NFL personnel men call the NFL Combine just a part of the process in assessing the year's crop of available talent. It's added in along with all the player reports, game tape review and background information that scouts diligently compile for the better part of nine months. For some of the prospects themselves however, how they perform this week may carry the greatest impact in changing where they come off the board the last full weekend in April.
The position group most affected is the wide receiver position, and where some with question marks must deliver is in the 40-yard dash. Obviously any NFL club would prefer a wideout with more speed. At issue with some of the better receivers in this year's talent pool is whether the big wideouts have enough speed.
"An awful lot of big wide receivers that are going to have to run well at the combine to help their status," said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock. "Big and fast is good, big and slow is bad. The bottom line is either at the combine or pro day they've got to run well."
Mayock has Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, Baylor's Kendall Wright, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, LSU's Rueben Randle and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery as his top five receiver prospects. Floyd, Randle and Jeffery would qualify as "big" wideouts as all stand 6'2" or taller and weigh more than 205 pounds.
Their size advantage in college is what led to a good portion of their production. In the NFL they will have to show they can offer more than just size. The top five receiver carrying the greatest concern is Jeffery. With rumors of weight gain circulating there are concerns his speed will suffer this week.
"He's got the size and the hands," said ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper. "The speed is the issue. How he runs at the combine or in an individual workout will determine if he's a mid one or a late one. There are concerns about speed, just as there are about a lot of these junior receivers and particularly the bigger receivers."
"I don't have Alshon Jeffery with a first round grade," said Mayock. "On tape he doesn't separate and struggles getting off press coverage. When big receivers are not sudden and don't have great acceleration, and in the NFL everything is going to be contested and that's where you get nervous with some of those big-bodied guys. If you can't get open is every throw going to be contested?"
Blackmon is the consensus top receiver in the draft class this year. He's a virtual lock to be a top 10 draft choice, but how he runs this week will still be scrutinized.
"He can run forever, has great stamina and great endurance," said Kiper. "If you run a slower 40 it's a red flag and then he ends up eighth or 10th instead of a top five pick by not running the 40 time."
"As far as Blackmon is concerned I think you have to look at him like Larry Fitzgerald a few years ago," said Mayock. "I don't think he's going to run a great 40. I think he's going to run a 4.5 or a 4.52, somewhere in there. I think you have to say that's okay. He's big, he's physical and has tremendous body control and tremendous ball skills. I don't think he's going to be a guy that wows you with vertical speed, but his body control, hands and ability to catch the football are exceptional."
There are some other large-framed receivers expected to come off the board in the first three rounds whose 40 times will carry weight. Rutgers' Mohamed Sanu and Texas A&M's Jeff Fuller are other big wideouts who need to post a good 40 time to ease concerns.
"Now keep in mind that Sanu had 115 catches this year and some of them were of the sick variety," said Mayock. "Really impressive, one-handed, beautiful catches. He's a guy I want to like and want to believe in, but like Jeffery he's not sudden and he doesn't have great acceleration. What those kind of guys run is important."
So what kind of 40 time do the big-bodied receivers need to turn in to quell the doubters?
"To me they should come in no higher than 220 (pounds) and they need to run somewhere in those mid-4.5s. You start seeing 4.6 or 4.65 it's going to be a problem."
Other prospects that must performAt other positions there are prospects that must excel athletically to overcome some physical limitations, while others must impress physically to force NFL clubs to overlook a lack of consistent production or some off the field concerns.
"Whitney Mercilus is an athlete who can rush the passer and probably play on his feet," said Kiper. "People are going to look and see if he can play outside in a 3-4. He was a one-year wonder now so he's going to have to have a strong workout because he was a one-year guy. He became a dynamic pass rusher in his fifth season only. If his workouts equate to what they need to be and what they think he is I think he goes between 22 and 32."
"I think a guy like LaMichael James from Oregon," said Mayock of the 5'9" 195-pound waterbug back. "An underclassmen that we've seen in one style of offense. I'd love to see him come out and show what kind of movement skills he has. Not only in the 40, which I expect him to be exceptional at, but the cone drills and football drills.
"Luke Kuechley, the inside linebacker, if he runs 4.7 in that range he'll be a top 15 pick. If he runs 4.8 or worse it'll be a problem. Then at defensive back where the combine is all about speed and quickness. A guy like Leonard Johnson at Iowa State, I think he plays better than he times, but if he times poorly he could be a fourth-round pick instead of a second-round pick."