8 Senior Bowl Invites in Line for First-Round Selection in 2014 Draft
In between the college football bowl games and the NFL scouting combine, the nation's college seniors have one shot to show that they can not only play football well, but play with new teammates and make adjustments on the fly.
On Jan. 25, the Senior Bowl will take place in Mobile, Ala., where those seniors on hand will have a last shot at leaving a good impression on scouts. For lower-end prospects in particular, this is their opportunity to make their presence known and show that they are worthy of being drafted in the earlier rounds.
This year's Senior Bowl roster is stacked not just with mid-round players, but also with players who will likely go in the first round of the draft. Those players are already well known throughout college football and in scouting circles, but a great game on Jan. 25 will put an exclamation point on their college careers.
*Stats from Pro-football-reference.com; list does not include players who declared their attendance the week of December 23
8. Tajh Boyd, QB, Clemson
Tajh Boyd's fall from the college football elite shows how one's fortunes can change over the course of a season. Boyd was considered a first-round lock for the NFL draft to start the season, and on the surface, his numbers remained strong his senior year.
Despite that, his draft stock fell throughout this season, thanks partially due to struggles against teams like Florida State and South Carolina. In addition, more eyes on him simply found more issues in his game.
Even though he may no longer be considered a first-round talent in the NFL, the possibility remains that Boyd could still be drafted in the opening round. He's the type of player whose stock could get a much-needed jolt in the Senior Bowl.
One of the knocks on Boyd's game has been that he has had more talent to throw to than almost anyone else in college football. If Boyd thrives in the NFL while having to play with new wideouts and quickly adjust, then that criticism will look a lot less valid.
Right now, Boyd could go anywhere from late in the first round of the draft to the end of the third round. A good Senior Bowl performance will be the first step in re-climbing that ladder.
7. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, Brigham Young
Kyle Van Noy has been the leader of BYU's defense. He was a mentor to current Detroit Lions player Ezekiel Ansah and has been a great defensive standout in his own right.
He has put up multiple sacks and interceptions each year at BYU and is able to both rush the passer and drop back into coverage. He would have no trouble being a player who is a jack-of-all-trades in the NFL.
That being said, he is not the type of player who takes over a game on his own, and that's something I'm sure many scouts would like to see just one time before his college career is over.
Van Noy is likely a second-round pick, given his talents, but if he can show game-breaker potential, that could very well change.
6. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
The top batch of wide receivers in this year's class is made up of flashy underclassmen who could be huge at the next level. Below that top tier rests a handful of seniors who may not be flashy, but they get the job done in spades.
Jordan Matthews might be the best of that second group. He had over 1,300 receiving yards two years in a row at Vanderbilt while handling the tough defenses of the SEC. He also has the size to make himself a good target.
Matthews does not have breakaway speed or excellent leaping ability, however, so he will have to show at the Senior Bowl that he can win the 50-50 pass plays against cornerbacks, as well as outsmart them. Since he probably will not be able to outrun cornerbacks, he has to be able to use his strengths to his advantage.
Matthews is a likely second-round pick, but if he proves at the Senior Bowl and the NFL combine that he can fully utilize his abilities, then he could slip into the end of the first round.
5. Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Will Sutton was such a force in 2012 with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss that he could have very well been a first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft. Instead, he polished his abilities further by returning for his senior year at Arizona State.
While he did not put up the numbers he did a year ago, offenses did take note of him, and he still performed well enough to become the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year for the second year in a row.
The main concern with Sutton moving forward is that he may be more of a rotational defensive tackle rather than an every-down one, and that's not something that he can work on much at the Senior Bowl unless he's out there every play.
Should he play in Mobile more than expected, how he handles himself through four quarters will be much more significant regarding whether he is a first- or second-round pick as opposed to the kinds of numbers he puts up in the game.
4. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU
Jason Verrett was a force for TCU in 2012, recording six interceptions and looking like a potential first-round pick if he went back to school and fine-tuned his game.
One year later, even though he only had two picks on the year, he looks the part of an NFL cornerback despite being a bit undersized for the position. Once you look past his height issue, Verrett is a cornerback who can be a ballhawk and knows where its's going.
The Senior Bowl will be Verrett's opportunity to show that even though he is 5'10", he can play the cornerback position like a taller defender and make all the same plays. Many of the wide receivers playing in the game are larger targets, so he will have to make adjustments.
If Verrett is able to do so, then he should be able to move from a borderline first- or second-round selection to a clear first-round pick.
3. Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford
Trent Murphy doesn't have the name recognition of some of the other top linemen in the draft such as Jadeveon Clowney, but he has been a first-round talent throughout his career at Stanford and nothing has caused that to change.
Murphy's 14 sacks lead the nation, and that's a stat that tends to translate well to the NFL, meaning he should have no trouble in being drafted early.
In his case, the Senior Bowl will be about putting an exclamation point on a college career that those college football fans on the East Coast may not be aware of. If he can make a couple of big plays and notch a sack or two, that will make him look that much better.
Murphy played in a 3-4 defense at Stanford, but if the Senior Bowl is in a 4-3 format, that may actually be an advantage for him since his size and ability should translate better to that type of defense. Seeing him in that role would be a welcome opportunity for scouts.
2. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State
Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby was expected to be one of the first cornerbacks taken in the draft, but it quickly became apparent this season that Roby is not even the best cornerback in the Big Ten. That honor belongs to Michigan State's Darqueze Dennard.
Dennard has 10 interceptions in his collegiate career, including four this season. and was the leader of Michigan State's defense, which was one of the toughest in college football this year.
He is already projected to be a first-round selection in the top half of the draft, but if he is able to perform well against the top senior quarterbacks in the country, then that will cement his status as both a shutdown cornerback and the first one that should be selected in the draft.
1. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Derek Carr has rocketed up draft boards this past season while leading the top passing attack in college football. Yes, playing in the Mountain West Conference against several subpar defenses has inflated those numbers, but he has still played well.
At least, he had until the Las Vegas Bowl against USC, where he struggled big time against the best defense he had faced this season. That raised the question on whether the game was simply a fluke or a symptom of greater issues in his game.
The Senior Bowl is Carr's opportunity to show that his performance against USC was a one-off issue, and that those who consider him a top-10 draft pick are justified in their scouting reports.
More importantly, should the Senior Bowl offenses play a pro style, that will be significant for Carr since he has played primarily from the shotgun at Fresno State. If he looks like a quarterback who can make that kind of transition well, it will make all the difference.