The NFL Scouting Combine has taken a life of its own in recent years.
Each February, coaches and executives from all 32 teams gather in Indianapolis to break down the year's top crop of college football players, both physically and mentally. More than 300 players have been invited to take part in the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, which will take place Feb. 22-25 at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts.
In an era where one hundredth of a second can seem to make a big difference in where a player lands, these workouts have taken on a bigger role than ever. Here's a look at three players who are poised to move up the draft boards with good showings in Indy.
QB Blake Bortles, Central Florida
Blake Bortles is used to having a low profile. But as Paul Tenorio of the Orlando Sentinel detailed, Bortles could go from relative obscurity to the No. 1 overall pick in a span of less than a year.
Playing at Central Florida, Bortles didn't quarterback for a program with much national clout. But he did his part for UCF in January's Fiesta Bowl, leading the Knights to a huge 52-42 upset victory over heavily favored Baylor. Central Florida entered the contest as 17-point underdogs but caught fire behind Bortles, who went 20-of-31 with three touchdowns and two interceptions while rushing eight times for 93 yards and another score.
The Houston Texans hold the first overall pick in this year's draft, and many suspect they'll select a quarterback to address their massive shortcomings at the position in 2013. What separates Bortles from other top QB prospects Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater is his prototypical NFL size.
At 6'4", 230 pounds, Bortles is much bigger than Manziel and Bridgewater, and he might also win over the Texans with his superior arm strength in Indianapolis. Bucky Brooks of NFL.com acknowledged there are some question marks surrounding Bortles but spoke highly of his passing abilities.
Arm strength is overrated in the evaluation process, but elite quarterbacks in the NFL are capable of working the entire field from the pocket. From the deep comeback on the sideline from the opposite hash to the "hole shot" delivered down the boundary against Cover 2, quarterbacks must be able to throw the fastball (zip and velocity) or change-up (touch or finesse throws) based on the reaction of the defense. Bortles certainly shows the ability to make those throws on tape.
If there's a knock on Bortles, it's about his technique. But there won't be any linemen collapsing the pocket at the scouting combine, and you can be sure he's been addressing his footwork since the Fiesta Bowl. With a reported 40 time of 4.78 seconds, per CBSSports.com, shaving off a little time from that figure could also boost Bortles' stock as an athlete.
TE Eric Ebron, North Carolina
Eric Ebron rewrote the ACC record books in 2013 when he hauled in 895 yards in the regular season, breaking a record set by Vernon Davis in 2005. Including bowl game action, Ebron finished the year with 62 catches, 973 yards and three touchdowns, highlighted by his eight-catch, 199-yard, one-TD performance against Miami.
Ebron might not have the freakish ability to match Davis' 40-yard dash time of 4.38 seconds from the 2006 combine, but he has been clocked as fast as 4.57, per Mike Huguenin of NFL.com. Listed at 6'4", 245 pounds, Ebron moves like a wide receiver and looks like a potentially explosive playmaker.
The tight end also recently started a Twitter hiatus as he focuses on preparing for May's draft, so you know he's got to be taking it seriously.
It's widely viewed as a two-horse race to be the first tight end drafted this year between Ebron and prolific Texas Tech product Jace Amaro (106 catches, 1,352 yards, seven scores). With a blazing 40 and other quick times at the combine, Ebron's athleticism could move him up the draft board.
DL Ra'Shede Hageman, Minnesota
If it weren't for Jadeveon Clowney, Ra'Shede Hageman would likely be the talk of the town when it comes to athletic defensive linemen.
Listed at 6'6", 311 pounds, Hageman possesses rare quickness for a man of his size. Bruce Feldman of CBSSports.com discussed Hageman's basketball background when writing about some of college football's top athletes during 2013.
Hageman was a big recruit for former coach Tim Brewster. Then-Gophers hoops coach Tubby Smith once tried to get him to come out for the basketball team, Hageman says. But the big man opted to focus solely on football, where he has blossomed into one of the Big Ten's better D-linemen.
He's certainly the most athletic. Not only does he have the 36-inch vert, but he also has bench-pressed 465 pounds and clocked an electronically timed 10-yard sprint in 1.57 seconds. For comparison sake, no DT at this year's NFL Combine jumped higher than 33 inches, and Terron Armstead, the offensive tackle who ran the blazing 4.71 40 at the combine, did a 1.64 in his 10.
Brooks also evaluated Hageman and offered some perspective on his athletic prowess, saying Hageman's numbers compared favorably to those put up by J.J. Watt at the 2011 combine.
Hageman projects to be a late No. 1 pick, but it's easy to see him vaulting into the middle of the first round with some monster numbers at the combine.
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