INDIANAPOLIS -- As the ongoing NFL labor negotiations proceed onward in the background, the league's annual scouting combine opens Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Of course, no one knows exactly when this year's crop of collegiate talent will get to strut its stuff on an actual NFL playing field.
This is a slightly more focused sort of combine because there's likely little prospect of free agency starting next week as scheduled. Though the draft feels like the only game in town right now, there's still plenty to talk about and dissect this week in Indy. The topics include:
Last year in Indianapolis, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford started to answer the medical questions surrounding his surgically repaired throwing shoulder and left riding the momentum that wound up making him the first overall pick to the Rams, ahead of talented defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy.
A repeat of that kind of clarity could start unfolding here on behalf of Auburn's Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, but so far there's precious little consensus about anything Carolina might do atop this year's draft. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is rated higher than Newton -- the would-be icon and entertainer -- in the eyes of many NFL talent scouts. And prospects such as Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Georgia receiver A.J. Green, and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson all are top-rated players in someone's opinion.
As always, the debate seems to start at quarterback, where Gabbert and Newton became the top prospects the moment Stanford's Andrew Luck decided to stay in Palo Alto for another year. Both of them played in fairly simplistic spread offenses in college, and scouts are uncertain if their transition to an NFL system will be as seamless as recent first-round quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman and Bradford.
"The four quarterbacks at the top of my list have got to be figured out,'' said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, speaking of Gabbert, Newton, Washington's Jake Locker and Arkansas's Ryan Mallett. "That is the key to this draft as far as the marquee names. How do you figure these quarterbacks out, who are they, what are they? Who is going to be a boom guy and who is going to be a bust guy?''
But it's not just the quarterback question at the top of the draft. One veteran NFL personnel man this week told me that Georgia's Green and Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller are actually the top two players in this year's draft, and that some teams are scared off by the issue of whether Fairley has the maturity to handle becoming an instant millionaire and others question whether Bowers will be an elite player in the NFL.
Consensus? There's no consensus yet. On anything other than that this year's draft lacks consensus.
Injuries and the medical history of draft prospects is always a big story at the combine, because teams are trying to know exactly what they're buying before they drive it home. This year is no different. Bowers had recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus and will only lift here this week. Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in January and has to prove he's healthy enough to do the heavy lifting required at his position. Ditto for USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last month and won't run for the NFL until his March 30 pro day.
One first-round prospect with an injury history sure to be examined and debated this week is Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who was born with a right arm that's smaller than his left arm, and suffers from Erb's Palsy, a condition which leads to nerve damage in the neck and arm. One NFL scout told me some teams are wary of taking Clayborn, who he said broke his collarbone at birth, a doctor's mistake that didn't come to light for years.
"His right arm is mal-developed to a degree, but no one knows the extent of it yet,'' the scout said. "He's left-hand dominant because of it, and everyone wants to see if his left arm is longer than his right arm. That may be why he always played at right end in the college and never moved around. The combine is real important for him. He's probably going to slip some.''
Most teams have Clayborn as a top 20 prospect, projecting him to go somewhere in the mid-to-high teens. But his condition has been fairly well documented, and as his agent, Blake Baratz, points out, the issue with his right arm has never kept Clayborn off the field. The fifth-year senior never missed a game with the Hawkeyes.
"It's a nerve damage thing,'' Baratz said Wednesday night. "But it's never become a focal point at Iowa. Are they (the NFL) going to look at it and pry it every which way? They will, as would I if I were investing millions in Adrian. But I don't think it's going to affect him. He didn't even miss so much as a practice all those years in the Big Ten, and that speaks volumes.''
Baratz said Clayborn has been in Arizona training in the pre-combine weeks, and that for the first time trainers have focused on Clayborn's right shoulder and building up the muscles in that area. When Clayborn undergoes his NFL medical evaluation on Friday here, teams will see how much improvement he's already made in regards to that arm, Baratz said.
"It's getting stronger and it's getting corrected,'' the agent said. "He's made tremendous strides in the past six weeks, and his shoulder will be in even better shape for his pro day. There are some flexibility and strength issues that could have been improved, but the condition has never been a problem for him playing. One arm is definitely bigger than the other arm, but it's already gotten less noticeable in just six weeks of training.''
Last year, Suh and McCoy went second and third overall to Detroit and Tampa Bay, respectively. Suh played at Nebraska and McCoy at Oklahoma. This year, there are also two defensive tackles near the top of teams' boards, Auburn's Fairley and Alabama's Marcell Dareus, and there's more debate than you might think about which one will be the better NFL player.
While Fairley continues to be one of the most likely options for No. 1 Carolina, some scouts believe Dareus is the safer pick. Fairley has a higher upside, Mayock said, but Dareus has a higher floor and won't have much boom-bust potential.
Some personnel evaluators predict Dareus will exit the combine with some buzz attached to his name and make up ground on Fairley. No less an authority on NFL defensive tackle play than Warren Sapp said he believes Dareus is the better prospect, and that Fairley hasn't learned yet how to use his hands in shedding blockers.
If size and arm strength was the whole deal, Arkansas quarterback Ryan Mallett would be a clear-cut first-round pick. But there's more to it than that, and this weekend will start to unpeel the onion that is Mallett's pro potential. He's 6-6, 238 pounds, with a gun for a right arm. And he played in a pro-style offense with the Razorbacks. But Mallett is maddeningly inconsistent, and teams have reason to question his maturity and commitment level. A recent story alleging that rumors of drug use by Mallett in 2009 discouraged him from entering the 2010 NFL Draft hasn't helped is cause in terms of off-field issues.
It all makes Mallett one of the most scrutinized prospects in Indianapolis, and his interviews with teams could help determine whether he cracks the first round or tumbles into the second. The quarterback Mallett has been compared to some of late is Ryan Leaf, and that's not a good development, even if they were merely talking about his first name.
"Here's what Ryan Mallet is,'' Mayock said. "Ryan Mallett has unbelievable, God-given ability to throw a football. And when he has clear pocket and clear vision, there is nobody in the game better. Comes from an offense where you can see him drop back under center, you can see him play action. But every time I get excited, he does something from a decision making or an accuracy perspective that bothers me.
"The common denominator is when he goes bad it's because of pressure in the pocket. When he can't step up, when he can't see, when he doesn't have clear vision, I believe his production goes way down. Having said all of those things, I would be very concerned about taking him in the first round. It's not about him throwing in shorts. It's more about what he does at night in the meetings and whether or not he can convince the NFL people that he understands the game.''
It's pretty clear by now that there isn't a Joe Thomas waiting to be plucked in the upper reaches of the first round. There are five or six offensive tackles who could be among the top 32 picks, but there's absolutely no consensus on who's the best of them. Some favor Colorado's Nate Solder, he of the 6-8 height and impressive wing span. Some like the solid play of Boston College's Anthony Castonzo. Some think the fastest riser and best of the bunch will wind up being USC's Tyron Smith. And Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi, Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod, and Villanova's Ben Ijalana have their fans, too.
"There are some good tackles, but I don't see any great ones available this year,'' one scout said. "Everybody likes something a little different about every one of them. It's not the year to take one real high in the first round.''
• Is it me or is this draft full of first-round prospects who were better players in 2009 than last season? Statistically speaking, Washington quarterback Jake Locker, Missouri defensive end-outside linebacker Aldon Smith, Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn and North Carolina defensive end Robert Quinn (who didn't even play in 2010) were all much more dominant play-makers in 2009 than last year. Which player will they really be in the NFL? The old one, or the newer less-appealing version?
• Keep an eye on players like Illinois defensive tackle Corey Liuget, Temple defensive tackle Muhammad Wilkerson, USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith, North Carolina's Quinn, Wisconsin defensive end J.J. Watt and Colorado cornerback Jimmy Smith this weekend. They're all guys who could benefit from a strong combine and see their draft stock soar in the weeks ahead. Several of those players are juniors, and juniors often use the combine as their launching pad.
"There's more work to be done on a lot of those guys,'' one scout said. "But there's always volatility with juniors. They can take a hit here sometimes, but after you get to see them here and start to know them a little bit, it can flip and go the other way for them. There are some outstanding juniors that teams are really starting to like, but that fans and the media don't know a whole lot about yet.''
• Everybody loves a burner at the combine. Especially Al Davis. Players who are expected to torch the playing surface at Lucas Oil Stadium with their 40-yard dash times this week include Maryland receiver Torrey Smith, Abilene Christian receiver Edmund Gates, and Troy receiver Jerrel Jernigan. Personally I'm rooting for Nevada linebacker Dontay Moch, the non-receiver in the group. Moch reportedly ran in the 4.2's last year and is said to be motoring in that accelerated time frame once again.