The next phase of scouting for the 2011 NFL Draft begins in earnest this week as franchises send scouting departments, coaching staffs and medical personnel to Indianapolis to inspect the 325 prospects on hand for the combine.
It will be a full week of medical exams, psychological testing and workouts at Lucas Oil Stadium by players hoping to impress future employers. Before the event starts with players arriving Thursday, here are a half-dozen intriguing storylines to keep an eye on:
Top athletic workouts at the combine do not automatically improve a player's draft positioning, yet it does help. This is especially true when a lower-rated prospect turns heads with fast times or better than expected results. Three players expected to excel:
Locker's poor showing at the Senior Bowl was well documented and many of his supporters admitted his inaccurate passing was evident all week in Mobile, Ala. Scouts still hope the strong-armed athlete can pull it together before the draft, especially since he spent the past month working exclusively with former Jets quarterback Ken O'Brien, an All-Pro known for his precise accuracy. Carson Palmer and Matt Cassel worked under O'Brien and rave about his teaching skills. Locker may yet do the same. For now, O'Brien has characterized Locker's recent workouts as "lights out."
The past two combines have seen highly rated cornerbacks slip down draft boards after slower-than-expected 40 times. In 2009, Malcolm Jenkins ran in the mid 4.5s; Joe Haden was even slower last year. Haden rebounded at his Pro Day, but Jenkins never recovered.
Amukamara is the most polished and NFL-ready cornerback in April's draft. He's also looked upon as a high-character prospect who exudes class off the field. Still, questions linger about his ability to run down the field with game-breaking receivers. Scouts will closely monitor this in Indianapolis.
At this point, Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, Auburn's Cam Newton and Arkansas' Ryan Mallett, all juniors, rank as the top quarterbacks in the draft. Unlike their upperclassmen counterparts, the trio did not have an opportunity to perform in front of scouts at the Senior Bowl. All three played in spread offenses, allowing them to take most of their snaps from the shotgun formation. None were required to make NFL passes on a consistent basis, something that is critical. Often, top quarterbacks roll the dice and bypass the combine in favor of the friendly confines of an individual workout. It worked for Sam Bradford last year, but backfired for Jimmy Clausen.
As of Tuesday, Mallett is expected to throw for NFL decision-makers this weekend. No definitive decision has come from the Gabbert camp -- headed by super agent Tom Condon, who'll likely advise his client not to throw. Bradford and Matt Ryan, a pair of recent Condon quarterbacks, opted for private throwing workouts.
Cam Newton announced on Monday that he'll
The top prospects at defensive end, offensive tackle and tight end are all coming off surgery, and their amount of work at the combine remains in question. Notre Dame tight end Kyle Rudolph is recovering well from the hamstring surgery that cut short his 2010 campaign. Rudolph is not expected to take part in the combine workout, but will likely get at least one full performance in for scouts before the draft.
USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith had knee surgery to repair a meniscus after the season. He expects to partake in some of the workout stations, yet is unlikely to run, preferring to complete the 40 and shuttles during the Trojans Pro Day at the end of March. Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers is coming off minor knee surgery and will be a game-time decision for the combine's running workouts.
Seven wideouts from Division II schools received combine invitations -- a huge number and an indication of the poor depth at the receiver position. The list includes: Cecil Shorts III of Mount Union, Stephen Burton of West Texas A&M, O.J. Murdock from Fort Hays State, Edmond Gates of Abilene Christian, Joseph Morgan of Walsh, Ricardo Lockette from Fort Valley State and Hillsdale's Andre Holmes.
Many of the names are foreign to scouts as only Shorts and Murdock played in the Shrine Game, while Gates sat on the sidelines with an injury during the Senior Bowl. The last small-school receiver to make a big impression on scouts at the combine was Johnny Knox of Abilene Christian (5th round in 2009 draft). Keep a close eye on Morgan, one of the real downfield threats at the position.