As long as college underclassmen continue to forgo their final seasons of eligibility, the NFL Scouting Combine will keep growing in popularity and importance.
Especially if those underclassmen are from the Southeastern Conference.
A record 74 underclassmen have declared for the 2013 draft, breaking the mark of 65 set last year after the previous high of 56 in 2011. Longtime ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has 18 underclassmen among his 32 projected first-round picks, including 14 underclassmen from the SEC.
Alabama tailback Eddie Lacy, Georgia outside linebacker Jarvis Jones and Tennessee receiver Cordarrelle Patterson are among the SEC's 32 underclassmen who have been invited to the combine, which begins Saturday in Indianapolis. There will be 332 players overall, including 79 from the SEC.
"You just don't have the computer numbers on a lot of these kids until you have this type of venue, particularly the underclassmen," Kiper said. "The all-star games have diminished a little bit. There used to be the Blue-Gray Game on Christmas Day, and there were a lot of those that were very, very popular for a while and very much in the process for players and fans.
"Now, half the players are so concerned with injuries, and there has been the evolution of the junior player and underclassmen coming out early in high, high numbers."
The combine will stretch over four days and will be blanketed by the NFL Network. The quarterbacks, running backs and receivers are scheduled to work out next Sunday. The NFL draft will be held April 25-27 in New York.
Tennessee's Tyler Bray, who Kiper believes could go in the second or third round, and Eastern Washington's Kyle Padron were the only quarterbacks who bypassed their final college seasons for the draft.
"The combine is rough on quarterbacks normally, because you're in there with new guys in a pressure-packed environment," Kiper said. "The whole thing is pressure-packed, because you have interviews and medical testing, so there is a lot of poking and prodding. It's not an optimum venue, so for quarterbacks, their pro day is the critical part of it."
Workouts are optional for the combine invitees, but the interview and medical portions are mandatory. Jones suffered a neck injury at Southern Cal before transferring to Georgia, so he will be among the most scrutinized players from a medical standpoint.
No player could be monitored more in the interview rounds than Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o, who is sure to be asked about Lennay Kekua, his girlfriend who never existed. Kiper, who once had Te'o among his top five picks but now has him going 13th overall to Tampa Bay, believes the Irish standout needs to excel in every aspect.
The linebackers are scheduled to work out next Monday.
"If he runs a great 40 [-yard-dash] time, he gets right back in that mix of being in the top 10 or 12 discussion," Kiper said. "The 40 time is the most important thing when you talk to NFL people. Even though he had seven interceptions and lost weight and increased his agility and coverage skills this year, what he runs is what is going to determine whether he can be an every-down linebacker."
Kiper believes Georgia inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo have the potential to benefit most from a productive combine. He has Ogletree going eighth overall to Buffalo and Mingo 10th to Tennessee but said each could get in the top-five range with a good showing.
A whopping 16 of his 32 first-round projections are from the SEC, which Kiper said is no accident. The analyst has Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel going first to Kansas City, Aggies defensive end Damontre Moore going second to Jacksonville, Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner going fourth to Philadelphia and Jones fifth to Detroit.
"Half of the first round is made up of SEC players, and it took seven other conferences to get to the other 16," Kiper said. "That doesn't even include [South Carolina tailback Marcus] Lattimore, who could have been a first-round pick had he not been hurt, or [South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon] Clowney, who would have been the No. 1 pick if he was in this draft. This conference, with Alabama leading the charge, is amazing.
"People say there is an SEC bias or that the SEC is overhyped. No. They put a shut-up on that a long time ago."