Ten prospects to keep an eye on at the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine

If you’ve been keeping tabs on the latest news surrounding the 2009 NFL Scouting Combine, which runs February 18-24, you already know that there are plenty of rumors to sink your teeth into.

Perhaps the two biggest rumors are that Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, who could go to the Detroit Lions with the first overall pick, will not workout at the combine. Instead, he’ll wait until his Pro Day in March to show off his passing skills, which might irk some teams with high draft selections in April. Why should a team drop millions of dollars in guaranteed money on a player that won’t even throw a single pass at the combine?

The thought process behind the decision is that since Stafford is already the most polished quarterback in the draft and should be the first signal caller taken off the board, why risk a bad performance at the combine? Instead, any team that wants to see him throw, can do so at his Pro Day in Athens, which no doubt makes for a more comfortable environment for Stafford.

Another combine story that has emerged is that Texas Tech wide receiver Michael Crabtree might not even be in Indianapolis this week as he feels that he has too much to lose by working out at the combine. That means teams that want to see him run the 40-yard dash will have to wait for his Pro Day in late March. Apparently Crabtree has been training with former Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson and maybe he doesn’t feel that he would be ready in time to run the forty at the combine.

With two of the bigger prospects not expected to workout this week, who should fans keep an eye on as the combine kicks off on Wednesday? Below are 10 names that are sure to cause a buzz this week in Indy. Some might dramatically improve their draft stock with a great workout, while others might doom their stock with a bad showing.

Aaron Curry1. Aaron Curry, LB, Wake Forest
Curry is arguably the best defensive prospect in the draft, so that alone is reason to pay attention to how he performs at the combine. But an even better reason is that he could go No. 1 to the Lions, who are in massive need of defensive talent, especially at linebacker. Many pundits believe the Lions will take Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford with the first overall pick, but new head coach Jim Schwartz is a defensive guy (he was the Titans’ former D-coordinator) and Curry is versatile in that he can play either outside or inside in a 4-3 scheme. Linebackers are generally safer choices in the first round, which is even more reason to believe Detroit could go with Curry at No. 1.

2. Andre Smith, OT, Alabama
How Smith performs and acts this week at the combine could be a telltale sign of where he’s drafted come April. Along with Virginia tackle Eugene Monroe and Baylor’s Jason Smith, Andre Smith is one of the best offensive line prospects in the draft but there are concerns about his maturity level after he was suspended for the Sugar Bowl because he violated team rules. He’s also battled weight issues and questions remain about his overall conditioning, two things that teams will be concerned with in relation to drafting Smith. If he performs well at the combine, he probably won’t fall out of the top 10 and might even be chosen in the top 3 because he’s a better run blocker than Monroe and a true mauler that pro teams covet. But if he can’t erase doubts about his character and work ethic, there’s no telling how far this talented lineman will fall.

3. Mark Sanchez, QB, USC
Sanchez took a calculated risk by foregoing his senior season at USC to enter the NFL draft. He figured that his stock was at its highest point after he led the Trojans to a dominating win over Penn State in the Rose Bowl and also knew that if he waited one more year, he would have been thrown into the mix with top quarterback prospects Colt McCoy (Texas) and Sam Bradford (Oklahoma) in next year’s draft. With Stafford not planning to workout this week, Sanchez could dramatically improve his draft stock with a great showing at the combine. As of right now, he should be the second quarterback taken in April, but don’t think that a great combine workout (coupled with a good showing at his Pro Day in March) won’t catapult him over Stafford.

Vontae Davis4. Vontae Davis, CB, Illinois
Vontae is the younger brother of 49ers’ tight end Vernon Davis and if anyone remembers what Vernon did at the combine a couple years back, you realize how much a good showing this week will be vital to Vontae’s draft stock. Davis is the second best corner prospect behind Ohio State’s Malcolm Jenkins, but he has the best physical tools of any defensive back in the draft – including that of Jenkins. Davis has a reputation of doing what he wants and playing undisciplined, which is why Jenkins is slated to be the first corner to come off the board. But if Davis flies right this week, there’s no doubt his physical skills will shine and he could easily be a top 15 pick.

5. B.J. Raji, DT, Boston College
When mock drafts first started hitting the web in January, Raji was being taken somewhere near the bottom of the first round. But after a fantastic showing during Senior Bowl week this year, Raji has skyrocketed up mocks and is now being selected in the top 15. If Raji has a great combine workout, he could be a top 10 pick come April considering most teams are in need of a massive run-stuffer that has the ability to be a two-gap player and can also get after the quarterback. The fifth-year senior is easily the best interior defensive line prospect in the draft and he can even play nose in a 3-4.

6. Rey Maualuga, LB, USC
Word is that Maualuga will skip the position workouts at the combine and just do the 40-yard dash and bench press. Considering linebacker drills test a player’s explosiveness, lateral movement and change of direction skills, it would behoove Maualuga to participate. Nobody questions his nasty demeanor and whether or not he’ll lay out a ball carrier, but there are major doubts that he can cover tight ends and backs in the NFL and linebackers that can only play on first and second downs don’t go high in the first round. If the reports are right and he’ll skill the position workouts at the combine, Maualuga could see his stock drop dramatically come April.

7 & 8. Jason Smith, OT, Baylor/Eugene Monroe, OT, Virginia
The battle for the first offensive tackle taken off the board is going to be a great one between Jason Smith, Eugene Monroe and Andre Smith (Alabama). Jason Smith and Andre Smith arguably have the most upside because of their gifted athletic ability, but Monroe appears to be the safest choice because unlike Andre Smith, he comes with no character issues and unlike Jason Smith, he’s equally good in both pass protection and run blocking (where as Jason Smith excels at pass protection but isn’t a mauler-type in the running game). Monroe’s ceiling, however, seems to be limited. Considering Andre Smith’s weight and maturity issues, either Monroe or Jason Smith could separate themselves at this week’s combine with a great workout. Perhaps which offensive tackle comes off the board first will be determined in Indy this week. (Although it should be noted that most of the scouting for the draft is done on film before and after the combine.)

Josh Freeman9. Josh Freeman, QB, Kansas State
At 6-6, 250 pounds, Freeman is a physical marvel. He has the best physical tools of any quarterback in the draft, blessed with a strong arm and good athleticism, but he’s also incredibly raw. In terms of skill set and measurables, Freeman is the best quarterback prospect in the draft, but he didn’t win much at Kansas State and although he played in a Pro Style offense, he would probably still have to be brought along slowly. Don’t be surprised if his name comes up a lot this week at the combine because of his physical skill, but it still remains to be seen whether or not he’s the next Joe Flacco or another Akili Smith.

10. Robert Ayers, DE, Tennessee
Ayers only started one year at Tennessee and registered just three sacks as a senior last year, but he turned heads this year with a great Senior Bowl performance and seems to be streaking up the mock draft boards. At 6’3, 273 pounds, he has great size and is a natural athlete. But his work ethic and durability are concerns and he seemed to underachieve his entire collegiate career. Still, a great showing at the combine would do wonders for his draft stock and he could leapfrog over higher-rated defensive ends like Michael Johnson (Georgia Tech), Paul Kruger (Utah) and Larry English (Northern Illinois) come April.

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