I've seen a fair amount of NFL Scouting Combine action in my day; in fact, I've been to every combine of any significance that's ever been held. And the group that I saw this week in Indianapolis probably ranks among the best-conditioned crew I've seen in some time.
Almost everybody realized this was a serious job opportunity and approached it accordingly, recognizing that the guy who puts his best face forward will have a shot at boosting his draft position and making some additional money. We also had great success as far as participation, with most prospects taking part in most of the drills. Anyone who skipped the 40-yard dash, incidentally, will regret it, as the track at Lucas Oil Stadium seemed lightning fast.
As teams across the league continue to digest what they saw and prepare for the 2014 NFL Draft in May, here's a quick breakdown of some of the top talent that I got to evaluate in Indy, the guys who really stuck out to me.
Just to put things in perspective as we turn our attention toward the draft, the players in this group are arranged according to their relative draft value today, not necessarily according to their combine performance; this is the order in which I'd pick them if the draft were held right now. I should add that, based on talent alone, any of the first six players would make sense as the No. 1 overall pick, though it's a near certainty that we'll never see a receiver or linebacker taken at that spot.
Note: Though I think Teddy Bridgewater belongs up there with Johnny Manziel and Blake Bortles, Bridgewater didn't throw or run the 40, which is why he isn't on this list of combine standouts. He is also, it might go without saying, another player with a shot at being drafted first overall.
Here's my list:
Quarterback, Texas A&M
Height: 5-foot-11 3/4. Weight: 207 pounds.
Manziel didn't throw, but you have to give him credit for running -- and for running well. Manziel clocked a 4.68-second 40-yard dash and notched a position-best 4.03-second short shuttle. He also was not standoffish at all, showing that he has a good relationship with his peers; I think he's got good leadership qualities. Mark March 27 on your calendar, as that's when Manziel is set to show off his arm at an on-campus workout at Texas A&M.
Quarterback, Central Florida
Height: 6-5. Weight: 232.
Bortles -- a former baseball player -- showed off his baseball-like delivery in throwing drills. He did OK, improving in the second half of his workout. Although Bortles did have some good receivers to throw to, like LSU's Odell Beckham Jr. and Oregon State's Brandin Cooks, it's worth noting that he still wasn't truly familiar with those guys, making it tough to gauge his performance. That said, I thought Bortles showed accuracy and moved around well; his performance at Central Florida's pro day on March 19, which will be heavily attended, should determine whether he could be considered a potential No. 1 pick.
Wide receiver, Clemson
Height: 6-3/4. Weight: 211.
Watkins threw the bar up 16 times in the bench press, though he almost made it to 17. He has 32-inch arms, which are pretty long for a receiver. Watkins officially clocked a 4.43 40, but I had him at 4.38 and 4.39.
He has extremely explosive speed, meaning he's one of those guys who will be able to catch a quick screen and beat you downfield on a fly route.
Offensive tackle, Auburn
Height: 6-5. Weight: 332.
I think he elevated himself significantly at the combine, perhaps to the point that he could be one of the three or four best players in the draft. The way he attacked his drills showed he's got a mean streak in him; he was phenomenal in this drill called "chase the rabbit." He's fast (4.92 40), strong (32 reps) and smart; he says the right things to everybody. Why did the Louisiana native go to Auburn? He told me he needed to get away from some bad influences. He's got great promise as a left tackle at the pro level.
5) Khalil Mack
Height: 6-3. Weight: 251.
Mack has really long arms (33 1/4 inches) for his height and very strong hands; he threw the bar up 23 times. He's also got great acceleration coming off the line, clocking the 40 officially at 4.65 seconds. If Mack is lined up with his hand on the ground with the goal of rushing the passer, he'll get from Point A to Point B very quickly. He has the talent to merit being mentioned with the best prospects in this draft class.
Defensive end, South Carolina
Height: 6-5. Weight: 266.
Clowney's 4.53 40 was out of this world. I sat right there at the starting line, and I saw him practically leave vapor trails. He has the ability to be a really great speed rusher. That said, it was a shame that Clowney didn't do all of the positional drills for defensive linemen. It almost looked like he didn't want to try something new. He knows he can do the vertical and he knows he can do the long jump and broad jump, but he skipped the change-of-direction drills -- the ones that you can't rely on athletic ability to complete. I think he'll learn it takes more than natural athleticism to succeed in the NFL; by the time he's getting ready for his second contract, I think he'll have realized what he needs to do to be successful, and he'll be playing at the top of his game.
7) Taylor Lewan
Offensive tackle, Michigan
Height: 6-7. Weight: 309.
Though he's long been considered a first-round pick, Lewan's stock took a bit of a dip toward the end of the season as Michigan lost six of its last eight games. At the combine, the athletic offensive tackle really made his mark, posting a group-best 4.87 40 and excelling in a number of drills, including the broad jump (9-9, also best in his group), the vertical jump (30.5 inches) and the three-cone (7.39 seconds). He also showed a lot of leadership, clapping and trying to get other guys fired up so that they'd do well on their drills.
8) Calvin Pryor
Height: 5-11. Weight: 207.
Pryor looks like a carbon copy of Seattle Seahawks safety Earl Thomas; he really punishes people as a tackler and has great coverage skills. He's fast (4.58 40) and strong (18 reps), and I think he'll probably get a boost after this.
9) Eric Ebron
Tight end, North Carolina
Height: 6-4. Weight: 250.
Ebron ran well (4.6 40) and did a good job catching the ball. There is still some question about his sturdiness as a blocker, as he looked to be on the thin side; that said, he also looked like he could put on another 20 pounds or so with ease. He might not have boosted his stock much, but he definitely cemented his place as a likely first-round pick.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.