While scouting departments have been prepping for the 2013 NFL draft since last year's ended, the draft process starts for most of us with the Scouting Combine.
This year's combine officially kicks off on Wednesday with orientation, medicals and interviews. The drills get going on Saturday with tight ends, offensive linemen and special teams. The quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers will take the field on Sunday. Defensive linemen and linebackers will follow on Monday, and defensive backs will wrap it up on Tuesday.
Get ready for all sorts of hyperbole and overreaction. A surefire first-round offensive lineman might get knocked because his arms are an inch too short. A raw, unproven wide receiver will suddenly become the talk of the league after running a sub-4.4 40-yard dash.
This stuff is all media created. For NFL teams, the combine is just a small piece of the overall puzzle. Scouting departments have hours and hours of tape to pore over. Prospects will undergo extensive medical exams. And they'll sit down with teams to talk X's and O's.
That doesn't mean we won't be glued to our TV when the guys take the field in Indianapolis. From a fantasy perspective, the combine gives us an idea of just how physically gifted each player is. And that's a big piece of identifying which rookies will make an impact—both short- and long-term.
It's the skill-position guys we'll be focusing on. The offensive linemen can obviously help a team's fantasy production. And those of you in IDP leagues can keep an eye on the defenders. But the quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends are the headliners.
So what exactly should you be looking for when these guys take the field? Here's what we’ll be focusing on:
They're in a tough spot at the combine because they're throwing to guys they've never worked with before. There's no sense of timing or rhythm. At the same time, the quarterbacks are in shorts and t-shirts with no pass rush. Tracking how many balls they complete is pretty much worthless.
Instead, look for what the scouts call "arm talent." Can the quarterback get the ball downfield? Does the ball spin out of his hand with velocity? Is his throwing motion smooth and natural? How quick is his release?
More often than not, it only takes a few looks at a quarterback to recognize what kind of arm he has. We're also looking at each quarterback's footwork at the combine—how comfortable he looks in the three-, five- and seven-step drops.
It's all about explosion here. For a running back, that equates to acceleration, change-of-direction and tackle-breaking ability. The vertical and broad jumps are both good tests of explosion. The three-cone drill and shuttle run exhibit explosion in and out of breaks.
Of course, the 40-yard dash is critical for running backs too. The 40 time is a good measure of straight-line speed. We always like to see each guy's 10-yard split too. That's a good indicator of his short-area explosion within his first few steps.
Draft guru Mike Mayock's favorite running back drill is the off-tackle acceleration drill. That has the running back take a handoff, accelerate over a few bags and then make a quick cut away from a defender. It displays footwork, burst, vision and change-of-direction.
Wide receivers and tight ends
First and foremost, these guys need to be able to catch the football. The gauntlet drill is perfect for this as we get to see players catch seven balls consecutively. We want to see receivers who naturally pluck the ball away from their body. The drill also tests each guy's ability to quickly find the football.
While the quarterbacks are going through their throwing drills, we get to see these wide receivers run some routes. Check to see how natural they look getting in and out of their breaks. Speed, explosion and agility are also key traits for a wide receiver. The 40-yard dash, three-cone drill, shuttle run and vertical and broad jumps all test raw athleticism. We especially like looking at a receiver's vertical because it measures his ability to go up and high-point the football.
Who should be the first QB off the board in this April's draft?
Of course, we're not professional scouts, and you probably aren't either. But we can learn a lot from the guys who are. There's a lot of trash out there on the internet these days, but these talent evaluators are worth listening to:
Mike Mayock, NFL Network
Matt Waldman, Rookie Scouting Portfolio
Matt Miller, Bleacher Report
Russ Lande, National Football Post
Daniel Jeremiah, NFL Network
Over 300 players are expected at this year's combine. Here's a complete list. But here are the 15 potential fantasy factors worth tracking closest:
Ryan Nassib, quarterback, Syracuse
Few players have risen faster or farther up draft boards than Nassib over the past month. Considered a middling prospect during the 2012 season, Nassib is now drawing first-round grades from all over the place. The National Football Post has him as the No. 1 player in the entire draft class!
Nassib's numbers this past year were pedestrian: 3,749 yards, 26 touchdowns, 10 interceptions and a 62.4 percent completion rate. But scouts are fond of his arm strength, accuracy and quick release. We'll get to see it all up close as Nassib is expected to throw at the combine. With a good performance, he can solidify his spot as the top QB in the class.
Geno Smith, quarterback, West Virginia
While Nassib's stock has been climbing, Smith's has been going in the other direction. The Mountaineer was simply brilliant through his first six games this past season, completing 75 percent of his passes with 25 touchdowns and not a single interception. He looked like the clear-cut No. 1 QB at that point—and the potential No. 1 overall pick.
But over his final seven games, the completion rate dropped to 67 percent and Smith managed just 17 touchdowns with six interceptions. Of course, there's nothing wrong with those numbers. And Smith is still considered the most NFL-ready QB in the class. He has plus athleticism but is a pocket passer with impressive arm strength and accuracy.
Smith played almost exclusively from the shotgun at West Virginia, though, so scouts will be checking on his footwork from under center at the Combine.
Tyler Bray, quarterback, Tennessee
Bray should do just fine on the field in Indy. He's 6'6" with a cannon for an arm. Bray's combine will hinge on what he says and what kind of impression he makes in interviews with teams and the media.
While at Tennessee, he was involved in two separate off-field incidents—vandalism of a car and recklessly operating a jet ski. Neither was particularly serious, but combined they raise questions about Bray's character and maturity. Coverage reading and decision making are also considered weaknesses, so Bray will need to impress teams on the whiteboard.
Eddie Lacy, running back, Alabama
Lacy used an impressive 2012 season to vault to the top of the running back rankings. Taking over for Trent Richardson as Alabama's lead back, Lacy ripped off 1,182 yards and 16 scores in 13 regular season games. A 140-yard, one-touchdown outing in the national championship game was the cherry on top.
Lacy is a big 6'0", 220-pound tackle-breaking machine. He's also an adept pass-catcher and reliable blocker. The biggest question mark is long speed. Lacy had just two runs of more than 40 yards this past year. His 40-yard dash will be critical. If he can post a time in the low 4.5s, Lacy will stay in the first-round mix. But anything 4.6 or slower could be a red flag.
Recall that Jonathan Dwyer entered the 2010 combine as a top running back prospect before a slow 40 time crushed his stock. He ended up going in the sixth round. Lacy isn't in danger of falling that far, but he probably has more to lose than gain in Indy.
UPDATE: Lacy injured his hamstring last week and will not work out at the combine. He's hoping to participate in Alabama's Pro Day on March 13th.
LeVeon Bell, running back, Michigan State
This guy makes Lacy look like an oompa loompa. Bell is a massive 6'2", 244-pounder who grinded out 1,793 rushing yards this past year. It took him 382 carries to get there, though. And Bell's longest run was just 40 yards. There are questions about whether he has enough long speed to make it as a lead back. If teams view him only as a short-yardage option, it'll push his draft stock into the middle to late rounds. Bell's 40-time will be crucial.
Giovani Bernard, running back, North Carolina
Bernard might be the most physically gifted running back in this year's class. The combine will show us just how athletic he is. Bernard is a well-built 5'10", 205-pounder with electric speed and acceleration. He averaged 6.7 yards per carry and 10.4 yards per catch this past season. He was also a stud on punt returns, averaging 16.4 yards with two scores.
This guy figures to be one of the on-field stars in Indianapolis. But off-field medicals will be important too. Bernard tore his ACL back in 2010 and reported discomfort in the same knee early this season.
Andre Ellington, running back, Clemson
Looking for the fastest dude at the combine? Ellington could be your man. The speedster averaged a sizzling 5.5 yards per carry across four college seasons. He had eight runs of 55-plus yards. Ellington can score from anywhere on the field.
He's slightly built and doesn't break many tackles. So he'll need to impress with his speed and explosion. Ellington is more than capable of doing just that. A sub-4.4 40-time is attainable.
Cordarrelle Patterson, wide receiver, Tennessee
Scouts don't have a whole lot of tape on this guy. Patterson spent 2010 and 2011 at a junior college before transferring to Tennessee this past year. But in just 12 games with the Vols, he displayed some serious playmaking ability.
Patterson was used all over the field. He hauled in 46 balls for 778 yards and five touchdowns. He also carried 25 times for 308 yards (12.3-yard average) and three more scores. Patterson also hit pay dirt on a kick return and a punt return.
Mike Mayock said his "jaw dropped" when watching Patterson's film. This is an electric athlete with uncommon acceleration and change-of-direction ability. Don't be surprised if he blows up the combine.
Keenan Allen, wide receiver, California
Allen is the favorite to be the first WR off the board this April. But draft insider Tony Pauline hears that the Cal product hasn't looked "special" in workouts. That could scare teams away from using a top-15 pick on Allen—especially since he missed the final three games of this past season with a PCL injury.
He looks the part at 6'3" and 210 pounds, but Allen isn't necessarily a workout warrior. We'll see if a lackluster combine hurts his stock.
Tavon Austin, wide receiver, West Virginia
Austin might just be the best pure playmaker in the 2013 draft class. This past season saw him compile 1,289 receiving yards, 643 rushing yards and 15 total touchdowns. He also scored on a kick return and a punt return.
Austin has the potential to develop into a multiple-threat weapon in the mold of Percy Harvin or Randall Cobb. With impressive speed, acceleration and change-of-direction, Austin should rip up the field in Indianapolis. He might be regarded as a surefire first-round pick by the time the combine is over.
Stedman Bailey, wide receiver, West Virginia
Bailey isn't as highly regarded as his teammate above. But he was just as productive this past season, racking up 114 catches for 1,622 yards and an NCAA-leading 25 touchdowns. Bailey goes just 5'10" and 188 pounds. But we've heard him draw comparisons to former USC Trojan Steve Smith as a quick and crafty playmaker.
According to insider Tony Pauline, Bailey has been tearing up his workouts lately and "could be the surprise at receiver during the combine." There's no knocking his production, so an impressive outing in Indy should have Bailey climbing draft boards.
Terrance Williams, wide receiver, Baylor
Williams is a big play waiting to happen. His 18.9 yards-per-catch and 5.7 yards-after-catch averages were among the best marks in the nation this past year. Twenty-four of his 97 grabs went for 25-plus yards, including four plays of at least 50 yards.
Oh, Williams also led all of college football with 1,832 receiving yards. He’s the type of big, speedy and rangy WR who should impress with his 40-time and vertical. He's capable of moving into first-round territory with a big performance in Indy.
Quinton Patton, wide receiver, Louisiana Tech
Patton hasn't drawn much national attention playing in the Western Athletic Conference. The combine is his chance to show off his skill-set. Patton is highly regarded in the scouting community as a polished prospect. He's been ultra-productive over the past two seasons, racking up 183 catches, 2,594 yards and 24 touchdowns.
Patton isn't physically imposing (6'2", 195 pounds), and he's not expected to post jaw-dropping numbers in the speed and strength tests. But Patton's impressive hands and route running will be on full display in the wide receiver drills.
Jordan Reed, tight end, Florida
Reed is already drawing comparisons to New England's Aaron Hernandez. And it's not just because they're both former Gators. Like Hernandez, Reed is an undersized (6'3", 243 pounds) but physically gifted tight end. He actually came to Florida as a dual-threat quarterback but was transformed into a tight end.
He's still a work in progress, and his college numbers aren't overwhelming. But he's the type of raw athlete who could see his draft stock soar with an impressive combine workout.
Gavin Escobar, tight end, San Diego State
Escobar is flying under the radar right now. That could change after the combine. A talented pass-catching tight end, Escobar racked up 93 receptions, 1,323 yards and 13 touchdowns over the past two years. And that was despite San Diego State ranking 49th and 101st, respectively, in passing offense. The combination of size and athleticism here is tantalizing.
Escobar goes 6'6" and 245 pounds but runs like a wide receiver. If he can post a 40 time in the 4.6 range, he'll work his way into the second-round discussion.
For more scouting combine and draft coverage, check out DraftSharks.com!