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Good combine showings would help these 10 prospects

The NFL Scouting Combine, which starts this week, is a critical piece in evaluating draft prospects.

Top players such as Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who won't run at the combine, will not complete the events in Indianapolis because they believe it can only hurt their status. However, other prospects will come to Lucas Oil Stadium in an attempt to move themselves into the first round, and they must put their best foot forward. The interviews, medical examinations, strength testing, drills and position-skills work can move some prospects up teams' draft boards.

I'll keep a close eye on 10 prospects who could become household names coming out of the combine. Most of these players are sitting just outside first-round status, but a strong performance could catapult them into the first 32 picks come April.

1. Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State: All the talk about quarterbacks in this draft centers around Georgia's Matthew Stafford and USC's Mark Sanchez -- which is understandable -- but both should measure at 6-foot-3 or slightly shorter, and Freeman likely will come in at 6-6. Freeman also has a strong arm and is mobile, which makes him sound like another Joe Flacco, who came to the 2008 combine as a projected second-round pick and wound up going 18th overall to the Baltimore Ravens after performing well in Indianapolis.

Freeman is raw, but he completed 59.1 percent of his passes and threw for 44 touchdowns during his three-year college career. His interviews and mechanics in drills will be critical at the combine.

2. Eben Britton, OT, Arizona: Last year's draft was great for offensive tackles, and this class appears to set up the same way. Britton likely trails Virginia's Eugene Monroe, Alabama's Andre Smith, Baylor's Jason Smith and Mississippi's Michael Oher on draft boards, but the 6-6, 310-pounder who made 37 starts despite leaving school one year early is on teams' radar.

Combine measurements should show that Britton has the long arms that coaches look for, and there's a chance he could run close to five seconds in the 40-yard dash. His interview will be critical because he's a well-educated kid with an Ivy League mother, and coaches want to find out how important football is in his life.

3. Hakeem Nicks, WR, North Carolina: The knock on Nicks is that he doesn't have straight-line speed, but he has been in Naples, Fla., working hard to disprove that. Nicks is a fine athlete with excellent college production. His 2008 Meineke Car Care Bowl performance, when he had eight catches for 217 yards and three touchdowns, should be all the information a coach needs, but, of course, it's never enough.

If Hicks runs anything close to 4.5-second 40-yard dash, he will solidify a first-round grade.

4. Alex Mack, C, California: I've had the pleasure of interviewing Mack twice, once at the Under Armour Senior Bowl and once on my radio show. His interviews at the combine will excite coaches and general managers. Mack is all ball, all the time. Some people compare him to Nick Mangold, but Mack reminds me more of Casey Wiegmann and Ryan Kalil.

A strong Senior Bowl performance pushed Mack to the top of the list at his position, but it's tough for a center to go in the first round. However, if Mack moves well in the short shuttle, runs close to a five-second 40-yard dash and throws his weight around, it will be hard for teams in need of a center to pass on this guy.

Combine provides proving ground

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5. Michael Johnson, DE/OLB, Georgia Tech: Johnson hurt his draft stock by not playing in the Senior Bowl when everyone knew he was healthy enough to participate. He said he was preparing for the combine. Well, here it is, and Johnson needs a big showing to stop the downward trend in his status.

When Johnson measures at close to 6-7 with long arms, teams will take notice. Some teams will struggle with Johnson's lapses on tape, but others will believe they can coach him. If Johnson runs close to 4.6 seconds in the 40-yard dash, handles the position work where he drops into coverage while opening his hips and doesn't struggle when the ball is thrown, he will move back into first-round status.

Johnson went to college as a tight end, which should help in his open-space evaluation. However, all eyes will be on him during the bench-press test to see how strong he is.

6. Sean Smith, CB, Utah: Big cornerbacks are hard to find, and big cornerbacks who are good are even more rare. Smith should measure at 6-3 and 210 pounds, but his times in the 40-yard dash and the short shuttle will be critical at the combine.

If Smith runs close to 4.4 seconds in the 40 and 4.0 in the short shuttle, he will improve his status. How far he moves up also will depend on how he looks in position drills, especially his peddle and plant along with how well he flips his hips to turn and run.

7. Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee: Ayers is a late and fast riser in the draft process. He basically was a non-starter in college until his senior year. His three sacks last season drew little attention, but his Senior Bowl showing changed everything.

Ayers was a 100-meter runner in high school. If that background helps him break 4.7 seconds in the 40-yard dash, he will continue to advance up draft boards. Some people have told me they want to see Ayers drop into coverage, and if he looks natural doing it, teams such as the Rams, Eagles and Giants -- who love to zone dog -- likely will show interest.

8. Darrius Heyward-Bey, WR, Maryland: Some people look at Heyward-Bey as a track guy, meaning they believe he's a straight-line speed player who might not love football. The fear is that he's another Troy Williamson who can go deep but isn't a complete receiver.

Teams will drill Heyward-Bey in interviews to see where his football head is at, but if he runs a 4.3-second 40-yard dash, a team like the Raiders will be excited about him. I need to see Heyward-Bey's short-shuttle time. If he runs 4.3 seconds in the 40 and 4.3 seconds in the short shuttle, there will be concerns about whether he can use his speed in and out of breaks.

Getting ready for the combine

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9. Larry English, OLB/DE, Northern Illinois: English had great college production (31.5 sacks) at a smaller program, then came to the Senior Bowl and proved he belonged. He needs to show personnel directors for teams that use 3-4 defenses that he can drop into coverage and react to the ball. If he can do that, his stock will rise again.

Teams such as the Steelers, Dolphins, Patriots, Chargers, Browns and Cowboys will watch English's linebacker drills. Those teams want to find out what's inside English's head when it comes to a desire to play outside linebacker.

10. Clay Matthews, OLB, USC: Matthews is a great story. The son of a former USC great and an ex-NFL player, Matthews weighed under 170 pounds when he joined the Trojans as a walk-on. With hard work and a good football mind, low and behold, an NFL talent emerged.

Matthews was a special-teams player until 2008, and he was overshadowed by fellow linebackers Rey Maualuga and Brian Cushing, both of whom should be first-round picks this year. Matthews needs to run well at the combine and show that he's not a product of playing on a team full of great talent. He did a fine job at the Senior Bowl and needs to keep pushing up his grade.

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