NFL Combine set to open with wide range of storylines

| Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2014, 10:21 p.m.

The NFL Scouting Combine is where the separation starts, the decisions begin to formulate, the reputations are shed or earned.

And, sometimes, when first-rounders become third-rounders — and projected third-rounders become first-rounders.

The NFL's annual talent assessment camp begins Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, although the on-field workouts — the weightlifting, the shuttle runs, the sprints — don't start until Saturday. Remarkably, the televised workouts draw higher TV ratings than most college basketball, NBA and NHL games.

The Steelers, like every team, will send a full complement of executives, coaches and scouts to assess a talent pool that, on paper, looks to be the best in years — NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock said a top-20 pick this year could be as good as a top-10 pick a year ago.

It's a draft class that is quarterback-heavy again, with Teddy Bridgewater, Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles all of whom are seen as likely top-10 picks. A year ago, no QBs went in the first round.

There also is an abundance of offensive tackles and, in what might interest the Steelers, wide receivers and defensive backs. And there's a Pittsburgh angle that's not necessarily Steelers-driven. Pitt defensive lineman Aaron Donald hopes to show he's a first-round talent after sweeping college football's four major defensive postseason awards.

“I'm a believer in him (as a first-rounder), but some think he'll go (in the) second (round) because of a lack of length,” Mayock said. “The problem with defensive linemen (is they) don't win with moves and quickness, they can get stuck on blocks.”

The 6-foot-1, 285-pound Donald's arm length is a concern because it's difficult for linemen with shorter arms to gain leverage on 340-pound offensive tackles.

Penn State wide receiver Allen Robinson also hopes to move into the crowded mix of wide receivers who could go in the first round; like Donald, some NFL draft analysts have him as high as the late first round, but others drop him well into the second.

“He's a solid second-rounder with good strength and size,” Mayock said in a conference call. “But I want to see more burst and ability to separate.”

Some other storylines:

• Are Manziel, Bridgewater and Bortles all high first-rounders? Manziel won't throw at the combine, but Bortles — who thrust himself in the first-round picture with a monster senior season at Central Florida — plans to throw.

“Bridgewater is the most ready to play NFL-style quarterback in this draft,” Mayock said. “People think he (Bortles) has got the biggest arm, but I'm not sure if he does or not. I also think he's the least developed of the three.”

Of Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, Mayock said, “ I believe in the kid. I think he's going to be a top-10, if not a top-five pick. ... He's got that ‘it' factor. I don't think it matters if it's Cleveland, Seattle, Dallas, warm weather, cold weather.”

Manziel said the Texans, who own the No. 1 pick, will be making a huge mistake if they bypass him.

• Is Jadeveon Clowney a legitimate No. 1 overall pick? The South Carolina defensive end was the consensus top pick going into his senior season, but his production slipped from his junior season. To some in the league, that's a concern, but Mayock said he's better than former No. 1 pick Mario Williams.

“My biggest concern is just what's his mental makeup?” Mayock said. “How important is it to him, when he gets a paycheck, to become the best player in football? Or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire?”

• Will the Steelers focus on addressing glaring needs on defense (secondary, linebacker) or will they be tempted to concentrate on the elite wide receivers?

• Will Missouri defensive lineman Michael Sam be questioned at length about his recent disclosure that he's gay?

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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