For some NFL scouts, the curiosity level surrounding Iowa safety Bob Sanders at the annual predraft combine in Indianapolis had mushroomed into an obsession, with talent evaluators admittedly anxious for another chance to eyeball a superb college performer deemed by many as too small but also regarded as too good to ignore.
Nicknamed the "Hit Man" in college, a testimony to the train wreck mentality Sanders fostered every week as he roamed the Hawkeyes' secondary, there remained more than a few doubters about the NFL viability of a player who measures just over 5-feet-8 and whose frame is solid but stocky.
Most of the questions surrounding Sanders, though, were transformed into exclamation points with his combine workout. Because he plays a position that isn't really considered a premium spot, Sanders still isn't likely to be chosen in the first round, even after being clocked at 4.36 seconds in the 40-yard sprint and posting a 41½-inch vertical jump.
But after University of Miami star Sean Taylor, who is viewed as one of the top safety prospects of the past quarter-century and is the only player at his position guaranteed a spot in the first round, Sanders and Purdue counterpart Stuart Schweigert probably will be the next safeties off the board.
And for Sanders, who also impressed scouts during the Senior Bowl practices last month, there is a sense of reassurance. The "Hit Man," it seems, need not fret any more about the possibility that scouts might see him as the "Hit-Or-Miss-Man."
"People are always saying the combine won't make or break you but, until you feel that you've proven yourself, there's always some concern," Sanders said. "Nothing is ever a sure thing but, all in all, I think I helped myself."
Unlike some "workout warrior" prospects, players who look good in shorts and T-shirts but don't perform well on the field, there isn't much doubt about Sanders' pedigree as a tough, play-making defender who is typically around the ball. His performance in the all-star games convinced most teams that Sanders' lack of vertical stature won't be a major problem in the NFL, and his combine workouts pretty much solidified his standing.
"There have been safeties his size, guys like Blaine Bishop, who excelled in our league," said Tennessee Titans general manager Floyd Reese. "He's a player."
Ditto the much bigger Schweigert, who possesses more prototypical safety size (6-feet-1½ and 210 pounds), and who ran in the mid-4.4s.
Of course, Sanders and Schweigert aren't the only draft prospect who either solidified or raised their stock at the combine sessions. And, as usual, there were some players whose performances might slide them back a round or two. Here are some players, many of them of lesser profile, who fit into the two categories:
On the rise
TE Ben Watson (Georgia): He was the top-rated tight end prospect last spring, dropped back a bit after a senior season marred by injuries and inconsistency, but has started to really rehabilitate himself. At about 256 pounds, he torched the field in the 40, clocking an incredible time in the mid-4.5s. Watson, whom some felt would have been a high-round choice had he entered the 2003 draft, also demonstrated functional strength by doing 34 repetitions in the standard 225-pound bench press.
QBs J.P.Losman (Tulane), Robert Kent (Jackson State) and Luke McCown (Louisiana Tech): All three will be drafted but, of the trio, the guy most worth watching is Losman. He is hardly a secret after some scouting groups had him rated as the No. 1 prospect in the spring, but he got lost in the shuffle some during a disappointing senior season. Losman still probably is no better than the No. 4 prospect now but there is at least one team that feels he could sneak into the late stages of the first round. Losman had a little trouble with his accuracy on some medium-range throws but was excellent on deep routes, showing very good touch. He also showed foot speed in the 40, with a 4.62 time. Kent and McCown threw the ball well and have NFL-type physical stature.
CB Ahmad Carroll (Arkansas): The consensus remains that Carroll would have been far better served staying in school for another season. But in a draft where the cornerback pool is unsettled, his performance probably established him as a first-day choice, instead of a middle-round selection. Like most of the corner prospects this year, Carroll lacks prototype size but is solidly built. He ran a 4.34 with a 41-inch vertical jump.
OT's Stacey Andrews (Mississippi) and Adrian Jones (Kansas): The younger brother of Arkansas offensive tackle Shawn Andrews won't be a first-rounder, like his sibling, but clearly stepped out of Big Brother's shadow a bit with a surprisingly good all-around showing. At about 350 pounds, he ran a 5.03 time in the 40 and had a long jump of 8-feet, 10 inches. The younger Andrews might have gotten himself into the first day of the draft and made himself some money. Jones really opened eyes with a 40 time of 4.93 seconds and a long jump of 9½ feet. He isn't quite as stout and might have to move to guard. But like Andrews, he improved his status by a couple rounds.
DT "Tank" Johnson (Washington): Not exactly the 300-pounder who eats up blockers and allows linebackers to flow to the ball but is very quick into the gaps. He ran a sub-4.7 time that opened a lot of eyes. Somewhat shy on pure football instincts, but he moved himself up a few rounds and could be a good fit for a one-gap defensive scheme.
CB Joey Thomas (Montana State): The former University of Washington defender, who transferred to Montana State, is one of the few corner prospects over 6-feet tall. He could use a little more bulk but is still an aggressive run defender who throws his body around. He had one of the best all-around workouts, with a 4.44 time in the 40, a time of 3.88 in the "short shuttle" drill and a vertical jump of 38½ inches.
TE Jason Peters (Arkansas): At a whopping 334 pounds, ran a sub-4.9 time in the 40. And, no, that is not a typo. Showed plenty of strength in the bench press. Might never play a single snap at tight end in the NFL, and he knows it. Given his bulk and his very quick feet, there already are teams figuring he can make the transition to offensive tackle. In fact, he bragged to a few scouts that he might be the best tackle prospect in the draft.
RB Julius Jones (Notre Dame): Doesn't have the size most teams want but he really surprised scouts with his overall performance. Might not have done everything great but did everything better than average. A better receiver than people felt he would be and also flashed more quickness than most teams thought he possessed. Might have gotten himself a slot in the second round.
Showing some slippage
QB Casey Clausen (Tennessee): Prime example of a solid college player, an undeniable team leader for the Vols, who simply might not have what it takes to get to the next level. Clausen lacked arm strength and accuracy and, in general, didn't even look like he should be rated among the top dozen prospects at his position. A few scouts opined that Clausen won't be drafted and will make it to an NFL camp only as a free agent.
WR Michael Clayton (LSU): After we rated Anquan Boldin among the combine's most disappointing performers in 2003, and then the Arizona Cardinals second-rounder earned rookie of the year honors, we're a tad wary about including any wide receivers in this category. But at the '04 draft's deepest position, the order is going to be reshuffled several times before April 24. Having run a pedestrian 4.62 time in the 40, Clayton is going to have to have some solid individual workouts on campus.
C Nick Leckey (Kansas State): Despite being advertised at about 310 pounds, weighed in at the 290-pound range and was more than an inch shorter, at 6-2, than listed on his college roster. Was able to do just 18 reps on the bench press and, not surprisingly, the scouts are concerned about his in-line strength. Also didn't seem to have good footwork and wasn't very effective in change-of-directions skills that are sometimes an indicator of how well linemen can "slide" laterally to pick up blitzes.
RB Cedric Cobbs (Arkansas): Certainly looks the part, a squarely-built runner with good college numbers who, on tape, appears to have all the tools. But he struggled to get under 4.7 seconds in the 40, didn't demonstrate sufficient change-of-direction skills and turned off more than a few teams in his individual interview sessions.
FS Etric Pruitt (Southern Mississippi): Big-time hitter who was very productive at the college level, always around the ball, seems to like contact. But he ran only in the high 4.6s and, more significant, looked sluggish and non-instinctive in some drills. Did not move to the ball particularly well, looked like strictly a zone-type player who has to be backed 10 to 12 yards off the ball. It didn't help him that, by comparison, many of the other safety prospects did so well.
WRs Maurice Brown (Iowa) and Ernest Wilford (Virginia Tech): Both wideouts have the kind of size every team wants, but they lack top-end speed and neither caught the ball very well over the weekend. Their respective résumés indicate they are playmakers, at the next level, they've got to be more consistent. Scouts noted that both players tend to be "body catchers," meaning they allow the ball to get too close to them, and don't snatch it out in front of their bodies.
DE Claude Harriott (Pittsburgh): Began the '03 season as one of the country's most touted pass rushers but was splitting time by the end of a disappointing campaign and didn't do much in Indianapolis to rehabilitate himself. His workouts were OK in terms of raw times, but he appears stiff and seems to lack pure explosiveness. Sort of a "tweener" and no one seems certain if he can make the transition to a standup a linebacker spot.
RB Clarence Farmer (Arizona): From a talent standpoint, seemingly one of the best backs in the pool, but everyone knew coming to Indianapolis that he had some serious questions about attitude and durability. Unfortunately, he did little to help himself with the former, as scouts suggested he was aloof and seemingly disinterested.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior writer for ESPN.com.