Though the annual NFL scouting combine has been slow to change through the years, change has been an important part of its growth.
Indianapolis was chosen as the event's permanent site in 1987. Location made it a perfect marriage. Teams doctors had enough close hospital facilities at which they could conduct the necessary MRIs and other tests of prospects' health. Indianapolis has enough hotel space clustered so that all combine activities are within a short walk.
But, like with every annual event, change must happen. Scouts and general managers were reluctant to put combine events on television, but the exposure on the NFL Network each year encourages more players to run and workout. The change this year is the result of adjusting to the dynamics of the new collective bargaining agreement.
Combine 2014 is the first major test of how the draft classes are getting younger. In 2011, the union and the owners agreed to a no-nonsense collective bargaining agreement that totally slotted the salaries of draft choices for four years.
Under the new economic landscape, draft-eligible players, encouraged by agents, are turning pro younger. In 2012, 65 underclassmen left college. Last year, the number jumped to 73. This year, a record 98 underclassmen put in paperwork to turn pro. On top of that, four juniors, including Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, entered the 2014 draft after graduating early.
A record 85 underclassmen are among the 335 players invited to the combine. If the underclassmen test and interview well, 18-20 of them could be drafted in the first round.
There is a good and bad to this trend. For 2014, the draft will be richer and deeper for talent. But as some point, the constant reach into the future will catch up and create a draft or two that won't be great.
This year's combine, which starts Wednesday, is loaded with great stories.
• Houston, Jacksonville and Cleveland are among the top four in the draft's first round and are looking for quarterbacks. Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, Bridgewater and Blake Bortles of Central Florida are considered the top three quarterbacks. Will three quarterbacks go in the first four picks? It's possible. But those three teams will consider trading to lower parts of the top 10 to acquire additional picks. Those conversations and evaluations will begin this week. The other quarterback to watch is Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois. He impressed scouts at the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl and is the hottest rising quarterback in the draft.
• Some of the top defensive players could be workout warriors who could excite scouts during the weekend. Jadeveon Clowney, who is 6-foot-5 and 274 pounds, vows to run a 4.4 40 this week. Linebackers Anthony Barr from UCLA and Khalil Mack of Buffalo are also expected to post good numbers if they run. Pass-rushers and linebackers with great workouts could lock up top-10 draft positions.
• The trend of tall or fast receivers continues. Sammy Watkins of Clemson, who is 6-1, 205 pounds, is considered one of the better receivers to top the draft in the past couple of years, but not far behind are 6-5 Mike Evans from Texas A&M and 6-0 Marqise Lee of USC. Six or seven receivers are projected as possible first-round picks.
• Last year, Manti Te'o of Notre Dame had the most anticipated news conference because of the imaginary girlfriend story that had evolved over a two-year period. This year, Michael Sam, defensive end from Missouri, made the announcement that he is a gay. At the combine, he will be asked to discuss his announcement.
• As always, the combine will be filled with negotiations. Franchise tags are expected to be down in number this year, so more players are expected to hit the free-agent market. Teams will discuss plans for re-signing players and free agency.
Steve in Anchorage, Alaska
A: It can play a factor. Theoretically, states such as Florida, Texas and Washington have an advantage. If you crunch the numbers, a player can keep more of the money that he earns. But I don't know if a lot of players pay attention to it. Contracts a lot of times are ego driven. Players often want the highest average and biggest signing bonus without paying attention to the tax consequences. The good agents, though, pay attention to it. Players are asked to pay some state tax when they visit states that demand it. That's why I always say it's important to have a good agent. Ultimately, it's not what you make that's important, it's what you keep.
Q: S.F. seems to have an embarrassment of riches with draft picks and not much roster space (or playing time) for developmental prospects. Any rumblings about trading picks for position (see Atlanta, 2011, for Julio Jones)? Or trading for future picks? Have you heard any talk, or are we going to have to wait until draft day to see how they play it?
Matt S. in Las Vegas
A: I don't see the 49ers putting together some blockbuster trade of draft choices to move up high and do something bold. Sure, they like quality, but they also like the quantity of draft choices to make their roster a little younger. The 49ers are under pressure to come up with a great draft. They have to see if they can jump ahead of the Seahawks in the NFC West. Arizona and St. Louis are knocking on the door behind them.
Q: Is Ndamukong Suh going to be the tipping point for the Lions and the team's cap? If the Lions do nothing to his deal this year, he'll be 20 percent of the team's salary and it would be hard to sign free agents or improve the team. If they sign him to a long-term deal, hopefully for around $15 million annually, it would put them with three players making roughly $45 million per year. Is signing him a good deal, or should they let him walk after this year? No doubt he is a great player.
Shane in Grand Rapids, Mich.
A: Signing him to a long-term deal to reduce this year's cap number would be preferred, but you raise a great point. Matthew Stafford, Calvin Johnson and Suh are among the highest-paid players in the league at their positions. They also are among the most talented at their positions. The Lions had to lose a lot of games to be in the position to draft Suh, so letting him go when he's still young and in his prime would be difficult. Keeping all three does create cap issues. If there is a way to keep Suh around $12 million a year, that would help. It's hard to pay a defensive tackle like you pay a quarterback.
Q: I'm a die-hard Bengals fan and I'm tired of seeing them not moving further in the playoffs. If the Bengals don't get past the first round next year or don't make the playoffs at all, do you see Marvin Lewis getting fired?
A.C. from Miamisburg, Ohio
A: If the Bengals make the playoffs, Mike Brown and the organization will stay behind Lewis and his staff. Still, he has been there more than 10 years, and that's a long time to stay for a coach. I think the coordinator change from Jay Gruden to Hue Jackson will lead to more of a run-oriented offense during the playoffs. Jackson will emphasis the run more than Gruden did, which could help them win a playoff game and take some pressure off Lewis.
Q: Were the 2000s a golden age for left tackles? Walter Jones was recently elected to the Hall of Fame and it got me thinking of the great LTs of that decade. Jonathan Ogden was enshrined last year. Willie Roaf in 2012. There were many other high quality LTs as well, such as Orlando Pace. There are great LTs now and in other decades, but it seems like the quality and quantity for great LTs of the 2000s is hard to top.
Kevin in Washington, D.C.
A: You are 100 percent right. The increased use of tight ends as pass-catchers changed football. Jones, Ogden and others were on an island at left tackle, blocking the best pass-rusher of an opposing team without the help of a back or a tight end. Their ability to handle the left tackle position allowed tight ends and running backs to go out in pass routes more. It opened up offenses. The Hall of Fame selections of Ogden, Roaf and Jones were the first rewarding a great era of blockers.
Q: Why are people undermining the significance of what Michael Sam is doing? There has never been an openly gay athlete in any of the four major sports. Look at what Jonathan Vilma said just one month ago. Sam's announcement is not only important for sports, but for the whole gay community. Look, much has changed. I hope in the future football players can be football players, period. And I hope people will respect people.
Benjamin, Lakeland, Fla.
A: You couldn't be any more right in what you are saying. We all knew it was going to take time for such acceptance, but I guess we shouldn't be surprised. Vilma's comments were made before Sam's announcement, and Vilma went on the defensive after the fact. I think the NFL, general managers, coaches and the union did a great job of saying the right things in welcoming Sam into the NFL. Let's hope it continues. The hope is a player is accepted for the way he plays not the way he lives. I give credit to Sam for his courage in making the announcement.