletic player who the Ducks would even line up at tailback every now and then. The problem with Lyerla is that he's a complete idiot. He was kicked off the Ducks team this past year after they basically got sick of him. Famously, he went on a twitter rant about how he thinks the Sandy Hook massacre was a conspiracy by the American government, and when twitter collectively took to their keyboards to point out just how asinine that is, he lashed out against many of them and just generally took something that was already too far and ran with it even farther. That made Oregon's athletic department grind their teeth considerably, but the final straw was the fact that he couldn't keep his nose clean. And I mean that literally, he had a cocaine habit he couldn't shake. Obviously, his character is a big concern, so how he interviews this weekend could make or break him, especially since teams won't shy away from frying him over these problems. In the drills, Lyerla is expected to shine. If he does, he could put himself into the conversation of a prospect a team could take a late-round flyer on, but if he does poorly in any respect at the Combine, his future in the NFL could grow significantly dimmer.
De'Anthony Thomas/RB/WR (Oregon)
Duck players are always players to watch at Combines, and a second one makes this list in De'Anthony Thomas. Thomas' decision to declare is pretty questionable given the fact that he isn't a great fit at any one position in the NFL. Is he a situational scatback a la Darren Sproles, a tricky slot receiver who can run all types of gadget plays with his speed a la Tavon Austin, or limited to a pure return specialist? Whatever this answer may be, the name of his game is pure, breakaway speed. Every year it's interesting to predict who will run the fastest 40 time, and there are several options this year. Thomas has to figure to be one of them. Thomas likely will bank on his being so speedy that they will talk themselves into taking him on talent alone so they can find a place to put him. Thomas not only needs a solid time, but a great time to get drafted early. Without his speed, there won't be much for teams to like.
Sammy Watkins/WR (Clemson)
I never like to diminish the big men, but let's be honest, the Combine is a place where the flashy, speedy guys get to shine. Watkins has long been in the conversation to be a top 10 pick. He has a rare combination of size, agility, and blazing speed. Watkins might be one of those guys with more to lose than gain: if he runs a poor time, that might drop him farther down the first round. That's not to say he can't help himself at all, though: if he blows everyone away, he could enter the conversation to be taken as high as the top 3, a place where many of us has been hesitant to consider him. Even though Watkins' draft stock is still sky-high right now, he could pull a Julio Jones and get himself drafted even higher this year with a great performance this weekend.
Martavis Bryant/WR (Clemson)
While Sammy Watkins is the receiver under the biggest spotlight, Clemson's other receiver prospect also has a chance to steal the show. Bryant probably made a bad choice by declaring since his game is more enigmatic (he lacked experience before this year since Tajh Boyd had both Watkins and DeAndre Hopkins to throw to) and raw, but this will be an important showcase for him. Despite being expected to measure in the 6'4"-6'5" range, I've been reading reports saying some league sources think Bryant could blow everyone away by running in the low 4.3s or even better. That combination of size and speed would be almost unprecedented at the Combine if it happens and would appeal him to a number of teams wanting a project receiver with a ton of upside late on day 2 or early on day 3. A lot of the players on this list have been pretty well-documented, but Bryant is one of the currently lower-profile players to keep an eye on.
Kelvin Benjamin/WR (Florida St.)
Another tall, strong receiver who could shine at the Combine is Benjamin. His talent is very raw and his game needs some polishing, but an impressive showcase of natural talent would likely solidify his status as a first-round pick. While the 40 will be one of the drills he could obviously shine in, keep an eye out for his broad jump and vertical leap as well. As this picture illustrates, a big part of Benjamin's game is his leaping ability. His jump numbers could be eye-popping. His bench press will be something else to note. A receiver of his size is expected to be strong enough to muscle defenders, although his long arms will set him back a tad.
Greg Robinson/OT (Auburn)
Robinson is the only offensive big man I'll include here, because I have a hard time predicting which ones will outperform others at the Combine (weigh-ins oftentimes are just as important as on-field drills). Robinson rose practically in the middle of the night to become a tackle in consideration to be the first one off the board. The Combine will be his first big test since scouts began evaluating him in this way, and he needs to prove himself. Robinson was said to have "passed the eye test" today which is good, but he needs to show well in his other drills to be the top tackle, especially if Jake Matthews shines. Keep an eye on how he moves in the footwork drills. This will be a big indicator of whether or not he can handle NFL pass rushers.
Aaron Donald/DT (Pittsburgh)
Aaron Donald has been one of the underdog heroes of the pre-draft process. Despite being noticeably undersized at his position, he has shined in every position he's been put in. At the Senior Bowl he was magnificent and made himself impossible to overlook. At weigh-ins, he measured at 290 lbs, which is a tough pill to swallow for a 4-3 team evaluating him as a tackle, but with another good performance at the Combine, he could have built a strong enough rap sheet to be a first-round pick. I've heard chatter that with a solid outing, he could go as high as #14 to the Bears.
Ra'Shede Hageman/DL (Minnesota)
Hageman has a pretty decent following as a prospect, including me, but there still seems to be some disagreement about where exactly he should be drafted. Some say in the low teens, some say late first round to early second. The Combine will be a platform for him to carve out his draft stock. On the field, he displays a great combination of strength and agility, so while he may not blow everyone out of the water on any particular drill, looks for him to be solid throughout the course of all the drills. Also important will be his interviews, since the big concern some teams have with him is why he played out of his mind some games but vanished in others. Answering this question would be a huge boost to how he is viewed as a prospect. The way he performs in drills may also determine what positions on the defensive line he is capable of playing, since right now, he's viewed as a combination of all down spots in both the 4-3 and 3-4.
Jadeveon Clowney/DE (South Carolina)
This one should go without saying so I won't spend too much time on it. We all know Clowney is an animal so he should be worth watching just for the sake of seeing what sort of shows he can put on. He's flirted with the idea of running a 4.4, so it will be intriguing to see if he can pull it off. His interviews will be key as well, since, like Hageman, scouts will likely hammer him over why he seemed to take plays off throughout last season.
Khalil Mack/OLB (Buffalo)
Khalil Mack has been a fascinating rising prospect throughout the season. He dominated his entire conference and played up against bigger opponents. His play has earned him a solid first-round grade, and right now by most he's seen as a guy who should go somewhere from 10-16. This likely won't change, but if Mack's freakish athleticism translates at the combine, he could help himself even more. Of pass rushers, Mack may put up the most wowing numbers. If he does, he has a good chance to crack the top 10 and possibly push Anthony Barr for the second pass rusher behind Clowney. Mack is worth watching as a player who could put on a big-time display and make a late push to be a top-10 selection.
Michael Sam/DE/OLB (Missouri)
This is another story I should need not remind you of, but since it is poised to be one of the dominant ones at the Combine it bears repeating. Sam shook the draft landscape when he came out as a gay man this month, something his teammates at Missouri all knew but had kept secret. There are two key things to watch in particular for Sam this weekend: one is how his peers interact with him. The signs have been encouraging so far in light of his coming out in regards to how players say they feel about it. I personally and optimistically predict the other players at the Combine in large part won't treat Sam any differently, which would help his draft stock by encouraging scouts concerned about how he would influence locker room chemistry. His on-the-field drills will be telling as well. Right now, Sam's biggest issue is that he isn't just a perfect fit in either a 4-3 or a 3-4. I personally think his best fit is as a 3-4 outside linebacker, but he needs to demonstrate good quickness and a burst of speed necessary to play the position. Otherwise, scouts may see him as being limited to being purely a situational type player.
C.J. Mosley/LB (Alabama)
Mosley has long been considered a top-tier linebacker prospect for a long time, but only recently he has developed some real buzz as a player who could crack the top half of the first round. The Combine will be a big proving ground for him. One of the biggest keys to the game is his versatility, so a solid showing across the board in all drills would greatly help his case. Furthermore, linebackers can actually do quite a bit for their stock on way or the other in their footwork drills at the Combine. Mosley has hype working for him, but if he looks poor in the footwork drills, that buzz could just as easily die on the spot.
Darqueze Dennard/CB (Michigan St.)
There aren't just a ton of defensive backs who jump off the page as obvious Combine storylines to me, but especially as a fan of a team that will likely be looking for a corner, Darqueze Dennard's performance could be a huge factor in developing the draft corner market. If you ask draft talking heads, opinions seem to be split between Dennard and Justin Gilbert over who is the top corner, with Gilbert having a bit of an edge so far. However, Dennard has been gaining more and more support from scouts as the top guy based on his game film and natural shutdown cover skills. That being said, the resounding opinion is that if he wants to be taken ahead of Justin Gilbert and prive himself worthy of being taken in the top 20, he likely needs a good Combine performance to calm concerns that his straight-line speed isn't enough to handle some NFL receivers. I expect a good show from Dennard, but if I'm proven wrong, and also if a few other corner prospects show up and turn heads, there could be major implications for the cornerback class of 2014.
Thanks for reading as always, feedback is more than welcome.