Combine Preview

The scouting process enters its final phase as more than 300 college prospects and an equal number of league personnel converge on Indianapolis for the annual combine this week. For seven days, potential NFL players will be physically, mentally, and athletically tested as teams whittle their draft boards down, targeting the names they hope to select this April.

Just as in the past, the results from this week have a major effect on the ultimate strategy each team takes for the seven rounds of the draft. Last year, quarterback Joey Harrington's splendid workouts at the combine translated into millions of dollars, as did receiver Javon Walker's performance which improved his draft ranking almost ten slots. Conversely, offensive lineman Eric Heitmann saw his stock slip after he was red-flagged with injury.

So, how does the landscape look for this weekend?

Much like 2002, the top spot at quarterback is set as Carson Palmer firmly holds the number one position, but after that it's anyone's guess. Hampered by a leg injury late in the year, Marshall's Byron Leftwich will be sidelined for another major scouting event, which will deal a blow to his final draft grade. This leaves the door open for several other passers to move into the spotlight.

Florida thrower Rex Grossman has yet to perform in front of a collective group of league scouts since declaring for the draft, and he could venture into the top ten with a good passing performance this weekend. Cal's Kyle Boller hopes to keep the momentum going after a terrific senior campaign, and a good performance in the RCA Dome could push him into the early part of the first round. For Dave Ragone, of Louisville, this may be the final opportunity to state his case to be a top 32 choice after falling far short of expectations last season. Chris Simms of Texas, Miami signal-caller Ken Dorsey, and fellow Big East passer Brian St. Pierre of Boston College all have a lot riding on this weekend.

Like quarterback, the receiver board is set at the top but offers mixed opinions after the initial pair of prospects. Taylor Jacobs of Florida and North Carolina's Sam Aiken caught the ball with precision during Senior Bowl practices but did not display the game-breaking speed that teams desire. Fast forty times will elevate both, especially Jacobs, who could land in the middle of round one to a receiver-starved franchise such as the Washington Redskins.

As the quarterbacks and receivers take to the turf in Indianapolis on Sunday, eyes will also be on the defensive linemen, as many forecast a record number of front four players will be selected in the initial frame this April. Arizona State's Terrell Suggs terrorized offenses last year, setting a single-season NCAA record for quarterback sacks. Many wonder if the lanky pass rusher can hold up as an every-down defensive end in the NFL. Besides good workouts, scouts will also be hoping that Suggs will be "overweight" when he tips the scales prior to taking the field. Defensive tackle Jimmy Kennedy of Penn State, teammate Michael Haynes, and Dwayne Robertson of Kentucky all stand to benefit from solid workouts which will move them into the early reaches of round one.

This, of course, assumes that the top prospects actually participate in the workouts. As is the case every February, many of the invitees will not participate during the combine's workout portion and will wait for the "Pro-Days" offered by their respective universities. No matter how much the collective group of prospects is prodded to take part in all of the events at the RCA Dome, agents will bend the ears of their clients to opt for workouts in more favorable conditions.

Medical examinations also play a crucial role throughout the next week. Teams will want to check the oft-injured knee of Georgia's Boss Bailey, the surgically repaired back of Maryland's EJ Henderson, the fused vertebrae in the neck of Tennessee wide out Kelley Washington, and most importantly, the reconstructed knee of former Miami running back Willis McGahee. A red flag for injury could spell doom for a potential draft pick and result in a drastic downgrade of his ratings as teams try to avoid investing millions of dollars in damaged goods.

Then there are the surprise performances from under-publicized players, prospects who will watch their draft stock soar after exceeding expectations. Several lesser-known invitees fall into that category this weekend.

Memphis State product Wade Smith is a relatively unknown player who is highly spoken of in scouting circles. A superior athlete, Smith has the ability to play three different positions on the offensive front and has even lined up at tight end in college. Impressive performances starting Friday could move Smith into the top 50 selections this April.

Mars Hill linebacker Kahlid Abdullah, receiver Ryan Hoag of Gustavus Adolphus, and Cliff Washburn, the athletic defensive end representing the Citadel, can all state their case this weekend.

They say, "first impressions last a lifetime"; but when it comes to the NFL Draft, last impressions are what the decision makers working the franchise war rooms will remember as they phone in their final selections, starting April 26th. What happens this week in Indianapolis will be a big factor in those final choices.

Tony Pauline
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