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From Tua's hip to what Joe Burrow wants, top five things to watch at the NFL scouting combine

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The NFL offseason doesn’t really start until most of the league arrives in Indianapolis.

A couple of relatively quiet weeks of NFL chatter ramps up with the scouting combine. It’s more than just college prospects running the 40. The league’s coaches, scouts and executives are in town, as are player agents. The madness of the March free-agency period kicks off behind the scenes in Indy, and that leads into the draft craziness of April.

Defensive lineman Montez Sweat, a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2019, runs the 40-yard dash during the NFL scouting combine. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Defensive lineman Montez Sweat, a first-round pick of the Washington Redskins in 2019, runs the 40-yard dash during the NFL scouting combine. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

The foundation for the 2020 NFL season starts to get set this week, and there will be some enticing storylines to watch. Here are the top five things to watch, starting with a topic nobody wants to deal with ...

Labor negotiations this week

Yes, the collective bargaining agreement will be a topic. It’s impossible to get away from, because teams can’t be sure how a new CBA would affect the 2020 league year. It could even affect the start of the league year.

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The NFLPA wants to meet with ownership this week, and there’s no clue what the labor situation will look like by the end of the week. In the big picture, the labor situation is the most important story of the week.

Joe Burrow and the Bengals

We might get a better idea this week if Joe Burrow wants to play for the Cincinnati Bengals, or if he’s planning to pull a John Elway/Eli Manning and say he wants to play elsewhere.

Burrow became the presumptive No. 1 prospect in this draft after a record-setting season with LSU. There seems to be a mystery about whether Burrow wants to be a Bengal, and he has avoided saying with absolute certainty that he wants to go first overall to the Bengals. Maybe that clears up this week.

Or maybe the week ends with everyone wondering what the Bengals will do with the first overall pick if Burrow doesn’t want to be a Bengal (or if the team covets someone else).

How is Tua’s hip?

Every year there are college prospects with medical questions. It’s hard to remember another player whose medical evaluation is more important to the draft than Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa.

Tagovailoa might have been in the conversation for the No. 1 overall pick, but a hip injury ended his season and started a lot of questions. There have been positive reports, but there is a fortune at stake for Tagovailoa so it shouldn’t be a surprise that the early reports are glowing. None of that matters much until NFL teams can do their own medical evaluations, which presumably should happen this week.

The evaluations of Tagovailoa will go beyond his hip, considering he had other injury issues at Alabama. What NFL teams think about Tagovailoa medically after leaving Indianapolis could shake up the draft in a major way.

Which running backs and receivers will help themselves?

The popularity of the combine has exploded. Part of that is an endless thirst for the NFL. But fantasy football is a huge part too.

A lot of eyes will be on the skill positions at Indianapolis, because they’re deep and interesting this season. Eric Edholm did a full combine preview for each position, including running backs and wide receivers.

While the value of running backs continues to be debated, there does seem to be a thought among teams that drafting a running back early is worthwhile, because they get the prime years of a back on a rookie contract. In Edholm’s latest mock draft, he had three running backs going in the second round: Georgia’s D’Andre Swift, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins and Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor. This week will be huge for them as they try to move up to the first round.

There is a lot of competition at receiver for draft positioning. Edholm had receivers going 12th, 13th, 15th and 21st in his latest mock, and six more going in the second round. A big week in Indianapolis could reshuffle the order of the top receivers in a deep class.

Who goes No. 3?

Let’s assume Joe Burrow or another quarterback goes first, and Ohio State pass rusher Chase Young goes second overall. That is the consensus of any reputable mock draft you can find. But No. 3? Good luck figuring that out right now.

A lot of the jostling will depend on Tua Tagovailoa’s medical reports this week. A team could be motivated to trade up to third overall for Tagovailoa or another quarterback like Oregon’s Justin Herbert. If the Detroit Lions stay put at No. 3 overall, they have plenty of reasonable options, including Ohio State CB Jeffrey Okudah, Alabama OT Jedrick Wills Jr. and Auburn DT Derrick Brown. Perhaps someone else emerges with a big week in Indianapolis. One of those three players could separate himself and make it a consensus top three.

A lot of that will be determined by what happens in Indianapolis. It’s one of the busiest weeks of the NFL year.

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