It seems like it was just yesterday that Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos were getting mauled by a bunch of Seahawks. Now the NFL Scouting Combine is upon us.
The annual "dog and pony show" for incoming NFL prospects will shine a light on 335 NFL hopefuls, for better or worse.
Which prospects head into the combine with the most to lose? Here are eight guys who need to live up to expectations—or at least not fall flat—to maintain their perceived draft stock.
"Johnny Football" is dead. Long live Johnny Manziel.
The talented quarterback out of Texas A&M has begun a mission to repair his playboy image. Here is what he had to say about his "Johnny Football" persona to John McClain of the Houston Chronicle:
"I was a kid who made some goofball decisions," he says. "That's been part of my journey. Maybe it's part of the whole Johnny Football deal that I'm trying to get away from. I'm trying to show people I've grown up, and I've learned from my experiences. I feel like you're a stupid person if you continue to make the same wrong decisions."
Manziel is excited to be interviewed at this week's scouting combine in Indianapolis.
"I want them to know who I really am," he says. "I'm going to try to let people know who I really am deep down in my core and that I'm not the guy who does whatever is portrayed on the Internet."
He wants them to explain to them the difference between Johnny Manziel and Johnny Football.
"Johnny Football is the stuff you see on TMZ," he says. "There's part of that folktale that goes along with it and tries to twist me into somebody I'm not all the time. I feel like now there's kind of like this frozen food package – a prewrapped, precooked package of who I am.
"Johnny Manziel is the guy that -- whether it's Houston, Jacksonville, Cleveland or Oakland – you'll have to drag off that field before I stop playing for those guys. Those are my teammates. Those are my brothers from now on. I'm going to fight until there's no time left on the clock. That's Johnny Manziel.
It sounds like Manziel is ready to wow teams at combine interviews.
As for the other combine events, Manziel has plenty to live up to. As dynamic as he has been, there are plenty of question marks surrounding the former Heisman winner.
The biggest issue for him might come at weigh-in, where he could check in under six feet in height. That shouldn't be a deal-breaker anymore—just look at diminutive quarterbacks who have won the Super Bowl in recent years—but it could be enough to give pause to the top teams.
Drew Brees (6'0") and Russell Wilson (5'11") weren't taken at the top of the draft, after all.
Manziel won't be throwing at the combine, but he can show off some of that athleticism in other drills, not that he really has to prove much in that department.
Arizona running back Ka'Deem Carey had a marvelous junior season in 2013. His 1,885-yard campaign was good for second in the country. Perhaps more impressively, it was a follow-up to his nation-leading sophomore year, when he nearly hit 2,000 yards rushing.
So what does the former Wildcat have to lose at the combine?
Despite his fantastic college career, Carey has some off-field issues dragging at his draft stock. He was hit with a domestic-violence charge—for which he was eventually cleared—and soon thereafter booted from a basketball game just over a year ago.
All eyes will be on Carey's 40-yard-dash time, but it's the combine interviews that will hold the key to his draft success. Hopefully the off-field issues are a thing of the past, but teams will certainly head into their conversations with the talented running back on high alert.
Manziel's security blanket is one of the top receivers in the draft, but a poor combine showing could knock him down a peg or two.
Mike Evans needs to shed the "possession-receiver" label some have affixed to his draft stock. While that isn't necessarily a derogatory term, it doesn't scream "first-round pick" either.
Of course, how many possession receivers average over 20 yards per catch? Evans had a fantastic 2013 season, and he shows plenty on tape.
The 6'5" receiver out of Texas A&M can separate himself from the "possession" label a bit with a good combine performance. He was timed at 4.54 seconds in the 40-yard dash as a high-schooler, so he may not blow us away at the combine.
He can certainly help himself with quickness in the shuttle or cone drills. But a pedestrian combine could soil his draft stock.
Talk about being under a microscope.
Michael Sam enters the combine with all eyes trained on him. The pass-rusher out of Missouri recently made the announcement that he is gay, making him a pioneer heading into the NFL.
He also created a media maelstrom.
While his sexual orientation has nothing to do with his ability as a football player, his performance at the combine could go a long way toward solidifying his draft status. If he falters, though, it could give teams an excuse for letting him fall in the draft.
Of course, the big one is the 40-yard dash, but the drills could make or break his combine. Here is what NFL.com's Chase Goodbread had to say regarding Sam at the combine:
For Sam, trainer Travelle Gaines told "NFL AM," it's something else.
"Hip flip is the most important thing for Michael Sam to show at the NFL Combine," Gaines said, "because the bottom line is this, if you can't turn and run, you can't play in the NFL."
The hip flip drill requires athletes to backpedal, then turn and sprint, to show NFL scouts their flexibility in coverage. Sam (6-foot-1, 255 pounds) is undersized to stay at the defensive end position, where he amassed 11.5 sacks and 19 tackles for loss as a senior at Missouri. As such, he'll likely have to make the switch to linebacker, which requires an entirely different skill set.
Along with the hip flip drill, Gaines said Sam will also be challenged to show change-of-direction skills, crucial for playing in pass coverage, but not something he required much of as a pass rusher in college.
Sam is already considered a 'tweener'—too short for defensive end but no experience as an outside linebacker.
Outside the drills, Sam has an opportunity to impress teams at interviews and show the world how he can handle a media frenzy. A false step on or off the Indianapolis turf could be disastrous for him, whether it's fair or not.
Another player with size issues, Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas has plenty to prove at the combine.
Listed at 5'8" and 175 pounds, Thomas is already behind the eight-ball heading into the event. He will need to hit those measurables at weigh-in, lest the size issues grow.
Once he gets past that, Thomas is going to need to light the 40-yard dash up to compensate for his diminutive stature. There are similar-height running backs in the NFL—Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, to name a couple—but they are significantly heavier and stronger.
If Thomas fails to run as fast as he looks on tape, his perceived stock could plummet.
Darqueze Dennard is widely regarded as one of the top cornerbacks headed into the 2014 NFL draft. At one point last season, Dennard was compared to Deion Sanders.
Like Sanders, Dennard won the Jim Thorpe Award. Unlike Sanders, the Michigan State product has questions about his speed, per NFL.com's Mike Huguenin:
"I still feel like I have a lot to prove," he said. "There are some who say there are some flaws in my game, and I can't wait to prove them wrong."
Dennard (5-foot-10, 197 pounds) is considered perhaps the most physical corner in the draft, but there are questions about his speed and whether he will be able to play as physically in the NFL as he did in the Big Ten.
Dennard can answer those questions with a solid showing next week.
Depending on who you talk to, FSU receiver Kelvin Benjamin is either a top receiver in the draft, or he is hardly worth consideration in the first few rounds.
Benjamin thrust himself into the limelight when he caught the game-winning touchdown to propel his team to a BCS Championship. At 6'6", the big receiver presents tantalizing size. But is he too good to be true?
Aside from issues with drops during his college tenure, Benjamin needs to prove he is a top-flight athlete. Without the athleticism, Benjamin might be a glorified tight end at that size.
If he proves pedestrian in combine drills and events, the first-round talk will start to crumble.
For a while it seemed Teddy Bridgewater was coasting his way toward being the top overall quarterback taken in the draft. Then Manziel and Blake Bortles joined the fray.
That isn't to say Bridgewater won't still be the top quarterback taken, but a good combine showing will go a long way toward cementing that status. Conversely, a stumble here and there could knock him off that perch.
One area of particular interest will come right away, when the quarterbacks weigh in. Some scouts have expressed concern that he is too thin, per Huguenin. Of course, even if he seems a bit under weight at the combine, how hard is it to add a few pounds?
Russ Lande, scouting and NFL draft writer for Sports on Earth, has concerns about his hand size:
When you add up all the great things he does on film and combine that with his smarts, leadership and character, you have nearly the complete package -- which is why many expect the Texans to draft him with the first overall pick. However, there are still a few questions that have been raised.
The first relates to hand size. Scouts that have seen Bridgewater in person have told me that his right hand will measure less than nine inches -- the standard of measurement is from the tip of the thumb to the tip of the pinky on the throwing hand when the hand is pressed down and spread out on a table with a measuring tape on it -- which is basically the minimum that NFL teams consider acceptable. Small hands make it difficult to handle the ball in less than ideal weather conditions and often lead to accuracy and fumbling issues.
Hand size is a little more difficult to fix than adding on a few pounds. Hopefully for Bridgewater's sake, he doesn't come up short.