The NFL's annual "Underwear Olympics," better known as the NFL Scouting Combine, begins this weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis. For the Atlanta Falcons, this offseason represents the most important one under the current regime.
After a 4-12 season, where many pundits picked the Falcons to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, it's a safe bet that a repeat performance would bring about changes to the front office and coaching staff alike.
Change was already implemented with the addition of one of the most successful personnel executives of the modern era in Scott Pioli—formerly of the New England Patriots.
He's added to a staff that already consists of general manger Thomas Dimitroff and director of player personnel Lionel Vital.
The trio served under future Hall of Fame coach Bill Belichick—in New England—the master at building a team through the draft.
Usually the combine is the first opportunity a team gets to poke and prod prospects, but the Falcons were afforded the opportunity to coach a good amount of these prospects at the Senior Bowl.
The evaluation process starts in earnest this weekend. Let's take a look at a few players who we should keep our collective eyes on.
The consensus best player in the draft, Jadeveon Clowney, is the exact kind of player Atlanta covets. In a star-driven city, Clowney is a star among stars. The 6'6", 274-pound athletic marvel will have all eyes on him at the combine.
The Falcons are in desperate need of an edge-rusher as they don't presently have anyone on the roster even worth mentioning on the edges. Selecting him sixth overall is certainly a possibility, although it seems unlikely he will be around at that time.
There are rumblings that the Falcons could potentially trade up to get Clowney, according to Bleacher Report's Dan Pompei, mimicking what they did to acquire another star in wide receiver Julio Jones in the 2011 draft.
If Clowney has a performance similar to Jones' at the combine, the fervor surrounding him will grow to a fevered pitch. Clowney reportedly ran a 4.4 40-yard dash in summer workouts, according to SI.com, and aims to repeat the performance at the combine, as told to Yahoo! Sports.
There's really not much for Clowney to prove from an athletic standpoint; the questions about Clowney will be answered in interviews.
Teams will try to figure out why a once-in-a-lifetime prospect only generated three sacks in his final season of college. Talk of laziness and complacency will follow Clowney until he gets his first sack in the NFL.
Fans of the Red and Black are hoping that sack comes with him being a member of the Falcons.
University of Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack is a very intriguing prospect. He's expected to blow up the combine with his speed and quickness. He's a high-motor individual who will be in the opposition's backfield at an inordinate clip.
His 100-tackle, 10.5-sack performance warrants him consideration for the Falcons' first pick. But it's versatility that might cement the selection.
The Falcons are looking for an edge-rusher who can also operate in space. Dropping into coverage will be a prerequisite skill that any edge-rusher needs in the Falcons defense. While Mack might not be known for his coverage skills, he has spent time off the ball operating in space.
Seeing how Mack does in the three-cone drill will also be of intrigue. Short-area quickness is what separates good edge-rushers from great ones. Mack has all the tools to be great.
Auburn University's Greg Robinson may eventually become clubhouse leader. His hype may eventually only be superseded by his size (6'5", 320 lbs)! Robinson dominated in a spread-option scheme that showcased his superior run-blocking prowess.
For the Falcons, who are looking to crank up the run game, Robinson would be an ideal fit, as he can seemingly play about four spots on the line. He only has two seasons of starting experience and could play the right tackle until his inevitable move to the blind side.
His skills have rarely been tested as a pass-blocker, as Auburn's scheme doesn't call for it on a consistent basis. But judging by his size, power, agility and athleticism, he may be just as great in that aspect once he gains experience.
Robinson would be afforded the opportunity to learn from newly acquired offensive line coach Mike Tice, who has a similarly nasty disposition to Robinson. Owner Arthur Blank has called for the Falcons to get tougher in the trenches; selecting Robinson would be a major step in that direction.
But his athleticism will be on display at the combine. Expect Robinson to dazzle with his speed, quickness and power.
File this one under the highly unlikely category.
Former University of Georgia standout Isaiah Crowell would be an absolutely perfect fit for the Falcons...talent wise. He's listed at 5'11", 190 pounds, but he looks and plays stout enough to carry the load as a featured back.
He's fast, physical and shifty. He's been a star since his prep days at George Washington Carver in Columbus, Ga. And after being named the SEC's Freshman of the Year, Crowell seemed to be on the fast track to NFL stardom.
That is, until he was arrested and subsequently kicked out of the University of Georgia. Although the arrest was the straw that broke the camel's back, Crowell had been suspended and reprimanded numerous times during his freshman season.
After transferring to Alabama State University, Crowell has been a model citizen the past two seasons. Sometimes being humbled accelerates the maturation process.
If Crowell's past indiscretions are behind him, he should be considered one of the most intriguing prospects in the entire draft. If he falls to the sixth or seventh round, taking a flier on him may pay serious dividends in the future—even for a team like Atlanta that doesn't deal with character risks.
There's a ton of uncertainty surrounding the interior of the Falcons defensive line. Starters Jonathan Babineaux and Corey Peters are both impending free agents, and behind them there's nobody of relevancy.
At 6'3", 309 pounds, LSU defensive tackle Ego Ferguson would be an absolute perfect addition to Atlanta. His ability to play the 0-, 3- and 5-technique warrants him serious consideration in both the second or third round—if he's available.
With the Falcons' multifaceted defensive approach, having a player who can be moved around is imperative. With Babineaux being 32 years old, and Peters coming off a torn Achilles, the interior part of the line may be the sparsest on the entire team.
With his obvious athleticism, Ferguson will be all the rage at the combine going through drills.
It's time for the Falcons defense to develop a little bit of an "Ego."
University of Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson doesn't fit the description of what the Falcons normally look for. He has gone through three separate suspensions and was even involved in a car accident—where he was cited for running a red light. To say he has red flags would be an understatement.
Furthermore, after being one of the most hyped prep linemen in recent memory, his college career didn't come close to living up to the hype.
But at 6'8", 345 pounds, Henderson could be the answer to the team's offensive line woes at the right tackle position. With the hiring of fiery offensive line coach Mike Tice, providing him with a lump of coal like Henderson may be worth its weight in platinum.
Henderson is good in pass protection, but he has the ability to improve as his technique evolves. His run blocking can improve, and will, under the guidance of Tice.
It's possible that Henderson could go as low as the fourth round. But if he performs admirably at the combine, he may very well see his stock skyrocket. The Falcons are familiar with him. He was on their team in the Senior Bowl.
He should definitely be on Atlanta's radar.
Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu (6'3", 242 lbs) is a quick-twitch athlete with outstanding suddenness. He looks as if he's sculpted out of granite and has a motor like you wouldn't believe. His 12.5-sack performance was highlighted by a four-sack outing against the rival Bulldogs.
In coordinator Ted Roof's defense, Attaochu was afforded the opportunity to rush from a two- or three-point stance—a role he would undoubtedly reprise in the Falcons' scheme. Attaochu has experience dropping into zone coverage, and he has the speed to be a factor all over the field.
Despite his lack of girth, Attaochu isn't as big of a liability in the run game due to his ability to play with great leverage. He has the ability to run the arc with the best of them and would look great doing so in Atlanta.
The Falcons lack explosive players on their roster, so getting possibly the most explosive edge-rusher would go a long way in circumventing that. Look for Attaochu to put on a complete show at the combine.
After covering the rival New Orleans Saints for the 2013-14 season, Atlanta native Murf Baldwin returns home to cover his hometown team in 2014. Follow Murf on Twitter and welcome him home.
Follow @ MurfBaldwin