The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine begins on Saturday, Feb. 22 and runs for four days, but the most hyped participants will go through the gridiron gauntlet of workouts within the first three days at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.
Whether it's freakish athleticism, a larger-than-life personal brand or a combination of both, a select few collegiate stars set to make the jump to the pros will be the most discussed among the many under evaluation. They likely won't impact their top-tier draft status too much with poor numbers, but none of the to-be-analyzed trio should disappoint.
Here is an overview of the prospects everyone will be watching, what they are likely to excel at and what's at stake for them as they go through a series of rather important drills under intense scrutiny.
Note: Combine information and dates are courtesy of NFL.com.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
Some borderline NFL hopefuls may tighten up and not quite do as well as they'd like. For such an amazing specimen as Clowney at 6'6" and 274 pounds, it's hard to put a limit on what he will do even if he is a little nervous.
There aren't any expectations for him, because whatever Clowney does in drills should be groundbreaking for defensive linemen. Paul Pabst, producer on The Dan Patrick Show, transcribed through Twitter some of what Clowney had to say in a recent interview:
Jadeveon Clowney said he just did 23 reps with 225 lbs this morning and he said he would run at combine and hopes for a 4.4.— Paul Pabst (@PaulPabst) February 6, 2014
And Clowney isn't holding back anything, as he plans to be a full participant:
In his second official mock draft, ESPN expert Todd McShay (subscription required) has the Houston Texans selecting Clowney with the top overall pick.
That would create an intriguing, terrifying pairing at defensive end in Houston, with Clowney joining forces alongside superstar J.J. Watt. It's a potential partnership Clowney thinks would be mutually beneficial.
"I love [Watt's] game," said Clowney, in an exclusive interview with NFL.com's Chase Goodbread. "He can help me, and I can help him, hopefully. I've watched his game, in situations he gets double teams, triple teams on him, too. That could help me be a bigger factor on that defense."
It would be interesting to see the Texans take Clowney first, because they were the last franchise to spend the draft's first pick on a defensive end when they took Mario Williams in 2006.
Before the grandeur of the draft atmosphere awaits, though, Clowney will have to blow away evaluators—especially in Houston—if he's to be chosen No. 1 over the three quarterbacks contending for that prestigious spot.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
One of the signal-callers who could be the first player off the board is Manziel, who is no doubt vying for the hearts and minds of Texans fans with his swagger, passion and flat-out touchdown production.
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There are plenty of questions about Manziel in terms of off-field issues and whether or not he will be able to have a disciplined enough work ethic to thrive at the NFL level.
Perhaps the most important part of Manziel's time in Indianapolis will be his interviews with teams, where he'll have to convince them of his merit and that he has the makeup of a future franchise face.
It helps that the Heisman Trophy winner led a Texas A&M program to such unexpected heights in his collegiate career and had to deal with the pressure of compensating this past season for a terrible defense.
Combine that with the almost unprecedented spotlight that shined on Manziel between his two college campaigns, and it's reasonable to conclude he knows how to conduct himself under the microscope.
As for what transpires on the gridiron, a diminutive frame (6'1", 210 pounds, per the Aggies' official website) makes it impossible to label Manziel a prototypical QB in terms of size. Throwing drills will be vital for Manziel to prove that he can make all the required throws and display fundamentally sound footwork—something he struggles with in terms of consistency.
Where Manziel should impress scouts is with his speed in the 40-yard dash, his vertical leap and the agility drills. Given his slight stature and possibility of breaking down in the pros because of it, Manziel would do well to put up a respectable number of repetitions in the 225-pound bench press.
Don't expect the mania surrounding Manziel to dwindle even a little no matter what happens at the combine, because his results should continue to kindle the fire on the polarizing debate surrounding him.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
In a draft class littered with talent at wide receiver, it's a widespread belief that Watkins is the cream of the crop. A consensus candidate to be a franchise No. 1 wideout, Watkins shouldn't slide out of the top 10.
But as sure of a thing as Watkins seems to be, there have been receivers taken too high who have flamed out before him. With an excellent combine performance, any concerns in that regard can be alleviated.
Here's the great part for fans, talent evaluators and anyone else watching the action: The former Clemson star, like Clowney, intends to partake in every drill, according to NFL Network insider Ian Rapoport:
If you like speed, some good news: #Clemson WR Sammy Watkins will do all drills at the Combine. Should be a fascinating 40-yard dash— Ian Rapoport (@RapSheet) February 12, 2014
The State's Josh Kendall relayed a quote from Watkins on Wednesday, catering to Rapoport's notion that the 40-yard dash will indeed be compelling:
Watkins said Monday he's "10 times faster" after combine prep @RapSheet: Sammy Watkins will do all drills at Combine. A fascinating 40— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) February 12, 2014
Watkins has sensational speed, strong hands, great route-running ability and enough size (6'1", 205 lbs) to be a playmaking threat on the outside. All he has to do is post expected spectacular numbers to secure his status as the top prospect at his position.
In addition to shining in the 40-yard sprint, look for Watkins to wow the crowd with his 20-yard shuttle run, the three-cone drill and the broad jump—all of which will showcase his quick-twitch burst and supreme short-area quickness.