- Mike Reiss, ESPN New England Patriots reporter
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INDIANAPOLIS -- The buzz surrounding the NFL combine will intensify Thursday as the growing-bigger-every-year event gets underway. From a New England Patriots perspective, what are the biggest storylines and areas to monitor?
Possible insight into Logan Mankins' mindset. The Patriots' top offensive lineman has been assigned the franchise tag, and three players in a similar situation -- Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker LaMarr Woodley, Carolina Panthers center Ryan Kalil and New York Jets linebacker David Harris -- have said they plan to sign their franchise tender.
Gathering information on juniors.Throughout the 2010 season, NFL teams focused on seniors who would be entering the draft. This is their chance to get caught up on juniors, which highlights the importance of the interview process at the combine. A player such as linebacker Jerod Mayo is a good example of someone who started to show up on the Patriots' radar more at this point of the process, as he entered the draft following his junior season at Tennessee. Based on need, one player of note who potentially fits into that category this year is Illinois defensive lineman Corey Liuget, who is projected as a first-round pick.
Getting a better read on medical risks. Arguably the most important part of the combine for all NFL teams is having doctors on hand to conduct thorough medical evaluations. Thomas Gill, the Patriots' team doctor, arrived in Indianapolis on Wednesday evening, and his role in the process is a huge part of the value the Patriots will get out of the next week. The Patriots scored big-time in this area with tight end Rob Gronkowski last year, as he had missed his final season at Arizona with a back injury. From a local perspective, this figures to be a significant part of Boston College linebacker Mark Herzlich's week at the combine.
Which pass rusher fits best? Draft analysts agree that this is one of the deepest classes of defensive ends in recent memory, with the possibility that eight or nine could be selected within the first 32 picks. Not all ends fit in every system, so given the Patriots' system-specific approach to scouting, who fits best for them as a conversion-type 3-4 outside linebacker? Evaluating players such as North Carolina's Robert Quinn, Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan, UCLA's Akeem Ayers, Missouri's Aldon Smith, Georgia's Justin Houston, Fresno State's Chris Carter, Texas' Sam Acho and Arizona's Brooks Reed will move the team closer to an answer if they go in that direction in the early rounds.
Pair of Cam's on the radar. When it comes to Cal's Cameron Jordan and Ohio State's Cameron Heyward, it might best be summed up this way: Same first name, different games. Still, both could be first-round fits for a Patriots team that could benefit from adding a blue-chip talent to its defensive line. Jordan has been rising since a strong Senior Bowl performance, while Heyward's impact was evident in his Buckeye Bowl game finale. Wisconsin's J.J. Watt joins both Jordan and Heyward as strong first-round candidates for the Patriots as a 3-4 defensive end, if available.
Teams briefed on uncertain labor forecast. Although the primary focus of the combine is to gather information on prospects, the dark cloud hanging over Indianapolis is tied to the NFL's uncertain labor forecast. If the collective bargaining agreement is not extended by March 4, there is a possibility of a lockout. Teams are scheduled to be briefed by the league on rules should this happen.
These are the top storylines at the NFL combine from a Patriots perspective.