The NFL Scouting Combine is a proving ground for NFL hopefuls, but most of the work is done behind closed doors. Prospects must convince general managers, scouts and coaches they can handle the rigors of the pro game by delivering impressive answers in the interview room. Additionally, prospects must demonstrate that they have the requisite work ethic, football IQ and character to thrive in the NFL.
The interviews give NFL hopefuls an opportunity to substantiate their football character, but general managers and scouts also closely monitor the medical evaluations submitted by the NFL's team of doctors and specialists, which help determine a prospect's viability as a pro. With some teams willing to remove prospects who are deemed medical risks from the draft board, the results that come from the examination room are as critical as the play on the field.
Given the importance of scoring well behind the scenes at the NFL Scouting Combine, here are 10 guys with a lot to prove next week in Indianapolis:
1) Manti Te'o, LB, Notre Dame
Areas of concern: Maturity and leadership.
Te'o's draft stock took a major hit following his disappointing performance in the BCS National Championship Game, while the "girlfriend hoax" scandal has led scouts and coaches to also question his leadership skills and maturity. NFL executives certainly worry about a naïve young player commanding the respect of the huddle following the well-publicized catfishing saga. Additionally, coaches will have concerns about his ability to play through off-field distractions, based on his miserable game against Alabama with the public revelation of the hoax on the horizon. To alleviate those concerns, Te'o must squelch the speculation surrounding his involvement in the hoax while also reminding NFL personnel about his role in guiding Notre Dame to the title game with his spectacular play and leadership. If he can win the respect of coaches and scouts in the interview room, he can salvage his position as a potential first-round selection.
2) Matt Barkley, QB, USC
Areas of concern: Physical dimensions and rehabilitation progress.
Barkley has seemingly experienced a dramatic slide down the charts following a disappointing senior season, but he was certain to face questions about his physical dimensions anyway. Scouts harbor concerns about his height and athleticism after watching him perform for the Trojans over four seasons. If he doesn't measure in at 6-foot-2 or above, there will be questions about his status as a legitimate franchise-quarterback candidate. Additionally, Barkley must convince team doctors that his shoulder injury is healing according to plan and isn't a potential concern in the future. With Barkley reportedly leaning toward not throwing at the event, the X-rays and medical exams will play a prominent role in his combine showing.
3) Jarvis Jones, OLB, Georgia
Area of concern: Medical history.
Jones is undoubtedly one of the best defenders in this draft class, but a past diagnosis of spinal stenosis threatens to keep him off several boards across the league. Team doctors will dig through his medical files to see if he is at risk of further injury before granting him full clearance on the field. While Jones can point to two seasons of exceptional (and injury-free) play at Georgia, the fact that USC's medical staff refused to clear him following his neck injury as a freshman could factor into his final medical evaluation. (Jones played for the Trojans in 2009 before suffering a season-ending neck injury against Oregon. When USC wouldn't clear him, Jones transferred to Georgia.) If Jones can obtain a clean bill of health from the NFL's medical team, he will remain a candidate to come off the board as a top-10 pick.
4) Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Areas of concern: Rehabilitation progress and injury history.
Lattimore was regarded as the top running back in college football until a gruesome knee injury ended his junior season prematurely. This could potentially keep Lattimore on the sidelines for the early part of the 2013 season, which diminishes his stock in draft rooms across the league. Additionally, Lattimore will have gone through his second major knee reconstruction in two seasons. Scouts wonder if he will ever regain his stellar form as a workhorse runner. Although Lattimore is still a few months away from a full recovery, he can allay concerns about his long-term potential with a glowing progress report from his doctors. More importantly, he can convince scouts and coaches that he possesses the necessary work ethic and mental toughness to overcome this spate of injuries and become an all-star-caliber running back as a pro.
5) Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
Area of concern: Maturity.
Bray is arguably the most gifted passer in the 2013 NFL Draft, but he is not considered one of the top quarterback prospects due to concerns about his character. Scouts are worried about his immaturity following several off-field incidents at Tennessee. While these incidents were minor in nature, the fact that a potential franchise quarterback has been embroiled in teenage shenanigans is certainly a problem in the minds of NFL executives. To alter the perception about him in meeting rooms, Bray will need to be forthright about his mishaps and show scouts he has moved beyond his immaturity issues. If Bray is able to get evaluators to focus on his immense talent on the field, he could be one of the draft's biggest risers over the next few months.
6) Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
Area of concern: Drug issues.
A year ago, Mathieu was considered one of the most dynamic playmakers in college football. He captivated the attention of NFL coaches and scouts with his game-changing skills as a defender and returner. However, a reported string of failed drug tests, which led to his shocking dismissal from the LSU football team prior to last season, has led to questions about Mathieu's accountability and character. Given that he was arrested and charged with simple possession of marijuana in October, most NFL scouts wonder if he can stay away from trouble. Coaches and scouts are certain to probe Mathieu about his past transgressions and reported behavioral changes; the interview room will provide the former LSU star with the biggest challenge of his career. How well he fares in those 15-minute sessions could determine if Mathieu recaptures the attention of NFL executives prior to draft day.
7) Da'Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee Tech
Areas of concern: Character issues and drug problems.
There is no doubt that Rogers possesses the talent to be a star at the next level, but concerns about his character and decision making could prevent him from getting a solid shot. Rogers was suspended indefinitely at Tennessee -- reportedly due to multiple violations of the school's substance-abuse policy -- leading to his transfer to Tennessee Tech. Additionally, a string of questionable decisions has resulted in numerous suspensions and off-the-field issues. With Rogers' transgressions overshadowing his spectacular talent and production (67 receptions for 1,040 yards with nine touchdowns in 2011), the interviews and one-on-one conversations with NFL executives are the most important part of his evaluation.
8) Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
Areas of concern: Character and durability questions.
Ogletree is one of the most intriguing athletes in the draft. He possesses the size, speed, athleticism and instincts to develop into a disruptive defender as a pro. However, questions about Ogletree's durability (he missed six games in 2011 with a broken foot) and character (he was suspended for four games due to a violation of team rules) could affect his draft status, despite his exceptional talent. Ogletree needs to address his past missteps and show up in remarkable physical condition, to alleviate concerns about his durability. If he can provide solid answers to questions regarding his off-field behavior, he could climb up the charts dramatically following his four-day stay at the combine.
9) Ezekiel Ansah, DE, BYU
Area of concern: Football knowledge.
Ansah certainly is not a character risk, based on his impeccable reputation, but NFL scouts will thoroughly investigate his background to assess football knowledge, given his limited experience with the game. The Ghana native has just three years of football experience under his belt, but he is one of the most disruptive defenders in this draft class. Scouts will look to find out more about his diverse athletic background (Ansah ran the 200-meter dash in 21.9 seconds and earned a reputation as a legendary intramural basketball player) to better project his development as a pro. Most importantly, NFL scouts will want to see if there are any barriers that will prevent him from continuing to develop at the next level.
10) Mike Glennon, QB, N.C. State
Area of concern: Leadership skills.
Glennon is a borderline first-round pick based on his arm talent, but because of his soft-spoken demeanor, some NFL scouts wonder about his ability to command a huddle. Glennon doesn't ooze charisma like some franchise quarterbacks, which makes some scouts nervous about the prospect of asking him to lead a group of strong personalities. Given the importance coaches and scouts place on the leadership skills and personality of the quarterback, Glennon must convince NFL executives that he can handle the pressure of being the guy in a pro locker room. Although there is not a manual or guideline for Glennon to follow to accomplish this feat, he must find a way to wow observers in interview rooms to continue his climb up the charts.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.