NFL combine: Joe Burrow, Tom Brady madness take center stage

NFL Scouting Combine workouts are moving into prime time, but the real show still happens after hours.

With executives, agents, coaches, scouts and media all gathered for a week in Indianapolis, the combine is a hotbed for backchannel negotiations and speculative buzz created in social settings.

Draft homework is the advertised purpose — 337 prospects were invited to lift, run and jump in a new time slot (4-11 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2-7 p.m. Sunday) — but free agency opens March 18, and the two player addition periods go hand-in-hand.

Here are nine storylines that will take twists and turns at the combine:

1. Will LSU’s Joe Burrow pull an Eli Manning?

The presumptive No. 1 pick grew up in Ohio. The Bengals are atop the draft board and need a quarterback. Perfect match, right? Except the Bengals haven’t won a playoff game since Jan. 6, 1991. Burrow hasn’t campaigned to be the Bengals’ franchise-changer — the way Baker Mayfield did for the Browns in 2018 — and says he has some “leverage,” which prompted speculation he may follow the lead of Manning and force a draft trade by refusing to play for a mismanaged team. Bengals coach Zac Taylor — a sharp young offensive mind — and Burrow need to wow each other in an 18-minute formal interview.

2. Where will Tom Brady play?

The six-time Super Bowl winner can’t officially change teams just yet, but he will be more discussed than any non-rookie at the combine. He can re-sign with the Patriots right now. Or maybe he and the Patriots end speculation and agree to part ways in a joint announcement, like Philip Rivers and the Chargers. ESPN recently reported “no movement” on negotiations. Brady made it clear he will play somewhere. The Cowboys, Chargers, Raiders and Titans are top suitors.

3. Trade market

The Redskins and Giants, picking No. 2 and No. 4 respectively, drafted quarterbacks last year. If the No. 3 Lions stick with Matthew Stafford, all three are possible partners for a team looking to trade up and grab quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa or Justin Herbert. The No. 5 Dolphins, No. 6 Chargers and No. 7 Panthers are playing a game of chicken by staying put. The No. 12 Raiders and No. 13 Colts could get aggressive. Last year was the first time since 2015 there were no trades in top-five picks.

4. Tua’s test results

Six months ago, Tagovailoa was the clear No. 1 pick. “Tank for Tua” was supposed to be the Dolphins’ two-year plan for the top pick. But Tagovailoa enters the combine with durability red flags, so his biggest test is the extensive medical workup. He suffered two high ankle sprains and a significant hip injury in a 13-month span. Reports are Tagovailoa received positive hip news at his three-month check-up, but will he ever be the same player as when he burst onto the scene as a freshman lefty, throwing Alabama to a national title? He is not expected to participate in on-field drills, just team interviews.

5. What about the rest of the quarterback market?

The Cowboys haven’t yet franchise tagged Dak Prescott. With Drew Brees returning to the Saints, Teddy Bridgewater is looking for a starting job elsewhere and restricted free agent Taysom Hill could be had for a compensatory price. Rivers is a free agent looking to play 1-3 more years. Ryan Tannehill, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota are experienced starters scheduled for free agency. Cam Newton and Derek Carr could shake free to join them.

Joe Burrow; Tom Brady NFL draft combine 2020
Joe Burrow; Tom BradyGetty Images (2)

6. Tag, you’re it

Tuesday is the first day teams can “tag” their own free agents. In most years, a team can only use the franchise tag or the transition tag. But in 2020 a team can use both tags (two different players) because it is the final year of the collective bargaining agreement (CBA). The free-agent market will look very different after tags are applied — with top talent like Yannick Ngakoue, Amari Cooper and Shaq Barrett possibly off the market. A tag is a one-year contract. The tagging team can match any free-agent offer. Signing away a franchise-tagged player requires forking over two first-round picks. Stealing a transition-tagged player doesn’t require compensation.

7. CBA negotiations

NFL owners voted to approve a proposed CBA with radical schedule changes and tried to rush the NFLPA into following suit by next week, but the union won’t be bullied. The executive committee might not even let it get to a player vote.

As 10 months of negotiations near desperate times, each side is sure to begin leaking the other’s demands as unreasonable. If a new deal is struck by March 18, it will leave teams scrambling who plan to use both tags.

8. How many impact wide receivers are there?

Draft analysts expect about 20 wide receivers to be selected in the first three rounds. By comparison, there have been 9-14 receivers taken in the first three rounds of the past five drafts. Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy are battling to be first off the board — maybe to the Jets? — but this could be the deepest class ever at the position. In the combine’s premiere television event, Alabama’s Henry Ruggs could break John Ross’ record 40-yard dash time (4.22).

9. Other compelling prospects

Clemson’s Isaiah Simmons played 100 snaps at five different defensive positions. Is he a tweener, or a versatile weapon?

In a draft class short on edge rushers, LSU’s K’Lavon Chaisson could be about to explode, two years removed from a torn ACL.

The NFL will uncover every rock for offensive linemen: Division III prospect Ben Bartch, who gained 80 pounds and transitioned from tight end in college, has scouts’ attention after the Senior Bowl.

Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor , Georgia’s D’Andre Swift and Western Michigan’s LeVante Bellamy are the running backs who could shake up your fantasy football league in the fall.

Utah State’s Jordan Love is the quarterback who could shoot up the first round.

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