While a far cry from the 2012 edition that featured eight first-round selections, the 2014 Senior Bowl remains an integral part of the draft process for teams and players alike.
The trickle-down effect of the new CBA has hit the bowl hard. Senior classes are shaky in regards to top talent, because many players now declare as underclassmen to get a head start on the pursuit of that first mega-deal in free agency after their mandatory rookie deal expires.
Despite this development, the bowl is an important proving ground for players who need a stock boost. A strong performance in practices is great, but for some, the eye test in pads is dwarfed by their ability to perform when it matters in the actual game itself.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Jordan Matthews has been a fringe first-round pick in the minds of most. As a 6'3", 206-pound receiver who plays a chain-moving style, he has to compete with the likes of Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin and Penn State's Allen Robinson for a spot near the end of the first round.
Matthews answered questions about his size right off the bat, as Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey illustrates:
I was surprised at the physique of Jordan Matthews (WR Vanderbilt). He's always struck me as a slight receiver, and I have expressed worry that he might get pushed around a bit at the next level because of it. Pads off, however, Matthews has a chiseled upper body that drew some remarks from team scouts sitting around me. Any concerns about him being weak are off the table.
Matthews has even gone the extra mile in his preparation and been studious in his approach and work ethic, per Phil Savage, the bowl's executive director:
All Matthews has to do at this point is post a strong performance on the field and he will go a long way toward ensuring his status as a first-round pick.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Get to know the name Aaron Donald.
Donald has nothing but rave reviews to show for his efforts in the practices leading up to the game itself, with a highlight coming from CBS Sports' Dane Brugler:
Finishing up my 10 observations from the North practice now, will post soon. Teaser: Aaron Donald, Aaron Donald, Aaron Donald #SeniorBowl— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 20, 2014
While a knock has been his size, Peter King of MMQB.com makes a stunning comparison after seeing the Pittsburgh standout in person:
There are obvious comparisons to Bengals All-Pro DT Geno Atkins, who similarly dominated the Senior Bowl in 2010 at 6-1½ and 293 pounds. He wasn’t drafted until the fourth round, which was an obvious mistake in hindsight. We’ll have more on Donald soon.
Players such as Atkins, otherwise known as 3-technique defensive tackles in a 4-3 scheme, are a rarity at the pro level. Like Atkins, Donald can consistently generate an unusual, disruptive pressure from the interior typically only seen when defenses bring a linebacker blitz.
The NFL will not make the same mistake twice and allow Donald to fall far in the draft. That said, this hype train that has suddenly started for him at practices can be tremendously slowed if he has a quiet performance under the bright lights of the contest.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
In a high-profile class headlined by names such as Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel, it can be difficult for a player such as Fresno State's Derek Carr to break through as a top pick.
Carr is on the right path with a strong showing in practices so far, as Comcast Sportsnet's James Palmer details:
Talking with several scouts & experts, all said Derek Carr is either most talented player at #SeniorBowl or will be 1st player there drafted— James Palmer (@JPalmerCSN) January 22, 2014
Thanks to a strong arm and experience in a pro-style offense in terms of his readiness under center, Carr has done much to separate himself from the rest of the class and insert his name into consideration as the first quarterback off the board.
Add in an ability to extend plays with his feet while keeping his eyes downfield, and it is hard to argue against Carr as a top pick. Should he showcase these abilities well in the Senior Bowl game, the performance may snowball him into a top-10 selection come draft day.