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.
|To solidify his potential first round status, Keenan Allen (No. 21) must first prove he's healthy. (USA Today Sports Images)|
Perhaps no other position is helped more from positive Combine workouts than wide receivers. NFL teams covet speed, especially out wide with pass-catchers who can stretch the field and take the top off the defense, spreading out defenders and opening passing lanes. Based off of game film, it's fairly evident to see who is fast and can use their speed to separate and create. But timed speed helps confirm what scouts see on the football field.
An average of 12-15 receivers are drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL Draft and while this draft class doesn't have a clear-cut No. 1 prospect, the early-round depth at the position is very strong.
While the medicals and on-field drills are important, one could argue the interview process is paramount. Face-to-face interviews not only give teams a better idea of a player's football IQ, but also his personality and how he carries himself. Like a scout once said “I need to feel good about the human being before I can feel good about the football player.”
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 there isn't a Calvin Johnson or AJ Green-type of prospect in this draft class, there are still several first-round talents. But a player who could emerge as a top-10 pick and clear-cut top wideout in this class with an impressive showing in Indy is Tennessee's Cordarrelle Patterson.
A top JUCO recruit a year ago, Patterson is still unpolished in a lot of areas, but there is no question about his superb athleticism and explosive playmaking ability. He set a new school record with 1,858 all-purpose yards in 2012 and was the first NCAA player to score a touchdown four ways in a season since 2008 (receiving, rushing, kick return, punt return). Time will tell if he is able to develop into more of a consistent threat, but players his size aren't supposed to move and accelerate the way he does.
Another player who could help his draft stock with a positive performance at Lucas Oil is Kansas State's Chris Harper, who led the Wildcats in receiving the past two seasons. He has drawn comparisons to Anquan Boldin due to his size (6-1, 228) and physical nature, but good workout numbers could cement Harper's draft grade in the top-75 picks.
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.
A candidate to be the first wide receiver drafted, California's Keenan Allen hasn't played football since October, suffering a left knee injury against Utah and missing the final three games of 2012. The injury was considered a sprain of the posterior cruciate ligament and didn't require surgery. While it isn't a large concern, teams considering Allen in the first round will rest easy if the knee checks out OK.
Another junior Pac-12 wideout with top-40 potential is USC's Robert Woods, but like Allen, he has some lingering injury concerns that will help decide his draft stock. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his right ankle in December 2011 and was bothered by the injury much of the spring and summer. Woods looked mostly healthy throughout the 2012 season, but his long-term stability will still be under scrutiny if there is any issue with his ankles.
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 of the wideouts competing for a spot in the first round is Clemson's DeAndre Hopkins and scouts are anxious to get the correct measurements on him.
Listed at 6-1 and 205 pounds on the Clemson roster, Hopkins' game is predicated on his quickness, route running and ability to attack the ball in the air. While scouts know he isn't the biggest or fastest, scouts will feel better about their evaluations if he measures close to his listed height and weight.
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.
While Tennessee boasts two of the top wide receivers in this draft class with Patterson and Justin Hunter, it could have been three. Da'Rick Rogers was part of the Volunteers' football program until his dismissal this past August due to numerous off-field incidents and run-ins with the coaching staff. He transferred to Tennessee Tech and kept his nose clean this past season, but he'll need to prove to teams that he won't be a headache at the next level.
Another talented, but somewhat troubled receiver is Washington State's Marquess Wilson. He had some effort concerns entering this season, but he took those concerns to the next level this past November when he quit the team and wrote a letter accusing the coaching staff of abuse. Wilson later recanted and issued an apology, but the damage was already done in the minds of many NFL scouts.
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.
While his size will keep him from being an early first round pick, West Virginia's Tavon Austin should perform very well in the speed and agility drills. His short-area explosion and acceleration should help him shine in the 3-cone drill, short shuttle and others, including the 40-yard dash. Although he's used as more of a “luxury” at this point, Austin's athleticism might be too talented to pass up in the first round.
A talented, but frustrating prospect on tape is Virginia Tech's Marcus Davis, who is expected to test very well in Indianapolis. Effort and consistency are large issues that will be tough to overlook, but with impressive numbers in the 40-yard dash and vertical jump, Davis could prove to be worth the risk based on his athletic potential.
Although he had a career-low 26 catches as a senior, Texas wide receiver Marquis Goodwin flashed elite-level speed and athleticism over his career, including last month in Mobile at the Senior Bowl. He participated in the London Olympics last summer and it would be a disappointment if he doesn't test off-the-charts in Indianapolis.