Some of college football's best four-year players will meet at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., for one final contest to showcase their skills in the 2014 Senior Bowl for observers who will decide where they are taken in the 2014 NFL draft.
A standout performance in the Senior Bowl can jump-start the drive to a high selection for a prospect who is not a widely known commodity.
And it is not only a great in-game performance that matters. Scouts, coaches and others have already been forming opinions about the players based on their performance in practices and workouts during the week leading up to the game. The game itself gives the players a chance to confirm or disprove those opinions.
Fans surely know of big-name prospects such as Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd, but other smaller names have the most on the line, and fans will want to watch them closely.
Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood
While Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste draws comparisons to Richard Sherman of the Seattle Seahawks, another big-bodied corner deserves similar praise.
At 6'2" and 206 pounds, Pierre Desir out of Lindenwood has ideal size, fitting the larger mold of today's NFL defensive backs, like Sherman—tall, lanky and physical players who can keep pace with the continued height and weight gain of modern receivers and tight ends.
Desir is not just a physical freak, either. He was also a shutdown player, as Fox Sports' Peter Schrager noted:
3. Pierre Desir, CB out of Lindenwood, played very well today. Scout told me they watched 2013 tape. "There is none...no one threw at him."— P. Schrager (@PSchrags) January 23, 2014
Desir's raw talent certainly needs to be refined, but his performance at the collegiate level and his physical traits have led NFL teams to dig deeper on the small-school prospect.
Fans should as well, and it starts at the Senior Bowl.
Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia
A popular trend in recent years—thanks to the devaluation of the running back position—is to find an underrated prospect in the mid-rounds and utilize him in a committee approach.
Because of his strong performance in Mobile, West Virginia's Charles Sims will not classify for this status much longer. Sims pairs ideal physical measurements with strong rushing ability—and a pass-catching trait that is a requirement for backs in today's pass-happy league.
NFL.com's Bucky Brooks is one of many experts impressed with Sims:
A 6-foot, 213-pound senior, Sims is the most versatile running back in the college game, with a set of skills that should make him a nightmare to defend at the next level. He is a smooth, fluid runner on the edges but possesses the size and strength to grind effectively between the tackles. Those traits are enough to make him an effective player in any offense, but it is his superb receiving skills that will make him an offensive coordinator's dream at the next level.
Brooks compares Sims to the Chicago Bears' Matt Forte, as he also illustrated on Twitter:
Like Forte and many modern NFL backs, Sims is not bigger than most defenders and will not bowl them over. But his versatility is key, as the definition of an every-down back has drastically changed in recent years.
Sims has the look of a player who would not leave the field in any circumstance.
Walt Aikens, CB, Liberty
It should come as no surprise that small-school cornerbacks such as Desir and Walt Aikens out of Liberty are the focal point of an event like the Senior Bowl.
In today's NFL, teams need to have four or sometimes five quality options at cornerback on the roster. It used to be that three would suffice, but as the league has trended toward the pass, teams simply need more bodies who can rotate in or play together.
Aikens is one name that continually pops up in draft circles after his week in Mobile. Standing at 6'1" and 195 pounds, he looks the part and has done enough to boost his stock. Bleacher Report's Matt Bowen confirms this notion:
Before practice on Wednesday, an AFC scout told me to focus on Aikens, and I can see why. The Liberty University cornerback can play from both press and off-man, he showed the ability to flip his hips, and he competes hard in one-on-one drills. Plus, I saw the speed down the field to run/match versus the 9 (fade) route.
While he still must fight an uphill battle, Aikens is well on his way to being a mid-round selection. Keep an eye out, as Aikens is one of several defensive backs who will look to shut out the opposition in Mobile.