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NFL Offseason Watch: Previewing the Combine

Mario Puig

Mario Puig

Mario sets the direction of RotoWire's college football and NFL draft content, with his other responsibilities primarily resting in those same subjects. He's a fan of Chip Kelly, James Harrison and David Bowie.

No pre-draft event is more significant than the NFL Combine, where scouts and general managers gather yearly to view the most highly regarded draft prospects participate in drills, interviews and other tests that hold potentially great sway over the order those prospects are ultimately drafted. This year's edition of the Combine begins Wednesday and runs through March 1.

Much will be revealed in the upcoming days, but let's first review what we might already know about the top offensive talents in the 2011 NFL Draft -- the players most likely to show up on your 2011 fantasy cheatsheets. Below we rank the the top-5 players at each fantasy position entering the event with brief analysis of what those players can do to improve their draft stock.

Of course, outside of a few players who have made their intentions known publicly, we have no way of knowing which prospects will participate in what capacities. Some of the players will make calculated decisions to avoid addressing certain questions about their games - perhaps the most common one being prospects who choose to run the 40-yard dash in more favorable pro day environments rather than the neutral (if not high-pressure) setting provided by the Combine.

Check back next week as we recap the implications of the events that wait in the days ahead. Analysis waits to be done both on the players who do participate and those who do not.

You can view the entire list of Combine invites here.

QUARTERBACK

1. Cameron Newton, Auburn (6-5, 250)

There are no questions about his measurables - he's huge, fast, strong-armed and an accurate passer. His character, however, will be heavily scrutinized. He needs to be mature enough to accept responsibility for whatever mistakes he might have made, and he needs to convince teams he's determined to stay clean going forward. He also needs to show teams he'll be able to learn the intricacies of NFL schemes.

Current grade: Top 10

2. Blaine Gabbert, Missouri (6-5, 235)

Like Newton, Gabbert hails from a spread offense that bears little resemblance to the tasks awaiting him on Sundays. The Missouri offense is very heavy on wideout screens, so a large portion of Gabbert's statistics came on play designs that simply won't work in the NFL. He'll need to show a natural ability to make intermediate and downfield throws in drills, and he'll need to show in interviews that he can pick up the complexities of the X's and O's the NFL will throw at him. At the moment, however, Gabbert reportedly does not plan to throw at the Combine. Questions will remain about his versatility as a passer until he performs in front of scouts, in any case, so he'll have nowhere to hide when the Missouri Pro Day comes around.

Current grade: Top-10 Pick

3. Jake Locker, Washington (6-3, 230)

Locker likely will show well in whatever drills involve a stopwatch, but he'll be under a great deal of pressure to make an impressive showing in the drills that gauge his accuracy as a passer. Unlike Newton and Gabbert, Locker comes from an offense that prepared him fairly well for the demands of an NFL offense, so he has that going for him. Playing in a pro-style offense doesn't give him a free pass when it comes to reading defenses, however, so he'll need to hold his own in that regard. He'll also need to convince teams that he has zero interest in pursuing a baseball career (he was drafted by the Anaheim Angels in 2009).

Current grade: First round

4. Ryan Mallett, Arkansas (6-6, 238)

Perhaps no prospect has more at stake in the pre-draft process than Mallett. His abilities on the field are highly impressive in many regards, especially his exceedingly rare arm strength and long list of accomplishments as a passer. But none of that matters if he can't show teams that he won't be a liability off the field. Mallett has long been followed by highly concerning rumors of both substance abuse issues and an abrasive personality, so he'll be under many microscopes this week. If the red flags fly, Mallett could be taken off more than a few draft boards.

Current grade: Incomplete

5. Colin Kaepernick, Nevada (6-6, 225)

Kaepernick played in a pistol offense in one of the weakest Division I conferences, so the former WAC superstar will have many questions to answer regarding his mechanics and ability to play in pro-style schemes. Like Locker, however, it'd be a disappointment if he didn't steal the show during timed drills, as Kaepernick is a brilliant athlete for a quarterback.

Current grade: Top 50

RUNNING BACKS

1. Mikel Leshoure, Illinois (6-0, 230)

The only thing standing in Leshoure's path to the first round is a nice showing in the 40-yard dash. Although he's accomplished as a pass-catcher and obviously more athletically gifted than most runners his size, there's a big difference between looking tough against Baylor and Northwestern and doing the same against an NFL defense. If Leshoure runs less than a 4.5, there will be little skepticism regarding the bruiser's ability to pull away from pro defenses. If he runs in the 4.55 range or slower, however, the second round might be his likely landing spot.

Current grade: Top 40

2. Mark Ingram, Alabama (5-10, 215)

Ingram is widely considered the top runner in the draft, as he had a great deal of success over three years as an SEC runner. Questions remain about his upside, however, so he could definitely make himself some money if he showed well in timed drills. A 40-yard dash of 4.45 seconds or less could be just the thing to keep him in the first round, but he risks losing attention to the likes of Leshoure, Ryan Williams, DeMarco Murray and others if he doesn't display enough upside as an athlete.

Current grade: Top 40

3. Johnny White, North Carolina (5-10, 205)

White is criminally underrated. Unfortunately for him, an event like the Combine might not do much to change that, because athleticism probably isn't his strong suit. It would surprise if he ran faster than a 4.55 in the 40-yard dash. For that reason, he probably won't go before the third day of the draft. Even if he remains obscure going into the 2011 season, however, don't be surprised if this guy comes out of nowhere and becomes the next Marion Barber (back when he was still good).

Current grade: 4th or 5th round

4. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech (5-11, 202)

Considering how wildly successful he was as a redshirt freshman in 2009, Williams' 2010 season was rather disastrous. His 4.33 yards per carry average and 10 total touchdowns from last year aren't exactly something to be ashamed of, but they were a major disappointment when you note that he ran for 1,655 yards (5.65 yards per carry) and totaled 22 touchdowns the year prior. He'll still need to show well in timed drills if he's going to alleviate the fears that he might be a one-year wonder.

Current grade: 2nd or 3rd round

5. DeMarco Murray, Oklahoma (6-1, 207)

With a rather lanky frame for a running back, Murray will need to show teams he can bulk up to the 215 range and still run no slower than the low-4.5 range in the 40-yard dash if he wants to solidify himself as second- or third-round pick. His natural abilities as a runner and highly advanced skills as a receiver could keep him in the first three rounds regardless, but his lengthy injury history could scare teams away if he doesn't demonstrate sufficient athletic upside.

Current grade: 2nd or 3rd round

WIDE RECEIVERS

1. A.J. Green, Georgia (6-4, 205)

Green is the top wideout prospect in the draft, and there's next to nothing other receivers can do to catch up. No matter what the stopwatches say - he's better than the next guy. Not only is he a no-brainer pick for the Browns at the sixth slot, but the Browns should be extremely grateful if he even lasts that long. If Green times in the mid 4.4s or better in the 40-yard dash, he could easily be a top-three pick. Even if he doesn't, there's more than enough film on Green to know he has highly unusual explosiveness for a player with his frame, which allows him to run routes with the precision and suddenness normally seen only in wideouts shorter than 6-foot.

Current grade: Top Six

2. Julio Jones, Alabama (6-4, 225)

As long as Jones doesn't tank in timed drills, he's got an excellent chance of going in the first 15 picks, particularly to St. Louis at 14th overall. He's a refined all-around wideout who doesn't really have any glaring strengths, but is equally lacking in weaknesses. If Jones burns up the track in timed drills, however, he has a chance to catapult himself higher in the draft order. Just not ahead of Green.

Current grade: Top 15

3. Torrey Smith, Maryland (6-1, 205)

Smith could make quite a bit of noise at the Combine. He shows great explosiveness on film, and it'd be hardly surprising if he's among the top performers in timed and positional drills alike. If Smith carries on the Maryland tradition of freakish workout performances (see: Randy Starks, Shawne Merriman, Vernon Davis, Bruce Campbell), it's not out of the question that he pushes Jones to be the second wideout selected. He's underrated at the moment.

Current grade: Top 20

4. Randall Cobb, Kentucky (5-11, 186)

Cobb is sort of the Rudy version of Percy Harvin. Although he seems to lack Harvin's rare athleticism, Cobb has the ability to terrorize opponents, which is limited only by the imagination of his coaches. He's dangerous in the following capacities: wide receiver, ballcarrier, wildcat quarterback, kick returner and punt returner. He's not so much a jack of all trades as much as he's a king. If he surprises and makes a big showing in timed drills, he could make a surprise showing in the middle or late first round.

Current grade: Top 45

5. Titus Young, Boise State (5-11, 175)

In a way, the Combine is a lose-lose situation for a player like Young. If he ranks first among all receivers with a 4.3 flat in the 40-yard dash, people will merely be unsurprised. If he runs a 4.4 or worse, everyone will be disappointed with him. In that sense, he faces a great deal of pressure this week. It's not often that being the best in a certain field doesn't grant you a promotion of some sort. The only way Young can clearly help himself is if he shows up closer to the 190 range and still burns up the track. He'd have a hard time falling out of the first round if he ran a 4.40 or better at that weight.

Current grade: Top 45

TIGHT END

1. Lance Kendricks, Wisconsin (6-4, 241)

A former top receiver recruit, Kendricks somehow transformed from an undersized receiving specialist to one of college football's elite blocking tight ends. Concerns over his size and strength fuel skepticism about his ability to carry that characteristic to the pro game. If Kendricks can push himself close to 250 and run a 4.65 or better in the 40-yard dash, he could go ahead of Kyle Rudolph, who's generally considered the top tight end by default. It's funny - Kendricks' abilities as a blocker have overshadowed the fact that he's a very good athlete for a tight end. Don't be shocked if the narrative increasingly becomes that Kendricks is a surprisingly more dangerous receiver than most assumed.

Current grade: Top 45

2. Kyle Rudolph, Notre Dame (6-6, 265)

Rudolph has already stated that he will not run at the Combine, so we unfortunately won't know a whole lot more about him at the event's conclusion. Rudolph will need to run well at Notre Dame's pro day if he is to validate the general assumption that he's the draft's top tight end, because he has rather concerning injury issues.

Current grade: Top 45

3. Lee Smith, Marshall (6-6, 267)

Smith is a former big recruit who ran himself out of Tennessee thanks to some questionable behavior, so he'll have to answer questions about his character. Assuming he checks out OK in the character department, a nice 40 time - let's say anything less than 4.75 - has a decent chance to put him in the third round.

Current grade: 4th round

4. Virgil Green, Nevada (6-5, 240)

Green is a prospect who could make some noise this week, as he figures to be one of the better athletes at tight end. He has work to do as far as convincing NFL teams that he can be as good a blocker as he is a receiver, though the Combine might not really afford him a chance to demonstrate much there.

Current grade: 4th or 5th round

5. Luke Stocker, Tennessee (6-6, 253)

Stocker primarily projects to a TE2, blocking specialist in the NFL, though the right workout times might convince a team or two otherwise. Still, the fact remains that he didn't do much as a receiver in college, and it's hard to see that changing in the NFL.

Current grade: 4th or 5th round