The NFL combine returns after a year’s hiatus due to COVID-19. That means key NFL evaluators will gather in Indianapolis this week to weigh, measure and test prospects, and to hold clandestine meetings with representatives for this year’s free agent class.
The first group of players arrives in Indy on Monday, NFL general managers and coaches begin meeting with the media on Tuesday and the first set of workouts for quarterbacks, receivers and tight ends is Thursday.
Here are five things to watch at the combine:
Free agency, 2022
Historically, the combine is where the groundwork is laid for many of the spring’s key free agent deals. Officially, the new league year does not start until 4 p.m. March 16, but the Detroit Lions should have a pretty good idea who will and won’t be in their price range by next week. Top targets could include Saints safety Marcus Williams, if he avoids the franchise tag, and one of the many receivers available via free agency or trade. Teams can sign their own free agents at any time, and Tracy Walker, Charles Harris, Alex Anzalone and Josh Reynolds are the best of the Lions with expiring contracts.
On the bench
The NFL relented on the idea of a bubble for combine invites after player agents threatened to have their prospects boycott events in Indy, but the league held firm with its plans to hold the bench press on the same day players do on-field workouts. Player reps remain concerned about that schedule, and many prospects could wait to do the bench and/or on-field testing until their pro days. For teams, that’s not a huge deal. They get more out of the medical testing than anything at the combine. For fans watching at home, there could be less star power at workouts than usual.
One event that always draws eyeballs is the 40-yard dash, and this year should be no exception. Several receivers and defensive backs are expected to post 40 times in the 4.3s, with Memphis receiver Calvin Austin among the fastest players in Indy. The diminutive Austin — he measured in a tick over 5-7 at the Senior Bowl — drew high praise from Lions receivers coach Antwaan Randle El. He’s lightning in a bottle and will be a unique weapon for whatever team drafts him. Along with Austin, Western Michigan receiver Skyy Moore, Michigan safety Dax Hill, LSU cornerback Derek Stingley (if he works out) and Penn State receiver Jahan Dotson could post eye-popping 40 times.
The 40-yard dash is the combine’s headline event, but it’s far from the only thing NFL evaluators are anxious to see this week. Pitt quarterback Kenny Pickett will finally get an accurate measurement of his hand size, Pickett and most of the draft’s other quarterbacks are expected to throw Thursday, and for the Lions, the workouts of pass rushers Aidan Hutchinson and Kayvon Thibodeaux will be front and center Saturday. Hutchinson and Thibodeaux are in the mix to go No. 2 overall to Detroit. Neither is considered on the level of Chase Young or Myles Garrett as a prospect, and both can answer questions about their athleticism and ability to bend this week.
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Two for Tuesday
Lions GM Brad Holmes and coach Dan Campbell will hold their combine media sessions Tuesday afternoon. Unlike last year, when they changed regimes, overhauled their roster and traded their quarterback, the Lions are not at the center of the NFL news cycle this spring. Still, there is plenty to cover with Lions brass, from their options at No. 2, to their plans in free agency, to the future of Trey Flowers. Firm answers may be hard to come by at the podium, but fans and reporters will be listening intently for clues on the direction of the franchise.