Before the football spotlight shines on New York/New Jersey for the Super Bowl in two weeks, Mobile, Alabama will turn into NFL headquarters this week as hundreds of coaches, scouts and personnel men congregate for the 2014 Reese's Senior Bowl.
Evaluators have volumes of game tape on file of all the top prospects, but scouting players in an all-star setting brings a different perspective on an even playing field. For “small school” prospects, it allows scouts to see them on the same field as players from Alabama and Ohio State. For players who had a down senior season, the Senior Bowl gives prospects a chance to redeem themselves. Simply put, players have a lot to gain from a positive week of practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. Last year, Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson and Ziggy Ansah dominated the competition in Mobile, which helped turn them from possible first rounders into top-five overall picks.
While the 2014 Senior Bowl lacks some star power with over 30 seniors pulling out due to injuries or personal reasons, the rosters are still loaded with future NFL talent. Below is position-by-position preview of the top players to watch:
Top player: Derek Carr, Fresno State
A possible first round pick, Carr has elite velocity as a passer and can make every throw on the football field. He needs to improve his pocket tolerance and mechanics, but Carr has the mobility, arm strength and football instincts that makes him an appealing prospect. He should shine in Mobile.
Arrow pointing up: Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois
After a record-breaking career at the FCS-level, Garoppolo impressed NFL teams last week at the East-West Shrine Game and will look to do the same this week in Mobile. He doesn't have a cannon for an arm, but his eye use, quick release and intellectual process is top shelf.
Arrow pointing down: Stephen Morris, Miami
Morris has effortless arm strength to deliver the ball anywhere on the field, but his decision making and accuracy are both questionable, causing him to struggle much of 2013. He has enough size and athleticism, but his consistency as a passer leaves a lot to be desired.
Top player: Charles Sims, West Virginia
With Carlos Hyde dropping out, Sims steps up as the top running back prospect in Mobile this week. He is a tough, one-cut runner who stays upright through contact with his combination of natural balance and power. The Houston transfer is also very reliable catching the ball out of the backfield.
Arrow pointing up: James White, Wisconsin
After waiting his turn behind Montee Ball, White shouldered a heavier load in 2013, despite sharing carries with the more talented Melvin Gordon. He has a lean frame and will probably never get above 200 pounds, but he runs tough, physical and has exceeded expectations.
Arrow pointing down: David Fluellen, Toledo
Fluellen eclipsed the 1,000 yard rushing mark in 2013, but he also battled several injuries that kept him on the sidelines part of the season. An above average pass-catcher, the MAC runner is tough and reliable with the ball in his hands, but he also lacks the athletic traits to separate him from others.
Top player: Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt
A very productive target, Matthews is an impressive prospect because of his athleticism, catching radius and determination with the ball in his hands. With a combined 201 receptions the past two seasons, he is a detailed and reliable route runner who takes pride in his finishing ability.
Arrow pointing up: Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin
A former walk-on, Abbrederis is a balanced athlete with gliding speed and short-area quickness to create separation in coverage. Although he's not the biggest or fastest, he is a savvy route runner and reliable hands-catcher who projects as a dependable NFL target.
Arrow pointing down: Cody Hoffman, BYU
After recording 100 catches last year, Hoffman's production dropped in 2013 (57/894/5) as he battled injuries and inconsistencies. He has a tall, lean frame and will be too easily out-muscled by defensive backs and knocked off his route. Hoffman needs a strong week in Mobile.
Top player: C.J. Fiedorowicz, Iowa
A well-built target, Fiedorowicz headlines an underwhelming group of senior tight ends. His production at Iowa is average at-best, but he was underutilized in the Hawkeyes offense. Fiedorowicz has the size and skill-set to start at the next level and be successful blocking and receiving.
Arrow pointing up: Jay Prosch, Auburn
Although he didn't receive a lot of touches in Auburn's productive offense, Prosch was still a vital part of what the Tigers did in the run game. Prosch, who didn't have a single carry in 2013 (and only five catches), is a smash-mouth blocker and plays with a finishing attitude.
Arrow pointing down: Marcel Jensen, Fresno State
Despite Fresno State's pass-happy offense led by Derek Carr, Jensen wasn't a substantial part of the Bulldogs' offense. He wasn't asked to be a consistent blocker and has an average skill-set as a receiver, similar to former South Carolina tight end Justice Cunningham.
Top player: Zack Martin, Notre Dame
Arguably the top overall prospect in Mobile this week, Martin started four seasons for the Irish at left tackle and showed steady improvement each season. There is some debate as to whether he should stay at tackle or move to guard, but regardless, he projects as a 10-year NFL starter.
Arrow pointing up: Billy Turner, North Dakota State
The cornerstone of an offensive line that helped NDSU win three straight FCS titles, Turner is a mobile and tough blocker with controlled movements to be effective at the line of scrimmage and at the second level. He is another candidate to possibly move inside to guard.
Arrow pointing down: Seantrel Henderson, Miami
Since his high school recruitment, Henderson has attracted controversy and struggled to stay on the field with several issues with the coaches and off the field. He has an ideal build with the balance and foot athleticism to shield the pocket, but his reliability as a pro is a strong question mark.
Top player: Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh
Despite lacking ideal size and frame for an interior rusher, Donald is an active, energetic player who uses first step quickness and natural leverage to power into the backfield. He won't be a fit for everyone, but Donald has a relentless motor to fight through the whistle and is a pesky guy to block.
Arrow pointing up: Dee Ford, Auburn
The Tigers top pass rusher this season, Ford tallied 10.5 sacks as an edge rusher with his natural athleticism and quick acceleration off the snap. He shows natural bend and flexibility and has some hybrid qualities so he will be evaluated differently by 4-3 and 3-4 teams.
Arrow pointing down: Will Sutton, Arizona State
After an outstanding junior campaign, Sutton had an up-and-down senior season, flashing the same penetrating quickness, but just not consistently. He will need a big week in Mobile to prove to scouts that they're drafting the 2012 version of Sutton, not the tight, streaky player from this past year.
Top player: Telvin Smith, Florida State
Despite being a tick undersized, Smith has the range and speed to cover both sidelines. He will get tied up and lost in a crowd, but when he has the chance to play in space or rush the pocket, few linebackers in this class display his sudden explosive qualities.
Arrow pointing up: Kyle Van Noy, BYU
A jack-of-all-trades linebacker, Van Noy is a smart, versatile linebacker who scratches and crawls his way to the pocket. He has tweener traits and needs to get stronger to better match-up with NFL blockers, but his twitchy athleticism and ability to drop in coverage will be appealing to 3-4 defenses.
Arrow pointing down: Adrian Hubbard, Alabama
A rare fourth-year junior participating in Mobile, Hubbard decided to skip his senior year despite an inconsistent 2013 season in Tuscaloosa. He finished his junior year with 33 tackles and three sacks as the Tide's SAM linebacker and has several questions to answer regarding his range and reaction quickness.
Top player: Jimmie Ward, Northern Illinois
Coming off a 95-tackle, seven interception senior season, Ward has been quietly ascending up draft boards since the Fall. He is smart, heady and puts himself in position to succeed, using his speed and range to cover the deep half of the field. Look for the safety to have a big week in Mobile.
Arrow pointing up: Jaylen Watkins, Florida
Although he was often overshadowed the past few seasons by the Gators deep, talented secondary, Watkins is a quick-footed and fluid athlete himself. He lacks ideal muscle, but Watkins, who is the older brother of Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins, is a tough, scrappy tackler.
Arrow pointing down: Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska
Jean-Baptiste is attempting to follow the Richard Sherman path to the NFL as a big, long ex-receiver, transitioning to the secondary. However, the Nebraska corner still plays like a former receiver and hasn't shown the progression expected. Maybe NFL coaching will be the help Jean-Baptiste needs…