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.
Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Tight Ends | Wide Receivers | Offensive Line | Safeties Cornerbacks | Inside Linebackers | Outside Linebackers | Defensive Ends | Defensive Tackles
2013 Tight Ends
|Overshadowed a year ago by Coby Fleener, Ertz will prove to be a better all-around tight end in the NFL ... and will be drafted as such. (USA Today Sports Images)|
It is only natural that the hype is going to center around the top players. As such, the vast majority of the pre-draft buzz regarding the 2013 tight end class is going to focus on Stanford's Zach Ertz (pictured above) and Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, two traditionally built seam-breakers with vacuums for hands.
Each starred as the featured target in a successful pro-style offense. Each has the size to tower over defensive backs and enough speed to torment linebackers, while also possessing enough strength to compete immediately as an in-line blocker.
The beauty of this year's tight end crop, however, is not in the star power of Ertz and Eifert. While talented, neither is necessary viewed as a blue chip prospect likely to earn top-10 consideration.
Rather, it is the unusual depth of the class that has NFL scouts excited. While Ertz and Eifert are certainly the top dogs, there are other well-rounded tight ends to be found in the middle rounds and a few unique specialists who, if drafted into the right systems, could contribute immediately.
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.
While Eifert has ranked as NFLDraftScout.com's top senior tight end virtually all year long, he is just such a player who could move up draft boards with an impressive showing in Indianapolis.
While Eifert possesses soft hands and impressive body control to make twirling catches against tight coverage, there remain plenty of concerns about his straight-line speed. As such, it wouldn't be surprising to see the 6-foot-5-inch, 252-pounder slip into the second round just as former Notre Dame standouts John Carlson and Kyle Rudolph did before him ... unless, of course, he's able to prove that he's more athletic than his tape indicates.
Another big-bodied tight end who could boost his stock at the combine is Colorado's Nick Kasa. The former defensive lineman has impressive athleticism considering his 6-6, 271-pound frame but stumbled a bit out of his breaks during Senior Bowl practices. If he can prove through workouts that he has the balance and agility worthy of developing, he could make a push towards the late second day.
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.
While Ertz generated most of the buzz out of Palo Alto, scouts are also intrigued by his former teammate, Levine Toilolo, a 6-7, 255 pounder who some have compared to Jacksonville Jaguars' standout Marcedes Lewis. Toilolo lacks the burst, which is likely to push Ertz to the top of the position, but he is a brute after the catch. He suffered a torn ACL in 2010 and must reassure teams that he is completely over the injury.
Arkansas' Chris Gragg started out the 2012 season on fire, catching a combined 14 passes for 193 yards and two touchdowns in the Razorbacks' first two games, but he struggled with leg injuries throughout the rest of the year. If he can prove he's healthy, the 6-3, 246-pound Gragg could earn a similar draft-day grade as his former teammate, D.J. Williams, whom the Green Bay Packers selected in the fifth round two years ago.
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.
One such underclassmen scouts are eager to get accurate measurements on is Florida's Jordan Reed.
Possessing a similar blend of overall athleticism as former Florida star Aaron Hernandez, Reed could wind up with an even higher draft-day grade than New England Patriots' standout. To do so, however, he'll need to prove that he's all of the 6-3, 243 pounds the Gators officially listed him as.
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.
At 6-5, 285 pounds, Michigan State's Dion Sims looks more like a pass-blocker than a pass-catcher, but he has the athleticism and hands to surprise in the NFL. Besides having significant durability concerns, however, Sims also will have to answer scouts' questions regarding his guilty plea to a 2010 charge of receiving and concealing stolen property, a felony.
While the charges were ultimately expunged, they remain very much on NFL teams' radar, as is Sims' somewhat surprising decision to leave the Spartans early despite missing time in 2012 due to injury, the third time in the past four years in which he's done so.
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.
Travis Kelce showed enough athleticism early in his career to earn time as a Wildcat quarterback before ultimately emerging as one of the more intriguing tight ends in the country for the Cincinnati Bearcats. His 6-5, 250 pound frame and surprising athleticism caught the attention of Senior Bowl scouts, who invited him to Mobile. But a minor injury forced him to give up his spot. A smooth accelerator, he could surprise and help his cause in Indianapolis.
Whereas Kelce is a player who improved throughout his career at Cincinnati, Rutgers' D.C. Jefferson, another former quarterback, has consistently flashed the physical traits scouts are looking for only to leave them largely underwhelmed from a production standpoint. A solid week of practice at the East-West Shrine Game, however, could have his stock on the upswing. The 6-6, 255-pound athlete certainly has the size and fluidity to continue the momentum at the combine.