The new league year launches on March 14, but that's just a date in time.
This week's NFL Scouting Combine marks the true beginning of the madness and frenzy stirred up by flocks of front-office men, coaches and heat-seeking agents gathered together in Indianapolis.
The combine ostensibly exists to showcase the nation's top college talent live and in the flesh. Beyond the broad jumps and 40 times, though, this annual caucus of decision-makers never fails to stir up marvelous gossip.
Who can forget the Jim Harbaugh-to-Cleveland rumors? Or last year's speculation around a frenzied three-way trade designed to send Kirk Cousins to San Francisco, Tony Romo to Washington and the No. 2 overall pick to Dallas? The whispers often lead to truth, with Carolina's man-crush on Christian McCaffrey and Kansas City's designs to trade up for Patrick Mahomescommunicated long before the draft.
This year's combine offers its own helping of intrigue, with a batch of new coaches and general managers, a squadron of exciting quarterback prospects and plenty of burning questions around all 32 NFL rosters.
Here's (my dangerously unscientific stab at) the 10 people, places and things that will shape the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine:
1) Whispers, leaks and deep-state gossip surrounding the destiny of Kirk Cousins. We sit on the hushed cusp of free agency. Waiting to find out where ex-Redskins passer Kirk Cousins will land. Unless you've been held hostage since New Year's by a rebooted faction of the Symbionese Liberation Army, you know the deal: Cousins is set to become the biggest free-agent prize since Peyton Manning, who inked a five-year, $96 million contract with the Broncos in 2012. Manning's pact included $58 million in guarantees, but Cousins' deal will make that look like a school teacher's salary from "Little House on the Prairie."
Cousins is expected to earn somewhere around $150 million over five years with a whopping $95 million in guarantees. The Vikings, Broncos and Jets are seen as viable challengers, while the tea leaves suggest Arizona and Cleveland won't join the chase. Minnesota undoubtedly has eyes for Cousins, with NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reporting the Vikings are "going to be in very heavy" on the 29-year-old passer. NFL.com's Gil Brandt also tweeted of Cousins and Minnesota: "If I were a betting man, I'd say that's where he lands. Certainly interest on both sides."
Combine Week will double as a group mission by every journalist, insider, outsider and white-knuckled wannabe to pepper coaches and annoyed general managers with questions about Kirk. Birdseed-sized bites of information will be dispensed and tweeted out. If we get lucky, @RapSheet will drop some sort of Cousins Bomb on, say, Wednesday, and we'll leave Indy with a far better idea of where this is going.
2) The tangled mass of college arms.Sam Darnold. Josh Rosen. Baker Mayfield. Josh Allen. Lamar Jackson. Five quarterbacks offering a little something for every scout under the sun. History tells us maybe two of these guys will become tangible long-term starters, but there's always hope that this year's class will do wonders to solve the NFL's quarterback shortage. It's mildly absurd that college signal-callers can start for seasons on end, log a thousand hours of tape ... and then be so heavily judged on brief throwing sessions at the combine, which Darnold will not participate in, and subsequent pro days. Still, their on-field work and off-field interviews matter. For plenty of dug-in coaches, Indy marks the first time to see and meet these players in the flesh. The goal is to exit this week with a better idea of who the Browns truly favor; who the Giants might choose to become Eli Manning's successor; and who squads like the Broncos, Jets and Cardinals might be willing to chase if they miss out on the veteran of their choice.
3) The Chucky Hype-Tsunami. If you go back and watch Jon Gruden's introductory press conference -- an event souped-up to insane proportions by the Raiders -- he said essentially nothing. That won't stop his combine presser from looking like Manti Te'o, Part 2. Gruden's an electric presence, but the team he inherited feels closer to last year's mess than the 12-win juggernaut of 2016. Having a massive personality as your head coach has its benefits. Prepare for endless media attention, a rich string of prime-time games (no matter the quality of the team) and an initial honeymoon period where Gruden will double as the mayor of Oakland. Simultaneously, he's under as much pressure as any coach in the NFL. Forgetting his later years in Tampa, Big Football Media has mostly swooned over Chucky's return. If he wins -- and wins big -- he'll be a god. If he stumbles, things will grow weird. Here at the combine, though, Gruden can do no wrong.
4) Saquon Barkley. Touted by NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah as "one of the most dynamic running backs to enter the NFL in the last decade," Penn State's Barkley looms as the combine's most fascinating subject. While the Giants must groom a quarterback behind an end-of-line Eli, new general manager Dave Gettleman could delay that search in favor of Barkley, who would turn a Big Blue weak spot into a raging strength. If New York passes, look for the Colts to snatch up an athlete who Jeremiah believes is "capable of becoming the best player at his position very early in his NFL career." Barkley will serve as a weeklong fascination for scouts in Indy.
5) Cleveland's plans under center. New Browns general manager John Dorsey made a play for Alex Smith. That tells us he's content to find a veteran quarterback to manage the offense until a hand-picked rookie takes over. With left tackle Joe Thomasbacking off his social-media pursuit of Cousins, it's fair to wonder if the front office got to the future Hall of Famer and told him: NOT HAPPENING. Even if coach Hue Jackson still has a voice in the decision, it's hard to imagine the Browns coming out of this offseason with AJ McCarron as their starter. How do you sell that to a fan base entering Year 20 of a horrifyingly elusive rebuilding plan? Every word from Dorsey and HueJax will be gleaned for hints on whether Darnold, Mayfield, Allen or Rosen tops their list -- or whether the Browns plan to sit tight for a season or two with a veteran. Dorsey won't thank jettisoned football czar Sashi Brown for what he's inherited, but he should: Beyond the gap at quarterback, no team in the league boasts more cap and draft flexibility. A vastly different situation than how Dorsey left the Chiefs.
6) The Big Two on defense. Strip away all ingrained fascination with the quarterbacks -- and Bradley Chubb might be the most compelling prospect in Indy. The 6-foot-4, 275-pound edge rusher out of N.C. State projects as the first defensive player taken in April, with our gang of mock drafters widely placing him with the Colts at No. 3 overall. "Chubb has ideal size, strength and instincts," wrote Jeremiah. "[His] motor never stops. His ability to finish is outstanding and it's reflected in his production." The next defender off the board figures to be versatile defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick. "Every time you turn on Alabama, he's making something happen," one AFC personnel executive told Albert Breer of The MMQB. "Every time there's a big play, he's around it. He's just a really, really good player." Said Jeremiah: "He's a bigger version of Tyrann Mathieu and I think he will make a similar impact in the league."
7) Minnesota's final piece of the puzzle? After letting Case Keenumand Teddy Bridgewater go to market, the Vikings instantly became lead dogs in the Cousins chase. If they sign him, the Vikes win the offseason and loom as raging contenders for the Lombardi in 2018. If they fail to sign Cousins, things grow awkward in a hurry. Do you make it up to Keenum with a sweetheart deal? Bring back Sam Bradford? This all boils down to Minnesota getting its man. The Jets can offer Cousins more front-loaded cash, but the Vikings have more than enough loot to make it happen, sitting ninth overall in cap space, per Over the Cap. Besides, Cousins would have the chance for immediate success in Minnesota. Armed with a championship-level defense and a laundry list of weapons on offense, the Vikings simply offer more than Gang Green -- or the Broncos -- in terms of immediate on-field success.
8) The new guys. Beyond Gruden, the combine will give national reporters their first question-and-answer session with a band of first-time coaches and general managers. Men in these roles excel at saying literally nothing at these events -- deeply coded, hyper-vanilla coach-speak pours forth in waves -- but it's worth a try. Will Matt Nagy open up about his plans for Mitchell Trubisky in Chicago's new-look, college-concept-heavy offense? Will the second-time-around Pat Shurmur dish on Big Blue's plans with the No. 2 pick? Will Arizona's Steve Wilks weigh in on a roster with zero quarterbacks under contract? Can Detroit's newbie coach, Matt Patricia, hold a candle to his old mentor, Bill Belichick, when it comes to scattering scribes with a dismissive grunt? The combine marks the first big test for these new faces. Dealing with the media is just part of the job, but you better top the Mendoza Line established by nerve-wracked, one-and-done Niners coach Jim Tomsula.
9) The late-night revelations of Indy. Twelve-year-old me would have melted at the prospect of walking into a restaurant and seeing Bill Parcells, Bill Walsh, Marty Schottenheimer and Chuck Noll chatting shop over beers. Indy doubles as a surreal, starry trade event with household-name coaches and general managers gathered at Shula's, St. Elmo's or Steak 'n Shake. It's a rare chance for a disparate collection of football circles -- front-office heavies, journalists, out-of-work assistants, scouts, agents, bookish capologists, information gatherers, groupies, awed wait staff and hangers on -- to form a beautiful NFL-centric Venn diagram. Even if half these people can't stand each other.
10) The doozy trade rumor. I was convinced some from-the-wilderness franchise would make a push this week to steal Drew Brees away from the Saints. That's off the table, with both sides sharing an "urgency to reach agreement" on a new deal. The drama has also gone dark around Marcus Peters, Tyrod Taylor and Blake Bortles, who all figured as buzzy storylines this week.
Fear not. Something's in the mail. We're bound to get some sort of insane scenario that drops out of the sky. The kind of news that will have Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo dancing through the hallways of Lucas Oil Stadium, their cell phone ablaze with holy light and wonder.
BONUS PERSON, PLACE OR THING: Watching my carnivore friends eat meat products at various high-octane eateries. I'm the idiot who chose to be a mezzanine-level sports-blogger AND a vegetarian. This leads to the annual drill of sitting at St. Elmo's, etc., watching friends inhale steaks, ribs, lamb cutlets, veal strips, wings, pulled pork, cow tongue, fish eyes, chicken gizzards, roast rabbit, rump roast, leg of pork, horse tail, ox ball, piri piri chicken, bratwurst, pork tenderloin, meat-juice-infused cheese curds, black forest ham on top of shredded spam, Po' boys, roasted pork-butt Banh Mis, Midwestern meat pies, diced kidneys dipped in duck fat, pepper steak, whole caramelized baby crabs, fermented shark, head cheese, barbecued sparrow, camel's milk, bull's ear, bone marrow salad, haggis dipped in oxen lard, potted meat from central Norway and smoked cow intestines bathed in milky fish juices. Our crew this week includes a cast of hearty meat eaters. For emphasis, I'm told that one of our traveling party, NFL Network videographer Erica Tamposi, spent her college years with the nickname BEEF TAMPOSI. Sigh.
Welcome to Combine Week.