INDIANAPOLIS -- Who’s the best athlete? The best quarterback? How about the emergence of the read-option and whether it will impact this year’s NFL draft and free agency? A rundown of 9 story lines, none of them related to Manti Te’o, from the NFL combine:
1. WHO’S NO. 1? Expect another shake-up atop the draft board after this weekend’s craziness. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei went home after being diagnosed with a heart condition, cornerback Dee Milliner is preparing for shoulder surgery and offensive tackle Eric Fisher appears to be closing the gap on Luke Joeckel, the presumptive No. 1 pick (hello, Kansas City?). Some analysts are moving guard Chance Warmack and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd into the top five.
2. MEDICAL EXAMS: Nothing is more important at the combine than passing a physical, and nothing can hurt a draft prospect’s stock faster than a bad exam. Just ask Lotulelei, who has generally been ranked in the top three since the college season ended. After doctors diagnosed the Utah star with a heart condition, he was sent home to see a specialist. Before he even left town, some teams were already saying he’d be off their draft board if he couldn’t get cleared.
3. GOING DEEP. Teams looking for an Andrew Luck or a Robert Griffin III or even a Jake Long will be hard pressed to find a franchise anchor at the top of the 2013 draft. That means the big winners will be the teams looking to fill in around Luck, Griffin or Cam Newton because this year’s talent pool runs deep. And teams may find more value in dealing for Alex Smith or Matt Flynn than drafting Geno Smith or Matt Barkley, and those rumors are already flying.
4. HOLD THE LINE. Coaches and general managers often talk about building teams around the line of scrimmage. This year, they can show they mean it. Of the 333 players who attended this week’s combine, 112 (33.6 percent) were either offensive or defensive linemen. Fans might want to start learning names like Corey Lemonier (Auburn DE) and Eric Herman (Ohio OL).
5. CHECK IT OUT. This year’s rookie class will keep the NFL’s background checkers busy through draft weekend. There are plenty of concerns that need to be sorted out, from drug use and alcohol abuse to academic woes and criminal allegations. Teams want some sort of certainty that they’re not going to be risking too much by using a high pick on a talented player such as Alec Ogletree (DUI arrest on Feb. 16) and then having to contend with more problems.
6. BELIEVE YOUR EYES. Fans become enamored with things like times in the 40-yard dash and the number of reps players have on the bench press. Scouts prefer to look at the tape. The reality is the workout warriors (see Mike Mamula) in shorts don’t always meet the expectations in pads. Don’t believe it? Here are the top five 40 times since 2000: Trindon Holliday, Jacoby Ford, Chris Johnson, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Demarcus Van Dyke.
7. FEEL-GOOD STORIES. Defensive lineman Walter Stewart of Cincinnati and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones were told they would have to give up football in college after doctors discovered congenital spinal conditions. Both have been cleared to play and hope to embark on NFL careers. Then there’s defensive back D.J. Hayden, who tore a heart vein in a practice collision in November and was rushed into surgery. He’s now on verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream.
8. QB QUANDARY. While there is debate about who will be the first quarterback taken this year -- Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Geno Smith or someone else -- few analysts believe there’s a top-10 QB available.
9. SEC RULES. No conference has been better at winning national championships over the last decade and now the SEC’s domination is carrying over to the NFL. The SEC easily had the highest number of players at the combine (73), and could have the highest total of first-round picks in April, too, thanks in large part to the contingents from Alabama and LSU. The ACC had the second-most invites (43), with the Pac-12 third (38).