NFL combine stories to watch: Mariota vs. Winston, breakout stars and more
The predicament throughout the draft process is that everyone involved, from teams to scouts to analysts, keep trying to find absolutes in a process with very few. So the trick becomes maintaining a little perspective.
That's an especially important reminder ahead of the NFL Scouting Combine, one of the league's highest-profile checkpoints en route to the draft itself. Prospects run through a grueling four days in Indianapolis, starting with medical checks and media sessions and continuing through sit-down meetings with teams as well as off- and on-field workouts.
Every little bit counts. But for how much?
"You always go back to the film," Jaguars coach Gus Bradley said at last year's combine. "You see [the players] run and do drills at the combine, but don't forget about the film. That's their body of work.
"It will be cool to visit them, see them compete and then go back to the film and find the true story."
The first wave of players arrives in Indianapolis on Tuesday, with the combine set to roll through next Monday, when defensive backs will take to the Lucas Oil Stadium field for the final drills. As the event kicks off, here are a few storylines to monitor:
Will either Marcus Mariota or Jameis Winston throw?: Nothing will be settled in the debate over the draft's top quarterback this weekend. What happens off the field in Indianapolis when Mariota and Winston sit down for face-to-face meetings with individual teams will be far more important than anything that occurs Saturday, when the quarterbacks take to Lucas Oil Stadium for their workout.
Earlier reports indicated that Mariota may not throw this weekend, citing a sprained AC joint as the reason. Healthy or not, don't be surprised to see Mariota and Winston skip those drills, instead waiting for the comfort and familiarity found at their respective pro days.
"Scouts understand that," NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock said Monday. "All they want to see is how the ball comes out of your hand. Get out there and rip it."
There's been no word as of yet on Winston's plans for Saturday. Skipping the passing drills likely would not hurt his stock, but could giving it a go help? Of the top three quarterbacks last year, only Blake Bortles threw at the combine -- Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel declined. Bortles performed well, setting the wheels in motion for his draft climb above Bridgewater and Manziel to No. 3 overall.
The Mariota-Winston debate has only just begun. The combine will not settle it, no matter if either guy gives it a go.
Who will emerge as this year's star?: Without fail, a handful of prospects leave Indianapolis much more visible on teams' draft radar than they were upon arrival.
In 2014, it was Oregon State wide receiver Brandin Cooks who led the way, posting blazing times in the 40-yard dash (4.33 seconds), 20-yard shuttle (3.81) and 60-yard shuttle (10.72). Cooks was something of a known quantity prior to mid-February, but his performance at the combine solidified his status as a Round 1 candidate. The Saints ultimately took him No. 20 overall. Wide receiver John Brown, out of Pittsburg State (Kan.), was more of a rags-to-riches story. Brown turned in a 4.34 40 time—0.08 seconds behind the best number posted all weekend, 4.26, by Kent State's Dri Archer—and performed well in pass-catching drills, sending folks scrambling for more game tape of the small-school star who had also held his own during East-West Shrine Game festivities.
On the defensive side of the ball, it was Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald who blew teams away last year. Donald already brought some positive momentum into the combine, and he built on that foundation by tossing up 35 bench-press reps (225 lbs.) and running a sub-4.7 40.
The skill positions are again loaded with athletes this year. Miami wide receiver Phillip Dorsett generated some serious buzz at the Senior Bowl and could put the cherry on top of his draft résumé by challenging Chris Johnson's combine record 4.24-second 40 time. Auburn receiver Sammie Coates might have Johnson in his sights, too.
Those speed scores are also critical for the defensive backs. Justin Gilbert set the pace for that group last year, posting a 4.37 40 time. Cleveland eventually made him a top-10 pick.
Injury updates: Mariota's dinged-up shoulder is a minor issue in the overall scheme of things. Several players with more pressing injury red flags will be in the spotlight this weekend.
"Probably the biggest thing we get out of [the combine] is to have the physical examinations and have them all done at one time," Patriots coach Bill Belichick said last February.
Start with Georgia running back Todd Gurley, who is three months removed from a devastating, season-ending ACL injury. Gurley is expected to sit out most drills in Indianapolis, but this weekend will provide the first concrete update on his recovery. Running backs make up position group No. 6 at the combine, so their medical evaluations will begin Wednesday and conclude Thursday. We'll have a better sense of Gurley's health by the end of that process.
Texas A&M offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi is further behind in his rehab. He tore his ACL during a Liberty Bowl win on Dec. 29, and he won't do anything physically this weekend aside from the bench press. Will Ogbuehi be ready at any point in 2015? The answer could determine his draft stock. Adrian Peterson's nine-month recovery from an ACL injury is the standard ... albeit an unfair one. In most cases, it takes longer than that before a player can even start getting back up to speed.
If Gurley's medical evaluation is not the most important of the week, then that honor belongs to USC defensive tackle Leonard Williams. Currently viewed as a top-three prospect in this class, Williams told Yahoo's Eric Edholm earlier this month that he has played through a torn labrum in both shoulders. Are those injuries healing as they should or is this a long-term worry for any team considering Williams early in Round 1?
Several others -- including Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, who injured his knee during pre-playoff practice -- will have their health and recovery progress scrutinized closely.
Will any coach or GM tip his team's hand?: Don't hold your breath.
Many of the league's coaches and general managers will meet with the media at some point during the week (mostly Wednesday and Thursday this year). Their answers tend toward the "generic" end of the spectrum. If nothing else, though, the sessions do provide an opportunity to get a peek into a franchise's offseason plans.
Also of note: the franchise-tag window opened Monday, which means there are weighty decisions facing many of the league's front offices. A resolution or two could come down while the league is gathered in Indianapolis.
Watching the skill positions: The moves made by prospects like Cooks and Brown during the 2014 combine were already discussed above, and the '15 event offers a similar opportunity for any running backs, wide receivers and even tight ends to separate themselves from muddled classes.
The 40-yard dash is the headlining act, but it's actually in other areas (shuttle, vertical jump, bench press, positional drills) that players really can turn scouts' heads. With Gurley limited by his injury, the door is open for Melvin Gordon and the remaining top running backs to make a statement. Elsewhere, the Kevin Whites and DeVante Parkers of the world may cut into or erase any perceived gap behind Alabama receiver Amari Cooper.
And what to make of this tight end class? Minnesota's Maxx Williams leapfrogged to pole position when he declared for the draft. Miami's Clive Walford (temporarily) locked himself into the No. 2 spot with a strong Senior Bowl. Several prospects could strengthen their cases this weekend, however, starting with Penn State's Jesse James.
Answering for the red flags: Winston will have to accomplish this task in earnest, at least when he meets with interested teams, if not during his media session. He's not alone. Any player who has had even the slightest stumble will be picked apart. Joining Winston atop that list are former Washington cornerback Marcus Peters and Oklahoma/Missouri wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.
The general consensus is that Peters stands as the draft's top cornerback talent, but his midseason dismissal from Washington's program could hold him back. Everyone will be waiting to hear Peters' side of the story regarding his exit.
Likewise, Green-Beckham is a tantalizing prospect with a checkered past. He was removed from Missouri's roster in April of 2014 amid a domestic violence accusation and also has multiple marijuana-related arrests on his record. Green-Beckham sat out the entire season after transferring to Oklahoma, per NCAA rules. His last game action came in the Cotton Bowl on Jan. 3, 2014.
Any poor first impressions made by players already on thin ice could shake up the draft board down the road.