With coaches and scouts all descending upon Indianapolis for the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine this week, the next few days will be critical in the lives of a cavalcade of young prospects.
It will be their first time to create a real, in-person impression with executives from all 32 teams in attendance. There will be pro days and individual workouts in the coming weeks and months, but there is still nothing that can replace buzz from a great combine session.
Obviously, most scouts and pundits have begun curtailing their widespread takeaways from the combine. There have been far too many instances of a workout warrior ascending up draft boards, only to falter when the lights shine on Sundays. (Yes, I'm looking at you, Vernon Gholston.)
It's those prospects that have led some to nickname this weekend's festivities "the Underwear Olympics."
But that doesn't mean a poor performance will go unnoticed. There is an entire rural town's worth of prospects in this class of players with legitimate questions, so interested franchises will be laser-focused on their performances.
With that in mind, let's take a look at a few of the more notable players who need a strong performance in Indianapolis.
Ryan Nassib (QB, Syracuse)
Perhaps spurred by the rampant questions about their first-round viability, the Class of 2013 quarterbacks will be putting their arms on full display at the combine.
It's an interesting paradigm shift for the signal-callers. Quarterbacks have become increasingly hesitant to throw in Indianapolis, instead choosing to wait until their pro day (likely) to avoid looking bad passing to an unfamiliar crop of receivers. Both Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III skipped out on throwing at the combine in 2012, as had plenty of other top picks in recent years.
Among top quarterbacks this year, only Matt Barkley will be forgoing the throwing portion of the combine. Geno Smith, Tyler Wilson and Mike Glennon will all throw the pigskin this weekend, as will the class' most polarizing quarterback, Ryan Nassib.
Some scouts have become totally convinced that the Syracuse product is a first-round pick. He's been mentioned as high as pick No. 8 to the Buffalo Bills, where Nassib would reunite with head coach Doug Marrone. Those who view Nassib as a viable prospect see him as a well-coached and experienced prospect who may have been brought down by his surrounding talent.
Nassib's detractors paint a far different picture. A starter each of his last three seasons at Syracuse, Nassib had never thrown for more than 3,000 yards or 22 touchdowns prior to his senior year. And even in his breakout campaign, Nassib completed 62.4 percent of his passes, a rather pedestrian number considering the system he was playing in.
With a rather middling performance at Senior Bowl practices and a terrible interception in the game, Nassib may be more of a work in progress than his champions would care to admit. He still telegraphs passes and doesn't have the otherworldly arm strength that can sometimes atone for those mistakes.
Those deficiencies have shown up on film, so Nassib's workouts in Indianapolis and his pro day will be critical for his draft stock. It's almost a guarantee he'll ace the interview portion. He's a smart, veteran quarterback who spent his collegiate career learning from a guy who is now coaching on Sundays.
Where Nassib will need to impress most is the physical portion of the festivities. He's an above-average athlete and could wind up running a surprisingly strong 40-yard dash time like Luck did a year ago. And if he impresses with a few deep balls in the scripted throwing session, Nassib may continue his late-rising ascent.
Cordarrelle Patterson (WR, Tennessee)
There is no first-round prospect whose stock is more tied to his combine performance than Patterson. A physical freak of nature at 6'3" and 205 pounds, the former Tennessee product is expected to put up times and measurements that put his fellow top picks to shame.
Even the Vegas oddsmakers cannot help but hype Patterson's physicality. The folks at Bovada have Patterson's over/under line for the 40-yard dash set at 4.37 seconds and his vertical leap at 40.5 inches. Those numbers aren't all that dissimilar to the 4.33-second dash and 43-inch vertical Calvin Johnson put up prior to the 2007 draft.
Better prospect...Cordarrelle Patterson or Justin Hunter?
If Patterson hits right around his over/under totals, he's a virtual lock to be taken within the first 15 picks. On the other side of the coin, a disappointing performance from Patterson could bring his glaring red flags to the forefront.
Though Patterson came out after his "junior" season, he actually only spent one year at Tennessee. The first two seasons of his eligibility were spent at Hutchinson Community College of the NJCAA, where he was an All-American.
At Tennessee, Patterson wasn't exactly the most productive receiver in the nation, either.
The Vols' second target behind fellow first-round prospect Justin Hunter, Patterson caught just 46 passes for 778 yards and five touchdowns. And considering 213 of those yards came in a breakout performance against Troy, Patterson's one year in Knoxville had its noticeable inconsistencies.
It won't be enough for Patterson to perform well at the combine. He has to stand at the top of the podium as the gold medalist in the Underwear Olympics. Any other result could have scouts wondering whether it's worth risking a high first-rounder on a player with such limited resume.
Tyrann Mathieu (CB, LSU)
There is no player who can do more for his stock this weekend than Mathieu. His draft stock varies wildly depending on who you talk to—ranging anywhere from the second round to undraftable—and for good reason.
By now, the story of Mathieu's downfall has become second-hand. Once one of the most gifted young cornerbacks in college football, Mathieu's career ended at LSU in wake of multiple failed drug tests prior to the 2012 season and an arrest for marijuana possession in October hasn't helped matters.
He was a young man given an unenviable decision: Try to excel for one season at a FCS school or enter the 2013 draft over a year after his last sanctioned football game. Mathieu chose the latter, and the combine will be one of a select few opportunities for him to impress NFL teams.
It all starts in the interview room. NFL teams aren't shy with what they ask prospects, and Mathieu should expect a weekend's worth of drug and character-related questioning. He'll need to keep his cool, answer questions he knows the teams already know the answer to and never once bat an eye if teams get accusatory. Any slip-up in the interview room will almost surely leak to the press, and send Mathieu's stock plummeting.
What round would you feel comfortable drafting Tyrann Mathieu?
But history also tells us time and again that the NFL will take a chance if the talent is there. And after a year away from football, that isn't as guaranteed as it once was. At LSU, Mathieu was one of the better cornerbacks in the nation. He won the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation's best defensive player, a finalist for the Heisman and a consensus All-American—all in his sophomore season.
Had Mathieu returned to school and performed as expected, it's likely he would have been in the green room waiting to shake Roger Goodell's hand. As it stands, Mathieu will have to prove he can still even play the cornerback position at a high level after a year away.
As most LSU fans can attest, Mathieu wasn't the most fundamentally sound player in Baton Rouge. He oftentimes had to use his athleticism to make up for lapses in coverage and played upright way too often.
Without an opportunity to compete on Saturdays, it's likely those holes still exist. Mathieu will just have to prove they haven't been exacerbated by his absence and flash that "Honey Badger" athleticism fans once adored.