A record 98 underclassmen have declared themselves eligible for the 2014 NFL draft, but some stars who finished out their collegiate careers are participating in this year's Senior Bowl in an attempt to raise their pro stocks.
Based on what has gone on this week leading up to the annual all-star showcase in Mobile, Ala., there are a number of emerging stars garnering attention that should transfer to strong performances in the impending game situation.
Think this isn't important? Last year, Mobile served as the stage for Florida State product EJ Manuel to show his stuff in becoming the game's MVP.
Manuel wound up being the only quarterback chosen in the first round of the 2013 draft, selected 16th overall by the Buffalo Bills.
Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman—a fifth-round pick out of Stanford in 2011 who is now among the best at his position and preparing for Super Bowl XLVIII—reflected on his experiences at the Senior Bowl:
The experience didn't help Sherman's cause in the draft, but it was instrumental in shaping the success he's now enjoying.
Let's take a look at the latest chatter on some of the top performers and why their skills will glimmer in the spotlight on Sunday, Jan. 25, at Ladd Peebles Stadium.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh (North)
Drawing rave reviews is one thing, but for Donald to be compared to an All-Pro such as Cincinnati Bengals defensive tackle Geno Atkins is quite a bold statement.
Nevertheless, NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah was hearing the gaudy comparison from his sources with NFL personnel responsibilities:
Aaron Donald is a twitched up dude! The Geno Atkins comparisons were flying all over the place in my talks with personnel friends.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 21, 2014
Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage was impressed with Donald's pass-rushing ability:
Pitt DT Aaron Donald has the 4-3 teams excited about potential as upfield penetrator and interior pass rusher. Has been a North standout.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) January 22, 2014
Donald was a part of a Panthers program that is still fighting for progress and finished this past season 7-6. That didn't stop him from making a big impact, though, as he compiled a whopping 28.5 tackles for loss this season, registered 11 sacks and forced four fumbles.
The 6'0", 288-pounder is undersized for a defensive tackle at the NFL level, yet it shouldn't stop Donald from thriving and possibly rising to be a first-round pick. Facing a bit of an uptick in competition this week hasn't harmed his cause.
After playing under most of the national radar for his college career, the Senior Bowl should see Donald rack up multiple sacks, be his typical disruptive self and skyrocket up draft boards.
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois (South)
Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr is rightly garnering a lot of attention for his superior arm talent in Mobile, but it seems Garoppolo is the clear-cut No. 2 signal-caller on display.
As a senior, Garoppolo (6'3", 222 lbs) threw for 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns to just nine interceptions and averaged 8.9 yards per attempt, per The Washington Post. According to Bleacher Report scouting expert Matt Miller, the Eastern Illinois stud is indeed second in the QB pecking order:
Second-best quarterback in Mobile, by far, has been Jimmy Garoppolo. Spinning the ball, quick & compact release. Like him a lot.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 22, 2014
That will be an interesting dynamic to observe, because Carr will have the pressure to succeed as the No. 1 player at his position while Garoppolo has a shot to prove otherwise.
Dane Brugler of CBSSports.com notes how Garoppolo comes from a spread-oriented passing attack, leading to a lot of quick throws and a lack of experience in dealing with snaps under center:
...[Garoppolo] needs to continue and develop his pocket awareness and internal clock to feel pressure…holds the ball too long at times and will take unnecessary hits…experience is in a FCS spread, shotgun attack, needs to become more acclimated with under-center snaps.
In operating more of a pro-style system in the game, evaluators will certainly be seeing how Garoppolo adjusts. If he passes this on-the-fly test of new, more sophisticated concepts, Garoppolo's NFL stock should see a substantial increase.
The fact that Garoppolo played in the East-West Shrine Game before this also shows that he is willing to do whatever he can to enhance his status.
That's expected since he comes from a smaller program, but it does aid Garoppolo's case as opposed to other prospects such as Alabama's AJ McCarron, who elected not to play in the Senior Bowl.
Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin (North)
Going for offense may be a more exciting proposition, but Borland is worth the time because of his lack of measurable skills that contrast his immense football intellect.
Atlanta Falcons and North head coach Mike Smith assessed Borland's game and was reminded of former Miami Dolphins star linebacker Zach Thomas, per RookieDraft.com's Joe Everett:
Miller was impressed with the ex-Badger star's natural feel for the game:
Liked Chris Borland a lot heading into the week. Still do. His instincts are amazing.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 22, 2014
Both Adam Caplan of ESPN and Brugler reported solid play from Borland at practice:
Another strong practice this morning from Wisconsin ILB Chris Borland. Nice INT, instinctive vs. run all week.— Adam Caplan (@caplannfl) January 22, 2014
MMQB.com's Peter King doesn't believe Borland has quite enough speed to compare to Thomas but couldn't deny that Borland always seemed to be making plays, corroborating what Brugler mentioned:
Lotta buzz about Wisconsin LB Chris Borland being the next Zach Thomas (Dolphins) as an undersized linebacker. I just don’t think Borland has the playing speed that made Thomas great, but Borland does always seem to be around the ball.
Borland racked up 111 total tackles as a senior, is rarely in the wrong position and doesn't take bad pursuit angles, making him a force against the run and a passable option to drop in coverage.
Versatility in schematics during his time in Madison will help Borland transition to the pros—at least that's his testimony, per the Cincinnati Enquirer's Joe Reedy:
I’ve played outside linebacker in a 4-3, inside in a 4-3 and I’ve played in a 3-4. So I think that works to my advantage. Mentally I can pick it up, physically I can play well in the schemes and that helps me.With different schemes it shows you can adopt new ideas and learn on the fly. It is just football, things are different and you are going to be working hard regardless. The bigger part is learning new personalities.
What the Senior Bowl allows Borland (5'11", 246 lbs) to do is get away from any sort of minutiae of being evaluated and let his instincts take over in the heat of competition. That's how he received the invitation to Mobile in the first place.
It wouldn't be a surprise at all to see the gritty linebacker emerge as the game's leading tackler and prove himself capable of holding his own against other future pros.
Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn (South)
NFL teams can't have enough pass-rushers, so scooping up a gem like Ford, who is already accustomed to facing high-caliber competition in the SEC, makes a lot of sense in the first place.
The BCS national title game saw Ford pile up two sacks against the mighty Florida State State Seminoles, and the 6'2", 240-pound specimen has carried that momentum over to Senior Bowl practices.
NBC Sports Network's Josh Norris commented on how the best of Ford wasn't really on display in practices—because he didn't need to use his full arsenal of moves to beat opposing linemen:
I know we all loved Dee Ford's edge burst and bend this week. But watch the A&M game for hand use and leverage.— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 23, 2014
Whose NFL stock will rise most in the 2014 Senior Bowl?
Jordan Raanan of NJ.com reports that Ford played the Jacksonville Jaguars' "LEO" position, which is a defensive end-linebacker hybridization. It's a role that the ex-Tiger embraced and one that should showcase his full potential on game day. He also was selfless in being asked which position he preferred.
"I prefer to play football," said Ford. "Anywhere they put me."
Ford burst onto the scene in matching up with the Seminoles and looked borderline unstoppable at times with how quick he was off the ball. The attitude he has in chasing opposing QBs and toward being flexible about where he lines up should make NFL teams comfortable drafting him.
If he packs on even a little bit more size and can still maintain his astounding quickness and agility, the ceiling for Ford in the NFL is quite high.