INDIANAPOLIS — There will be intrigue, just as there is every year with the NFL scouting combine, as the nation's top college football prospects look to turn the heads of their future employers with size, speed and strength.
But this year's event promises a little history to go along with the mystery.
Missouri defensive end Michael Sam, on track to become the first openly gay NFL player, will be working out for teams, as will a record 103 players who opted to forgo their senior seasons and make the early plunge into the draft pool.
Fitting for a passing league, this class knows how to go deep — as in a host of quality players at virtually all positions, among them quarterback, a notable change from a year ago when three of the first four picks were offensive tackles, and only one quarterback (EJ Manuel, taken 16th by Buffalo) was selected in the opening round.
Draft expert Mike Mayock of NFL Network said this is likely the deepest class in 10 years.
"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," Mayock said.
Of course, just as being selected in the first round is no guarantee of success, plenty of players selected in later rounds — or not picked at all — have reached the top. For instance, Super Bowl winning quarterback Russell Wilson was almost an afterthought two years ago, going in the third round to Seattle.
Regardless, for many players, the upward climb begins here, at Lucas Oil Stadium, where for the next week more than 300 prospects will be measured, weighed, timed, examined, evaluated and interviewed, with their career dreams hanging in the balance.
Among the combine story lines…
Increasingly rare are the highly touted quarterbacks who actually throw at the combine, with most opting to go through the paces for scouts in the comfy confines of their campus pro days. This combine is no different, as Central Florida's Blake Bortles is expected to throw for teams in Indianapolis, whereas Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel and Fresno State's Derek Carr plan to wait for their pro days. Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater has yet to say whether he plans to throw at the combine.
The Houston Texans have the No. 1 pick, and they're in need of a quarterback. Mayock said he would take Bridgewater over Manziel at this point, saying the Louisville standout is the "most ready to play in an NFL-style offense."
"He understands three-step, five-step," Mayock said. "He reads more than just half a field. So you can put the tape on and watch him do things and say, yeah, that translates to the next level. He's not as much a wild card as Manziel, and I think he's more developed in his reads and throws than Bortles."
Will the defense rest?
Among the most intriguing prospects in the class is South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, a 6-foot-5, 274-pound pass rusher who figures to strike fear in the hearts of offensive tackles (along with quarterbacks and offensive coordinators).
Mayock says Clowney is a better football player than Mario Williams was when the Texans made the North Carolina State defensive end the No. 1 pick in the 2006 draft.
Mayock said from a physical standpoint, Clowney is "as freaky as they come" and can play in multiple spots. But he added, "My biggest concern is just what's his mental makeup and how important is it to him when he gets a big paycheck to become the best player in football, or is he just going to be happy to be a millionaire."
South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier told NFL Network Clowney's work ethic is "OK" but added, "When the ball is snapped, he's got something no one else has."
UCLA has had one first-round pick in the last five years (defensive end Datone Jones, 26th in 2013), and USC was shut out of the first round last year for just the fourth time in 12 drafts. This year, both schools have elite prospects in Bruins outside linebacker Anthony Barr and Trojans receiver Marqise Lee. Each is a potential top-10 pick.
Saga of Sam
Missouri's Sam was the 2013 defensive player of the year in the Southeastern Conference and certainly figures to draw a huge media audience when he steps up to the podium for his press availability because of his recent announcement about his sexual orientation.
But he isn't expected to make as much of a splash in the draft, as he's widely regarded as a "tweener," a player not fast enough or good enough in coverage to play linebacker in the pros, and one too stout to be a dominant defensive end. Mayock sees him as a mid-round pick who can develop into a situational pass rusher and core special-teams player, noble goals but underwhelming for someone deemed the best defensive player in an outstanding conference.
Then again, the draft is more than two months away. The combine is where minds can begin to change.