The annual Scouting Combine is often regarded as the first true mark of the NFL offseason — a chance for representatives from each of the league's 32 clubs to get an up-close look at some of the top draft prospects.
In 2018, 326 of the country's top collegiate players traveled to Indianapolis to showcase their skills both on and off the field. The weeklong event included fan favorites like the bench press and 40-yard dash, as well as position specific drills for each player.
And as it does every year, the Combine provided a lot of insight about the top players heading into the Draft in April. With that in mind, here are the top five takeaways from the 2018 Combine:
1) Johnson, Watkins, and Donald Are Priorities
During the first two days of the Combine — before any of the on-field workouts have taken place — attention is centered on head coaches and general managers from across the league.
The Combine represents the first chance to address questions surrounding free agency, contract negotiations, or trades. And for Rams head coach Sean McVay and general manager Les Snead that meant tackling the following topics:
Much has been made of the pending contract negotiations for defensive tackle Aaron Donald, who tied a career high with 11.0 sacks in 2017 en route to being named AP Defensive Player of the Year. McVay told reporters on Thursday that the Rams would be meeting with Donald's representation at the Combine. And while the two sides have not come to an agreement yet, extending the Pro Bowler is clearly still a priority for the franchise.
Cornerback Trumaine Johnson and wide receiver Sammy Watkins are two of the clubs' most high-profile players slated to become unrestricted free agents on March 14. Both McVay and Snead made it clear at the Combine that "if they can make it work" with Johnson and Watkins, they would love to have the both players back in 2018.
2) What Were the Rams Looking for at the Combine?
Scouting prospects at the Combine requires a unique set of eyes. To that point, what the everyday fans sees and evaluates on-field can be starkly different from what a club's general manager and staff may see.
For the Rams, scouting a prospect is broken down into three different phases — what they have seen on game tape, getting to know the players in person through private meetings, and matching their film with various positional drills at the Combine.
In the 15-minute interviews that take place throughout the week, McVay said the first thing addressed is football.
Check out some of the best photos of defensive backs and corners at the 2018 NFL Combine.
The staff will start with something a prospect knows well, like game film, and assess his ability to effectively communicate his responses.
"So we'll have tape involved in those meetings — might be some good plays, might be some bad plays," he said. "And you want to see how they're able to echo and articulate what their role, what their responsibility is within the framework of that individual play. And then see if they can take some accountability if there is a play where maybe they could've done better."
The drills, on the other hand, serve more as a reference point of sorts. Each drill is an opportunity for the Rams to project how a player could fit within their scheme. But it's also important to assess how what an athlete displays at the Combine either does or does not match what he's showcased on film.
3) Defensive Backs are Loaded with Talent
Heading into the Combine, many mock drafts had the Rams selecting a cornerback with the No. 23 overall pick. If that's the case, L.A. will have plenty of talent to choose from as the position group is loaded with the top athletes.
Six cornerbacks ran sub 4.40 40-yard dash times, 11 posted at least 16 bench press reps of 225 pounds, and seven recorded a vertical jump of at least 38.0 inches.
Two of the defensive backs that could be headed the Rams way include Colorado's Isaiah Oliver and Iowa's Joshua Jackson.
At 6-feet and 201 pounds, Oliver ran a quick 40-yard dash time for his size of 4.50 seconds. He also impressed scouts with his performance in the positional drills, showcasing his solid hands and long arms.
Jackson also turned in a solid 4.49 time in the 40, but it was his sure hands that really caught the attention of several analysts and scouts. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock even referred to the converted wide receiver as having "the best hands of this draft."
4) The Top of the Draft is Still Very Muddled
The first few picks of the draft still appear to be a toss up.
Not only are there legitimate arguments to make about each of the Draft's top quarterbacks — Sam Darnold, Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, and Josh Rosen — but a phenomenal Combine performance from running back Saquon Barkley has also pushed him back into top-two consideration.
While Darnold is still the heavy favorite to be selected as the first overall pick by the Browns, the team is also in need of help at running back. And as noted on Twitter by NFL Research, Barkley posted some eye opening numbers — with a quicker 10-yard split than DeSean Jackson, a faster 40-yard dash than Devin Hester, a better bench press than tackle Joe Thomas, and a vertical jump higher than Julio Jones.
Moving past the top two selections, a strong linebacker and defensive line class makes it hard to predict who will be taken in the top-10. With such a solid showing at the Combine, Pro Days across the country will be important for the draft's top prospects to set themselves apart.
**5) Griffin was the Combine's Breakout Star
UCF linebacker Shaquem Griffin was a late invite to the 2018 Combine, but left a strong impression on fans, team personnel, and analysts at the event. The 2018 Peach Bowl Defensive MVP ran a record-breaking 4.38 40-yard dash and posted 20 bench press reps of 225 pounds.
Even more impressive, he did it all with just one hand. Griffin had his left hand amputated due to a congenital defect at age four.
But with his stellar combine performance, Griffin proved that he is much more than just a feel-good story. Sports Illustrated’s Peter King now projects the linebacker will go in the late third or early fourth round of the draft — believing that Griffin could have an immediate impact on special teams regardless of where he ends up.