Commentary

10 things to watch at combine

Originally Published: February 23, 2011
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- Welcome to the most distracted scouting combine in more than 25 years.

The NFL annually carves out six days in February and takes over downtown Indianapolis, focusing mostly on interviews and physical tests of the draft prospects. Labor problems are muddling things. Commissioner Roger Goodell scheduled a Thursday meeting to update owners, general managers and head coaches on their seven-day mediation session with the NFL Players Association.

On Friday, player agents, who normally work on potential free-agent deals, will be briefed by NFLPA executive director DeMaurice Smith on the same subject.

The focus of this pro football convention is supposed to be in Lucas Oil Stadium, site of Super Bowl XLVI and where 329 draft prospects work out, but coaches and general managers will be distracted, trying to figure out whether the owners will lock out the players on March 3.

Here are the 10 things to look for at this year's combine:

1. Labor: Sources indicate that the seven days of federal mediation were productive but that no new CBA is expected to be agreed upon at this time. Owners haven't adjusted their position that they need another billion dollars of credits taken off the top of the revenue that already removes $1 billion from the percentage available to the players. Whether that would drop player costs to 42 or 46 percent of all revenue is a point for debate. What needs to be clarified in the next week is whether owners feel good enough about the seven days of mediation that they might delay a lockout of players, declare an impasse and operate under their last offer or whether they might simply lock out the players. Owners meet next week in Washington, D.C., to make their final decisions on the short-term future of the league.

2. Free agency: It won't start until there is a new CBA, but general managers have until next week to re-sign their own free agents. Franchise and transition tags, along with the re-signings of cornerbacks Champ Bailey and Ronde Barber, have whittled the list of unsigned potential free agents to 470, but key decisions have to be made. Do the Seattle Seahawks re-sign quarterback Matt Hasselbeck before March 4? Are the San Francisco 49ers serious about bringing back quarterback Alex Smith to compete for a starting job for new coach Jim Harbaugh? Can the Oakland Raiders prevent cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha from hitting the market?

[+] EnlargeRyan Mallett
Nelson Chenault/US PresswireArkansas QB Ryan Mallett will have to convince teams he has few off-field issues.

3. Quarterbacks' throwing session Sunday: Auburn's Cam Newton has the most to gain by deciding to do all the drills and make all the throws Sunday when 18 draftable quarterbacks head out to the turf in Lucas Oil Stadium. Newton calls himself an entertainer. A great workout, though, could catch the eyes of the Carolina Panthers and Buffalo Bills, who have the first and third picks in the draft. Newton put on a show all season in destroying SEC defenses.

Nine teams in the top 16 of the draft could be looking at quarterbacks -- Carolina, Buffalo, Arizona, San Francisco, Tennessee, Washington, Minnesota, Miami and Jacksonville. Newton has to show he's not just a thrower who could become a quarterback bust like JaMarcus Russell.

University of Washington quarterback Jake Locker will try to atone for a subpar Senior Bowl week by throwing and running. Colin Kaepernick of Nevada, Andy Dalton of TCU and Ryan Mallett of Arkansas also are expected to throw. Blaine Gabbert of Missouri is going to run only, saving his throwing session for March 17. Christian Ponder of Florida State also is expected to skip the throwing drills Sunday.

4. Interviews are just as important as the workouts: The draft positions of Newton and Mallett could be determined by how well they do in interview sessions with teams. Newton has to make interested teams feel as if his shaky past before arriving at Auburn isn't a cause for concern if those teams are going to make him their franchise quarterback. He'll have to make teams feel comfortable that his father, who reportedly put a price tag on where Newton was heading to college, won't be a negative influence on him. Mallett will have to silence worries about his off-the-field habits. Mallett has Joe Flacco-type throwing ability, but teams worry that he might be another Ryan Leaf.

[+] EnlargeJulio Jones
AP Photo/John RaouxAlabama's Julio Jones is one of the WRs expected to be in the combine's spotlight.

5. Don't pull a Michael Crabtree or a Dez Bryant: In the past two combines, Bryant and Crabtree were considered the top receivers in their respective classes, but their poor combine presentations caused them to drop in the first round. In 2009, Crabtree bungled information about a stress fracture. Like Crabtree, Bryant was a top-5 caliber talent whose stock dropped because he didn't come across as mature and responsible in how he handled the 2010 combine. He didn't do a good job of explaining his 2009 suspension at Oklahoma State. In this combine, A.J. Green of Georgia and Julio Jones of Alabama are big, physical receivers considered to be the prize receivers in this draft. Jonathan Baldwin of Pitt -- another tall receiver with 4.4 speed -- could push into the first round with a great workout and interviews.

6. Putting on a show for the NFL Network: Scouts and general managers groused for years about thoughts of televising the scouting combine workouts. Why pay millions of dollars to set up this draft convention and then give up all the information on television, they grumbled. As it turns out, televising the combine has prompted more players to work out, making the jobs easier for scouts not having to fly to schools to get 40 times. As late as 2003, 98 of the 307 invited players didn't work out. The influence of television has cut that number of non-workouts to between 45 and 59 in years since then. The competitive aspect of the running and jumping drills has turned the combine into one of the most watched track meets on television.

7. Getting to know the underclassmen: Despite the labor uncertainties, a record 56 underclassmen declared for the 2011 draft. Defensive tackle Nick Fairley of Auburn, defensive end Da'Quan Bowers of Clemson, cornerback Patrick Peterson of LSU and wide receiver Green of Georgia head a list of 20-to-25 potential first-round underclassmen whom general managers and coaches have to get to know.

8. Expect more from less at running back: It appears to be a down year at running back with Mark Ingram of Alabama and Mikel Leshoure of Illinois being the only sure first-round running backs. But you would have to think their power running styles would make more impact than a 2010 class that featured three first-round selections  the Bills' C.J. Spiller, San Diego Chargers' Ryan Mathews, and Detroit Lions' Jahvid Best -- who were outperformed by undrafted backs LeGarrette Blount and Chris Ivory.

9. Back-to-back defensive line drafts: The 2010 draft featured nine first-round defensive ends or defensive tackles with Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy going No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, behind quarterback Sam Bradford. Scouts are looking at potentially the same number of first-round defensive linemen, but the talent seems to be more at end. Bowers of Clemson, Robert Quinn of North Carolina, Cameron Jordan of California and Adrian Clayborn of Iowa are considered the top defensive ends, and Fairley of Auburn and Marcell Dareus of Alabama are expected to be the top tackles.

10. Who could light up the stopwatches? Cornerback Patrick Peterson of LSU could move to the top of the draft if he decides to run. He had a hand-held 4.2 40 in spring conditioning drills at LSU. Wide receivers Titus Young of Boise State and wide receiver Torrey Smith of Maryland could push into the first round if they run in the 4.3 range.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer