To play or not to play? With our apologies to William Shakespeare, that is the REAL question around the NFL these days. Every year at this time, all 32 franchises spare nothing in terms of time, energy, staff, money and every other possible resource in an effort to gather as much information as possible on the available college talent at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis.
Yet every year, so many of the top prospects choose not to fully participate, concerned that a poor performance will hurt their draft status. Despite repeated assurances from NFL scouts that they can't hurt themselves, they can only help themselves, at the combine, many players remain skeptical. However, this year's crop of hopefuls, more than any other in recent memory, should take heed.
That's because the top of this year's draft appears to be wide open right now. There are no Peyton Mannings here, or even Eli Mannings or Ben Roethlisbergers, no Mario Williamses or Reggie Bushes. In fact, as of this writing, no one has stepped up and established himself as a sure-fire top-five pick in this draft.
What might be of even more concern to the teams sitting atop the draft board in April is that there don't seem to be any impact players at the positions that normally drive interest among the top picks. Pro-style quarterbacks, shutdown corners, franchise left tackles and dominant pass rushers are always in high demand and can command the high rookie salary of a top-five pick.
Boston College QB Matt Ryan is a possible top-10 pick, but his game film is too up and down to make him anything more than that, and he skipped the Senior Bowl, as did Louisville's Brian Brohm. Kansas CB Aqib Talib has earned high marks for his size and speed, but he doesn't tackle well, and no one else at that position has shown the whole package.
Everyone has Virginia DE Chris Long listed among the best players in the draft, and he has been very productive at the collegiate level, but some scouts are beginning to privately wonder whether he is maxed out already in terms of his size, strength and level of play. Michigan OT Jake Long has been sitting atop this draft for the better part of the past year, but under closer examination, several scouts believe he may be better suited as a run-blocking right tackle at the next level.
So what does all this mean from the players' perspective? It means these guys should get ready to play. It means they should take every opportunity to show themselves to NFL scouts and coaches, beginning with this weekend's workouts in Indy, because nothing is locked down. In the past, when there were players believed to be sure things at the top of the draft, they would sit back and try to avoid screwing it up. This year there are still a lot of opportunities for someone to step out and make himself "the guy."
So if none of the players mentioned above are in the top five, who is? Well, two of the early leaders come from an unlikely position, defensive tackle. LSU's Glenn Dorsey and Southern Cal's Sedrick Ellis have impressed scouts. In the past, the biggest and best players at the position haven't always shown a great motor, but both Dorsey and Ellis are great players who always give great effort.
Teams are sometimes leery about spending a high pick on a RB because a good back can be found in the later rounds (see Curtis Martin, Jets fans), but Arkansas' Darren McFadden is clearly a franchise talent. And keep an eye on another underclassman, Illinois' Rashard Mendenhall, who has earned high marks from many scouts.
Both Longs remain in the mix for now, but pay close attention to players with growth potential, like OTs Jeff Otah of Pittsburgh and Ryan Clady of Boise State and tweener DE/LB Vernon Gholston of Ohio State. All three are athletic, versatile, and have the ability to climb to the top of most draft boards, beginning with a strong performance this week.