CHARLOTTE — The entire NFL will descend upon Indianapolis next week for the annual Scouting Combine, and the real preparations for the offseason will hit another gear.
It will also be an in-person event again, after last year's was called off because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The event brings together 324 of the top prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft, and the most important parts of the week go beyond the 40-yard dashes and on-field workouts you'll see on TV.
For teams, the most critical part of the week remains the medical testing and the interviews. Players go through thorough check-ups upon arrival, giving teams a baseline and insight into any pre-existing conditions or injuries. Those results will be important, as the teams will use medical grades to adjust their draft boards.
The interviews are the next-most important component.
Teams are allowed 45 formal interviews, each lasting 20 minutes. (In the past, they were allowed 60 15-minute sessions). During those meetings, teams traditionally try to get a sense of a player's personality and grasp of football concepts, often putting them on the board to break down plays.
Those meetings will give the team a chance to talk to some of the prospects for the first time.
Ole Miss quarterback Matt Corral and the top three tackle prospects (Alabama's Evan Neal, Mississippi State's Charles Cross and N.C. State's Ikem Ekwonu) will be there next week. None of those guys were on hand for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where scouts got a look at the other top quarterbacks including Pitt's Kenny Pickett and Liberty's Malik Willis, and linemen such as Northern Iowa's Trevor Penning.
The Panthers finished their draft meetings this week, spending eight days ranking this year's prospects and putting together a preliminary draft board.
Now, they add more information, and coaches will get more involved in the process, adding their input along with what is gathered in Indianapolis. When pro day workouts begin after the Combine, the blanks will be filled in, and the rankings could adjust slightly.
But the college scouting process is only part of what happens in the Indianapolis Convention Center, and the hallways and restaurants in the area.
Though teams aren't allowed to officially negotiate with free agents until March 14, having all the teams and agents gathered in one city makes for convenient opportunities to run into each other in the hallways. Occasionally, people leave those chance encounters with a clearer notion of expectations.
The new league year begins on Wednesday March 16, at which point trades can be finalized, and contracts can be signed.
The Panthers figure to be reasonably active this offseason, looking for help along the offensive line, and filling in some blanks on defense (they're particularly short on linebackers and safeties at the moment).
View college photos of Jeremiah's initial list of top prospects for the 2022 NFL Draft.