The hype doesn’t fully match the substance, but the NFL combine is still plenty important for prospects and teams alike. Top storylines to watch as this year’s edition gets underway in Indianapolis.
The annual dog and pony show known as the NFL Scouting Combine opens Wednesday in Indianapolis and runs through Monday, during which time upwards of 300 draft hopefuls will go through the ringer, on the field and off it.
The combine may not be as important as the hype surrounding it would have you believe, but it definitely matters. Here are five areas to track as the event gets underway.
1. The quarterbacks. Always, the quarterbacks
Quarterbacks (along with wide receivers and tight ends) will meet with the media on Thursday, then hit the field Saturday for their workouts. The on-field activities are but a small piece of the puzzle, but with so much unsettled among the QBs—both at the top of the class and in the middle tier—how everyone performs could have a lasting effect.
Among the reasons why: While Carson Wentz took part in the Senior Bowl, we have yet to see the other top options since the regular season ended. That list includes Jared Goff, Paxton Lynch, Connor Cook (who opted out of the Senior Bowl to much criticism), Christian Hackenberg and Cardale Jones.
Their game tape and team-by-team interview sessions will hold more importance than their brief appearances in Indianapolis, but this is a chance to gauge any progress made by the prospects over the past two months.
The combine also will offer another glance at a handful of quarterbacks the NFL did see during the all-star game circuit, aside from Wentz. Keep an eye on Liberty’s Josh Woodrum, who played in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl with fellow combine invitee and former TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin. Also worth monitoring will be Oregon’s Vernon Adams, last seen shredding the East team during the Shrine Game.
2. The search for this year’s combine star
Byron Jones and J.J. Nelson were among those who stole the show in 2015; Brandin Cooks and Dri Archer lit up the track in 2014. Who is it going to be this time?
TCU wide receiver Kolby Listenbee has been tabbed as the unofficial favorite for the fastest 40-yard dash, but don’t sleep on Florida State defensive back Jalen Ramsey: The consensus top-10 pick ran track for the Seminoles on top of his football duties and can fly.
Few positions have 40 times more heavily scrutinized than wide receiver. That’s definitely going to be the case for guys like Ohio State’s Braxton Miller and Notre Dame’s Will Fuller, two different types of receivers (Fuller is a home-run threat; Miller is most dangerous when getting the ball in space) who could make themselves a bunch of money this week.
Cornerback is another spot that can benefit from the combine’s very specific positional drills. If you’re trying to pick this year’s Byron Jones, go with Miami prospect Artie Burns. In 2014, he set an American junior record in the 60-yard hurdles, posting a 7.68-second time.
3. Players with something to prove
This includes approximately everyone participating in Indianapolis. The stakes are higher for some than others—the presumed top picks like Joey Bosa or Laremy Tunsil won’t clobber their stock with a subpar week, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell reportedly is not even going to run.
The list of players who do have a little more riding on this week starts with those QBs again, perhaps Cook most of all. At least four of the five Big Ten quarterbacks (Cook, Hackenberg, Jones, Nate Sudfeld and Joel Stave) are decent bets to impress during drills, Stave being the outlier. The throwing portion of Saturday’s workout should play to the strength of the Cook-Hackenberg-Jones trio. But Cook’s stock will be impacted far more by what happens when he sits down with teams individually for interviews. Nothing new here, but those interviews and the medical checks are really the keys to this week.
Ditto on that interview note for defensive linemen Robert Nkemdiche and Shawn Oakman. Nkemdiche has flashed the talent to be a top-10 selection, at least, but just before Ole Miss’s bowl game he fell off a hotel balcony and later was charged with marijuana possession.
Oakman continues to look the part perhaps more than any player in this class, yet concerns about his desire remain. The Senior Bowl was a perfect example. He came up with a couple of sacks during the game itself, yet turned in a mostly quiet week of practice.
The running backs hit the field Friday, among the first set of groups to do so. There’s little lingering mystery surrounding Ezekiel Elliott. How the pecking order sorts out behind him, however, is still very much up in the air ... and that includes where Alabama’s Derrick Henry lands. This class presents a mix of grinders and run/catch combo players, so all the timed drills will matter. Sleeper in the mix: Illinois State’s Marshaun Coprich, who has all the tools to be a standout receiving back.
4. Settling the top of the draft
As mentioned above, the scouting reports on the Bosas and Tunsils and Ramseys of the 2016 class are rather well formulated at this point. Barring a disastrous showing by one of them, there shouldn’t be any massive drops in the cards.
But while it’s easy to connect the dots on Tunsil to Tennessee atop Round 1, that outcome is far from set in stone. In fact, the Titans likely will be crossing their fingers this week and beyond that a couple of players—and a quarterback, in particular—can separate from the field. Given their lack of talent right now, the Titans’ optimal move could be to trade back and add an extra pick or two.
Tennessee will have a much more difficult time selling that top slot if the quarterbacks all go through the motions in Indianapolis. If QB-needy teams already are on the fence and Goff, Lynch and Wentz all turn in ho-hum efforts, then what?
5. Will any coach or GM tip his hand?
Short answer: Probably not.
Long answer: There’s always a chance, as a steady stream of coaches and GMs take the podium within the Lucas Oil Stadium media room on Wednesday and Thursday. There usually are not any bombshells dropped during this week, but a lot still has to be settled across the league in the coming days. Remember, teams can begin negotiating with prospective free agents starting March 7, and the new league year (along with the official start of free agency) commences March 9 at 4 p.m. ET.
That timeline leaves just about a week after the combine wraps for front offices to get their affairs in order. With all the GMs and coaches in one spot this week, it’s possible that a trade or handful of other roster moves could occur.
Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert leads off the long list of press conferences on Wednesday, while Denver GM John Elway closes the proceedings late Thursday afternoon.