With rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their respective NFL teams to the playoffs last season and fellow first-year standout Luke Kuechly leading the league in tackles, it is more obvious than ever the immediate impact that rookies can make in today's NFL.
The first (and best) opportunity that 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 Defensive Tackles
|Lotulelei (No. 92) leads a dominant defensive tackle class. (USA Today Sports Images)|
Although the 2013 NFL Draft class may lack headliners at the "skill positions," there is plenty of "star" power at defensive tackle.
Utah's Star Lotulelei has been NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated senior defender all season long and it isn't difficult to understand why. The 6-foot-3, 320-pound monster in the middle possesses a rare combination of power and quickness that could make him one of the NFL's best defensive tackles early in his career.
Some would argue, however, that he may not even be the most gifted defensive tackle in his own draft class. Missouri's Sheldon Richardson is a better pass-rusher and faced greater competition in the SEC. Florida's Sharrif Floyd also stood out against SEC talent and seems to be just scratching the surface of his potential. All three could wind up as top-10 selections.
Fortunately for teams drafting later, the defensive tackle class isn't just loaded up top, it's deep. Seven defensive tackles are currently ranked as potential first-round prospects by NFLDraftScout.com and there are several intriguing specialists to be had in the second and third days of the draft, as well.
In fact, considering its top-shelf talent and depth, defensive tackle is the most impressive positional group of the 2013 draft.
Most to gain in Indianapolis
Logic says 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.
With so many highly regarded defensive tackles in this year's draft class, separating themselves at the Combine is going to take an extraordinary effort. Prospects considered lower round talents who prove themselves otherwise, however, could prove the biggest risers.
One such player who could boost his stock is Tennessee-Martin's Montori Hughes, a Tennessee transfer who impressed when not sidelined with a foot injury during Senior Bowl practices. He showed not only impressive strength but athleticism in Mobile, which could result in some impressive workout results for the 6-4, 328-pound defender. Should he get a clean bill of health and provide teams with the answers they're looking for about his dismissal at Tennessee, Hughes could creep into the second day of the draft.
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. Some players have bumps and bruises that plagued them throughout the season while others are more serious.
While teams will certainly want to check the medical grades of each player (especially given the extraordinary punishment that comes with playing defensive tackle), one of the most impressive attributes of the 2013 defensive tackle class is the relative health of its top prospects.
One potential issue teams will want to take a close look at involves Alabama's Jesse Williams. Although he played a critical role in plugging the interior running lanes in Alabama's dominating BCS Championship Game victory over Notre Dame, the 6-3, 320-pounder appeared to suffer a knee injury in the SEC Championship against Georgia, which caused quite a scare among the Tide faithful. By returning against the Irish, Williams proved his toughness. Before a team invests a first-round pick in the run-stuffing Austrailian, however, they'll want to make sure he's earned a clean bill of health, too.
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, who scouts often haven't seen up close yet.
Spence was officially listed by the Fighting Illini at 6-1, 305 pounds. Although stout as a run-stuffer, he does not have the elite quickness normally associated with undersized defensive tackles and is a limited pass-rusher (3.5 sacks in 38 career starts). If he measures in shorter than 6-1, teams will question where he fits, potentially pushing him into the third day of the draft.
Geathers, on the other hand, was listed by the Bulldogs at 6-6, 355 pounds. Based on tape, the numbers look accurate and Geathers carries the weight surprisingly well. Should he look as impressive in person, there will be plenty of defensive coaches in Indianapolis who will be dreaming of the possibilities Geathers could bring to their lineup.
Just like any interview you might 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.
Yet another reason why scouts love this class of defensive tackles is that there appears to be few, if any, legal concerns among the top prospects. That doesn't mean teams don't have concerns about the work ethic (or lack thereof) demonstrated from several of this year's most gifted prospects.
Ohio State's Johnathan Hankins certainly fits the bill. Strong and possessing remarkably quick feet, Hankins flashed the kind of talent throughout his career with the Buckeyes that might warrant a top-10 pick in some draft classes. He carried significant "bad weight" around his middle, however, and noticeably tired late in games. Though his statistics dropped from a breakout sophomore season in 2011 (67 tackles, 11 tackles for loss, three sacks) to a somewhat underwhelming 2012 (55 tackles, four tackles for loss, one sack), he elected to leave a potential BCS title contending Buckeyes program early, prompting some to question how much of his motivation is financially-based. Deserved or not, Hankins has thus earned some comparisons to former Ohio State standout Dan Wilkinson, who never played up to expectations after the Cincinnati Bengals selected him No. 1 overall in 1994.
Hankins is far from the only defensive tackle that scouts will want to ask about their consistency. Georgia's John Jenkins, Purdue's Kawann Short and North Carolina's Sylvester Williams are other highly regarded run-pluggers whose motors too often have drifted to idle for scouts' tastes.
Although 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, and it will continue to do so in 2013.
As Dontari Poe proved a year ago, a dominant workout from a big defensive tackle can send his stock skyrocketing. Although no one is likely to post the type of numbers this year that prompted the Kansas City Chiefs to select Poe with the No. 11 overall pick a year ago, the athleticism of Richardson and Floyd is very evident on tape and could result in some impressive numbers.
LSU's Bennie Logan is another SEC standout who could raise some eyebrows in Indianapolis. Although not as consistent in his technique as scouts would like, there is no denying his explosive burst off the ball and the surprising speed he demonstrated when hustling laterally and downfield.
Scouts don't necessarily expect impressive vertical jumps out of two of the draft's better run-stuffers -- Alabama's Williams or Missouri Southern State's Brandon Williams -- but each possesses incredible upper-body strength. The two wide-bodies aren't related but don't be surprised if they appear twin-like when each ranks among the more impressive athletes at any position during the bench-press drills.