The Combine countdown

Alex Smith emerged as hot topic at NFL Combine

Who's the best athlete? The best quarterback? How about the emergence of the read-option – particularly by the NFC champion 49ers – and whether it will impact this year's NFL draft and free agency? A rundown of 10 story lines, none of them related to Manti Te'o, emerging from the NFL Combine in Indianapolis, with Niners quarterback Alex Smith's name connected to at least a few of them.

1. WHO'S NO. 1?
Expect another shake-up atop the draft board after this weekend's craziness. Defensive tackle Star Lotulelei went home after being diagnosed with a heart condition, cornerback Dee Milliner is preparing for shoulder surgery and offensive tackle Eric Fisher appears to be closing the gap on Luke Joeckel, the presumptive No. 1 pick (hello, Kansas City?). Some analysts are moving guard Chance Warmack and defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd into the top five.

2. MEDICAL EXAMS
Nothing is more important at the combine than passing a physical, and nothing can hurt a draft prospect's stock faster than a bad exam. Just ask Lotulelei, who has generally been ranked in the top three since the college season ended. After doctors diagnosed the Utah star with a heart condition, he was sent home to see a specialist. Before he even left town, some teams were already saying he'd be off their draft board if he couldn't get cleared.

3. GOING DEEP
Teams looking for an Andrew Luck or a Robert Griffin III or even a Jake Long will be hard pressed to find a franchise anchor at the top of the 2013 draft. That means the big winners will be the teams looking to fill in around Luck, Griffin or Cam Newton because this year's talent pool runs deep. And teams may find more value in dealing for Alex Smith or Matt Flynn than drafting Geno Smith or Matt Barkley, and those rumors are already flying. Smith's value actually rose this week at the Combine as no impact QBs emerged, and the 49ers apparently are on their way to trading Smith before the beginning of the NFL fiscal year in mid-March, with a deal possibly already be in the works.

4. HOLD THE LINE
Coaches and general managers often talk about building teams around the line of scrimmage. This year, they can show they mean it. Of the 333 players who attended this week's combine, 112 (33.6 percent) were either offensive or defensive linemen. Fans might want to start learning names like Corey Lemonier (Auburn DE) and Eric Herman (Ohio State OL).

5. CHECK IT OUT
This year's rookie class will keep the NFL's background checkers busy through draft weekend. There are plenty of concerns that need to be sorted out, from drug use and alcohol abuse to academic woes and criminal allegations. Teams want some sort of certainty that they're not going to be risking too much by using a high pick on a talented player such as Alec Ogletree (DUI arrest on Feb. 16) and then having to contend with more problems. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh talked about the importance of character, integrity and truthfulness when he said from the podium in Indianapolis late last week, "that's big to me. I'm a big fan of the Judge Judy show. When you lie in Judy Judy's courtroom, it's over. Your credibility is completely lost. You stand no chance of winning that case. So, I learned that from her. And, it's very powerful, and true because if somebody does lie to you, then how can you ever trust anything that they ever say after that? And then [former President] Ronald Reagan, another person of great wisdom and advice, ‘Trust, but we will verify.'"

6. BELIEVE YOUR EYES
Fans become enamored with things like times in the 40-yard dash and the number of reps players have on the bench press. Scouts prefer to look at the tape. The reality is the workout warriors (see Mike Mamula) in shorts don't always meet the expectations in pads. Don't believe it? Here are the top five 40 times since 2000: Trindon Holliday, Jacoby Ford, Chris Johnson, Darrius Heyward-Bey and Demarcus Van Dyke.

7. FEEL-GOOD STORIES
Defensive lineman Walter Stewart of Cincinnati and Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones were told they would have to give up football in college after doctors discovered congenital spinal conditions. Both have been cleared to play and hope to embark on NFL careers. Then there's defensive back D.J. Hayden, who tore a heart vein in a practice collision in November and was rushed into surgery. He's now on verge of fulfilling a lifelong dream.

8. QB QUANDARY
While there is debate about who will be the first quarterback taken this year – Matt Barkley, Mike Glennon, Geno Smith or someone else – few analysts believe there's a top-10 QB available. More reasons for the 49ers to believe they can get significant value in return from Smith instead of releasing him before his $7.5 million 2013 salary becomes guaranteed on April 1.

9. SEC RULES
No conference has been better at winning national championships over the last decade and now the SEC's domination is carrying over to the NFL. The SEC easily had the highest number of players at the combine (73), and could have the highest total of first-round picks in April, too, thanks in large part to the contingents from Alabama and LSU. The ACC had the second-most invites (43), with the Pac-12 third (38).

10. GOING GLOBAL
American football is suddenly becoming a hit overseas, too. Players at this year's combine were born or reared in the following countries: Australia, England, Estonia, Ghana, Germany, Japan, Liberia and Tonga. Not everyone believes American football is a great sport, as defensive lineman Magus Hunt, a native of Estonia, can attest. But it's a start for a league that is trying to give its game a global spin.

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