The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine begins on Thursday, with media sessions running through Sunday and workouts going until Tuesday. Deride the combine all you want; it is sort of strange. But the event carries a considerable amount of weight for teams.
Most importantly, teams can perform medical evaluations (the original intention of the combine), get official sizes for underclassmen entrants and interview players. Those are the most important things for teams at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
The TV glitz and glamor events — drills and news conferences — will overtake football media over the next several days. Here are the key storylines to follow at this year's combine.
The overarching theme of the combine is going to be Michael Sam and his decision to publicly announce he is gay. Sam's media session on Saturday will be the type of spectacle that will make Manti Te'o's last year look like a simple chat.
Sam probably won't say anything unexpected or different from his various media appearances. In fact, it will be even more surprising is Sam is asked any questions about his actual play on the field.
Six of Sam's teammates will be at the combine as well — Justin Britt, Kony Ealy, E.J. Gaines, Henry Josey, Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington. Chances are they'll get swamped with Sam questions. While Sam's story is obviously newsworthy, it's unfortunate a player like Josey probably won't get to tell his own. It's a fair bet every coach and general manager will get asked a question about Sam as well. Don't expect anything other than complimentary.
Despite Johnny Manziel already announcing he won't be throwing at the combine — instead waiting for a personal pro day on March 27 — he's poised to be one of the talks of Indianapolis. Coaches and general managers will vaguely praise him when asked by the media (and they will be).
Manziel has already done a nice job of deflecting some attention by saying he's 6-foot tall, and not the 6-foot-1 Texas A&M listed him. He's also done preliminary damage control about being the reckless Johnny Football. He avoided the Super Bowl madness, and he's been training with quarterback coach George Whitfield since his college season ended.
By and large, Manziel is doing everything right. But he's still a lightning rod player. What do NFL teams think of his on-field style? Will he be true to his word about reshaping his off-field image? Is there an appropriate comparison for Manziel, or will he be a player without compare?
Leading up to the combine, Jadeveon Clowney has said he'll perform a full workout. He's scheduled to do the bench press on Sunday and drills on Monday. This isn't to say Clowney will drop out of drills, but plenty have stated they'd run, jump and do everything else only to drop out.
Who knows if Clowney will ultimately drop out, but he sure does seem excited to run the 40-yard dash. He's said he wants to hit 4.4 seconds, which would be ridiculous for a 274-pound defensive end. But if he did run that fast, really, would anyone be surprised? Clowney is often compared to Mario Williams, but he's a much more athletic player.
For comparison's sake, the fastest defensive lineman at the combine last year was Trevardo Williams who ran a 4.53-40. Clowney is 30 pounds bigger than him. Barkevious Mingo ran a 4.58 while Margus Hunt and Dion Jordan both hit 4.6.
How Clowney explains his junior season is another notable. His stats were obviously down. But how much of that will he attribute to being double-teamed and having bone spurs in his ankle?
While Blake Bortles and Manziel have been getting headlines among quarterbacks, Teddy Bridgewater has been completely off the radar. You have to wonder if that's just Bridgewater's nature or if it's by design. Regardless, it's sort of refreshing. It builds some mystery around the draft's top quarterback prospect. That's worth noting too. Even though mock drafts have had Bortles or Manziel at No. 1, Bridgewater remains the top quarterback in the draft.
As Jim Corbett of USA Today points out, Bridgewater has been working with quarterback Chris Weinke. The former Florida State signal caller works down at IMG in Florida and in the past has prepped Russell Wilson, Cam Newton and Ryan Tannehill for the draft. Weinke, Corbett reports, has been working on Bridgewater's legs to help him get more on deeper passes. Other than those who quibble about Bridgewater's frame, his deep ball accuracy and velocity is his biggest area of improvement.
Bridgewater hasn't indicated whether or not he'll throw in Indianapolis, but it may behoove him to show off his deep ball training.
Decoding Jeff Fisher and Les Snead
Not even the Houston Texans, owners of the No. 1 pick, can manipulate the draft as much as the St. Louis Rams. As the final piece of the Robert Griffin III trade, the Rams have the No. 2 pick in the draft to go along with their own choice, No. 13. Head coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead will speak with the media on Friday. First and foremost, they should get grilled about incumbent quarterback Sam Bradford. With two years left on his contract, there have been conflicting reports on what the Rams want to do with Bradford. Time for Fisher and Snead to be clear.
If they indicate that Bradford is no longer their guy, suddenly that No. 2 pick looks like a prime spot for a quarterback. If they truly commit to Bradford (and of course, who knows what would be a smokescreen), the Rams could hold the second overall pick for ransom yet again. The quarterbacks in the draft this year don't grade out as high as RG3 did in 2012, so maybe the Rams and their fans shouldn't expect another bounty of three first-round picks and a second rounder. But they could again accumulate extra picks to maneuver around what many believe to be one of the best drafts in years.
Seattle's next step
The Seahawks are now at the top, and their system is going to be copied. Namely, teams will be looking to build their version of Seattle's defense that features countless pass rushers, big cornerbacks and safeties that shut down the middle of the field. What do head coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider do to stay ahead of the curve?
Before the 2013 college football season, Colt Lyerla was considered at worst the second-best tight end prospect in the nation. On the field (repeat: ON THE FIELD) he was the next Aaron Hernandez. A dynamic, albeit undersized, tight end who can line up anywhere on the field and be a threat to catch the ball. Now, Lyerla has more records off the field, and a mugshot to go with them.
Worth a shot?
Worth a shot?
In October, Lyerla was arrested and subsequently pleaded guilty to cocaine possession. Most NFL teams would probably dismiss it if a player gets busted with marijuana. Cocaine is another story. Because of his arrest record, and dismissal from Oregon, some teams will have Lyerla completely off their board.
For good or bad, people are going to be talking about Lyerla after the combine. If it's for the bad, Lyerla could tumble to the end of the draft. If he does well for himself in team interviews and workouts, there's still a possibility he could be picked on Day 2 of the draft.
Stop the madness
First it was Leon Sandcastle. Now NFL Network is going to drown us in Jerry Ricecake. The NFL Network does a lot of great things, and employs some brilliant individuals. This nonsense sullies it.
The combine's breakout player
We see it almost every year. A player will be rated as a possible first-round pick heading into the combine and will leave Indianapolis as a top 20 pick. Or better. Dontari Poe was that player in 2012. The massive nose tackle torched the combine and turned himself into the No. 11 pick. Who could be that player this year?
Keep an eye on Dee Ford of Auburn. He's riding a wave of momentum from the Senior Bowl and should test out well. Plenty of teams need a wide receiver, and the combine will be a chance for one to separate himself after the top three of Mike Evans, Marqise Lee and Sammy Watkins. That player could be Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, a diminutive speed player. Don't forget, Tavon Austin wasn't considered a top 10 pick at this time last year. That's not to say Cooks could raise his stock that high, but he should be among the most impressive athletes in attendance. Davante Adams of Fresno State is another wide receiver who should help himself.
By the flip of a coin
By in large, the first three rounds of the NFL Draft order are set. Fans of the Baltimore Ravens and Dallas Cowboys would disagree with that premise. At the combine, a coin will be flipped to determine which team gets the 16th pick in the draft. Considering the variance in needs for the Cowboys and Ravens, there's not a lot riding on the pick in that regard. But say Baltimore loses the coin flip and gets pick No. 17. That could open up a scenario where a team trades into Dallas' pick to target a wide receiver or offensive tackle Baltimore may covet.
This is just the start of our NFL Scouting Combine coverage. Throughout the week, Matthew Fairburn and I will be delivering news direct from Indianapolis. For more coverage, click here.