With rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their respective NFL teams to the playoffs and fellow first-year standout Luke Kuechly leading the league in tackles, it is more obvious than ever the immediate impact rookies can make in today's NFL.
The first (and best) opportunity NFL teams, media and the public will have to see the best of the 2013 draft class kicks off in less than two weeks with the annual Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Inside the walls of Lucas Oil Stadium, the 333 college prospects ranked highest by league scouts will be poked, prodded, tested and questioned, helping teams set their draft boards in preparation for the April draft.
Going position by position until the Combine formally begins Feb. 21, NFLDraftScout.com explores the top storylines.
2013 running backs
|Lacy's burst, balance and power could push him to the top of the position -- especially if he runs well in Indianapolis. (USA Today Sports Images)|
Though the draft is still more than two months away, by now most casual NFL fans have read or heard that the 2013 quarterback class is lacking in the top-shelf talent of recent years. What they may not realize yet is that the running back crop is similarly lacking in blue-chip prospects.
It has been exactly 50 years since the NFL last saw a first round of their draft end without a running back having been selected, but that is precisely what Dane Brugler and I are projecting in our updated mock drafts.
Ask five scouts the name of the top running back in the 2013 draft and you are likely to get five different responses. Alabama's Eddie Lacy, North Carolina's Giovani Bernard, Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle and Wisconsin's Montee Ball are each favorites of some. Prior to his horrific leg injury, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore had ranked at the top of the list for many others.
With a class as convoluted as this one, the Combine should make for great drama. A few hundredths of a second in this event or that could mean the difference between being the first or fourth (or lower) running back selected in April.
Considerig recent history -- with Alfred Morris, DeMarco Murray, LeSean McCoy each drafted No. 53 overall or later over the past five years -- that doesn't mean backs can't be successful in the NFL if drafted into the right system.
Most to gain in Indianapolis
Logic says that the players who put forth the most impressive workout results have the most to gain at the Combine each year. That isn't necessarily the case. In most cases, the elite athletes are already well known by scouts. The players who actually boost their grades during the athletic drills at the combine are those who show better-than-expected athleticism or help their cause through interviews.
Having gashed SEC competition and Notre Dame while helping Alabama to its second consecutive BCS title, Lacy certainly ranks among the most well-known backs in the country. Powerfully built with superb balance, including a deadly spin move, he is a tough between-the-tackles runner. Scouts are quick to point out, however, that a dominant Tide offensive line often got him to the second level before he had to make defenders miss. Some question the 5-foot-11, 220-pound back's true quickness and straight-line speed. Anything faster than 4.53 in the 40-yard dash in Indianapolis would ease some of those concerns.
Stanford's Stepfan Taylor finds himself in a similar position. Like Lacy, Taylor may prove faster on the field than he is during workouts. Regardless of what they run, each has proven his talent against elite competition.
For all of the talk about 40-yard dash, vertical jumps and bench press totals that will dominate coverage of the Combine, the single-most critical element is always the medical testing taking place in Indianapolis. Players have the option of passing on workouts at the Combine, but every one of the 333 players invited will be subjected to a battery of medical evaluations that range from blood tests to X-rays to psychological testing.
Receiving a "red flag" on a medical test can destroy a player's draft stock. Former Washington running back Chris Polk entered the Combine a year ago widely viewed as a top prospect, but after medical tests showed extensive damage done to his shoulders and knees, he fell out of the draft entirely. To his credit, Polk made the Philadelphia Eagles roster as an undrafted free agent.
Lattimore is an obvious focus for teams looking for a running back. When healthy, he's shown the vision, body lean and leg drive of an NFL workhorse and has been a standout since stepping onto the field for the Gamecocks as a true freshman. Unfortunately, though he's been a dominant force against SEC competition and scouts rave about his work ethic, he's facing an uphill battle in the NFL due to his struggles with durability, which appeared long before the Oct. 27 collision with a Tennessee defender which caused "Willis McGahee-like injuries" to his right knee and has since been characterized by his former head coach Steve Spurrier as a knee dislocation.
The 6-0, 220-pound Lattimore has long legs, which, in part due to his determined running style, take some hellacious hits. This has resulted in his missing action in each of his three seasons of college football.
Tale of the tape
With scouts having seen most of the top prospects "on the hoof" over the fall and getting a second look at them on the "catwalk" before senior all-star games, the official measuring of heights, weight, hand and arms conducted during the Combine is only occasionally newsworthy ... except when it comes to underclassmen, whom scouts often haven't seen up close yet.
The number that fans will point to with Bell is 138, as in the number of rushing yards he averaged per game last year. For scouts, however, the numbers to watch are 6-2, 237, his height and weight as listed at Michigan State. In today's NFL, big backs are rarely successful as anything more than an occasional short-yardage option.
The sledding could be even tougher for Jamison, who was listed at Rutgers at 5-8, 200 pounds. While possessing a similar slippery brand of tough running and reliable receiving skills as former Scarlet Knight Ray Rice, Jamison may not possess the Ravens' star's agility and speed. Should he measure shorter or lighter than expected, Jamison could slip deep into the third day of the draft.
Just like any interview you may have gone through, the players invited to the Combine are there to try to get a job. They have to impress their potential employers with intelligence and dedication.
Each NFL team is allowed 60 formal player interviews. Each interview can last up to 15 minutes. The topics of conversation can fluctuate wildly from team to team and from player to player.
Having had an opportunity to speak with him at the East-West Shrine Game, Texas A&M's Christine Michael may not be quite as popular at the Combine for teams as he would've been had he not participated in the all-star game. After all, teams had plenty of time to speak to the talented back in St. Petersburg and have limited resources in Indianapolis.
Given Michael's impressive week of practice (and the game, itself) for the Shriner's, however, he may have developed even more fans who see the talent bubbling under the surface in the 5-10, 221-pounder, who scored 12 touchdowns for the Aggies in 2012 as a reserve.
Michael has flashed NFL talent throughout his career but has been knocked by scouts as a me-first player. His inconsistent efforts earned him a spot on the bench for much of his senior season and will result in some tough questions being sent his way next week.
While the medicals, weigh-ins and interviews all play more critical roles in a player's overall grade than his performance during athletic testing at the Combine, there is no doubt that the extraordinary athleticism demonstrated during drills can leave scouts (and the media) buzzing. This hype has helped push players up draft boards in the past, and it will continue to do so in 2013.
There is nothing like pure speed to turn scouts' heads at the Combine. With several speedsters of note participating in the workouts this year, the Indianapolis Speedway could be held indoors this winter.
Oklahoma State's Randle could prove the big winner if his on-field explosiveness translates into an eye-popping time.
Clemson's Andre Ellington (5-10, 197) and Oregon's Kenjon Barner (5-09, 188) lack Randle's size (6-0, 200) but are are expected to produce some of the fastest times of any player tested in Indianapolis this year. Neither plays with the physicality necessary to be a full-time starter but with so many clubs looking for speed backs as part of a committee, either could boost his cause as a potential top-100 pick with an eye-popping performance.