The NFL scouting combine kicks into gear Thursday in Indianapolis, with more than 330 draft prospects invited to march through the assembly line of interviews, medical exams and athletic testing.
NFL coaches, scouts and front-office personnel will scrutinize the developments, with teams continually shaping and reconfiguring their draft boards.
Bears coach Marc Trestman and general manager Phil Emery will address the media Thursday for the first time since early January.
Here are 10 plotlines we will be keeping a pulse on.
Say it again, Sam
Every year, it seems, one combine storyline has a higher profile than any other. And this year, the big stage -- which in recent years featured Tim Tebow, Cam Newton and Manti Te'o -- belongs to Missouri defensive end Michael Sam.
Sam was best known as the SEC defensive player of the year until Feb. 9, when he announced publicly that he is gay.
So what does Sam's proclamation mean for his draft prospects? What does it say about the evolution of the league? And just how big of a media swarm will Sam's pioneering efforts attract?
Those answers won't crystallize in Indianapolis. But the national discussion will continue about how easy it will be for Sam to assimilate into an NFL locker room.
There also will be plenty of chatter about Sam's draft stock. Even before his announcement, he was pegged as a Day 3 prospect (fourth round or lower). Sam won't run the 40-yard dash until Monday, but he will face what figures to be a swollen and inquisitive media horde Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium.
Emery and Trestman have significant ground to cover in their first comments to the media since Jan. 2. Emery vowed that day to re-establish a disruptive, playmaking defense. That work began with Trestman retaining coordinator Mel Tucker, who figures to have more schematic autonomy in his second season after injuries contributed to a disastrous campaign in the Cover-2 system he kept in place.
But what adjustments do Emery and Trestman expect Tucker to make? Will the Bears sustain their one-gap approach to stopping the run? And how much of a difference can new defensive line coach Paul Pasqualoni and linebackers coach Reggie Herring realistically make? Several personnel questions linger, as well, such as the projected roles for Shea McClellin and Jon Bostic.
Trestman takes the podium at 9 a.m. Thursday; Emery follows an hour later.
The Bears have more needs than draft resources, so expect them to seek several personnel upgrades in free agency. They're currently about $6 million below the projected salary cap, and they can create more space if they restructure a few bulky contracts or release a veteran or two.
The bigger question is about the Bears' cash budget. Emery won't publicize the amount ownership has allocated for him to spend on the open market, but his moves before March 11, when free agency begins, should offer a clue.
The biggest question: Will the Bears proceed into the new league year with defensive end Julius Peppers' $13.9 million base salary on the books?
Who's on the clock?
With the 14th pick in the first round and a defense that needs considerable help, Emery has plenty of homework to attack this week.
Logic says the Bears should use their top pick to fortify their defensive front, particularly because the talent pool for ends and tackles is not all that deep.
And the Bears should have strong options at No. 14. Notre Dame's Louis Nix is a productive, space-filling nose tackle with admirable quickness. But he likely has far more value in a 3-4 system.
Florida State's Timmy Jernigan and Pittsburgh's Aaron Donald could be better fits and intriguing first-round options at defensive tackle.
The Clowney show
South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, an athletic specimen at 6-foot-6 and 275 pounds with speed and power to boot, will command the spotlight during his on-field workout Monday as he pushes to be the No. 1 pick.
"The numbers I am going to put up are going to be amazing," Clowney told The State newspaper. Other workouts of particular interest include Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins' 40-yard dash and quarterback drills by Central Florida's Blake Bortles.
By most accounts, three quarterbacks (Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Bortles) are worthy of being selected toward the top of the first round, with Derek Carr a likely first-rounder as well. Yet five teams picking in the top 10 -- the Texans at No. 1, the Jaguars at No. 3, the Browns at No. 4, the Raiders at No. 5 and the Vikings at No. 8 -- are in desperate need of new starters.
Let the musical chairs begin.
Manziel has said he wants to leave zero choice in the Texans' mind and is so driven to be the top pick that he's studying tape incessantly of the 2011 Patriots. Why? The Patriots' offensive coordinator that year was Bill O'Brien, the Texans' new head coach.
Manziel won't throw at the combine. Bortles will. Bridgewater plans to make a last-minute decision.
QB or not QB?
Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo looks to build on impressive showings at the East-West Shrine Game and Senior Bowl and might wow teams as much with his aptitude on the white board as he will during Sunday's throwing drills.
Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch, meanwhile, could face a position change in the NFL but will try to prove that won't be necessary during combine drills with the quarterbacks.
Who's sticking around?
The Bears have 25 players with contracts scheduled to expire March 11, including marquee veterans Charles Tillman, Devin Hester, Henry Melton and Roberto Garza. By now, the Bears likely have decided whom they want to retain and at what price.
But that's only part of the equation. Players have options and markets are fluid. The outlook should begin to take shape in Indianapolis as the Bears meet with their players' agents and the leaguewide market continues setting at various positions.
Obligatory reminder: Emery wants the Bears to get younger on defense.
New-look NFC North
The division landscape changed this winter with the arrival of new Lions coach Jim Caldwell and new Vikings coach Mike Zimmer. They are scheduled to speak to reporters Thursday and Friday, respectively. Those sessions will provide a clearer sense of direction for two teams that combined to beat the Bears in three of four meetings last season.
Diamond in rough
Need a pre-combine sleeper? Keep an eye on Colorado State running back Kapri Bibbs, a Plainfield North alumnus.
As a redshirt sophomore last season, Bibbs set Colorado State records for single-game rushing yards (312), single-season rushing yards (1,741) and touchdowns (an NCAA-best 31). He hopes to elevate his draft stock Sunday by posting a 40 time below 4.4 seconds.
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