Extra Points: Five players to watch at the NFL Combine
By John McMullen, NFL Editor
Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck need not argue this time of year. It's not rabbit season or duck season, it's draft season.
And this year the annual NFL selection process at New York City's Radio City Music Hall has been pushed back a couple weeks into May, meaning the various experts have a little more time to tell us exactly who is climbing up their boards and who is being dropped faster than a politician's promise after election day.
The draft process really ramps up with Senior Bowl week as prospects are poked and prodded in Mobile, Ala., looking for minute differences in size, speed, strength, quickness and mental aptitude.
The real start of "draft season," however, is when the top prospects gather in Indianapolis for the annual NFL Scouting Combine. Lucas Oil Stadium serves as the NFL's version of a stock exchange, the place where players can elevate their draft status or see their futures turned into toxic assets.
Here's a look at five players you should be keeping an eye on in Indy when things begin on Wednesday:
1. - Michael Sam - outside linebacker/defensive end, Missouri - Sam is on his way to becoming the first openly gay player in the NFL after announcing his sexual orientation earlier this month in a serious of media interviews.
"I am an openly, proud gay man," Sam, the SEC's 2013 co-defensive player of the year, told ESPN. "I understand how big this is. It's a big deal. No one has done this before. And it's kind of a nervous process, but I know what I want to be ... I want to be a football player in the NFL."
In Sam's mind, it was a necessary step because he had already confessed his sexuality to teammates at the Mizzou, a fact that any prospective employer would have likely been made aware of while doing due diligence.
"I didn't realize how many people actually knew, and I was afraid that someone would tell or leak something out about me," he said. "I want to own my truth. ... No one else should tell my story but me."
The undersized Sam is far behind teammate and fellow defensive end Kony Ealy as a prospect and was rated by most NFL teams as a mid- to late-round draft pick prior to the announcement, which has already generated significant publicity and is sure to spawn much more scrutiny for the team which actually drafts him.
That's not exactly a scenario most NFL coaches crave when comparing potential bubble prospects, but Sam will get his chance if he proves he has the athleticism to play in space. On the other hand, there is little question his draft stock will plummet in the coming weeks if he doesn't perform well in Indianapolis.
"I love the way he plays," Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops said when talking about Sam. "He's very explosive and plays with a great motor."
2. - Blake Bortles - quarterback, Central Florida - It's still early but Bortles is now in play to be the No. 1 overall selection. With Houston hiring Bill O'Brien as its new head coach, it's fair to project the Texans will be targeting a quarterback and this class really lacks a consensus top prospect at the position.
Bortles' stock has been rising in most mock drafts and it now looks as if he is legitimately in the mix. He's raw and his pocket presence is iffy, but prototypical physical traits including size, arm strength and athleticism have more than a few believing Bortles has a higher ceiling than either Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater or Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel.
"I'm not the fastest guy or I won't jump the highest or the furthest or any of that. But I've got (the previous combine results) ... and my goal is to be above that (average) in every single category," Bortles told the Orlando Sentinel.
3. - Zack Martin, offensive tackle, Notre Dame - Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Auburn's Greg Robinson are the elite left tackle prospects in this year's draft, but Martin really moved up on a lot of people's boards with an excellent Senior Bowl week.
"I was really impressed by how good a football player he is," draft analyst Mike Mayock said. "He's even better than I thought."
Martin, an Indianapolis native, is regarded as one of the safest picks in this draft with a lot of position flexibility and should solidify his first-round grade with a strong performance in his hometown.
"Is he a right tackle? Is he a guard? My answer ... is he's a football player, and next season he's going to start 16 games for somebody," Mayock added.
4. - Darqueze Dennard, cornerback, Michigan State - To some, Dennard projects as a top-tier press coverage player with the personality to be a lockdown corner at the next level.
He's certainly the most polished and pro-ready cornerback in this class but needs to prove he's not a one-trick pony. Zone coverage can be very intricate at times in the NFL and Dennard must demonstrate he has the versatility to drop off and handle other responsibilities in more varied defensive schemes.
"I'm really blessed, grateful and thankful for all the opportunities I've received (to this point)," Dennard said. "Seeing this doorway open, I'm really anxious to see how I will fit at the next level."
5. - Ra'Shede Hageman, defensive tackle, Minnesota - Outside the quarterback position, Hageman may be regarded as the biggest boom-or-bust type in this year's process.
"He's up and down. He looks like Tarzan sometimes, and he plays like Jane at other times," DraftInsider.net publisher Tony Pauline said when discussing the former Golden Gopher at the Senior Bowl. "He's got all the physical skills to be a completely dominant defensive lineman, but he'll make one or two good plays and then he'll disappear for stretches."
The 6-foot-6, 315-pound Hageman will hit every mark you're looking for athletically in Indy and may be the most physically imposing prospect besides South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. He will, however, have to explain why his film reeks of inconsistency and convince potential suitors that he is going to possess the kind of motor you need on every single play in the NFL. If that happens, Hageman's eventual landing spot may be in on the ground floor of the next Richard Seymour.
"Any team (could use him), whether you're playing a 3-4 or a 4-3 (defensive front), I think he has the skill set to play in both of those schemes," said Atlanta Falcons head coach Mike Smith, who mentored Hageman at the Senior Bowl.
02/17 11:27:36 ET