Posted: Thursday February 24, 2011 11:17AM ; Updated: Thursday February 24, 2011 2:53PM
Don Banks

NFL Scouting Combine: Consensus No. 1 draft pick has yet to emerge

Story Highlights

Combine may provide clarity into who Panthers will take No. 1 overall

Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn may slide due to mal-developed right arm

There's no consensus on who is the best offensive tackle prospect

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Auburn's Nick Fairley hopes to ride the momentum from his dominant junior season all the way to being the No. 1 overall pick.
John W. McDonough/SI

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the ongoing NFL labor negotiations proceed onward in the background, the league's annual scouting combine opens Thursday at Lucas Oil Stadium. Of course, no one knows exactly when this year's crop of collegiate talent will get to strut its stuff on an actual NFL playing field.

This is a slightly more focused sort of combine because there's likely little prospect of free agency starting next week as scheduled. Though the draft feels like the only game in town right now, there's still plenty to talk about and dissect this week in Indy. The topics include:

Will a consensus No. 1 pick emerge from the combine?

Last year in Indianapolis, Oklahoma quarterback Sam Bradford started to answer the medical questions surrounding his surgically repaired throwing shoulder and left riding the momentum that wound up making him the first overall pick to the Rams, ahead of talented defensive tackles Ndamukong Suh and Gerald McCoy.

A repeat of that kind of clarity could start unfolding here on behalf of Auburn's Heisman-winning quarterback Cam Newton, but so far there's precious little consensus about anything Carolina might do atop this year's draft. Missouri quarterback Blaine Gabbert is rated higher than Newton -- the would-be icon and entertainer -- in the eyes of many NFL talent scouts. And prospects such as Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Georgia receiver A.J. Green, and LSU cornerback Patrick Peterson all are top-rated players in someone's opinion.

As always, the debate seems to start at quarterback, where Gabbert and Newton became the top prospects the moment Stanford's Andrew Luck decided to stay in Palo Alto for another year. Both of them played in fairly simplistic spread offenses in college, and scouts are uncertain if their transition to an NFL system will be as seamless as recent first-round quarterbacks like Matt Ryan, Joe Flacco, Mark Sanchez, Josh Freeman and Bradford.

"The four quarterbacks at the top of my list have got to be figured out,'' said NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock, speaking of Gabbert, Newton, Washington's Jake Locker and Arkansas's Ryan Mallett. "That is the key to this draft as far as the marquee names. How do you figure these quarterbacks out, who are they, what are they? Who is going to be a boom guy and who is going to be a bust guy?''

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But it's not just the quarterback question at the top of the draft. One veteran NFL personnel man this week told me that Georgia's Green and Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller are actually the top two players in this year's draft, and that some teams are scared off by the issue of whether Fairley has the maturity to handle becoming an instant millionaire and others question whether Bowers will be an elite player in the NFL.

Consensus? There's no consensus yet. On anything other than that this year's draft lacks consensus.

Who's hurting and how much?

Injuries and the medical history of draft prospects is always a big story at the combine, because teams are trying to know exactly what they're buying before they drive it home. This year is no different. Bowers had recent knee surgery to repair a torn meniscus and will only lift here this week. Ohio State defensive end Cameron Heyward had Tommy John surgery on his left elbow in January and has to prove he's healthy enough to do the heavy lifting required at his position. Ditto for USC offensive tackle Tyron Smith, who had arthroscopic knee surgery last month and won't run for the NFL until his March 30 pro day.

One first-round prospect with an injury history sure to be examined and debated this week is Iowa defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who was born with a right arm that's smaller than his left arm, and suffers from Erb's Palsy, a condition which leads to nerve damage in the neck and arm. One NFL scout told me some teams are wary of taking Clayborn, who he said broke his collarbone at birth, a doctor's mistake that didn't come to light for years.

"His right arm is mal-developed to a degree, but no one knows the extent of it yet,'' the scout said. "He's left-hand dominant because of it, and everyone wants to see if his left arm is longer than his right arm. That may be why he always played at right end in the college and never moved around. The combine is real important for him. He's probably going to slip some.''

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Most teams have Clayborn as a top 20 prospect, projecting him to go somewhere in the mid-to-high teens. But his condition has been fairly well documented, and as his agent, Blake Baratz, points out, the issue with his right arm has never kept Clayborn off the field. The fifth-year senior never missed a game with the Hawkeyes.

"It's a nerve damage thing,'' Baratz said Wednesday night. "But it's never become a focal point at Iowa. Are they (the NFL) going to look at it and pry it every which way? They will, as would I if I were investing millions in Adrian. But I don't think it's going to affect him. He didn't even miss so much as a practice all those years in the Big Ten, and that speaks volumes.''

Baratz said Clayborn has been in Arizona training in the pre-combine weeks, and that for the first time trainers have focused on Clayborn's right shoulder and building up the muscles in that area. When Clayborn undergoes his NFL medical evaluation on Friday here, teams will see how much improvement he's already made in regards to that arm, Baratz said.

"It's getting stronger and it's getting corrected,'' the agent said. "He's made tremendous strides in the past six weeks, and his shoulder will be in even better shape for his pro day. There are some flexibility and strength issues that could have been improved, but the condition has never been a problem for him playing. One arm is definitely bigger than the other arm, but it's already gotten less noticeable in just six weeks of training.''

Playing the comparison game

Last year, Suh and McCoy went second and third overall to Detroit and Tampa Bay, respectively. Suh played at Nebraska and McCoy at Oklahoma. This year, there are also two defensive tackles near the top of teams' boards, Auburn's Fairley and Alabama's Marcell Dareus, and there's more debate than you might think about which one will be the better NFL player.

While Fairley continues to be one of the most likely options for No. 1 Carolina, some scouts believe Dareus is the safer pick. Fairley has a higher upside, Mayock said, but Dareus has a higher floor and won't have much boom-bust potential.

Some personnel evaluators predict Dareus will exit the combine with some buzz attached to his name and make up ground on Fairley. No less an authority on NFL defensive tackle play than Warren Sapp said he believes Dareus is the better prospect, and that Fairley hasn't learned yet how to use his hands in shedding blockers.
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