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Speculation about who'll be No. 1 in draft centers on three players

Heading into this week's scouting combine, the top prospects appear to be defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy, and safety Eric Berry.

February 24, 2010|Sam Farmer

The No. 1 question heading into this week's NFL scouting combine in Indianapolis is just that -- the No. 1 question.

Who will emerge from the combine with the inside track on becoming the top pick in April's draft?

Defense is likely to dominate the top of this draft (April 22-24), and the next step in the evaluation process begins Thursday when coaches, scouts and general managers gather at Lucas Oil Stadium to test players.

The three top players heading into the combine come from that side of the ball: defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh of Nebraska and Gerald McCoy of Oklahoma, and safety Eric Berry of Tennessee.

The NFL Network's Mike Mayock puts the defensive tackles at the top and ranks McCoy fractionally ahead of Suh, even though Suh won the Nagurski, Outland, Bednarik and Lombardi awards and was the Big 12 Conference player of the year.

"To me, they're 1 and 1A, and it's really a matter of scheme than anything else," Mayock said of grading McCoy slightly higher. "The reason I put McCoy ahead is the NFL has become a pass-first league, and I think McCoy is a better pass rusher than Suh."

It isn't often that a safety is among the best prospects in the draft, but Berry is an exceptional player. After being named defensive freshman of the year in the Southeastern Conference, he was a unanimous All-American selection in consecutive seasons.

"He's probably the most instinctive safety I've seen since Ed Reed," said Rob Rang, senior scout for NFLDraftScout.com. "He tracks the ball so well. He's a phenomenal talent."

Rang points out that teams are especially attuned to the importance of safeties coming off this season, considering how New Orleans' Darren Sharper and Denver's Brian Dawkins helped their teams, and the defensive drop-off experienced by Baltimore (Reed), Indianapolis (Bob Sanders), and Pittsburgh (Troy Polamalu) when their star safeties have battled injuries.

Some of the other story lines from the combine, which runs through Tuesday:

Mixed signals

This isn't a strong quarterback class, but it could be an interesting one. Oklahoma's Sam Bradford and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen head into the combine as the top two prospects, and both have a good chance of being selected in the first round.

The intrigue comes a bit later, though, with Texas' Colt McCoy (He's a leader and a winner, but is he big and durable enough?) and Florida's Tim Tebow (He's a terrific athlete, but can he change his throwing mechanics and become an NFL quarterback?).

Then there's a host of quarterbacks, such as Cincinnati's Tony Pike, Central Michigan's Dan LeFevour, West Virginia's Jarrett Brown and Tennessee's Jonathan Crompton,who no one can quite agree upon.

"I've never seen a quarterback class with so many varied opinions after the first two or three guys," Mayock said.

Character counts

For some players, the interview process is going to be just as important as what they do on the field, and maybe more.

Most notable of these is Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, who was suspended for nearly the entire season last fall after punching a Boise State player who taunted him after a loss. Blount already had been in hot water with his coaches before that incident for his poor attendance at voluntary workouts and showing up overweight at spring practices. He had a good Senior Bowl, however, and now has a chance to win over some people if he shows he's matured.

Brandon Spikes, a highly regarded inside linebacker for Florida, made headlines when TV cameras caught him sticking his hand into the facemask of an opponent and apparently trying to gouge his eyes. It was ugly, but that type of thing happens in football. Scouts likely will be more concerned about Spikes' performance drop-off last season.

Then there's Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, who was suspended for the bulk of last season for lying to NCAA investigators about his dealings with NFL great Deion Sanders.

That's unlikely to dissuade NFL suitors, considering Bryant was the top receiving prospect and a Heisman Trophy candidate heading into last season.

Little big men

Four of the combine's smallest players worth watching:

* Dexter McCluster, running back, Mississippi; 5-8; 165 -- Joins Vikings star Percy Harvin as the only players to rank in SEC's top 10 in rushing, receiving and all-purpose yards, and receptions.

* Trindon Holliday, wide receiver, Louisiana State; 5-5; 162 -- Track All-American who led the SEC and ranked No. 2 in the nation in punt returns with a 17.7-yard average on 18 returns.

* Brandon Banks, wide receiver, Kansas State; 5-7; 154 -- Runs a 4.28 40-yard dash, and set a Big 12 record last season by returning two kickoffs for touchdowns in the same game.

* Jacoby Ford, wide receiver, Clemson; 5-9; 181 -- Showed great hands during Senior Bowl week and promised to run a 4.2 40 for NFL scouts.

More than words

USC's Stafon Johnson, who nearly died five months ago when a weight bar fell on his throat, can barely speak above a whisper. He's hoping his performance at the combine speaks volumes.

Johnson's astounding recovery is among the more inspirational stories at the event. He's considered a middle-round prospect; NFLDraftScout.com ranks him the 24th running back in the class.

Johnson, of course, is aiming higher.

"I visualize answering all the questions that were left over from the Senior Bowl, period," he wrote in his most recent diary entry on SportingNews.com. "How fast is he really? Can he really catch the football? How's he look in person? Can he really be an every-down football player? I'm ready for everything."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

twitter.com/LATimesfarmer

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