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 Ends
|Jordan's statistics don't do him justice. His versatility could result in a top-10 pick. (USA Today Sports Images)|
Besides quarterback, pass rusher is the most coveted position in the NFL. And this draft class offers a deep and athletic group of defensive ends with a lot of potential but also a lot of questions.
And similar to quarterback, this year's defensive end draft class lacks a clear-cut top prospect, making the Combine even more important for this group of pass rushers.
For the defensive end Combine preview, Barkevious Mingo, Dion Jordan and several other prospects are projected to possibly stand up at linebacker. But because they are listed as defensive linemen on the Combine roster, they'll be included in this preview.
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.
One of the most athletic and versatile defensive prospects in this draft class, Oregon's Dion Jordan, had good production as a senior (44 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks), but the statistics don't do him justice. Widely believed to be a first-round pick, he has a chance to cement his status as a top-10 player with strong results in Indianapolis. Jordan will need to impress not only in the agility drills but also with the medical evaluations and weigh-ins.
Texas A&M's Damontre Moore belongs in the first-round discussion based on his motor and production. However, there are some questions about his natural explosiveness and pass-rush technique, concerns that Moore might be able to assauge throughout drills at Lucas Oil next week.
An SEC underclassman who isn't a household name, Auburn's Corey Lemonier, has the natural athleticism to be an impact pass rusher at the next level. He needs to develop his strength and pass-rush moves. If Lemonier tests well, a team might be willing to take a chance on his upside much earlier than most project.
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.
One of the most-talented pass rushers in this draft class, Florida State's Cornellius Carradine, wasn't even a starter at the beginning of the season. But after an injury, “Tank” stepped up and had an excellent senior season until he tore his ACL in late November, which clouds his NFL Draft future. The progress of Carradine's knee could determine whether he is selected in the first round or falls to the second day.
Sticking with the Seminoles, Carradine was able to shine because of an injury to starter Brandon Jenkins that sidelined him for almost the entire 2012 season. He led Florida State in sacks and tackles for loss as a junior in 2011. But after missing a full season of football due to a Lisfranc injury to his left foot in the season opener, scouts are eager to see him back on the field.
One more prospect to keep an eye on is Western Kentucky's Quanterus Smith, who collected 12.5 sacks through 10 games in 2012 before he tore his ACL in mid-November.
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, whom scouts often haven't seen up close yet.
Due to a nagging right shoulder injury and the fast-paced nature of Chip Kelly's offense at Oregon, Dion Jordan played most of this past season in the 225-pound range. But for his taller stature (listed at 6-foot-7), scouts would like to see his weight come closer to 250 pounds. And with some questions about his ability to put on bulk, Jordan's measurements at the Combine will be very important, especially after not participating in the Senior Bowl.
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.
A wild card in the first round, BYU's Ezekiel Ansah doesn't have off-field issues or character concerns, but scouts will be sure to grill him on his love and knowledge of the game. After participating in soccer, basketball and track throughout his life, the African native tried football in 2010, flashing natural athleticism and obvious potential. But it's his development above the shoulders that might determine his draft stock.
Michigan State's William Gholston is a physically imposing prospect (6-foot-7, 278 pounds). And although he is considered a high-character person away from the game, his on-field demeanor is a question mark. Gholston plays with a violent chip on his shoulder, something that he needs to prove to scouts that he has under control.
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.
With only four sacks last season, LSU's Barkevious Mingo is a polarizing prospect. Though he flashes special ability at times, his impact at the college level doesn't match the hype. However, Mingo should shine in shorts during the agility drills, showing off his natural quickness, burst and redirection skills. His athletic potential off the edge is the reason that he could be a top-10 pick.
Although Oregon's Dion Jordan has been mentioned twice previously in this preview, he is too impressive of an athletic specimen to not include in this section. A fluid and smooth athlete for his size, Jordan looks more like a basketball small forward on the football field, effortlessly changing directions and staying light on his feet.