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SportsPulse: NFL draft gurus Nate Davis and Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz debate where the top 5 QBs land in this year’s draft. And there’s really no consensus.
USA TODAY Sports

The NFL scouting combine might not be the make-or-break stage for draft prospects that some depict it as, but the event is undeniably a crucial part of the evaluation process.

With on-field workouts starting Friday for the annual event in Indianapolis, scouts and general managers will get an up-close chance to cross-reference players’ physical profiles with their work on the field while also interviewing them away from it.

Here are 10 prospects who are poised to create the biggest buzz with their performances:

1. Saquon Barkley, RB, Penn State

Already the top running back in his class, Barkley might have his sights set on a higher prize. The do-everything threat could become the first running back taken in the first two picks since Reggie Bush in 2006, and the combine could serve as a launching pad. Though his outstanding athleticism was readily apparent throughout his prolific career, expect the buzz around him to only grow louder after his performance in Indianapolis.

2. Josh Rosen, QB, UCLA

Despite more buzz surrounding Baker Mayfield and some of his other peers, Rosen, the former Bruins star, is unmatched in this draft when assessing his footwork, mechanics and overall polish. Those assets should be readily evident in drills, though he will have to quell concerns about his outspoken personality. So long as he makes the right impressions in interviews, Rosen should solidify his status as a potential top-five pick.

More: With Blake Bortles extension, Jaguars banking on continuity over an upgrade at QB

3. Baker Mayfield, QB, Oklahoma

Sam Darnold was our initial top pick on Monday before ESPN reported that he won’t throw at the event. That could open a door for Mayfield, who at the very least should make a big impression in his news conference and team interviews with his bold style and alpha approach. The Heisman Trophy winner might be a step behind the other top passers in measurables (listed perhaps generously at 6-1, 220 pounds) but has some of the best movement and processing skills in the class.

4. Calvin Ridley, WR, Alabama

There’s little certainty about the wide receiver class, but Ridley might be the most reliable option. Even amid Alabama’s uneven passing performances, he proved to be one of the smoothest and most natural players at his position. Though he might draw scrutiny for a slender frame, his work in drills should give him a chance to stand out from the crowd.

5. Vita Vea, DT, Washington

Nose tackles are seldom among the biggest stars of the combine, but few players at the position resemble Vea. At 6-5 and 340 pounds, he has shown rare ability as a run stuffer. Vea’s power and overall physical ability should entice teams and serve as a reminder that he still has ample potential to unlock.

6. Taven Bryan, DT, Florida

Though he may be a year or two away from being able to hold his own against NFL starters, Bryan has traits that are hard to find from linemen with his build (6-4, 290). His best fit might be as a 3-4 defensive end, as he can wriggle past blockers and disrupt both against the pass and run. His burst and overall movement skills should turn heads.

7. Tremaine Edmunds, LB, Virginia Tech

At 6-5 and 250 pounds with rare speed and athleticism, he is a singular prospect in this class. His instincts are raw, but he has proven capable of compensating for them with his physical tools. Expect him to emerge as one of the combine’s best overall testers.

8. Derwin James, S, Florida State

Two years after Jalen Ramsey was drafted, another Seminoles defensive back is poised to be one of the combine’s biggest standouts. At 6-3 and 215, James has the range and physical approach to make plays at any level of the field. Teams will want to evaluate how he has recovered from a torn lateral meniscus suffered he suffered in 2016, but he should win them over with a tone-setting confidence similar to the one Ramsey brings.

9. Donte Jackson, CB, LSU

Weigh-ins could be the only hit to his stock, as the lean corner likely will post some of the event’s most eye-popping numbers. The former track star has set his sights on John Ross’ year-old 40-yard dash record (4.22) and should notch one of the fastest times this year. Jackson still requires tutelage on route recognition and the finer points of the position, but he should have little trouble landing with a team willing to develop his substantial skill set.

10. Denzel Ward, CB, Ohio State

The Buckeyes have produced three first-round cornerbacks in the past two years, yet Ward has already distinguished himself. Though former teammate Marshon Lattimore had better playmaking skills at this stage, Ward is difficult for receivers to shake thanks to his fluid hips and expert route recognition. Expectations are high for his 40-yard dash, and he could firm up his place as the top option at his position.

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Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz

PHOTOS: NFL mock draft 2.0

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