What to know about the 2013 Combine

Now that the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl are finally over and out of the way, it’s time to focus on what really matters: the NFL Draft.

This year’s draft is loaded with rich storylines, dynamic personalities and intrigue. It’s also very unique.

Unlike the 2012 NFL Draft, the 2013 draft class is not incredibly deep at the coveted quarterback position. If anything, it’s the weakest quarterback draft since 2007 — one that netted first round picks JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn.

But that doesn’t mean quarterbacks won’t go in the first round. There could be two, three, four, maybe five scooped up in the first 32 picks. It’s a quarterback league, and in the endless pursuit to find one, risks will be taken.

There are a handful of big project defensive pass rushers — guys who are expected to do more in the pros than they did in college — who could make waves in April, too.

It’ll all start this week in Indianapolis at the NFL Scouting Combine.

On the surface, the Combine is one of the sports world’s biggest anomalies. Much of the seven-day event involves players standing in shorts and tank tops, coaches and scouts sitting hundreds of feet away in the stands kibitzing and behind-closed-doors meetings and evaluations. There are tests taken in conference rooms, interviews done in hallways and business cards passed at St. Elmo’s, a popular steakhouse.

And yet, people watch.

As Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald reported, 5.2 million American homes watched the Combine on the NFL Network in March, 2010. Those TV ratings were better than any numbers Major League Baseball got on ESPN during any given regular-season week of the 2010 baseball season, despite ESPN being in 43 million more homes than the NFL Network.

This year, the NFL Network is sending an estimated 30 on-air announcers to Indianapolis, roughly 28 more than what’s probably necessary. With NFL Network now in more homes due to the recent Time Warner Cable deal, Combine viewing numbers will increase even more.

Who should you be watching this week? Which players have the most on the line? Which drills are the most important? Here’s a viewers’ guide to this week’s 2013 NFL Scouting Combine:

Five Biggest Draft Storylines

1. Who’s the Top QB?

It was Andrew Luck vs. RG3 in 2012. In 2013? Good luck finding two quarterbacks worth pitting against each other as No. 1 and 1a. Ranking the top five QB prospects, unlike any of the recent years, will be a challenge for draft pundits like me. The QB class is — simply put — wide open.

USC’s Matt Barkley and West Virginia’s Geno Smith dominated mock drafts and draft buzz during the college season, but after watching them both on tape the past few weeks, it’s clear there are various holes in both players’ games. Neither, to be certain, is on the level of Luck, Griffin or Newton. Even putting them in the same conversation as Blaine Gabbert is a stretch.

But that’s not an insult or a dig at Geno Smith or Matt Barkley. None of the quarterback prospects are as highly touted as Gabbert was coming out of Missouri two years ago. In addition to Barkley and Smith, there’s Tyler Wilson out of Arkansas, Landry Jones of Oklahoma, Mike Glennon of N.C. State, E.J. Manuel of Florida State and Ryan Nassib of Syracuse.

All five of those college seniors are vying to be the first quarterback taken, too. That’s seven different guys, any of whom could be the first quarterback off the board. With at least three quarterback-starved teams in the top 10 of this year’s draft, there’s money to be made by one of these young men.

Separating themselves from the others really starts in Indianapolis. Unlike previous years, all of the top prospects have agreed to participate in the throwing drills. This is truly going to be a showdown and a tryout. Buckle up.

2. The Next JPP?

Every year, there’s a pass-rushing prospect whose numbers at the Combine jump off the page and catapult him into the first round of April’s NFL Draft. Whether it’s Mike Mamula, Aldon Smith or Jason Pierre-Paul, those guys usually make a lot of money during the third week in February.

This year’s guy? My money’s on BYU defensive end Ezekiel Ansah. Nicknamed “Ziggy,” Ansah’s NFL journey is incredible. A native of Ghana, he arrived at BYU and tried out for the basketball and track teams before joining Bronco Mendenhall’s squad in 2010.

He was a slow starter, then had a huge breakout 2012 campaign. Ansah is a freakish athlete for his 6-foot-6, 270-pound frame. The sky is the limit. If he comes to Indianapolis and puts on the show I expect him to, he could end up going in the top 10. Not bad for a guy who didn’t make the hoops team two years ago.

3. New Names, New Faces

There were eight new head coaching hires (Alex Marvez ranked them here last week) and seven new general manager hires in the past two months. Add in all the big-name defensive and offensive coordinator moves and other front office hires (Tom Gamble to Philadelphia, for one), and there were arguably more changes this NFL offseason than any other year in recent history.

So what does it all mean? Who knows? We’ve got Andy Reid in Kansas City, Chip Kelly in Philadelphia and Marc Trestman — formerly of the Canadian Football League — in Chicago. There are changes everywhere. The Combine — moreso than the Senior Bowl — will be the first time everyone, the new and the old, will be in one place at one time.

4. The Week of Manti Te’o

At some point, Manti Te’o was going to have to face the music and address the demons of Lennay Kekua. That time is now. NFL front office personnel might not be as kind to Te’o as Jeremy Schaap or Katie Couric were in his recent interviews (off camera and on, respectively).

They’ll want to know just how this whole thing happened, when Te’o knew he was duped and what he’s done to put the incident and “romance” behind him. More than anything, they’ll want to know if he can handle the temptations that await him at the next level. Every shark within a 50-mile radius will smell blood in the water the second Te’o hits an NFL city.

How Te’o handles himself, the pressure of reporters grilling him with uncomfortable questions in a group setting and being put under the microscope for an extended period of time may be the biggest storyline of the week. Someone will ask him a ridiculous question and it’ll make news. But after the Te’o-Kekua story — is any question really too absurd?

5. Who is Cordarrelle Patterson?

If the name’s not familiar yet, brace yourself, because you’ll be hearing a lot about him in the next few months. Patterson didn’t put up big numbers in college at Tennessee, but he’s already being ranked above California’s Keenan Allen and West Virginia’s Tavon Austin as this year’s top wideout prospect.

Why? Because he can end up being the next A.J. Green. Patterson’s story is somewhat wild. He didn’t play football at North Carolina Tech, ended up at Hutchinson Community College in Kansas where he excelled before transferring to Tennessee after being recruited by then-coach Derek Dooley.

As a junior, he wasn’t expected to do much, but after the Vols dismissed Da’Rick Rogers for disciplinary reasons, Patterson stepped up. In just 12 games as a Division 1-A player, he caught 46 balls and opened scouts’ eyes — not so much for his production, but for his potential.

At 6-foot-3, 205 pounds, he’s got the build and the natural abilities to be a huge talent at the next level. He separates from corners, has elite speed and a knack for the dramatic catch. He also returns kicks and punts incredibly well. Dynamic is the word everyone uses when describing Patterson.

Justin Blackmon was the fifth overall pick a season ago and a widely touted prospect coming out of Oklahoma State. I’ve spoken to some league sources who think Patterson could end up being the even more sought-after player. It’ll all start in Indianapolis this week, where everyone expects him to put on a show.

Five small-school guys you’ll know by next week

1. Aaron Mellette, WR, Elon: Brian Quick, a wide receiver out of Appalachian State, was taken 33rd overall by the St. Louis Rams in the 2012 NFL Draft. I’ve spoken to more than one NFL scout who says they are bigger fans of Mellette — an opponent of Quick’s in the Southern Conference — than the second-round selection.

Even if Mellette has a disastrous week in Indy, he will be the first player from Elon (North Carolina) to be drafted since the Jacksonville Jaguars took Chad Nkang in the seventh round in 2007.

His college numbers? Well, they’re insane. After catching eight balls in his first year with the Phoenix, Mellette rattled off 86-catch, 113-catch and 97-catch seasons. In three years, he hauled in 42 touchdown passes. He’s also 6-foot-4, 220 pounds and a precise route runner. He’s not going to dazzle in the 40-yard dash, but he’s a surefire NFL player. There haven’t been many of those out of Elon.

2. Rogers Gaines, OT, Tennessee State: Never heard of Gaines? It’s OK, you’re not alone. Gaines starred at Tennessee State, where there weren’t exactly ESPN or FOX Sports cameras set up every weekend. But the scouts were watching, and what they saw was a 6-foot-7, 320-pound mass of a man with a ton of potential.

He got off to a slow start at Tennessee State — he redshirted, then only played three games in 2010 — but came on strong in his junior and senior years. There’s a blank slate with Gaines, but plenty of raw material to work with.

3. Tyrone Goard, WR, Eastern Kentucky: Right below Mellette on my list of small school wideout prospects is Goard. Whether it’s been Jerry Rice, Pierre Garcon, Cecil Shorts III, Donald Driver, Marques Colston or countless others — NFL teams have never been afraid to roll the dice on wide receiver talents outside of the traditional BCS conferences when it comes to the NFL Draft.

In Goard, there’s a 6-foot-4, 200-pound frame with tremendous speed. Again, as is the case with Gaines, he’s raw. He only caught 41 balls at Eastern Kentucky last season, but after a very impressive week of East-West Shrine Game practices, he’s getting more and more buzz as a big upside project. A burner with height, Goard could be one of those surprise second day picks after a strong week in Indy.

4. Mark Jackson, OL, Glenville State: A Columbus, Ohio native, it’s amazing that Jackson — a Glenville State grad — could end up going in the NFL Draft before any Ohio State linemen.

A first-team Division II All-American in 2012, the 6-foot-6, 325-pound road paver starred at tackle in college, but would likely play guard in the pros. A three-time All-Conference performer, he dominated at the Division II level. But the NFL isn’t the Division II level. I’m very curious to see how Jackson, another East-West Shrine Game standout, stacks up against the competition this week.

5. Ty Powell, OLB, Harding: Powell played defensive end at Division II school Harding, but will make the move to OLB in the NFL. He’ll likely measure around 6-foot-3, 255 pounds come time for his weigh-in, but his 40 time is what I’ll be most interested in.

Can he get to the QB? He did in college, recording 8.5 sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss. He’s been working out at the IMG Academy in Bradenton. There’s talk that he could be a second day pick. His performance in Indy will have a lot to do with that, if so.

Five best drills to watch

1. The 40-yard dash: A player’s career can be made, or destroyed, in a flash. My favorite 40-yard-dash story involves Deion Sanders’ run in 1989. Back before the Combine was televised or even covered all that much by the media, Sanders reportedly showed up to the combine late and did just one drill — and only once.

As the story goes, Sanders ran a 4.29 in the 40, then jogged right into the Hoosier Dome tunnel and out the building. Without breaking stride, he hopped into a limousine and took a trip to the airport, where he boarded a plane and flew home.

2. Bench press: How many times can a player put up 225 pounds in one sitting? Can’t fake this one. In honor of 2013 Pro Football Hall of Fame inductee Larry Allen, I’d like to see someone top 50 reps.

3. The gauntlet: A wide receiver or a tight end gets a pass from a coach, catches the ball and drops it. He then runs across the field and catches five passes in a row from five different quarterbacks across the field. It’s all hand-eye coordination. Boom. Boom. Boom. In today’s era of pass-happy football, being able to catch a ball and make a first move — all in one motion — is more important than ever before.

4. The speed turn drill: A defensive back starts at the line of scrimmage, backpedals 5 yards, runs forward 5 yards and then is told to run in a certain direction. At about 15 yards, the defensive back is asked to look up and locate a football. What kind of ball skills do you have? The speed turn drill gives an indication.

5. Three-cone drill: Three cones are placed in an L shape. Players go 5 yards to the first cone and back, then to the second cone and back and then run a loop around the third cone, switch direction and come back around the second cone. Got all that? A shifty running back/wide receiver can usually do a three-cone drill in 6.5-7.0 seconds.

Five potential character ‘red flags’

1. Tyrann Mathieu, DB, LSU: The “Honey Badger” will be answering a lot of questions this week. A Heisman finalist for LSU in 2011, Mathieu was kicked off the team in August of 2012 for repeated violations of the school’s substance abuse policy for athletes. He sat the year out and he trained. And he apologized. And he says he’s ready for the next stage of his life. Which NFL team will give him a second chance?

2. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech: An All-SEC performer for Tennessee in 2011, Rogers was dismissed from Derek Dooley’s team for reported substance abuse violations in 2012. Instead of sitting the year out like Mathieu, he transferred to Tennessee Tech, where Rogers caught 61 balls and scored 10 touchdowns last season. Big time talent. Is he a changed man?

3. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: There’s obviously never a good time to get a DUI, but getting one a few days before the Combine could be just about the worst time for one. That’s what reportedly happened last week with Ogletree, the 26th overall pick in my latest Mock Draft. Ogletree missed four games this past season for a violation of team rules (I’m told it was a substance-abuse-related violation), and now has this on his resume. Not good. Not good at all.

4. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee: Bray has a strong arm and had some great games as the Volunteers’ quarterback, but immaturity plagued his time in Knoxville. Hand-picked by Derek Dooley, he was considered the golden arm of the program. But there were some low points.

The summer before his junior season, he eluded prosecution in a potential felony vandalism case by promising to pay for damages to a vehicle pounded with beer bottles and golf balls at his riverside apartment complex. Another time, he was cited for a reckless boating violation while jet skiing.

He was not arrested for either incident, but the press had a field day. He left Tennessee early for the pros. Was that the wisest move? NFL coaches and scouts will certainly be putting him under the microscope.

5. Armonty Bryant, DE, East Central (Oklahoma): A Division II All-American and two-time Oklahoman State College Defensive Player of the Year selection, Bryant compiled a school-record 27.5 sacks during his time at East Central. All good and all impressive. But getting arrested for selling drugs during practice? That’s not good.

Bryant allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer on two separate occasions last year. He was arrested and posted $25,000 bond and released, but the stain of that incident is following him to Indianapolis. A 6-foot-4, 250-pound pass rush specialist, he’ll be answering plenty of questions this week.

Five teams to Watch

1. Kansas City Chiefs: The Chiefs need a quarterback. Unfortunately, there might not be a quarterback worth drafting first overall in this year’s class. With free agency looming and a lot of other needs on the roster, Andy Reid holds the cards at the top of one of the most wide open drafts in recent memory. He also has the 33rd pick, something a lot of teams might covet.

2. Cleveland Browns: There’s new blood in Cleveland, from the owner (Jimmy Haslam) to the team president (Joe Banner) to the personnel guy (Mike Lombardi) to the head coach (Rod Chudzinski) to the coordinators (Ray Horton and Norv Turner).

Cleveland’s first pick in the new era of leadership could tell us a lot about where the franchise is looking to go. Do the Browns cut bait on the Brandon Weeden Experiment started by the old regime a season ago and draft a quarterback? Or do they build a defense? Fascinating times in Berea.

3. St. Louis Rams: Thanks to the Robert Griffin III trade a year ago, the Rams are the only team in the 2013 NFL Draft with two first rounders. That’s a lot of chips on the table. Last year, the Rams traded back in the first round and picked up additional selections. Will they do the same in 2013?

4. Jacksonville Jaguars: Like the Browns, the Jaguars have a lot of new faces both on the sideline and in the front office. Of the eight head coaches hired this offseason, Gus Bradley was the only defensive mind of the group. Don’t be shocked if the Jags go with a pass rusher with the second overall pick — they were last in the league in sacks with just 20 in 2012.

5. Buffalo Bills: The Bills are owners of the longest playoff drought in the NFL, dating all the way back to 1999. For what feels like the millionth time in the 14 years that have passed, there’s a new coach with a new philosophy in Western New York. Doug Marrone’s first few picks will be awfully intriguing in April. Does he grab Ryan Nassib, his college quarterback at Syracuse? It’s been a hot rumor since he took the job in January.

Five Combine question marks

As much as the Combine can highlight the best physical qualities of certain players, it can put a spotlight on the shortcomings of others. Here are five accomplished college players who might not necessarily “wow” at the combine:

1. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: So many great college games. So many freaking carries. So much tread on the tires. What’s left in the tank for the pros?

2. Collin Klein, QB, Kansas State: His game was compared favorably to Tim Tebow while at Kansas State. That’s not exactly a compliment in NFL circles.

3. Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M: Swope put up huge numbers at Texas A&M, but he doesn’t fit the mold of a first-round receiver based on his size and speed. He also tweaked his ankle at Senior Bowl practices. But he is tough, clutch, smart and can block with the best of them.

4. Robert Woods, WR, USC: Woods was considered a surefire first-round pick a year ago, but the buzz has dulled a bit since his monster 2011 campaign. He hauled in 73 passes for 813 yards and scored 11 touchdowns last season — mighty impressive numbers — but he’s not expected to blow anyone away during Combine tests.

5. Denard Robinson, QB/WR, Michigan: Nicknamed “Shoelace” because he never ties them, Robinson took the college football world by storm the last four years with explosive exploits and highlight-reel fodder.

What to make of him in the pros? Is he a quarterback? A running back? A wideout? The Combine will be a good opportunity for him to show he is more than just another outstanding college running quarterback who can’t make the transition to the next level. Woodrow Dantzler, anyone?

Five bold Combine predictions

1. Florida State quarterback EJ Manuel puts on a stellar performance and piques the interest of several NFL teams, catapulting himself into the first round.

2. Baylor wideout Terrance Williams and Tennessee’s Mr. Do-Everything Cordarrelle Patterson steal the show in wideout drills. Both cement their places as first-round picks in April.

3. In a weak running back draft class, Alabama’s Eddie Lacy stands out from the competition, but offensive lineman Chance Warmack — a versatile big man who can play either guard or center — leaves Indianapolis as the highest-rated Alabama prospect.

4. SMU defensive end Margus Hunt, a native of Estonia, captures the imagination of all covering the Combine. A 6-foot-8, 280-pound defensive end, Hunt has an 82-inch wing span, can bench press 225 pounds more than 30 times and is rumored to have 4.5 speed in the 40-yard dash. Your “Underwear Olympics” gold medalist could very well be Hunt.

5. West Virginia wide receiver Tavon Austin will record the fastest 40 time at the Combine. He, too, will be a first-round pick in April.