Scores of NFL Draft prospects are beginning to trickle into Indianapolis for the 2011 NFL Combine. If you plan on watching this year's coverage, you're going to see lots of sprinting and jumping, very few footballs, and hear an awful lot of repetitive jargon with a dash of hyperbole.
That all makes the Combine sound boring and useless, but clearly, it is not. Many prospects have a lot to prove in interviews with NFL teams this weekend, while many more can answer serious questions about their talents with strong testing performances in speed, strength and agility drills. In a lot of cases, even a player's size can cause said player to rise, or fall, on draft boards.
There are obviously far more than five players that stand to gain in stature this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. These five first-round prospects have an opportunity to really shake up the current pecking order not just in the first round, but at their specific positions, as well.
Prince Amukamara, CB, Nebraska. At cornerback, Patrick Peterson is the star of this draft class, and though Amukamara is very skilled, nitpickers have begun to slide him down draft boards thanks to one bad game (in which Oklahoma State wideout Justin Blackmon torched him) and questionable long speed. A solid 40 time will put Amukamara right back in the conversation as one of the best dozen or so prospects in this class, and could vault him even higher - possibly as a lock for the Top 10. The door is open, as the same nitpickers - who typically have a field day with defensive backs - are questioning what Peterson's true position may be in the NFL.
Julio Jones, WR, Alabama. In a similar situation to the cornerback position, A.J. Green has a far bigger stranglehold on the "best receiver available this year" status in the court of public opinion than he probably should. There are many evaluators in the league that believe Jones may end up being the better pro between he and Green, thanks to his polished route-running and better ability in the middle of the football field. Between two players at the same position jockeying for draft position, there is no better Combine battle than between Green and Jones. Don't be surprised if it's a battle that Jones wins. He's going to be an excellent pro receiver.
Blaine Gabbert, QB, Missouri. Likely the only quarterback prospect that won't throw in Indianapolis, Gabbert's inactivity may ultimately be the cause of his rising stock after this weekend. While Cam Newton risks a slide while striving for transparency, Gabbert is squarely in the conversation near the top of the draft - and not throwing won't move him down boards. Add in the fact that it's a huge weekend for the likes of Newton and Ryan Mallett in team interviews and in the classroom, and Gabbert should have little problem coasting through the Combine. There is inherent risk in being the only player to wait for his pro day - what are you trying to hide? - but in the long run, it could easily turn out to be a very prudent decision.
Tyron Smith, OT, USC. The Combine will not erase concerns over the fact that Smith never played left tackle at USC. That lack of experience is a major concern, particularly considering that his other issue is with size and strength - which would be a problem for teams looking at him as a right tackle. Size and strength, unlike experience, are things that Smith can display progress with this weekend. If he weighs in at or around 300 pounds, shows well on the bench, and preserves his already-intriguing athleticism, the whispers that you're hearing now that Smith will be the first tackle off the board will transform into a dull roar.
Adrian Clayborn, DE, Iowa. Entering his senior season, Clayborn was considered one of the best defensive linemen available, despite previous off-field issues. He was a disappointment in his final year at Iowa, however, and then ruffled a few feathers when he spurned an invitation to the Senior Bowl at the last minute. In a loaded class of defensive ends, however, Clayborn has remained a projected first-round pick because of his versatility, athleticism and motor. He will test will in Indianapolis, and if you hear anything about him performing well in interviews, you can start sliding him up your draft boards - perhaps even to the fringe of the Top 10.