Beginning on Thursday, 335 of college football's top prospects for May's upcoming NFL draft will gather in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine.
In front a big audience of football executives, TV cameras, media members and even some dedicated fans, the athletes will stack themselves up in various physical events. Behind closed doors, teams will also conduct interviews and other tests with players to get a read on their mental development as well.
In the current age of a 24/7 media cycle, there is plenty of pre-combine coverage and storylines to sift through. Let's take a look at the most talked about players at each level of defense heading into the weekend's combine.
For a full list of participants and more information, visit NFL.com/combine.
Jadeveon Clowney has all the talent in the world, but can he develop a motor to match?
If so, he makes sense as the No. 1 overall pick for the Houston Texans, despite the franchise's need for a new starting quarterback. Given his immense potential, the thought of pairing Clowney with J.J. Watt in Houston is scary.
From comments he recently made to Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, Clowney clearly wants to go first overall on Thursday, May 8 when the draft kicks off.
"I love his game," Clowney said of Watt. "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."
In January, Goodbread also noted that Texans owner Bob McNair discussed the possibility of the Clowney-Watt duo, so he's definitely on their short list. With the 6'6", 274-pound Clowney reportedly running hand-timed 40s in the 4.45-second range, he's clearly one of the best physical specimens to enter the NFL.
But there are plenty of other top-flight D-line prospects trying to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.
Minnesota's Ra'Shede Hageman is also an athletic freak worth watching at 6'6", 311 pounds, while big fellows like Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Notre Dame's Louis Nix III will try to show their athleticism as potential run-stuffers at the next level.
Mayock says watch out for Minnesota DT Ra'Shede Hageman (6-6, 318) to run really well at combine (4.7ish). He's No. 99 for North team.— Hays Carlyon (@HaysCarlyon) January 20, 2014
Former SEC standouts Kony Ealy (Missouri) and Dee Ford (Auburn) could also shoot up the draft boards with good measureables as teams project bigger and better things for them in the NFL.
Former Missouri star Michael Sam figures to have a lot of attention under the media spotlight in Indianapolis as he joins the fray following his recent declaration as an openly gay player, via John Branch of The New York Times.
From comments made to Branch, Sam sounds like he has a level head about the big media whirlwind he's entered.
"I’m not naïve," Sam told Branch. "I know this is a huge deal and I know how important this is. But my role as of right now is to train for the combine and play in the N.F.L."
While we won't be able to hear what questions are posed to him by prospective NFL teams, we will get to see how he performs physically. Listed at 6'2", 255 pounds, Sam played defensive end at Missouri but projects to be a linebacker at the next level.
Dave Miller of National Football Post gave an outlook on the reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year.
Unfortunately, Sam will be hounded by the press for non-football reasons. But as I mentioned before the Senior Bowl, the pass-rush specialist doesn't have great power and size against the run. But he led the SEC in sacks (10.5) and tackles for loss (18) in 2013. A lot of scouts believe that he will need to make the switch to outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. He's a bit of a tweener, so it's always interesting to gauge the stock of those types.
For now, Sam is projected as a Day 2 or Day 3 pick, but how he performs at the combine in both the physical and mental exams will be key in his draft stock.
Among the linebacker candidates to be top-10 picks include Buffalo's Khalil Mack, UCLA's Anthony Barr, and Alabama's C.J. Mosley. The next linebacker who appears to have a chance at cracking the first round is Ohio State's Ryan Shazier.
Looking at mock drafts across multiple outlets, there's a near consensus that the Detroit Lions will draft a cornerback at the No. 10 pick with starter Rashean Mathis set to be an unrestricted free agent and an NFC North that features top-flight wideouts like Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery and Jordy Nelson.
Most draft experts, like the ones at CBS Sports, peg Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard as Detroit's top potential target, while Oklahoma State CB Justin Gilbert has also been a popular pick for the Lions here. Perhaps their respective performances at Indianapolis will be the one thing that separates these two from each other.
Mike Huguenin of NFL.com outlined Dennard's situation as he gets ready for the combine.
Will he be the first corner off the board? His 40 time might tell the tale. Most scouts love his physical, aggressive nature, but his detractors wonder about his speed -- or lack thereof. He certainly isn't as fast as Oklahoma State's Justin Gilbert or Ohio State's Bradley Roby.
As far as safeties go, it appears to be a two-man race for the first one taken off the board between Louisville's Calvin Pryor and Alabama's Ha-Ha Clinton Dix. Dane Brugler of CBS Sports is predicting that Pryor will make a big splash in Indy.
A NFL prospect who I expect to receive a lot more ink after the Combine is Louisville S Calvin Pryor. Star potential, one of my favorites— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 17, 2014
Listed at 6'2", 208 pounds, Pryor is built in a similar mold as 2013 first-round safety and LSU product Eric Reid, a physical player who was drafted by the San Francisco 49ers at No. 18 overall. Clinton-Dix, meanwhile, is listed at 6'1", 209 pounds and will have plenty to prove to the league's football execs this week as well.