|West Virginia's Geno Smith might be the first quarterback taken in the NFL Draft. (US Presswire)|
I'm heading to Indianapolis on Tuesday as NFL Draft season kicks into high gear this week with the combine. Here are the 10 guys I'm most intrigued to see how their stock goes between now and late April. (NOTE: This isn't meant to be a combine version of the Freaks list.)
1. Tyrann Mathieu, LSU, DB-KR: The guy formerly known as the "Honey Badger" almost won the Heisman in 2011 but then had all sorts of off-field problems and missed the 2012 season. Mathieu's lack of size (5-foot-8, 180 pounds) was always going to be a concern for most folks. Now you factor in some character question marks, and you have a prospect who probably doesn't go in the first 100 picks. He'd be a small corner, but skill-wise, he's not really a pure cover man. But he is super quick and instinctive. Above all, Mathieu is fearless with an uncanny knack for making big plays, whether those are picks, forced fumbles or sacks. In 26 games at LSU, he created an astounding 14 turnovers, and that was in his first two seasons in the program -- a time when few blue-chippers at LSU are even on the two-deep.
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Teams that scouted LSU pegged Mathieu as a SAM linebacker more than anything else because of the way that the Tigers used him.
He's also a dynamic return man, averaging almost 16 yards a punt return. Watch the tape of him from late during his freshman year or in 2011, and he seems to be playing at a different speed than everyone else on the field -- at the highest level of college football.
It'll be interesting to see how he tests. He's one of those guys who plays much faster than he has been timed. (Tennessee once opted for another short DB, Nickell Robey, over Mathieu in large part because of the Louisiana native's underwhelming 40-time at the Vols' summer camp.)
The 20-year-old's probably more suited to safety although he doesn't have the heft to hold up to be an every-down player, but we've seen enough of him to think he still could be a difference-maker in the right situation if he can handle things off the field.
2. Geno Smith, West Virginia, QB: At one point last season, the Mountaineers were the most talked about team in the country as Smith piled up an eye-catching 24-0 TD-INT ratio. But then mid-October came, and things fell apart for WVU. The Mountaineers dropped five in a row, and Smith, whom some draft analysts were touting as the No. 1 overall pick, fell off the Heisman radar.
Many of those same draft analysts are now saying he might not even go in the first round.
Still, despite what many will feel was a down season, Smith completed a career-best 71 percent of his passes and produced a gaudy 42-6 TD-INT mark. And, at 6-foot-3, 225-pounds, Smith has the prototype size that the scouts covet and really good athleticism.
Jake Spavital, who coached first-round pick QB Brandon Weeden at Oklahoma State, was Smith's quarterback coach the past two seasons. Spavital predicts the Miami native is going to turn some heads and impress scouts in Indy.
"Weeden's got that really quick release, but Geno's got a hose, too," said Spavital, praising Smith's footwork and sense of anticipation. "He can make that field comeback throw and every other throw you want. The things that I don't think people give him enough credit for are his ball skills with all the play-action stuff.
"He's got big hands, is really smooth and can sell the play-action a lot longer. He can play in any system, and he'd flourish. I know he's going to run well, probably a lot faster than most people think, and coaches will see how football-smart he is."
3. Manti Te'o, Notre Dame, LB: The most celebrated player in college football in 2012, Te'o scarfed up a truckload of individual awards but since then has had a rough couple of months. His team got blown out by Alabama in the BCS title game, and Te'o looked overmatched. Then came word of the hoax with his much-talked-about dead girlfriend, which figures to get plenty of talk again this week in Indy.
My hunch is Te'o won't have too much trouble addressing that with scouts and the media. The shock of the story has passed, and Te'o and his handlers have had plenty of time and now experience to address things.
On the field is where things get more intriguing. Long-time NFL personnel man Pat Kirwan, now an analyst at CBSSports.com, said after watching the Bama debacle that he went back and studied Te'o in other games.
"The Stanford game raised as many questions as answers," Kirwan wrote. "He is aggressive, but he struggles to disengage. It almost seems like he has to come downhill so fast just to beat the blocker to the point of attack or he's tied up. He takes chances trying to make plays, and it doesn't always work out. At times, he reminded me of when Junior Seau first came in the NFL. At other times, he would overplay a run and miss the tackle. There was a lack of awareness in zone coverages at times when he didn't 'feel' the receiver in his zone.
"I had some concerns about how often he leaves his feet to make a tackle and miss. He needs to be in a 4-3 defense, and the middle may be too much traffic for him to sift through to make plays."
4. Alec Ogletree, Georgia, LB: He left Athens early after a productive 2012 season for a Bulldog D that seemed to underachieve a little. From an on-field standpoint, many see Ogletree as a top-15 pick thanks to his excellent range and ability to change direction. But his off-field issues are scaring some folks.
While at UGA, he was suspended for four games for an offseason drug test. Then there was last week's news that Ogletree got a DUI recently. He also had a freshman-year arrest for stealing a scooter helmet. Is that too much of a pattern of dubious behavior to chase off some teams?
The Atlanta Journal Constitution reported the monetary difference between being the No. 8 pick and the No. 23 pick last season was $4.5 million. To say a lot is on the line for Ogletree would be a big understatement.
5. Justin Hunter, Tennessee, WR: Lots of people are buzzing about the Vols' big, freak of a wideout who scared SEC defenses, but UT actually has two tall, long, freaky wide receivers. Cordarrelle Patterson, the former JC star touted as a top-20 pick, and Hunter, a 6-foot-4 former track star who had to overcome an ACL injury that sidelined him in 2011 and has some projecting as only a third-rounder.
Don't be shocked if Hunter puts on a show in Indy. While at UT, Hunter was timed at 4.42 electronically, had broad-jumped over 11 feet and vertical jumped 41.5 inches. As a track athlete, he has high jumped 7-3 and long jumped more than 26 feet. Coaches who were at UT during Hunter's time there praise his character and expect him to shine when he meets with NFL teams, too.
6. David Amerson , NC State, CB: He went from being an All-American in 2011 after making 13 INTs to a forgotten prospect not far into the 2012 season. A shaky performance against the Vols' dangerous group of receivers in the opener didn't help, but I expect Amerson to create some buzz again when scouts eyeball him. This is a 6-2, 200-pound corner who could crack 4.4 in Indy and get some folks excited again.
7. Jesse Williams, Alabama, DT: If there's a guy with a good chance to set a combine record, the Tide's big man from Brisbane, Australia, might be the one to do it in the bench press. Arguably the strongest man in college football, Williams' 600-pound bench press became legendary in SEC circles, but he's also pretty nimble for a 325-pounder. Some suspect he might run a sub-5.1 40 in Indy.
8. Tavon Austin, WVU, WR-KR: This might be the quickest guy in Indy this week. Austin destroyed some teams loaded with good athletes, showing he could rise to the challenge in big matchups. He ate people up for two seasons on WVU's version of the Fly Sweep, but he did a lot more than just that.
Austin once had 344 yards rushing in a game against Oklahoma. In 2011, he had 11 catches for almost 200 yards against an LSU D loaded with NFL talent.
It'll be interesting to see how fast he times in the 40. Some inside the WVU program joked that he never ran it before so they wondered if he would clock as fast as he plays. The film will tell you this guy plays like someone with 4.2 wheels. But if he doesn't crack 4.45, will that give some teams pause given his lack of size? My hunch is probably not, considering his change of direction and shuttle times should end up wowing any skeptics by the end of the week.
9. Denard Robinson, Michigan, WR-RB-KR: One of the greatest players in the Wolverines' storied history is ready to move on to the NFL. Robinson should run in the 4.3s and has a strong enough frame to make you think he can be a factor as a slot receiver in the NFL. Some have worried about his hands, though. Those drills will be the ones that everyone is going to want to study in Indy.
10. John Simon, Ohio State, DL-OLB: Urban Meyer and seemingly every other coach who has been around this guy raves about his motor and toughness. Simon, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, is a guy who figures to have a shot at benching 225 in the 40s.
He's also pretty explosive off the bench, having broad-jumped 10 feet and, according to OSU strength staff, has clocked in the 4.6s in the 40 despite weighing 270 pounds. A shoulder injury, which kept him out of the Senior Bowl, is something that is worth monitoring. A bigger question will be whether he's seen as stiff when it comes to positional drills as team project where he'll play at the next level.