- John Clayton, NFL senior writer
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Indianapolis hosted perhaps the best-run Super Bowl in the game's 46-year run. This week's return to Indy for the NFL scouting combine should be a breeze.
A total of 327 draft prospects started converging on downtown Indianapolis on Wednesday to be poked, probed and tested by NFL teams in the next seven days.
More than just draft research, the combine is to pro football what the winter meetings are to baseball.
With the official league year starting shortly after the conclusion of the combine, teams will start talking trades, determining the value of potential free agents, working on getting under the salary cap and making other plans for the 2012 season.
Virtually every scout, coach, general manager, agent and most of the top draft prospects will be in town. Here are 10 things to watch in the 2012 combine.
1. Figuring out the quarterback hierarchy: Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck is expected to go to the Indianapolis Colts as the first pick in the draft. Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III is the next quarterback pick, and, if the Rams can begin shopping his talents, a team will move up to the No. 2 selection to take him. But who's No. 3? Most teams have different ratings on the quarterbacks behind Luck and Griffin. The list includes Ryan Tannehill of Texas A&M, Brandon Weeden of Oklahoma State, Brock Osweiler of Arizona State, Kirk Cousins of Michigan State and Nick Foles of Arizona.
Luck and Griffin might run 40-yard dashes, but they won't be throwing Sunday, reserving their shows for their pro days in March. Tannehill is injured and won't work out. The rest of the quarterbacks need to do as much as they can to sort out this year's class. Each has to overcome questions. For Weeden, it's his age. He's going to be a 28-year-old rookie. If Osweiler measures out close to 6-foot-8, that could be a negative because very few quarterbacks that tall succeed. A good combine could help Cousins and Foles improve some second- and third-round grades.
2. Placing the running backs: It's tough to be a running back these days. The move to a passing league has devalued featured backs. Mark Ingram won the Heisman Trophy in 2010, but that netted him only the 28th pick in the first round, when the Saints traded up to get him. The next back didn't go until the 38th pick.
This year's backs will be battling similar problems. Trent Richardson of Alabama is clearly the best back in the draft. In many circles, he's a top-10 pick. But he either has to run a good 40 time or convince a top-15 team in need of a running back that he's too valuable to pass up. As with the quarterback position, the combine starts the battle to see who is the No. 2 back and whether that back merits first-round consideration. Among the candidates are Lamar Miller of the University of Miami, Chris Polk of Washington, David Wilson of Virginia Tech and Doug Martin of Boise State.
3. QB-WR match game: A recent successful trend has been drafting a big, fast wideout to become the go-to receiver for a talented, young quarterback. The Falcons traded up to acquire Julio Jones to help out Matt Ryan. The Bengals had instant success putting A.J. Green with Andy Dalton. The Calvin Johnson-Matthew Stafford and Andre Johnson-Matt Schaub pairings created major problems for defenses.
Justin Blackmon of Oklahoma State is considered the best receiver in a deep class of pass-catchers. The Rams found out last season that they lacked the receiving threats to advance the development of Sam Bradford. They have the second pick in the draft and could trade down to a team that needs Griffin, but trading down too much could cost them Blackmon. The Panthers, a team that used to emphasize defense and the running game, advanced into the quarterback age last season with the success of Cam Newton. They might be willing to trade up to get Blackmon.
4. Hot corners: One of the highlights of the upcoming draft is the depth at cornerback. More than 10 corners could go in the first two rounds. Because recent combines have been on television, corners have treated combines like track meets. They train hard, and, if they have speed, they don't fear running at the combine. More defenses are looking for man-to-man corners, and the bigger and faster the better.
Taller cornerbacks such as Dre Kirkpatrick of Alabama, Stephon Gilmore of South Carolina and Trumaine Johnson of Montana could really help themselves with great workouts. Because there are so many good prospects at corner this year, the combine will start sorting out where they might go.
5. Figuring out the hybrids: Because quarterbacks are getting rid of the ball so quickly, the premium in drafts is finding pass-rushers. One of the problems, though, is determining whether they fit as a 3-4 linebacker or a 4-3 defensive end. Melvin Ingram of South Carolina and Courtney Upshaw of Alabama are 270-plus-pound linebacker prospects, but 4-3 teams such as the Seahawks have to watch the workouts carefully to see whether these players could work as defensive ends in a 4-3. Nick Perry of Southern Cal and Whitney Mercilus of Illinois are undersized defensive ends. Would they fit better in a 3-4? Their workouts could help the teams in need of pass-rushers answer those questions.
6. Bulking up the middle of offensive lines: Guards and centers do not get selected often in the first round because teams in need of blockers prioritize the tackle position. But the recent successes of interior blockers such as Maurkice Pouncey of the Steelers and Mike Iupati of the 49ers have allowed teams to appreciate guards and centers more in the first round.
That's what makes this an interesting combine for guards David DeCastro (Stanford) and Cordy Glenn (Georgia) and center Peter Konz (Wisconsin). DeCastro has the dimensions of a tackle, but, because he's so dominant in the middle, he could go in the top 15. Glenn (6-6, 346 pounds) could be switched to tackle. Konz (6-5, 315) is considered the best center prospect. With a few more teams shifting to the 4-3, the value of guards and centers to protect the pocket of the quarterback will influence this combine.
7. Competition at tackle: Matt Kalil of Southern Cal is considered the best offensive tackle in the draft and could go as high as the second pick if the Rams can't pull off a trade. Offensive line coaches will be hoping many offensive tackles work out to see which ones have the footwork to be a left tackle and protect the quarterback's blind side.
8. Will the great run on tight ends continue? Thanks to Vernon Davis, Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham and others, the NFL is in a golden era of tight end play. All of a sudden, it's hard to win without a top tight end who can stretch the seam or have a big presence in the middle of the field.
There are 14 tight ends at the combine, and all will be trying to prove themselves. Among the names to watch are Coby Fleener of Stanford, Dwayne Allen of Clemson and Orson Charles of Georgia. This doesn't appear to be a deep class, but the combine will begin to show whether it's a good one.
9. Franchises and franchise players: Starting Monday, teams with unsigned players will have 15 days to decide how they'll use the franchise tag. With agents for the top players here in Indianapolis, negotiations on long-term deals will be intense. With more than $700 million of cap room and more than 470 free agents, something has to give. Agents and general managers will be huddling up in coffee shops, restaurants and suites throughout the city.
10. Trade discussions, salary-cap cuts and Peyton Manning: The new collective bargaining agreement rolled back the value of top draft choices. Instead of six-year contracts that topped out at $78 million, the top pick settles for a $22 million, four-year deal. For the first time in years, teams won't fear trading into the top five. The Rams might as well set up a trading post to service teams such as Cleveland, Washington and Miami, which might want to trade up to acquire RG3.
It's not out of the question for swaps of draft picks to start as early as March, but the foundations of those discussions could start in Indianapolis. This week, teams should find out the final salary-cap number, which isn't supposed to go much higher than $120.375 million. And yes, the big offseason story remains Manning. Colts owner Jim Irsay could meet with Manning this week to sort out whether he will stay a Colt or be released.
John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.
The combine should provide clarity regarding how to rank the QB and RB classes, John Clayton writes.