NFL Combine to showcase depth of 2014 draft class

Johnny Manziel of the Texas A&M Aggies waits

Johnny Manziel of the Texas A&M Aggies waits near the bench late in the fourth quarter during the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Kyle Field. (Nov. 9, 2013) (Credit: Getty)

NFL front-office executives and coaches will get a close-up look at the sport's top prospects as they convene in Indianapolis beginning Thursday for the annual Scouting Combine, where players are poked, prodded, interviewed and put through assorted drills and intelligence tests to get a better sense of their value for the upcoming draft, set for May 8-10 in New York.

It's considered an extremely strong draft class, thanks in part to a surge in underclassmen who have declared for the draft. A whopping 98 players with remaining college eligibility have been granted permission to enter the draft, adding to an already deep talent pool.

"Fom my perspective, this is the deepest and best draft class I've seen in probably 10 years," NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "That's been reinforced by most of the general managers and scouts I've talked to throughout the league. I had one GM tell me the other day that having a top 20 pick this year is very similar to having a top-10 pick last year ... You can get a quality player through three or four rounds."

While there isn't an abundance of blue-chip talent at quarterback, there are still a handful of intriguing prospects at the Combine. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater is considered the top quarterback, although Johnny Manziel of Texas A & M will be a hot commodity.

Manziel, the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner nicknamed "Johnny Football," will not throw at the Combine. Bridgewater said he remains undecided about whether to throw. Most top quarterback prospects elect not to throw at the Combine, choosing instead to throw at their school's respective pro day where the surroundings are more comfortable. At the Combine, they are put through a series of drills.

But another high-profile quarterback, Blake Bortles of Central Florida, has decided to throw at the Combine, in hopes of driving up his stock.

There is a major need at quarterback this season, with six of the eight teams at the top of the draft all looking for new passers. That includes Houston, which has the No. 1 overall pick, as well as Jacksonville (third overall), Cleveland (fourth), Oakland (fifth), Tampa (seventh) and Minnesota (eighth).

"Blake Bortles is kind of a bigger, stronger guy, and people think he's got the biggest arm," Mayock said. "I'm not sure if he does or not. I want to see him live. But I also think he's the least developed of the three. I think Bridgewater is the most ready to play NFL-style quarterback in this draft, and I think Manziel has got that 'it' factor, where I don't think it matters if it's Cleveland, Seattle, Dallas, warm weather, cold weather, whatever. I think he's just going to be who he is."

It's a deep wide receiver draft as well, with several blue-chip prospects available for teams in need of strong targets. That includes the Jets, who are expected to release Santonio Holmes and will look to add new receivers for second-year quarterback Geno Smith. Among the top-rated receivers are Marqise Lee of USC, Sammy Watkins of Clemson, Mike Evans of Texas A & M and Kelvin Benjamin of Florida State.

It's also a strong draft for offensive linemen, an area of need for the Giants. The tackles are led by Texas A & M's Jake Matthews, the son of Hall of Fame lineman Bruce Matthews.

Defensive line is another strength of this year's draft, featuring South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who has immense physical skills despite a sub-par season - at least statistically - in 2013.

Other top defensive line prospects include tackles Louis Nix of Notre Dame and Timmy Jernigan of Florida State, and ends Kony Ealy of Missouri, Scott Crichton of Oregon State and Dee Ford of Auburn.

Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, who acknowledged last weekend that he is gay and will likely become the first openly gay player in NFL history, also will be at the Combine. He is projected as a middle round pick, and will draw a huge crowd of reporters when he is available for interviews on Saturday.

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