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Talent show at the combine can fool teams come draft time

Need often dictates which players are selected and where in the NFL draft.

It isn't necessarily an indication of those with the most talent.

If the Detroit Lions use the top overall pick on a quarterback, that doesn't automatically make the player they select (such as Matthew Stafford of Georgia or Mark Sanchez of USC) the most dynamic of the college crop. In fact, it's fair to say that no quarterback in this year's class is held in such regard by talent evaluators throughout the league.

Yet, there are a fair number of players who do fall into that category because of their exceptional athleticism and playmaking ability.

Carucci's five to watch

  Mohamed Massaquoi, WR, Georgia

Here are five prospects, listed alphabetically, that NFL personnel evaluators think could perform exceptionally well at the combine:

» Darius Butler, CB, Connecticut
He has such outstanding versatility that the Huskies occasionally used him as a wide receiver.

» James Casey, TE, Rice
He already has had experience as a pro athlete, having spent four years in the minor-league system of the Chicago White Sox.

» Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest
He has a tremendous combination of speed and athleticism, and is seen as a good fit as a strong-side LB in a 4-3 scheme or an ILB in a 3-4.

» Mohamed Massaquoi, WR, Georgia
He has steadily gained the attention of scouts with considerable speed and athleticism, to go along with dependable hands and toughness.

» Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State
He shows tremendous speed and explosiveness, although he does need to add some bulk to his 6-foot-4, 236-pound frame.

  Aaron Maybin, DE, Penn State

One is Wake Forest linebacker Aaron Curry, who might not be selected in the top 10. Another is Penn State defensive end Aaron Maybin, who might not be a first-round choice. Ditto for Rice tight end James Casey.

There are others. And of the 300-plus prospects invited to the NFL Scouting Combine this week at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, they're the ones expected to turn the most heads and perhaps improve their draft position. They're the ones who are likely to run the fastest, show the highest levels of agility, and display the greatest strength -- at least when it comes to the bench press.

In some cases, the performances will confirm what scouts and coaches from all 32 teams already know. In other cases, they could offer surprises, some good and some not so good.

The key is for the men taking notes in the stands to maintain perspective. They must guard against being influenced too heavily by the workouts.

NFL scouts have seen college game videotape of all of the prospects at the combine and have supplied reports on each for their teams' coaches to study. Combine numbers should never take precedent over what the tape shows.

"There's a danger to fall in and out of love with people there," St. Louis Rams general manager Billy Devaney said. "It may be a linebacker that runs a tremendous 40-yard dash, but the first thought that should come to your mind is, 'Great, he still won't hit anybody.' Or, a receiver runs a great 40, yet to you catch yourself and say, 'Yeah, but the guy still can't catch.'

"The numbers are fine, but you have to remember that they're a very small part of the puzzle. The overwhelming majority of your evaluation is going to come from the tape."

Through the years, many prospects have dramatically elevated their draft stock -- and boosted their signing bonuses by millions of dollars -- with impressive combine workouts, only to flop once they reached the NFL. The most recent example is former Ohio State defensive end Vernon Gholston, who was one of the stars of last year's combine. The New York Jets made him the sixth overall pick of the draft, but so far he has been a disappointment as an outside linebacker.

Player agents are well aware of the "Combine Factor." That's why they go through considerable expense to have clients they project to be selected within the first three rounds -- and therefore likely to generate substantial signing bonuses -- go through rigorous training in order to increase their chances of excelling in combine drills.

"You have to look at whether it's a coach-driven draft or a scout-driven draft," said a college scouting director of an NFL team who requested anonymity. "I'm going to say, more often than not, that the coach-driven draft is going to take the guys who have the big workout numbers. Because coaches will think, 'Regardless of what the tape shows, I can coach him up.' And then you don't coach him up and you get burned.

"But when some of these guys have great workouts and get 'over-drafted,' I actually like that because it leaves another guy to fall to us."

However, impressive combine performances shouldn't all be viewed with skepticism. They can also be an indication of the substantial time and effort prospects are willing to invest to make sure they're ready to give their best showing for people determining their football futures.

"It also shows you that these guys are taking their profession seriously, that they've trained and kept themselves in good shape (since the last time they played)," Devaney said.

There's also a flip side. Sometimes a prospect who has had an outstanding college career, who jumps off the videotape as a can't-miss player, doesn't perform well at the combine. If there isn't an extenuating circumstance, such as an injury or illness, another factor comes into play that can damage the player's draft stock.

"What that can tell you is that a guy now is away from a structured program, so he doesn't have a position coach or the head coach or the weight coach pushing him," Devaney said. "It's got to come from within for him to take care of his conditioning. And with guys who don't do that, it's a red flag right away that says, 'Is this guy going to be able to work out on his own? Is he going to be able to prepare on his own?'"

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