The NFL's annual scouting combine opens Wednesday and will conclude next Tuesday. I wouldn't miss it for the world. Media interviews begin Thursday morning and continue through Sunday, and I'll be on hand for an access schedule that should net us time with the general manager and/or coach of every NFC North team over the next few days.
Although we don't have access to most of the workouts themselves, dozens of players should be available for interviews. I'll feed the blog with zeal, of course, but to help sharpen our focus, let's consider a few important NFC North storylines to follow. If you have other ideas, hit the mailbag.
The value of the No. 3 position: Historically, the combine has helped solidify the top of the draft. We don't always leave Indianapolis knowing the order of the top few picks, but we generally know which players will comprise that pool -- knowledge that should help the Minnesota Vikings determine who they'll have to choose from at No. 3 and how intense trade interest will be.
We should know, for example, if USC's Matt Kalil is unquestionably the draft's top left tackle, or if there are any lingering doubts about his status. Is Kalil good enough that the St. Louis Rams will consider him at No. 2 overall? We'll get a better idea of interest in Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III. Would the Rams trade out of No. 2 with a Griffin-infatuated team?
Finally, what other options would the Vikings have if they neither draft Kalil nor trade out of the spot? Is LSU cornerback Morris Claiborne a top-3 pick? What about Oklahoma State receiver Justin Blackmon or Alabama running back Trent Richardson?
That Mega-contract: The Detroit Lions' tight salary cap situation has been one of our top offseason storylines, and presumed relief would begin with extending the contract of receiver Calvin Johnson. As it stands, Johnson is scheduled to have a cap number of around $22 million in 2012 and, if unaddressed, would be eligible for a franchise tag of around $26 million in 2013. The proximity of agents and team executives at the combine often fosters productive negotiations, and it's safe to assume that Lions president Tom Lewand will have some talks with Johnson's agent, Bus Cook.
The Lions aren't yet in crunch time with Johnson, but reducing his cap number by March 5 would make it easier for them to use the franchise tag on defensive end Cliff Avril, as they reportedly plan to do. Johnson has most of the leverage in this situation and figures to emerge, eventually, as the NFL's highest-paid receiver and possibly the best-paid non-quarterback in the league.
Second-tier pass rushers: The Green Bay Packers certainly will spend time negotiating with their free agents, from tight end Jermichael Finley to center Scott Wells to special teams ace Jarrett Bush. But it's also safe to assume they'll focus on prioritizing the pool of pass rushers who could be available to them at the bottom of the first round, or possibly in a trade to move up in the second round.
Elite pass rushers usually don't get past the top half of the first round, putting the Packers in a race to find the next Brooks Reed, the Houston Texans' second-round pick in 2011 who started 11 games and had six sacks as a rookie. Scouts Inc. currently has two defensive ends with grades that would give them value at the end of the first round: Syracuse's Chandler Jones and USC's Nick Perry.
Secondary help: To varying degrees, all four NFC North teams could use an influx of defensive backs. Given the league-wide passing explosion in recent years, it's fair to say there are plenty of other teams on that list as well. That means searching far and wide for talent, and to that end, Scouts Inc.'s Kevin Weidl offers a list of 12 small-school defensive backs who should get attention.
You'll need an Insider subscription to see the entire list, but it's topped by former Florida cornerback Janoris Jenkins, who spent last season at North Alabama. It also includes Montana cornerback Trumaine Johnson and Coastal Carolina cornerback Josh Norman.
WR depth: If new Chicago Bears general manager Phil Emery takes to heart a suggestion from his quarterback, he'll have an interesting group of big receivers to evaluate this week. "Anyone really over 6-2 at this point is going to look good," Jay Cutler said this week on ESPN 1000.
It's safe to assume that Blackmon won't be available when the Bears draft at No. 19 overall. The rest of ESPN anlayst Mel Kiper's list top five receivers looks like this: Baylor's Kendall Wright, Notre Dame's Michael Floyd, LSU's Rueben Randle and South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery. Wright is a 5-10 speedster, so if the Bears truly focus on big receivers, our combine focus will be on Floyd (6-3), Randle (6-4) and Jeffery (6-4).
Related: For those interested, here is a comprehensive schedule for the players invited to Indianapolis, beginning with medical testing for three position groups who will arrive Wednesday.