Philadelphia, PA – Class was back in session for prospective graduates into the football profession when the world's most celebrated college job fair, the NFL Scouting Combine, got underway Wednesday, even though this year's two most prominent applicants planned to play hooky from a few courses.
But while the unsurprising decisions of quarterbacks Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III to decline from taking part in throwing drills deducts some of the drama from an event that's transformed itself into an offseason staple for fans and draft nicks in recent years, the extensive uncertainty that surrounds the 326 other players who are showcasing their abilities in Indianapolis in the coming days ensures there'll be more than enough intrigue to keep onlookers' attention.
With the two marquee quarterbacks and top candidates for this year's No. 1 overall draft pick limiting their schedule in preparation for their forthcoming pro days, the Combine's spotlight now falls on an interesting wide receiver pool that's as chock full of mystery as high-end talent.
Teams in search of a young pass-catcher with size will have a wealth of promising options available for their perusal because the wideout group is loaded with tantalizing big-bodied prospects. Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, South Carolina's Alshon Jeffrey, Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu and Wisconsin's Nick Toon are among a deluge of receivers weighing 215 pounds or above, with Blackmon the lone member of that lot believed to measure under 6-foot-2.
With so many similarly built alternatives at the position, how each performs in Sunday's 40-yard dash will likely have a significant say in where they're taken in April's draft. And perhaps no one has as much riding on the race as Jeffery, considered a first-round lock entering this past season before showing up out of shape and displaying questionable separation skills during a very disappointing junior campaign with the Gamecocks.
Floyd will be coming in with much to prove as well following a up-and-down collegiate career plagued by injuries, but the former Golden Domer's most important test may be the one that takes place away from the field. With three alcohol-related arrests at Notre Dame and a reputation for being a bit soft, how the 22-year-old handles himself in pre-draft interviews might have the biggest impact on his stock.
The two-time Biletnikoff Award-winner Blackmon's credentials should help combat a possible slip caused by a poor time in the 40-yard dash, but the dynamic All-American could be in danger of dropping out of the top 10 if he runs closer to the 4.6 range than a 4.45. A slow clocking also would create an opening for Kendall Wright, Griffin's former Baylor teammate who's fully expected to burn up the track at Lucas Oil Stadium, to potentially be the first receiver taken in April.
For the defensive hopefuls, the day to watch will be Monday, when the linemen and linebacker groups have their auditions. A 2011 season that produced more yards via the air than any other in NFL history by a cavernous margin has furthered an already pressing need to find and develop effective pass rushers, giving those prospects who can demonstrate explosive qualities in that area the best opportunity to make an impression.
With this also being an era in which multiple defenses are en vogue, players who can exhibit the capability of serving as both a down end in a 4-3 alignment and an outside linebacker in a 3-4 will put themselves in demand. South Carolina's Melvin Ingram, Southern Cal's Nick Perry and 2011 NCAA sack leader Whitney Mercilus of Illinois all starred as disruptive ends in 4-3 fronts, but each would rocket up draft boards by acing the agility drills designed to evaluate one's viability as a standup rusher.
Conversely, Alabama's Courtney Upshaw flourished coming off the edge in Nick Saban's 3-4 scheme, but would surely boost his status by showing the requisite bulk and strength to hold up against the run as a lineman.
With that brief guide to this year's Combine now complete, it's now time to turn the attention to everyone's favorite offseason subject -- the draft. Though conducting a first-round mock prior to free agency is in reality a pointless exercise, here's a stab at the first 10 picks:
1) Indianapolis Colts: Luck
3) Minnesota Vikings: Matt Kalil, OT, USC
5) Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
6) Rams (trade with Redskins): Blackmon
7) Jacksonville Jaguars: Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
8/9) Carolina Panthers: Devon Still, DT, Penn State
8/9) Miami Dolphins: Ingram
10: Buffalo Bills: Upshaw
*The first major free agent move of this offseason may wind up as being one of the more curious ones. Kansas City's signing of Oakland castoff Stanford Routt on Monday was a rather obvious indication that the Chiefs deem wide receiver Dwayne Bowe to be a higher priority than Brandon Carr, who could be the most sought-after cornerback of this year's class when he presumably hits the market. But with ample cap space and minus an abundance of pressing needs, the team appeared to have the financial flexibility to bring both key contributors back and bolster a title run in a wide-open AFC West. Though certainly a starting-caliber talent, Routt is three years older than Carr (29 to 26) and led all cornerbacks with 17 penalties this past season.
*Routt, incidentally, made $10 million in 2011 in the first year of a bloated $54.5 million pact he received from the Raiders last February, one of several head-scratching maneuvers made by the late Al Davis that placed the Silver and Black in their present state of cap peril. With Oakland still on the hook for $5 million in guaranteed money, he's set to pocket $11 million this season with this new deal, and that previous bad contract may also have played a part in the Chiefs' expected decision to choose Bowe over Carr as their franchise player. The salary tender for cornerbacks is $10.6 million in 2012, compared to $9.4 million for wide receivers.
*Prior to Routt's signing, the Chiefs had nearly $50.2 million of space under this season's projected cap according to our friends at the South Florida Sun- Sentinel (you can view the chart here: http://www.sun-sentinel.com/sports/miami-dolphins/sfl-nfl-salary-cap- teams-2012,0,5969798.htmlstory ). That's second only to Cincinnati's $59 million in available funds, with Denver ($48.5 million), Tampa Bay ($48.1 million), Jacksonville ($46.4 million) and Washington ($41.3) also in position to be big spenders in free agency. The Raiders ($15.6 million) are one of four teams presently over the cap along with Pittsburgh ($27.4 million), Carolina ($5.2 million over) and the reigning Super Bowl champion New York Giants ($1.7 million), with Detroit ($712,000 under) and the New York Jets ($2.3 million under) also lacking much operating room at the moment.
*Speaking of the Steelers, there's been a lot of speculation about Ben Roethlisberger's perceived unhappiness over the team's parting with offensive coordinator Bruce Arians. The bigger story may be how Big Ben reacts if Pittsburgh loses top receiver Mike Wallace due to its perilous cap situation, as the restricted free agent would be well worth the first-round compensation a contender would have to surrender to sign him away. There's a good chance the Steelers wouldn't be able to match a lucrative competing offer, and franchising Wallace isn't an option either without substantially paring down the payroll.
*ESPN's removal of Ron Jaworski from the "Monday Night Football" broadcast booth isn't overly surprising, especially if the rumors that the World Wide Leader is keeping a seat open in the hopes that Peyton Manning calls it a career are accurate, as the more bombastic Jon Gruden's over-the-top approach is more in line with the network's preferences. Still, it's another example of how the league or its partners cater more to the casual, fantasy-centric fan than the hardcore loyalists who favor insightful and intelligent analysis.
*Quote of the Week: "Hue Jackson was hired by the Bengals last week, but you could say he's been working for them since last October." -- National Football Post's Dan Pompei in reference to Jackson's one-sided trade with Cincinnati for declining quarterback Carson Palmer while then the Raiders' head coach.