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.
|Mississippi State's Banks has the length and ball skills that could result in a first-round pick. (USA Today Sports Images)|
With NFL passing attacks becoming more sophisticated by the year, defensive coordinators are being left with little choice but to flood the field with cornerbacks.
Just 10 years ago, most teams operated with two starting cornerbacks and with a nickel corner who might see the field 10 or 15 snaps a game. Now, many teams consider their nickel corner a virtual starter and a position worthy of a first-round investment, if necessary.
As such, it should come as no surprise that 10 underclassmen jumped at the chance to head to the NFL early as it became clear that the 2013 senior crop of corners was average, at best. That's more than any other position on defense, and one less than the number of receivers who gave up eligibility to head to the NFL, the largest group of underclassmen this year.
The result is a solid class of pass defenders, many of whom have the length and physicality to play in the press-man schemes so en vogue in today's NFL.
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.
The NFL is the ultimate copycat league. Considering the success enjoyed by the Seattle Seahawks, which led the NFL in scoring defense a year ago in large part due to the aggressive play of their gargantuan cornerbacks Richard Sherman (6-3, 195) and Brandon Browner (6-4, 221), one can expect other teams to follow suit. Fortunately, the 2013 draft class features several tall, athletic and physical corners who project nicely to the press-cover scheme.
Alabama's Dee Milliner is NFLDraftScout.com's top-rated cornerback and has played well in precisely this role for the Crimson Tide throughout his career. He's considered a virtual lock to go in the first round but there are some questions regarding his straight-line speed. Should he silence those critics by running anything under a 4.50 in the 40-yard dash, Milliner could contend for a spot among the top 10.
While Milliner is almost universally regarded as the top cornerback in the class, there are several other long press corners competing to join him in the first round.
At 6-1, 185 pounds, Mississippi State's Johnthan Banks has the length scouts are looking for. Perhaps even better, he's a natural ball-hawk with 16 career interceptions. Scouts, however, have reservations about his straight-line speed, too. There are similar concerns for a pair of ACC stars. Florida State's Xavier Rhodes and North Carolina State's David Amerson, the only cornerback in this draft class with more interceptions over his career (18) than Banks, have flashed first round talent and could go a long way towards earning that grade by blazing the track 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. Some players have bumps and bruises that plagued them throughout the season while others are more serious.
Of all the medical testing that will take place in Indianapolis for this year's NFL prospects, the most critical grade will be the one teams receive on Houston cornerback D.J. Hayden.
Hayden's senior season was cut short after he suffered a life-threatening tear of the inferior vena cava in the heart (the vein which supplies blood to the lower half of the body) from a collision in practice.
Despite only playing nine games, Hayden was named a First Team All-Conference USA pick and was highly regarded among scouts. If given a clean bill of health, the 6-0, 190-pound Hayden could earn second-round consideration. Should team doctors red-flag the injury, however, he could be taken off some teams' boards altogether.
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, who scouts often haven't seen up close yet.
Every one of the 10 underclassmen cornerbacks invited to the combine will have to prove that they are as tall as listed by their respective universities. Measuring in even half an inch shorter than expected can result in a player's stock plummeting, especially considering that only one cornerback was drafted a year ago who measured shorter than 5-10. That player was former Georgia star Brandon Boykin, who came in at 5-9 1/2 and slid to the fourth round after being listed at 5-10 by the Bulldogs.
As such, Southern Cal junior Nickell Roby is fighting history. While much more aggressive than his listed size (5-8, 165) might indicate, the simple reality is that many teams simply will not consider a cornerback of his size in today's NFL... If he were to measure in bigger than expected, however, Roby could see his chances at hearing his name called "grow" significantly.
Just like any interview that 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.
It is hard to say if Tyrann Mathieu was rooting for Notre Dame against the rival Alabama Crimson Tide in the BCS title game but it is a pretty fair assumption that the former LSU star is thankful for the Manti Te'o "stealing" the media spotlight.
Having failed multiple drug tests while at LSU, Mathieu was released from scholarship and allowed to consider transferring elsewhere before he ultimately decided to sit out the season and enter the draft early. As such, teams will want to know how he spent his year off the field. How well the Honey Badger is able to convince teams that he'll be able to keep his paws clean from here on out could determine whether he's selected on the second day, midway through the third or drafted at all.
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 in the past, and it will continue to do so in 2013.
Of the top-rated cornerbacks, Washington's Desmond Trufant is the best bet to put forth an eye-popping time. While smaller (5-11, 190) than many of the lanky, press corners for which this class will ultimately be remembered for, Trufant demonstrated his great speed and fluidity by dominating the Senior Bowl practices. Those close to the Trufant family believe Desmond could run faster than Marcus did in Indianapolis back in 2003... and he was clocked at 4.38 seconds.
Williams, in particular, hasn't earned the national attention his talents warrant. Overshadowed by senior Marc Anthony with the Golden Bears, don't be surprised when Williams runs considerably faster than his former teammate and contends for a top 100 selection, as well.