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Strickly Panthers: Combine on track

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In about three months, the famed Indianapolis 500 will rev up for the 95th time.

But this week, an oval ball rather than an oval track will take over the city.

I'm calling it the Indianapolis 300.

That represents the approximate number of prospects expected to descend on Lucas Oil Stadium for the NFL Scouting Combine, where they'll be sized up in every way imaginable for the NFL Draft coming at the end of April.

I'll be there this week, just I was last spring, when I had the pleasure of covering the Final Four.

The Panthers would like to emerge from Indy with a final four or so of their own.

The NFL Scouting Combine is the latest step – and one of the more important – in determining what the Panthers will do with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft.

The scouting department has seen the prospects play and practice on the college level, and they saw many of the top seniors go head-to-head at several postseason all-star games.

But now they'll see everybody under the same roof at the same time, a four-day fest of information overload. It should help the Panthers pare down their options at No. 1, yet still it's far from the end of the line, with pro days at the prospects' respective colleges and time for further evaluation to follow.

Plus, it's not all about the No. 1 pick.

Carolina currently has five draft picks -- the top spot in the first, third, fourth, fifth and sixth rounds – but that number could well be on the way up.

The Panthers should find out next month if they'll be awarded any compensatory picks. Teams can receive up to four compensatory picks each year based on their fate in the previous year's free agent market. With defensive end Julius Peppers signing as an unrestricted free agent with Chicago Bears last offseason, the Panthers could be in line for a pick at the end of the third round – the highest compensatory pick awarded.

Even if a compensatory pick leaves Carolina with "Mr. Irrelevant" – the final player taken in the draft -- there's a good chance that player will be at the combine. Last year, 216 of the 255 players drafted took part in the combine.

So the Panthers' future will be on display in Indy, and over the next couple of months, I'll bring you exhaustive information on the potential prospects. Then come April, we'll all watch together as the Indianapolis 300 finally gets whittled down to the Carolina half-dozen or so.

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