The nation's top college football seniors will converge in Mobile, Ala., this Saturday to play in the 2014 Senior Bowl, one of the top all-star game showcases. The game offers an opportunity for a few participants to separate themselves and elevate their NFL draft stock.
In recent years, players like E.J. Manuel, Isaiah Pead and Christian Ponder have used MVP performances to catapult themselves up draft boards. The 2014 rendition has a few borderline first- and second-round picks who could vault themselves into firm first-day discussion with a solid performance.
With that in mind, here are a few of the top prospects fans should keep their eyes on when watching the game.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Carr had a solid season for the Bulldogs, who were potential BCS busters for much of the season, but his momentum came to a crash in Fresno State's blowout loss to USC in the Las Vegas Bowl. Numerous questions have popped up about Carr, and he needs a solid showing to salvage his faltering stock:
Like his older brother (David Carr), Carr's main attribute comes in his impressive physical tools. He does not have tremendous height at 6'2", but his 215-pound frame is solidly built, and he has a cannon arm to complement. And unlike some big-armed quarterbacks, Carr's accuracy is above-average and not a pressing concern among scouts.
No, Carr's biggest issue lies in his pocket presence or lack thereof. Things like recognizing blitzes and sustaining mechanics under pressure are correctable, but they are too far behind at the moment to justify Carr as a first-round pick. Carr had trouble when USC's superior athleticism sped up his internal clock, and the Trojans are a far cry from what NFL defenses will bring.
Carr is a fairly raw prospect who likely will not start right away for an NFL team, but an impressive showing at the Senior Bowl might convince an organization that he is not as far from a finished product as some games have suggested.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Hageman stands out as one of the biggest boom-or-bust propositions among potential first-round prospects. NFL.com's Bucky Brooks perfectly encompassed the wide spectrum of possibilities in Hageman's career:
While I would rate him as a second-round player (rotational player with the potential to start by the end of his first season), I believe several teams will view him as a late first-round talent based on his upside and potential. If he puts in the work on the practice field and film room, Hageman could be the kind of difference-maker that transforms a good defense into a great one. However, there is no guarantee that he will ever reach his potential despite his remarkable talent, which is why he could fall into the "boom-or-bust" category by draft day.
Unlike some prospects, Hageman's performance at the Senior Bowl should not move his draft stock needle too much. The Minnesota defensive tackle stands out for his measurables and could emerge as one of the annual NFL Combine superstars:
Hageman has the athleticism to excel against both the run and pass, and he could be the rare three-down defensive tackle if all breaks right. There's more risk to him than most presumptive first-rounders, but his upside will almost surely be too tantalizing to ignore.
Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia
Ohio State's Carlos Hyde would have generated a ton of attention at the Senior Bowl, but Sims may have very well been the best running back regardless (his highlight tape is a must-watch). Once considered a mid-round prospect, the secret is getting out for one of the draft's rising players:
The death of the run game in the NFL might be slightly exaggerated, but there's no doubt a back like Sims fits best in today's style. Not only is Sims the draft's best receiving back, but he also possesses the speed, vision and athleticism to do plenty of damage in the open field.
NFL offenses are realizing the value of stretching the amount of space the defense must cover, and Sims' strengths dovetail perfectly with the increasing prevalence of spread offense concepts. His fluid route running makes him an option on more than just screens and allows an offense to generate touches for him without force-feeding him in the ground game.
Sims has garnered comparisons to Chicago Bears back Matt Forte, and it's not hard to envision the former Mountaineer turning into a similar type of player. Whoever drafts Sims will be treating their offensive coordinator with a versatile talent capable of turning into a matchup nightmare.
Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
Against Florida State in the Orange Bowl two years ago, Ward was one of the few Northern Illinois players who looked like he belonged. Ward stuffed the stat sheet this season, compiling 77 tackles and six interceptions, and he has seen his stock steadily rise in recent weeks:
Ward is a bit undersized for an NFL safety at 5'10" and 191 pounds, but he has the excellent ball skills, instincts and range any team would want from a free safety. As Peter Smith of Fansided.com notes, his versatility in coverage is perhaps his greatest attribute:
Ward shows a lot of ability in coverage, both in zone and in man. He might actually demonstrate more pure skill in man coverage and his ability to play press in the slot as well as mirror routes either deep or near the line of scrimmage. Ward shows some pretty good closing speed and is comfortable being aggressive going for the football.
In zone, Ward is able to play deep in the middle, roll coverage and has a good sense of where plays are going. He shows pretty good burst and is able to break on the football to make plays on the football. The Huskies use a number of different sets and coverages putting Ward in a lot of different situations and he seems to adjust well and is able to make plays.
Ward is not without his flaws—besides being undersized, he is lacking in run support in an inconsistent tackler—and those questions will make him a Day 2 or 3 selection. But he also has the potential to be one of the best cover safeties in the draft, and teams can never have enough capable defensive backs in an increasingly pass-happy league.