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NFL combine viewer's guide: The race for QB1 and other 2017 draft storylines

Before you see a single 40-yard dash, here's what to watch for as hundreds of prospects descend on Lucas Oil Stadium for a series of workouts and interviews that could tell us plenty about the 2017 draft.  

This may be the toughest stop for NFL prospects, en route to the glitz and glamour of the draft. The league’s annual scouting combine in Indianapolis is a grueling job interview that puts over 300 of those prospects through the ringer, both on and off the field.

Here are a few questions that will be answered as the event unfolds:

Which quarterback will steal the show?

If you’ve paid even a modicum of attention to the 2017 QB class, you’re probably aware of the presumed big four: Deshaun Watson, Mitch Trubisky, Patrick Mahomes and DeShone Kizer.

Trubisky and Mahomes seem to be carrying the most momentum into combine week, with Mahomes even starting to hear some QB1 chatter. The Texas Tech product could go a long way toward locking himself into Round 1 by performing well at Lucas Oil Stadium. All of those presumed top four quarterbacks should hold their own in athletic testing—it’s an intriguing group, in that regard.

But while it could be tough for any one of Watson, Trubisky, Mahomes or Kizer to pull away from the field this week, the combine will present a chance for the rest of the QB class to open some eyes. Pittsburgh’s Nathan Peterman already has something of a scout fan club off a solid week at the Senior Bowl, while Miami’s Brad Kaaya really can only help himself in the coming days. If he struggles, it would be viewed as a mere continuation of his 2016 season; if he excels, Kaaya may force a few teams to circle back on his tape.

Keep an eye on Virginia Tech’s Jerod Evans and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs. Both ought to put up solid scores in the athletic tests, and Dobbs also earned himself mostly positive marks off the Senior Bowl. The most important part of the week for QBs (aside from medical checks), though, happens off the field, in team meeting rooms. Quarterback prospects who shine there always receive a post-combine bump.

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Who can challenge Chris Johnson’s 4.24?

Johnson didn’t even have to break a sweat protecting his combine-record 40-yard dash time last year—no prospect clocked in under 4.3, with Georgia’s Keith Marshall landing the event’s fastest time at 4.31. There have been other challengers in recent memory, though: J.J. Nelson (4.28 in 2015), former Olympic long jumper Marquise Goodwin (4.27 in 2013) and Dri Archer (4.26 in 2014).

The potential threats this year are led by Washington WR John Ross and Florida State WR Kermit Whitfield, both of whom should be around the 4.3 threshold. Ross recently told The MMQB’s Emily Kaplan that he ran a laser-timed 4.3 in mid-February; Whitfield was a decorated high-school sprinter and averaged better than 22 yards per kick return as a Seminole.

The other contender is USC’s Adoree' Jackson, who could wind up being the Byron Jones of this year’s combine—Jones rocketed himself into Round 1 two years ago with eye-popping showings like a 147-inch broad jump and 44.5-inch vertical.

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Which prospect(s) will rise into Round 1 territory this week?

Well, Jackson, for one. Not only did he pick off five passes during his final USC season, he also produced ridiculous numbers as a return man (29.5 yards per kick return, 15.8 yards per punt return, four touchdowns).

Virginia Tech WR Isaiah Ford could join Jackson in drumming up Round 1 buzz once this week wraps. Frankly, it’s overdue for Ford. He’s raw and rail-thin, at 6' 2" and 195 lbs., but Ford also punishes defenses on the deep ball. If he manages to weigh in at 200 pounds or above and then runs a fast 40 time, he could sneak into the back half of the top 32 picks.

A couple more Senior Bowl stars that should test well: Houston OLB Tyus Bowser and Temple LB Haason Reddick. Bowser split time between football and basketball during his first two college seasons—if you’ve watched any football games on TV, you know how coveted that basketball background is. Reddick, meanwhile, was a running back and then a DB before Temple converted him to an undersized, speedy edge rusher.

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How big of a storyline will the players who aren’t there be?

The NFL’s attempt to crack down on prospects with violent incidents in their pasts (especially of the domestic nature) left Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon, Ole Miss WR Damore’ea Stringfellow and Baylor WR Ishmael Zamora off the invite list for this year’s combine. Ole Miss QB Chad Kelly also won’t be in attendance, reportedly having been uninvited after initially landing among the 330 prospects welcomed to Indianapolis.

Many of the league’s head coaches and GMs will hold 15-minute combine press conference between Wednesday and Friday (Cincinnati’s Marvin Lewis is the only one scheduled for Friday), and the topic of this semi-official combine ban is sure to come up. Will anyone openly criticize it? While obviously intended as punishment for past transgressions, blocking the likes of Mixon and Kelly from the combine will force teams to do more digging on their own. It also, in some ways, shields those players from the media, as they won’t be around to hold their mandatory interview sessions.

Expect the players who dodged the updated rule to be grilled in rather fervent fashion. Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook and Louisville DE Devonte Fields are among those players who had legal issues during college but had their charges dropped. The “guilty” scarlet letter, either by verdict or plea, is where the NFL has focused.

Who are the small-school sleepers to remember?

Ashland TE Adam Shaheen might be the name you hear most out of the non-FBS prospects. Daniel Jeremiah and Mike Mayock, both of the NFL Network, have talked him up in recent days, all but guaranteeing Shaheen draws ample air time when the tight ends work out as part of Saturday’s on-field session.

Safety Lorenzo Jerome, of St. Francis (Pa.), is trending upward thanks to his Senior Bowl efforts. He had six INTs and 11 pass breakups this past season, and his ability to catch the ball on the move should show up during positional drills.

Lindenwood linebacker Connor Harris joined Jerome at the Senior Bowl. He’s not a pure athlete like others he’ll be working out with, so he may not blow away the testing portion, but even a solid week would keep him on the Day 2 (Rounds 2–3) draft radar.

Marian (Ind.) WR Krishawn Hogan checks off a lot of the physical boxes—he’s listed at 6' 4" and 215 pounds, with speed. Just how much speed that is, and whether or not those height/weight numbers officially hold up, will play a role in his stock moving forward. He was insanely productive at the NAIA level: 56 touchdowns (31 receiving, 25 rushing) and more than 3,500 all-purpose yards combined the past two seasons.

What will the medical checks uncover?

Just about any NFL decision-maker will tell you that this part of the week is as valuable as anything else. All 330 prospects in attendance, whether they’re participating in all the combine drills or not, must spend time with the league’s doctors. And there already are a handful of potential first-rounders skipping drills because of injury: Alabama LB Reuben Foster, Western Michigan WR Corey Davis, Ohio State S Malik Hooker and Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk.

Two more receivers, Ross and Clemson’s Mike Williams, also have significant health hurdles to clear. Williams missed almost all of 2015 after fracturing his neck in the season opener; Ross has multiple knee injuries in his past.

Another important one: Florida State RB Dalvin Cook, whose shoulder could be deemed a long-term issue. Cook needed off-season surgery on it prior to the 2016 season, although he showed no ill effects during his final Seminoles campaign. LSU RB Leonard Fournette, for now thought to be staked with Cook atop this year's running back rankings, missed time this year with an ankle injury and sat out LSU’s bowl game.

There always are a few surprises that come from the extensive medical work-ups. We’ll see what they are this year.