With rookie quarterbacks Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson leading their 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 Inside Linebackers
|All eyes will be on Manti Te'o at the Combine. (USA Today Sports Images)|
The quarterback position earns all the hype but it could be the inside linebacker position, often referred to as the "quarterback of the defense," which produces more first-round prospects in 2013.
For much of the year, the headliner at this position was Notre Dame's Manti Te'o. For reasons he'd probably rather forget, he very much remains a headliner when it comes to the 2013 Combine. Te'o is far from the only inside linebacker to pique the interest of scouts this year, however. In fact, LSU's Kevin Minter, not Te'o, tops NFLDraftScout.com's rankings.
Another player with clear first round traits is Georgia's Alec Ogletree. Ogletree led the Bulldogs with 111 tackles while playing inside linebacker in 2012, but his unique blend of size (6-3, 235) and athleticism makes him a potentially better fit at outside linebacker, where NFLDraftScout.com projects him. While scouts love his physical skill set, Ogletree may be viewed as a character risk following a DUI arrest last weekend. Unfortunately for the former Bulldog, this isn't the first time he's been in trouble.
As CBS' Pat Kirwan points out here, very nearly half of the teams in the NFL are entering the offseason with questions at inside linebacker, including the Super Bowl champion Baltimore Ravens. The 2013 class is a solid group with several future starters but there isn't enough depth in it to satisfy every team's need. That fact will make the 2013 Combine all the more important as prospects battle for position and the draft, itself, an interesting barometer of which teams are willing to gamble early to make sure they find the next Kuechly or Bobby Wagner (Seattle).
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.
Te'o certainly ranks as one of the more intriguing players at any position when it comes to the Combine. Forget for a moment all of the questions that will be asked of him during the media session. There are plenty of athletic concerns that Te'o must address, as well, not the least of which is his overall speed. Should he reassure scouts with his answers on and off the turf, he could reverse the train-wreck that has been his offseason and legitimize his standing in Dane Brugler and my mock draft.
While Te'o will draw most of the camera flashes, one inside linebacker who has proven to be a consistent playmaker in college with supposedly less than ideal athleticism is Iowa State's A.J. Klein. Voted the Co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12 in 2011 and having posted similar statistics as a senior, the 6-1, 245-pound Klein is well known to scouts and his name in the record books with four career interceptions returned for touchdowns, tied for most among FBS linebackers. Should Klein run well, he could help serve notice to scouts that he possesses legitimate athleticism to go along with his instincts and high-revving motor.
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.
Virginia Tech's Bruce Taylor enjoyed a fine career but he never took the next stop that seemed possible after a breakout 2010 campaign in which he posted 91 tackles, including 15.5 tackles for loss and six sacks. His junior campaign started off well but a Lisfranc injury robbed him of the final four games and while the physicality he'd played with throughout his career certainly remained in 2012, Taylor didn't cap his career as dominately as scouts had hoped. He seemed to play better as the year went on, however, leading to some speculation that he'll be even better in 2013 after a full removed from the serious foot injury that had ruined seasons for NFL stars Santonio Holmes, Darren McFadden and Matt Schaub, among others, in recent years.
Teams will also want to take a close look at Kiko Alonso's medical tests. The former Oregon Duck had planned on playing at the Senior Bowl but, based on the advice of doctors, elected to pull himself out of the all-star game and allow a wrist injury time to heal. Alonso has shown no ill effects in the two years of action since but missed the 2010 campaign with a torn ACL.
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, weights, hand and arms conducted during the Combine is only occasionally newsworthy ... except when it comes to underclassmen scouts often haven't seen up close yet.
Since taking over for now-Buffalo Bills incumbent starting inside linebacker Kelvin Sheppard as LSU's starter two years ago, Minter has proven to be a standout. Though at times overshadowed by all of the talent at LSU, Minter was the team's most consistent defender and in 2012 enjoyed one of the greatest seasons from any inside linebacker in school history, recording 130 tackles, including 15 for loss in becoming a consensus All-American and Butkus Award finalist.
Before a team is willing to invest a first round pick on him, however, they'll certainly want to get accurate measurements. Should Minter register close to the prototypical 6-2, 245 pound build LSU listed him at in 2012, the first round is where he's likely to wind up.
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.
One of the reasons why some believe Te'o never was a serious candidate to actually win the Heisman Trophy was the simple fact that he, like any other defender, simply didn't get the exposure of today's quarterbacks. Te'o will likely draw more attention from the media and teams next week than any of this year's passers as seemingly everyone wants to hear him explain the details of the bizarre "hoax" that has captivated the country.
As odd as Te'o's saga has been, teams ultimately can take solace in the fact that it appears, at least, that the former Notre Dame linebacker didn't break any laws.
That hasn't been the case for all of the linebackers, however, which means that others will be getting asked tough questions by scouts.
Alonso was charged with DUI two years ago. In May 2011, he was arrested for burglary, criminal trespass and criminal mischief. He pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges to avoid jail time and appears to have matured since, earning praise from Oregon coaches over the past year for his re-dedication to the program. Having lost their opportunity to speak to Alonso in person in Mobile, teams will be anxious to interview him at the Combine.
North Carolina's Kevin Reddick could draw a number of interviews, as well. He spent a year following high school at Hargrave Military Academy after failing to qualify academically and his effort seemed to run hot and cold throughout his career.
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.
On tape, Alabama's