The 2013 NFL Draft season is in full swing, and we're in the midst of one of the most important weeks of the season. Prospects, scouts, general mangers and coaches have descended upon Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl.
But skeptics of the entire draft process have always questioned the importance of the Senior Bowl. After all, it is only an All-Star game.
So does the Senior Bowl really matter? Can we actually learn anything as we watch these prospects run around the field in shorts?
The answer to both questions is an emphatic "yes," but the degree to which the Senior Bowl is meaningful depends on a few variables that differ from prospect to prospect.
The first variable is the player's position.
Scouts are most interested in watching one-on-one matchups because they eliminate any outside factors that may influence a player's performance. Players who engage in one-on-one matchups during the course of game play can show the most in practice.
For this reason, when the cornerbacks and receivers match up in one-on-one drills, you'll see scouts flock to that area of the field. This is arguably the most realistic drill than can be run in practice, and it gives scouts a good feel for the speed, quickness and strength of each player.
The offensive linemen versus defensive linemen drills are the other key matchups scouts focus on during the one-on-one drill sessions.
While scouts can't get a full picture of a prospect during these drills, the scouts are able to focus on the prospect's skills in passing situations. The offensive linemen can demonstrate their ability to get out of their stance quickly and show off their footwork. Defensive lineman are able to show their array of pass-rush moves.
In both of these one-on-one drills, coaches also have the ability to manipulate the situation.
They can pair a bull rusher with a finesse offensive lineman to see how he holds up. Or they can pair a 6'4" receiver with an undersized corner to see how he handles the disadvantage. These types of matchups allow the scouts to get answers for specific questions that may be lingering on certain prospects.
The other key variables that affect the importance of the Senior Bowl is where the prospect played college ball and how much experience he had at a high level.
Scouts enter Senior Bowl week with very few questions about three-year starters from the SEC, but prospects from conferences such as the MAC, or those from the FCS level, need to prove themselves against other elite prospects.
Scouts already have expectations for these low-level prospects, but the Senior Bowl provides them an opportunity to confirm their opinions.
For example, Central Michigan left tackle Eric Fisher entered Senior Bowl week as a potential Top 10 pick, but scouts still want to see how he holds up against elite pass-rushers from the SEC or Pac-12.
Additionally, they want to compare his performance against these defenders to the performances of other prospects who may have more experience at the elite level.
Fisher won't fall from Top 10 to the second round with a poor showing, but his place on draft boards could be altered slightly since he entered this week with more unanswered questions than a prospect from the SEC such as Alabama's D.J. Fluker.
Another area that scouts and coaches focus on during Senior Bowl practices is each player's football intelligence. The Senior Bowl represents the first chance for many of those in attendance to see how players respond to coaching and how quickly they can adjust to suggested changes in their style of play.
The Senior Bowl also allows scouts to see how much players already know about the nuances of the game.
A great example of this occurred during Monday's practice when Marshall wide receiver Aaron Dobson broke the huddle early. Raiders head coach Dennis Allen pulled him aside and let him know that by leaving early, he's tipping off the defense that the ball is probably not coming his direction.
This example is a small interaction, but the way in which a player handles these situations gives everyone watching a glimpse into what it would be like to have that player on the field and in the locker room.
Ultimately, none of these examples will make or break a prospect's draft stock.
The Senior Bowl is about getting answers to lingering questions.
It gives scouts and coaches the opportunity to get to know the players and put the finishing touches on their scouting reports. Scouts who have spent an entire season watching each prospect already have a strong opinion, which won't be dramatically influenced by the events of this week.
But the opportunity to have an up-close look at a prospect is far from insignificant.