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Why this combine will have bigger impact than ever on draft

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Over the past few years, it's been popular to downplay the importance of the NFL Scouting Combine.

The "Underwear Olympics". Guys in shorts. A track meet. These are the snarky monikers given to what happens in Indianapolis.

NFL Scouting Combine

Dates: Feb. 23-29
TV: NFL Network and NFL Combine Live


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But this year is different. The results of the scouting combine do matter, and the reason is simple: This is the deepest overall draft class the NFL has seen.

Nearly every underclassman likely to be chosen in the first couple of rounds decided to apply for early entry. In fact, if there were a special draft where only declaring underclassmen were selected, it would last for two full rounds before teams felt as if they weren't getting their money's worth. As it is, between 45 and 50 of the top 63 selections this year will have left collegiate eligibility on the table.

The depth of the 2016 NFL Draft class will affect the 2016 NFL Scouting Combine in four important ways, making it the most important combine ever:

1. Tiebreakers

Obviously, film study is still the most important on-field evaluation tool for NFL scouts. If a cornerback looks like a probable backup or special-teams contributor, at best, in the NFL, his combine workout won't put him into the second round.

But tape can lie, or at least exaggerate, as well-known players make most of their hay against lesser competition or play in schemes that don't carry over to the NFL. Some defensive linemen might lack production facing constant double teams, while others have the benefit of single blocks due to their teammates' pass-rush prowess. In other words, two players of equal ability might look different during games based on their schedule and the talent around them.

At some point, there has to be a tiebreaker between players of equivalent talent who would be a good fit in an NFL team's system. For example, there are often cases where two similar pass rushers are debated within the draft room, with a scout pounding the table for one and a position coach believing strongly in the talent of the other. Significantly different combine workout numbers between those two prospects could prove to be the tipping point when the general manager makes the call.

Though prospects will have pro days on their campuses to make up for an average or below-average effort at the combine, performing well with all of the NFL watching in Indy is likely to carry more weight with scouts.

2. Battles royal

Prospects aren't only competing against others within their position groups for early-round draft slots.

General managers know that their teams have several needs to address in every draft, whether it's to push their team over the top for 2016 or to make sure their team isn't left in the cold when a star player is bound to retire or leave via free agency in 2017 or 2018.

Some media and fans believe that teams rank their needs in ascending order for the upcoming season and draft players based on a "grocery list" approach, picking the most critical immediate need first and then going down the list as the draft progresses. Teams with steady hands at the wheel, however, don't reach for a prospect at one position while ignoring a higher-rated one that would bolster the depth chart in the short and long term.

That means top-rated defensive tackles aren't just competing with each other, but also similarly rated wide receivers, quarterbacks, and offensive linemen. This is especially true in years where there is depth at several positions, because teams are less likely to reach in the second round when good alternatives are available at that position in the third and fourth rounds.

Any small positive attribute shown at the combine could push a GM to select that explosive pass-catcher over the coveted "big ugly" up front.

3. Talking the talk

It's not just a prospect's 40-yard dash time or number of bench-press reps that will be important for their draft stock. Their ability to impress general managers and coaches with their football knowledge and willingness to own up to past on- or off-field transgressions could be critical in determining whether they turn out to be a top-50 pick or fall to the fourth round.

Even though prospects are coached up on how to answer certain questions, NFL teams are working to get players off-balance a bit during the interview so that their responses are more genuine. And let's face it -- in any interview situation, you're much more likely to remember a strange response to your question, lack of eye contact, and/or poor body language than their resume.

Several players really need to show teams they've matured through the interview process, if they want their draft slot to be commensurate with their talent. Defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss), pass rusher Noah Spence (Ohio State) and receiver Duke Williams (Auburn) are among those that have had off-field issues that concerned teams.

Initial impressions about a player's ability to think on his feet (or in his seat) become even more important when competing against several other players receiving similar draft grades for their on-field play. That's especially true if those bad feelings are confirmed by interviews with prospects' past coaches. If a great 40 time can be a tiebreaker for the better, a lackluster interview can be the opposite.

4. Will it be "TMI"?

As usual, not every draft-worthy prospect could be invited to this year's combine. It was especially true this year due to the inordinate number of younger players looking for employment. Nearly 100 underclassmen got the call to go to Indianapolis this year, which means 30-50 seniors who would have been invited in most other years didn't get the nod.

2016 NFL DRAFT

Draft coverage:

In this one-week event, scouts and general managers are already hard-pressed to watch and interview all of the prospects that they're interested in. There's just no room in the inn for very talented players like safety Kevin Byard (Middle Tennessee State), linebacker Ejiro Ederaine (Fresno State), running back Aaron Green (TCU), cornerback Cre'Von LeBlanc (Florida Atlantic), defensive end Mike Rose (North Carolina State), wide receiver Mike Thomas (Southern Miss), or even national-champion quarterback Jake Coker from Alabama.

In many cases, the inclusion of the underclassmen in the scouting combine has less to do with their relative talent over seniors like Byard, Ederaine and others, but more to do with a relative lack of information. They weren't studied before the season. Scouts might have paid some attention to their play, but they aren't interviewing them or discussing them with coaches while on campus. Most players with remaining eligibility are not eligible for postseason all-star games, either. Having these underclassmen attend the combine is a way to gather information not previously available.

This doesn't affect the status of top-rated players likely to have been invited no matter how many underclassmen entered the fray. And if a mid- to late-round prospect performs well, the invite will be a blessing. But what about those who don't? Will they still be considered among the best prospects in the class? Or will a poor performance push them out while seniors that only show their stuff on a pro day (a less-pressurized event) take those coveted draft slots?

The answers are unclear. But given that some seniors' grades drop during their senior seasons due to decreased production or injury, it seems that the more chances teams are given to collect negative information on mid- to late-round picks, the more likely they'll look in another direction.

Follow Chad Reuter on Twitter @chad_reuter.

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