While there are a handful of exceptions every year, an NFL combine invitation is nearly a necessity to be selected in the first two days of the NFL draft and receive the sizeable contract guarantee that comes with it.
In 2012, nine players from area schools received one of those golden tickets: four Texas Longhorns (LB's Emmanuel Acho and Keenan Robinson, DT Kheeston Randall and RB Fozzy Whittaker), four Baylor Bears (QB Robert Griffin III, WR Kendall Wright, RB Terrance Ganaway and C Philip Blake) and one TCU Horned Frog (LB Ricky Carder).
In a sign of how far the Baylor program has come under Art Briles, the only two receiving first-round talk are the Bears explosive pass-and-catch duo of Griffin and Wright.
Ganaway, a 6'0 240 RB who exploded onto the scene as a senior, rushing for 1,547 yards and 21 TD's, is being talked about as a late-round pick, with many scouts believing he benefited from the attention Griffin generated:
My Prediction: I think Ganaway will end up being a very late draft pick in the 6th or 7th round, possibly even an undrafted free agent. However, I do think that he'll stick on an NFL roster somewhere. He is a true power-back that still has decent speed and I think he will be a serviceable backup RB and maybe one day he'll get his shot to be a featured back in the NFL.
Blake, a 6'2 320 center originally from Toronto, will have to overcome doubts about his skill level, and his ceiling as an NFL player, due to already being 26 years old:
An overaged, Canadian, one-year starter still developing positional instincts, Blake has terrific size and NFL base strength with the ability to lean on defenders and seal lanes. However, he is slow reacting to in-line movement, doesn't unlock his hips and explode on contact and is too often content to neutralize defenders instead of burying them.
Texas' trio of senior defenders carried the Longhorns to a 8-5 season despite spouts of complete ineptitude on the other side of the ball, and all three are receiving consideration as early to middle round prospects:
Emmanuel Acho, whose brother Sam was a fourth-round pick by the Arizona Cardinals in 2011, became a vocal leader on the Texas defense this year. And while he is undersized against the run at 6'2 240, his speed and intelligence makes him the perfect prototype at the LB position to defend the increasingly popular spread attacks in both college and the pros:
Acho has a nice all around make-up for the MIKE LB spot with solid length, speed, aggression, and intelligence. He's a chase-and-tackle player who will patrol the sidelines making plays. He's not overly stout against the run but he can navigate traffic and uses his long arms well to shed blockers.
Like his teammate on the Texas linebacking corps, Keenan Robinson lacks the ideal stature to stuff the run but is an exceptional athlete who can move well in space:
He's not especially stout but can provide an initial pop while using his length and quickness to separate. He's generally tackles well but too often goes for the big hit instead of wrapping up. He's very capable in coverage and will match-up against a modern era TE about as well an LB can be expected to. He also plays with an attitude and really fights for the ball. He was almost never asked to rush the QB at Texas but has an intriguing skill set for it. There may be some untapped potential there.
But the Texas defender getting the most attention is Randall, as 300 pound defensive tackles who can control the point of attack and shed blockers are fairly rare on the next level:
Randall showed exceptional agility for a 300-plus pounder during individual drills, and he was a handful to block because of his ability to work inside-out against blockers. Randall looked less comfortable pass rushing from the outside, but his size-athleticism combination may make him an ideal fit as a 3-4 defensive end for a Steelers-type scheme.
A fifth-year senior, Whittaker was an inspirational leader for a young Texas offense which imploded after he tore his ACL during the Longhorns loss to Missouri. His invitation is a chance for NFL doctors to examine his knee, which he injured several times in college, to see if he's worth bringing in as an undrafted free agent.
And while TCU has become somewhat of an NFL factory over the last few years, especially on the defensive side of the ball, 2011 Rose Bowl MVP Tank Carder is the only Horned Frog receiving serious draft talk this season, as he's battling Acho and Robinson for middle-round consideration:
TCU's aggressive 4-2-5 scheme asks Carder to attack gaps, taking himself out of plays, but his ability to close on the ballcarrier and make plays in coverage should earn him an early-round selection as a 4-3 strong-side linebacker or inside 'backer for a 3-4 team at the next level. The only bump in the road would be NFL teams' concerns about those injuries suffered years ago, and their potential to derail his career with the car crash-type collisons that happen every play in the NFL.