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Buildup to NFL draft begins with start of combine

Having survived the New York/New Jersey Super Bowl without snow or incident, the NFL has three months before its draft, pushed back to May because of a scheduling conflict at Radio City Music Hall.

The longer-than-usual draft build-up begins in earnest Thursday in Indianapolis, where all 32 teams and more than 300 prospects will descend on Lucas Oil Stadium for the start of the annual scouting combine.

Players will go through the gauntlet of 40-yard dashes, vertical jumps and cone drills in front of scouts, coaches and general managers, and face a barrage of questions about their family backgrounds, girlfriends and motivating factors.

Then the media will get its turn.

The Observer looks at five of the most intriguing players at the combine, five of the top players with ties to the Carolinas, and five who could be a fit for the Carolina Panthers.

Five to follow

Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina: The Freak 2.0 might have been the No. 1 overall pick last year had he been eligible for the draft. Despite an injury-plagued junior season that led to questions about his motivation, the Rock Hill native still figures to be a top-3 pick.

Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football said the Houston Texans and first-year coach Bill O’Brien would be making a mistake if they pass on him at No. 1. There’s no questioning Manziel’s arm strength and athletic ability, but the across-the-body throws and scrambles 20 yards behind the line of scrimmage won’t cut it in the NFL.

Michael Sam, DE, Missouri: Most draft experts view the SEC’s co-defensive player of the year as a mid-round pick who will be a third-down, pass rush specialist. But Sam will draw more media attention than anyone in Indy after announcing he is gay two weeks ago.

Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson: The Tigers keep churning out quality receivers under Dabo Swinney. DeAndre Hopkins caught 52 passes as a rookie after Houston took him 27th overall last year, and Watkins is expected to be a top-10 pick.

Ra’Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota: The former tight end and basketball player is a freakish athlete who could wow scouts at the combine. But he’ll also have to answer questions about taking off plays, or entire games.

Five from the Carolinas

Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina: The junior is the top pass-catching tight end in the draft. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock called Ebron a top-10 talent, and given how the position has evolved in recent years, Ebron could go that high.

Bruce Ellington, WR, South Carolina: Some observers were surprised when the junior declared for the draft. But if the former Gamecocks basketball player runs well at the combine, he could work his way into the second or third round.

Victor Hampton, CB, South Carolina: Hampton was kicked off Independence High’s team before his senior season in 2009, and attended four high schools in four years. He’s a good cover corner and is big enough to play safety, but will have to convince scouts his off-the-field issues are behind him.

Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson: ESPN draft guru Mel Kiper Jr. views Boyd as a late-rounder who will be a career backup. It will be interesting to see if Boyd draws interest from the Panthers, who eyed Russell Wilson as a potential backup to Cam Newton two years ago.

Brandon Thomas, OT, Clemson: Thomas (6-foot-3, 316 pounds) did a good job protecting Boyd’s blind side during one of the most prolific offensive seasons in school history. Mayock sees Thomas as a good value in the second or third round who could start as a rookie.

Five for the Panthers

Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia: It’s a deep offensive tackle class, with three expected to go in the first 10 picks. The Panthers could potentially wait until the second round to take the 6-6, 325-pound Moses, who can play the left or right side.

Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State: Dubbed “the next Steve Smith” by Kiper, the short and explosive Cooks set Pac-12 receiving records as a junior. Cooks hopes to run the 40 in 4.3 seconds. If he does, he could vault into the first round.

Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Florida State: The 6-4, 230-pound Benjamin caught a school-record 15 touchdown passes from Jameis Winston, including the game-winner in the BCS title game vs. Auburn. Though he doesn’t have great speed, Benjamin could be a matchup problem for defensive backs and a big target for Newton.

Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State: Considered by some to be the best cover corner in the draft, the 6-0, 195-pound Gilbert had seven interceptions last season, including two he returned for touchdowns. Unless his stock drops, the Panthers likely would have to trade up from 28th to get him.

JaWuan James, OT, Tennessee: James didn’t get the publicity of Antonio Richardson, the Vols’ more highly rated offensive tackle. But the 6-6, 315-pound James is coming off a solid Senior Bowl showing and could be a good, mid-round value.

Person: 704-358-5123; Twitter: @josephperson
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