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NFL draft prospects ready to be drilled, grilled and tested at combine

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith (12) celebrates a

West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith (12) celebrates a touchdown during the first half of the Orange Bowl NCAA college football game against Clemson. (Jan. 4, 2012) Credit: AP

INDIANAPOLIS -- Part science, part gut feeling -- and yes, part dart throwing -- the NFL's annual exercise in figuring out which prospects will shine and which ones will fail begins this week at the scouting combine. It is here at Lucas Oil Stadium, home of the Colts, where the league will poke, prod, measure, interview and analyze 333 draft-eligible players in a series of tests -- both physical and psychological -- to determine how teams will rank the prospects in advance of the April draft.

Future stars and future busts invariably will be determined in the coming years. Now is when this most intriguing job interview process begins for players dreaming of playing at the highest level of the sport. Almost all the players gathered here will participate in a series of drills -- including the 40-yard dash, the three-cone drill and position-specific practice routines -- all before the watchful eyes of scouts and coaches representing the league's 32 teams. They also will be examined closely by NFL doctors, who will check for injuries or other medical issues that might affect their playing status.

Like all draft classes, this year's group features an elite collection of players widely perceived as blue-chip prospects, and dozens of others with impressive, if somewhat less certain, attributes.

The Giants and Jets certainly hope to find some answers in the draft, and both teams have sent a full complement of executives, scouts and coaches to get a look-see at the prospects. Both teams recently released several prominent veterans -- the Jets waived Bart Scott, Calvin Pace and Eric Smith, while the Giants released Ahmad Bradshaw, Chris Canty and Michael Boley -- so they're on the lookout for younger, cheaper players to replace those older, more expensive players.

And the strength of this year's draft, considered to be the offensive and defensive lines, safety and linebacker, may dovetail with the Giants' and Jets' needs.

But there's something different this year: Compared to most other draft classes, there really isn't a consensus among scouts about which players are truly deserving of the highest grades. That likely will result in a widely divergent view of the players among scouts and coaches.

"I'm really impressed with the depth of this draft, but with the top 10 [prospects], I don't see the difference-makers like we've had the last several years," said draft expert Mike Mayock of the NFL Network. "The quick snapshot in this draft is more depth, but not quite the difference makers."

Unlike last year, for instance, there isn't a marquee group of quarterbacks. Last year, it was a forgone conclusion that Stanford's Andrew Luck and Baylor's Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III would be the first two picks. Luck, the first pick, wound up going to the Colts and leading them to the playoffs, while Griffin, picked second, helped the Redskins to the postseason and won The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Third-round quarterback Russell Wilson emerged as a star with the Seahawks, and first-rounder Ryan Tannehill of the Dolphins showed promise.

This year, the top two quarterback prospects are Geno Smith of West Virginia and Matt Barkley of USC. But there's no telling where they'll end up. Could Smith be picked No. 1 overall by the quarterback-starved Chiefs? Or will he fall to the middle of the first round or even later?

Will Barkley, who might have been a top 10 quarterback had he come out after his junior season in 2011, be a high first-round pick? Or will a disappointing 2012 season and a shoulder injury push him further down? Or might Syracuse's Ryan Nassib sneak past one of them?

"Geno Smith could be a top 10 pick in some people's eyes, but to me, he and Barkley are more like [between picks] 20-32," Mayock said.

Smith is expected to take part in all drills at the combine, while Barkley has decided to wait until his pro day next month, thus allowing his shoulder more time to heal.

The combine also will provide an opportunity for scouts to get to know players albeit briefly through a series of 15-minute interviews. Those meetings will be especially important to players with question marks about their personalities. The two most highly publicized prospects to keep an eye on: Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who gained notoriety after he said he was duped by an online impostor pretending to be a woman, and former LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011 who was kicked off the team before last season because of repeated violations of the school's substance-abuse policy.

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