The 2013 Senior Bowl is upon us, which means the 2013 NFL draft is not far behind.
The Senior Bowl game itself is the cherry on top of a week-long, multimillion-dollar job interview that occurs on the practice field and in private meeting rooms with NFL team executives.
It's a grind, and not everyone can come out a winner.
For every player who made this list, there are three others who bombed their interviews with high pad level, sloppy feet or dropped balls.
(Unless otherwise noted, all reports and quotes were obtained firsthand. Prospect interview videos are courtesy of the official Senior Bowl YouTube channel.)
25. Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: Gillislee patiently let his blocks develop and was much better between the tackles than one would expect after watching him on film. Cincinnati Bengals owner and GM Mike Brown was heard speaking to his scouts about Gillislee's Tuesday performance during a South practice.
24. Michael Williams, TE, Alabama: The tight end crop was nothing to write home about, but Williams was the best of the bunch. He is best known as a blocking TE that one scout told me was better as a blocker coming out of college than Giants TE Martellus Bennett currently is as a pro. Williams showed good hands during practices as well. He was a surprisingly steady receiving presence over the middle for a not-so-steady quarterback group.
23. Vince Williams, LB, Florida State: Williams brings a bulky, physical presence to the linebacking corps of the South squad and has quick feet and a nonstop motor. He is most effective as a downhill disruptor, but he also made athletic moves to break up crossing routes twice on Tuesday, when the pads first went on.
22. Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas: Hamilton made some of the most spectacular plays of the week when going up for high-point deep balls in traffic. Unfortunately, he seemed to only be able to do so on throws from former Arkansas teammate Tyler Wilson and seemed less crisp than his teammates in position drills.
21. Kawann Short, DT, Purdue: Short showed a consistent blend of speed and power on the inside. While he was relatively quiet during 11-on-11s all week, he was explosive, vocal and prominent in position drills.
Chris Sailer of Chris Sailer Kicking is thought of in NFL circles as the quintessential kicking and punting guru.
One punt from Jeff Locke during warmups on the first day of practice was enough to lead anyone who knows Sailer to believe that Locke was most certainly training with him in California.
Punts just don't sail 60 yards with five-second hang times without the ultimate training regimen.
I texted Sailer the moment I saw the first punt boom off Locke's foot, and sure enough, this was the case.
When asked if Locke was better than punter Bryan Anger, last year's surprise third-round selection by the Jacksonville Jaguars, Sailer said:
He's really close as a punter, but he can kick off, too. He's the top punt-kickoff specialist we have ever trained. He came out of the same high school prep class as [current NFL kickers] Justin Tucker and Blair Walsh. He is one of the strongest specialists we have ever trained when it comes to the mental side of the game.
Coming from Sailer, the words "best ever" are absolutely huge. Expect to see one NFL team make an early "unexpected" move on Locke.
At 228 pounds, Chris Harper is the most "substantial" WR on either Senior Bowl roster.
During the week, Harper didn't do much to stand out on any one play, but when his performances are judged as an overall body of work, it's impossible to leave him off this list.
Harper made the most decisive cuts during 10-yard out drills of any WR on the North squad, and he has a body that will be attractive to NFL teams. He plays a hard-nosed brand of football and has amazing strength in getting off press coverage.
Harper was also (predictably) by far the best blocking wide receiver.
Leader. It's the first word that comes to mind when talking about Jonathan Cyprien during the week of practices leading up to the Senior Bowl.
He's the defensive play-caller and leader of the North squad, and he flies to the ball and plays with a controlled violence. He has a natural instinct for getting in spots to make big plays or putting others in position to do so.
Drew Rosenhaus, Cyprien's agent, told him he needed to make a splash, and that if there was any doubt about what he should be doing, he just needed to hit someone.
And Cyprien did—hard. He was a teammate favorite, and it was obvious why.
E.J. Manuel struggled on the first day of practice, but he looked like the best QB in Mobile, Ala., from a physical standpoint.
Manuel has long legs and a longer stride. He also has a quick, high release and accuracy in shorter timing routes. While Manuel is widely thought of as a "dual-threat" quarterback given his unbelievable physique and natural athleticism, he really isn't.
Manuel is a pass-first signal-caller who'll thrive when developed in a timing-based, rhythm passing attack. That system will best take advantage of his ability to roll out and cut the field in half, which will reduce the number of reads he has to make early in his career.
If the passing options aren't there, he can just run—which he can do well.
Manuel showed with his solid progression through the week that he is extremely coachable and will benefit greatly from NFL coaching. Heading into the Senior Bowl game, there is no real agreement among analysts about the exact quarterback hierarchy. But there is general agreement that Manuel clearly was the QB who improved the most during practices.
That's a trend many believe will continue for years.
Conner Vernon says his best route is the dig, and he's right. The dig is the opposite of an out route and breaks at a 90-degree angle to the inside. Vernon gets upfield with a great burst and seems comfortable fighting off the press before breaking inside on the dagger.
When he does, he goes into his cut with a deliberate initial upfield move that gets the cornerback's hips turned incorrectly to the outside before breaking in. He has a suddenness in his change of direction that most scouts believe is unteachable.
Vernon played outside at Duke, but scouts generally believe he projects best as a slot WR in the NFL. Vernon has an advanced understanding of concepts that will impress NFL teams.
Jordan Poyer almost looked too skinny at the weigh-in at the Senior Bowl, but he was a big man on the practice field.
In analyzing these players, it's important that an evaluator get the input of the other prospects.
Upon asking every wideout on the North roster which corners gave them the most trouble in practice, there were only two answers: Jordan Poyer and Desmond Trufant.
Poyer was great at jamming receivers at the line of scrimmage. He also showed what seemed like the best speed breaking on underthrown balls of any DB in attendance. Poyer was effective out of the slot with no high safety help, and he frustrates opposing split ends on deep-developing routes by getting his hands up and around their pad level when turning back toward the ball.
Poyer is not as "smooth" a prospect as Washington's Desmond Trufant, who was more impressive overall, but his scrappy style and hustle raised eyebrows.
Quinton Patton was the "life of the party" throughout the week.
He likes to clown around with his teammates and has an outgoing, engaging personality. Patton is the type of player who teammates love to have in their locker room.
I would be surprised to hear that any team did not enjoy interviewing him.
He has good hands, a slinky body and plays faster than his 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine will likely indicate.
He has the potential to be a potent weapon in the NFL at the Z position, where he can utilize his quickness to avoid getting hung up at the line of scrimmage in the press game.
Robert Alford looked like he was operating on a higher level than any DB on the South roster during the change-of-direction drills under the watchful eye of a fired-up Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
Any scout will tell you that athleticism starts in the feet and moves upward. Alford's lateral agility and footwork in drills translated beautifully to his on-field performances through the week.
While such a quick-moving, "mirroring" player seems ideally suited to match up well with slot receivers in a nickel corner role, Alford is more than a one-trick pony.
He is also an explosive, attacking player who recognizes the run quickly and will not be blocked by a wide receiver. Alford had the second-smoothest set of hips of any corner in practices. His ability to return punts will add another dimension to the NFL team that drafts him.
They call John Jenkins "Big John" for obvious reasons.
At 360 pounds, Jenkins was a force inside during practices. But the aspect of his game that scouts and media alike came away most impressed with was his motor and hustle.
Jenkins finished big in drills and shocked a lot of people by always sprinting to and from his assignments and areas where drills were taking place. Jenkins looked like a picture of "motor" in the scouting dictionary.
This was the biggest concern many had about him coming into Senior Bowl week, and the No. 1 concern about massive defensive line prospects in general. Far too often, they catch "on/off switch disease" and disappear for plays (and sometimes entire series) because they get gassed and flip the switch off.
Jenkins was the only defensive lineman on the South roster to get consistent upfield push and disruption through the week. This showing, coupled with his obvious motivation to prove he is a "motor guy," improved Jenkins' standing with NFL scouts.
Opinions are all over the place regarding the 2013 NFL draft's QB class.
After a week of Senior Bowl practices, only one thing is certain—this is still the case.
Wilson has the requisite talent in all the areas that NFL teams are in Mobile to evaluate, and he conducts himself like a presidential candidate in the interview process.
Wilson was the only QB to show that he is able to make every throw required of an NFL quarterback. He made some horrible throws, too, but every QB in Mobile did the same.
Wilson obviously loves football and has fun with it. He said he likes to throw deep crossing routes over the middle best, because he says that those are the throws you can put something on and "have a little fun with."
His personality reminds many of a Brett Favre-type leader. He appears to be a player who may get teams in trouble on occasion with his "gunslinger" mentality and stubbornness in hanging in to force plays, but who will also dazzle you with moments of magic.
Khaseem Greene says his primary responsibilities at Rutgers were beating tackles and guards on run plays that went away from him and covering tight ends and slot receivers when he read pass.
In third-down situations, Rutgers generally moved Greene to middle linebacker—as opposed to his standard weak-side role—to let him use his Corvette motor to blitz up the middle or stunt around the edge.
Greene is a former safety who has the quickness and speed to do it all. He was moved to weak-side linebacker for two reasons. Former Rutgers coach Greg Schiano wanted to transition to a more speed-based attack on defense, and Greene had "outgrown" the safety position as he filled into his current frame.
In Senior Bowl practices, Greene was a solid, rangy playmaker who had a nose for the flow of the play and the ability to position his body to counter however necessary. His excellent cover skills were on display as well.
Kyle Long was noticeably absent during Tuesday and Wednesday practices with what he thought was likely the flu.
The same medical staff that wouldn't let Kansas State LB Arthur Brown play held Long out to start the week. To say the Senior Bowl medical staff is conservative with player injuries and availability would be, well, conservative.
As an example, Brown made a special 11 p.m. trip to Pensacola, Fla., from Mobile on Monday night to have his right shoulder examined by Dr. James Andrews, who cleared Brown to play.
Most NFL fans who followed the Robert Griffin III injury controversy know that Dr. Andrews is not exactly "liberal" in his clearing of injured athletes. But this wasn't enough for the Senior Bowl staff, who place player safety during this critical pre-draft evaluation process as its No. 1 priority.
Long didn't go unnoticed by scouts to start the week, though. They love his frame, length and athleticism.
His bloodlines don't hurt either. The son of Howie Long and little brother of St. Louis Rams DE Chris Long throws a 93 mph fastball and looks far too athletic, lean and mean to play on the offensive line. He has been told by scouts, however, that this is where he projects best in the NFL.
Long is the epitome of a "locker room guy," endearing himself to teammates and media alike right off the bat with a smart, intense wit and generally jovial nature that lights up a room.
Markus Wheaton is a quiet person who lets his play on the field do the talking.
Wheaton draws frequent comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers WR Mike Wallace, and it is easy to see why. He says his favorite route is the 9 (or streak), and he has a gear coming out of the press that is hard to trail.
Wheaton is most like Wallace when the ball is in the air. He tracks the football like a computer, adjusting in any way necessary to make sticky-hands catches.
Wheaton is not a player who will blow you away with his power and strength. He had some of his roughest spells during practice while participating in press-man drills against physical North squad DBs like Desmond Trufant and Jordan Poyer.
But Wheaton's home run-hitting ability was unrivaled by any WR on either squad during practices. He'll pose the same sort of threat at the next level.
One of the most pleasant surprises of the practice week was Brandon Williams.
He considers himself a "pure nose tackle," and he has nearly every attribute necessary to back up that claim. He's a 325-pound tank with a devastating initial burst that jumped out to everyone who watched during both position and team drills.
Williams is a hard-working, gentle giant off the field and a hard-working, not-so-gentle giant on it. He plays with a constant chip on his shoulder and has a deep need to prove his worth as a small-school prospect.
Williams spends his summers cleaning out Porta Potties, then throwing them on the back of flatbed trucks with the rest of the contracting crew that he seems grateful to work with in Joplin, Mo.
Williams was clearly beyond grateful to be invited to the Senior Bowl. Make no mistake, though: Williams is in Mobile on a business trip, and he's taking full advantage.
With all the talk in the NFL about the value of "blue collar"- and "lunchpail"-type players, Williams is the embodiment of these terms. He's an overall package we will be hearing much more about as April approaches.
The Raiders' unrivaled love and desire for elite speed on offense did not die with the late, great Al Davis.
The Raiders' staff, which is coaching the North squad in the Senior Bowl, was clearly looking for ways to get Marquise Goodwin free in space.
Goodwin is the fastest player in Mobile this week, and he opened a lot of eyes. Like many Texas players in recent history, Goodwin was horribly misused in college.
Goodwin is an Olympian with world-class speed. The minute he sets foot on an NFL field, he will enter the conversation as the league's fastest straight-line runner.
He answered all the questions this week about the ancillary parts of his game as well. He was sharp in his route-running, was better than expected coming off press coverage and exhibited a suddenness and lateral agility that led many scouts to believe he may be the ultimate "slot machine" at the next level.
There's something in the water at UCLA, and the general thought is that it must be Jim Mora Kool-Aid.
Between Johnathan Franklin and Datone Jones, that program is producing not only an incredible breed of athlete, but a very incredible breed of human being.
Franklin was clearly the best running back in Senior Bowl practices. He shined running inside and off tackle. He never went down on first contact and was obviously the most well-rounded runner on either squad. Franklin is a natural pass-blocker with an innate understanding of responsibility and pressure.
Franklin "scored" on every play. After being tackled, he would pop back up and sprint (sometimes up to 60 yards) to the end zone. Jerry Rice used to do the same thing at every practice, and it translates to real touchdowns.
We'll be seeing those "real" touchdowns at the NFL level out of Franklin soon enough.
Add another offensive guard into first-round consideration for the 2013 draft.
Kentucky's Larry Warford was a pleasant surprise to many scouts, one saying that he is a better prospect than Alabama's Barrett Jones and basically neck-and-neck with Chance Warmack, Jones' more heralded teammate, as the first interior offensive lineman to be taken off the board.
Warford dominated practices in the run game and was able to handle pass-rushers like Brigham Young's Ezekiel Ansah with ease during two-on-one pass-off and chip drills.
Warford would be an amazing "get" for any NFL team looking to establish a power, man-blocking scheme. If you are in the business of getting "a body on a body" in the run game, Warford is the body you want.
He is one of the main reasons that no defensive lineman on the South roster outside of John Jenkins was able to make too many blips on the radar throughout the week.
Where to start with Desmond Trufant?
The younger brother of Marcus and Isaiah Trufant came to Mobile on a mission, and he accomplished it. Most scouts would be surprised to see Trufant slip out of the first round after putting on an absolute show during Senior Bowl practices.
Trufant plays with an aggressive spirit and leadership style that is attractive to NFL teams. He's a special player who is physical enough to press and jam big split ends at the line, then turn his hips in a bail technique that might be too quick to even be caught on camera.
He has great flexibility through his torso, which gives him the ability to keep his eyes back toward the passer while smothering the WR in coverage during deep-developing routes. Trufant is the perfect mix of Marcus and Isaiah—a natural, thinking corner who has the lateral agility and versatility to line up outside or in the slot.
Eric Fisher helped himself more than any other player during Senior Bowl practices. The buzz regarding the Central Michigan left tackle was everywhere.
With Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Michigan's Taylor Lewan opting to return to school for their senior seasons, the door was left open for Fisher to move into top-10 consideration in a tackle-needy NFL.
And did he ever.
Fisher was a dominating presence who served Texas DE Alex Okafor an all-you-can-eat pancake buffet. Datone Jones of UCLA was the only edge rusher who proved capable of hanging with him.
Datone Jones was the only player on the North roster who was able to crack the Eric Fisher code.
"Fisher is good, but he can be beat," Jones said. "He's the key to the first round for me."
Jones is an explosive edge rusher who can line up anywhere on the defensive line and wreak havoc. More importantly, he loves football more than one could possibly imagine.
If the way Jones interacted with the media is any indication of how his meetings with NFL teams went, expect to see him off the board much earlier than most expect—and it won't be a reach.
When everyone else was showing up to interviews and meetings in baggy sweatpants and workout attire, the kid from Compton wasn't ever seen off the practice field not wearing his new suit.
After each interview, Jones asked how he did. He even went so far as to stick around interview areas after his were over to scope out his competition.
Jones wants to win at everything. And he did just that in Mobile.