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 this week with the annual combine in Indianapolis.
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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 outside linebackers
With college teams using hybrid defensive schemes, more and more pass rushers are entering the NFL as linebackers or stand-up edge rushers. Teams want to get the best athletes on the field and, in some situations, they lack the bulk to line up in a three-point stance as a down lineman. However, they have the athleticism and versatility to play all over the front-seven and rush from different angles. These rushers will be considered defensive ends by some NFL teams, linebackers for others.
The most intriguing linebacker in this class might be Georgia's Jarvis Jones, who put up staggering numbers as a SEC pass rusher the last few years. However his injury situation will create some doubt for teams selecting in the first half of the first round. While his medical check-up at the combine will be crucial, so is the long-term diagnosis, and even if Jones passes in Indianapolis with flying colors, he's not out of the woods just yet.
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.
A versatile pass rusher, Stanford's Chase Thomas isn't the most fluid athlete, but he uses his read/react skills and nonstop motor to quickly recognize the action and attack with controlled aggression. He can be tough to block with his relentless attitude, but he doesn't stand out as quick-twitch or overly explosive as an athlete and could help himself in Indianapolis with positive times in the agility drills.
After an impressive career at Howard and a strong week at the East-West Shrine Game, Keith Pough is no longer an under-the-radar prospect. NFL scouts love his physical nature and confidence but do have some concerns about his speed and overall range. Pough doesn't need to run in the 4.4-range in the 40-yard dash, but scouts want to see him do better than the 4.8 times he has run in the past.
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 have more serious injuries.
One of the more polarizing prospects in this year's first round is Georgia's Jones. While productive and talented, he does have some questions to his game on the field. But Jones' biggest concerns might be off the field due to a condition called spinal stenosis. Although he has reportedly been cleared and given the OK to pursue a professional football career, the long-term effects of the injury is what worries scouts.
Throughout his Florida career, Jelani Jenkins has been forced in and out of the starting lineup due to various injuries. This past season, it was a fractured thumb, broken bone in his right foot and several other bumps and bruises that kept him on the sidelines during several games. Jenkins is a talented athlete, but teams will have to be convinced he can stay on the field and off the trainer's table.
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.
Besides the stenosis issue, Georgia's Jones also has some concerns on the field. While athletic and aggressive, he struggles to disengage blocks and can be too easily engulfed by blockers. Scouts are interested to find out his exact measureables, including arm length as he often struggles to extend, stack and shed blocks.
Just like any interview you 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.
Neither Gerald Hodges or Michael Mauti have off-field concerns or character issues that should worry teams. In fact, it's quite the opposite that will make their interviews interesting during the predraft process. Both were caught in an unenviable situation this past year with all the controversy surrounding Penn State football, but they handled it very well.
While both had productive senior seasons, their contributions off the field were equally noteworthy as they helped guide a young team through a turbulent situation. Neither are considered first-round picks, especially after Mauti's latest knee injury, but both should impress during the interview process with their leadership and experience.
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.
Although he doesn't appear as natural in reverse when dropping into coverage, Missouri's Zaviar Gooden is extremely quick when the play is in front of him with a natural burst and smooth acceleration. There are some other questions about his football ability, but Gooden should impress during drills with his goal to run a sub-4.5 40-yard dash.
An intriguing pass rusher, Southern Mississippi's Jamie Collins has 45 career tackles for loss over his collegiate career, finding ways to get to the quarterback with his quickness and speed. He needs work in other areas, but regarding just his athletic potential, Collins is one of the better linebackers in this draft class.