Who are the players to know at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine?
The NFL draft season is kicking into high gear, and fans from Houston to Seattle want to know which draft prospects will help improve their squads in 2014.
The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine puts 335 of the top draft prospects—including 85 underclassmen—in one place for teams and fans alike to compare, contrast and ogle as they run, jump and get poked and prodded in nearly every way imaginable.
Here are eight of those prospects that fans of every NFL team need to get acquainted with.
Johnny Manziel is excitement personified. He followed up his unprecedented Heisman Trophy-winning 2012 campaign—as a freshman—with an even better 2013 season. He finished with a 69.9 percent completion rate, throwing for 4,114 yards and 37 touchdowns versus only 13 interceptions.
Statistics alone can't do Manziel justice. There hasn't been a prospect that has so dazzled the college football world since Tim Tebow roamed the sidelines at Florida.
The 2014 NFL Scouting Combine won't showcase Manziel's arm—he won't throw until his individual pro day according to his agent Erik Burkhardt—but you will be able to see some of the skills that have entranced NFL scouts.
Manziel's speed, agility and change-of-direction skills are off the charts for the quarterback position. He is able to keep plays alive with his feet and uncanny field vision. If teams weren't convinced from his two years of tape, though, I'm not sure good combine numbers will change their minds.
Look for Manziel to be a top-five pick in the 2014 NFL draft, with a decent chance at becoming the first overall selection.
Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater was the consensus No. 1 quarterback coming into the year, but strong performances from the likes of Johnny Manziel, Blake Bortles and Derek Carr—in addition to Bridgewater—have muddied the waters surrounding the throwers in this draft class.
Bridgewater put up some fine numbers this past season—3,970 yards on a 71 percent completion rate, 31 touchdowns and only four interceptions—but didn't have a signature performance against tough competition until his Russell Athletic Bowl victory over the Miami Hurricanes where he threw for 447 yards.
Bridgewater has a precocious ability to get to his second and third reads quickly. He manipulates defenders with his eyes and has the foot speed, agility and field vision to make plays with his feet.
Don't expect Bridgewater to throw at the combine—top prospects rarely do—but he can still wow NFL teams with his football IQ and ability to quickly digest information in team interviews.
Like Manziel, Bridgewater projects as a top-five pick come May.
Sammy Watkins continues in the tradition of dynamic playmakers—DeAndre Hopkins, C.J. Spiller and Jacoby Ford come immediately to mind—coming out of Clemson in the last few years.
Watkins ignited Clemson's high-powered offense in 2013 with 101 receptions for 1,464 yards and 12 touchdowns, including a masterful 16-catch, 227-yard performance against Ohio State in the Discover Orange Bowl.
The 6'1", 205-pound receiver can win underneath with his shiftiness, lose corners on intermediate routes with his precision and take the top off the defense on deep routes with his elite speed.
If NFL teams haven't seen enough on film, Watkins should put on a show at the combine. Don't expect Watkins to be available outside of the top 10 picks this May.
Jadeveon Clowney may have dropped from 13.5 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss in 2012 to three sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 2013, but his impact on opposing offenses could still be felt. The 6'6", 274-pound defensive end was a focal point for opposing coaches, opening up opportunities for teammates while absorbing double-teams.
While Clowney is widely regarded as the best defensive prospect since Buffalo Bills defensive end Mario Williams, some NFL teams are going to need to have some questions answered at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Very few of those questions will have anything to do with Clowney's athleticism. He won't surprise anyone by running a ridiculous 40-yard dash time or taking the roof off with his vertical leap, because he almost certainly will. NFL teams will want to probe Clowney's psyche.
Is football important to Clowney, or is it just a job? Will he give maximum effort once he gets paid? Is he committed to helping a team win or gathering stats? If Clowney can satisfy teams' curiosity, he won't make it out of the top five picks, with a good chance at being the first selection overall.
The importance of dynamic tight ends in the NFL today can't be overstated. While North Carolina's Eric Ebron still needs some polish, he has all the physical tools to join Vernon Davis, Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Jordan Cameron as one of the most talented pass-catchers at the tight end position.
Ebron is more of a "move" tight end than a "Y" tight end at this point of his career, since his blocking technique still needs work. However, his ability to separate from defenders down the field and his 6'4" frame will present a lot of problems for NFL defenses. He has the strength to develop as a blocker later in his career.
Teams will show a lot of interest in Ebron's concentration during position drills and his speed and explosiveness during the running and leaping events. If Ebron—at 245 pounds—can run in the 4.5-second range for his 40-yard dash, teams will be lining up to select him in the first round of the draft.
Texas A&M tackle Jake Matthews got a lot of the preseason accolades—rightly so—but Auburn's Greg Robinson burst onto the stage with a phenomenal sophomore season that nearly culminated in a BCS championship.
Robinson is the best run-blocker in the 2014 NFL draft. His strength profile is off the charts, and once he locks on, defenders have absolutely no chance to shed him.
Robinson is no slouch in pass protection either. He wasn't challenged a lot by edge-rushers due to Auburn's misdirection offense, but he has flashed the athleticism to succeed on the edge against faster players.
Unless an unexpected medical or character concern pops up at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine, Robinson will be one of the first two tackles selected and a certain selection in the first 10 picks.
Khalil Mack might not be a household name—playing for Buffalo will have that effect—but that won't last long. Look for him to burst onto the national scene with an enormous performance at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine.
Mack had a fantastic statistical season in 2013, tallying 100 total tackles. Mack notched 10.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, five forced fumbles, seven pass deflections and three interceptions.
At 6'3" and 248 pounds, Mack projects as a strong-side outside linebacker with the ability to shift to defensive end in passing situations. He has the strength to set the edge and shed blockers in the run game and the athletic ability to drop in coverage when called upon.
If Mack runs in the high 4.5 range and looks explosive in the jumping events, he could sneak into the top 10 picks of the 2014 NFL draft.
In a year filled with Richard Sherman highlights, Darqueze Dennard will be a hot commodity at the 2014 NFL Scouting Combine. Dennard excels in press coverage, and his physical nature at the line of scrimmage will translate well to Sundays.
He is an aggressive tackler and has some of the best instincts and vision in this draft class. Where he differs from Sherman is that he only measures in at 5'11" and doesn't have the fluidity in his hips that the Seattle Seahawks All-Pro does.
If NFL teams are on the fence with Dennard going into the combine, they are going to want to see a solid 40-yard dash time (sub-4.55) and good change-of-direction skills in positional drills to feel comfortable drafting him in the first round.
Should Dennard pass those tests, he should be the first cornerback off the board in the 2014 NFL draft.
For more Patriots and NFL Draft analysis, follow James Christensen on Twitter @NEPatriotsDraft.