While it might not draw quite as much attention as some professional all-star games, the collegiate showcase known as the Senior Bowl is important because it actually matters.
The annual game—which features some of the nation's best senior football players and a cadre of NFL coaches—doesn't matter in any sort of conventional sense. It matters because it provides these incoming NFL hopefuls with an opportunity to show off their skills one last time in a game setting and to show just how well they respond to NFL-level coaching (provided this year by members of the Jacksonville Jaguars and Atlanta Falcons coaching staffs).
The Senior Bowl provides NFL fans with a glimpse of the next generation of players. It also gives the more critical observer (coaches, scouts, media members) a chance to create or change perceptions about this group of individuals—many of whom were not in the national spotlight during the 2013 collegiate season.
The 2014 edition of the Senior Bowl was no different. Now that the game is officially in the books, it's time to discuss some of the more prominent impressions taken away from the on-field action.
Over the next few pages, we will examine some of the biggest takeaways and observations from the 2014 Senior Bowl.
Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr didn't really have a lot to prove by participating in this year's Senior Bowl, but he still found a way to strengthen his draft status.
Already considered a top quarterback prospect and probable first-round pick, Carr helped his cause with a string of impressive Senior Bowl practices and a steady, if underwhelming performance in Saturday's game.
Nice drive by Derek Carr. The bubble screens are lay ups, but nice read & reaction on the TD pass. Worked through progression to find TE— Bucky Brooks (@BuckyBrooks) January 25, 2014
While the 6'2", 215-pound signal-caller only passed for 45 yards, he did complete 7-of 11 attempts, including a touchdown. Most of his throws were on target and he left little room for error.
In fact, some of Carr's most impressive passes were the ones he did not complete. More than once, Carr took a shot downfield to a contested receiver and put the football in a spot where only his target could make a play. When his receiver couldn't haul in the pass, the ball fell harmlessly to the ground.
Carr passed for 5,082 yards and 50 touchdowns for the Bulldogs in 2013.
Despite putting together a relatively strong individual season (3,851 passing yards and 44 total touchdowns), Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd's draft stock has declined as he is continuously picked apart by analysts.
A shaky Senior Bowl week may have sent his stock plummeting even further even further.
Tony Pauline of DraftInsider.net reported earlier in the week that Boyd was "all over the place" with his throws in practice, a statement that is unlikely to inspire confidence in potential NFL employers.
Boyd's struggles followed him onto the Senior Bowl field, where he completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes (7-of-16), had multiple balls batted at the line of scrimmage and tossed an interception.
NFLDraftScout.com currently projects Boyd as a fifth-round prospect. If Boyd hopes to maintain or improve that projection, he will have to find a way to answer some questions at next month's scouting combine after failing to answer any on Saturday.
Perhaps no player helped to raise his draft stock more on Saturday than Auburn defensive end Dee Ford, who earned Senior Bowl MVP honors.
Ford headed into the game looking like a borderline first-round pick following a 29-tackle, 10.5-sack 2013 season.
After an impressive Senior Bowl performance that included two sacks, a batted pass and several quarterback pressures, Ford might just have cemented his place in Day 1 of May's draft.
At 6'2" and 243 pounds, Ford has the size and build to play at either defensive end or outside linebacker at the pro level. Judging from the quickness and fluidity he showed during the Senior Bowl, he should draw interest from NFL coordinators running a variety of schemes.
"I think I made a statement that I can be a complete player," Ford said on the field after the game, via NFL.com.
While some top NFL prospects feel they have nothing to gain from playing in the Senior Bowl (and many ultimately decide not to attend), this was not the case with Toledo running back David Fluellen.
Despite racking up 1,121 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2013, Fluellen is not considered one of the top running back prospects heading into the draft. NFLDraftScout.com rates him as the 22nd-best running back and a potential seventh-round pick or free agent.
However, the four-year Rockets back may might have just ratcheted his stock up a notch or two on Saturday with a rather solid performance.
Toledo's David Fluellen was a late addition to North roster, but he has run well today.— Mike Huguenin (@MikeHuguenin) January 25, 2014
The 5'11", 226-pound runner seemed to identify and hit running lanes with quickness and showed adequate acceleration once past the line of scrimmage.
Fluellen racked up 44 yards on just eight carries and kept up with North teammate and Wisconsin product James White (both averaged 5.5 yards per carry).
We can forgive you if you didn't know who Colorado State tight end Crockett Gillmore was before the Senior Bowl.
However, the 6'6", 253-pound tight end is likely to generate plenty of buzz heading into the draft after his performance on Saturday.
Had Gillmore played for a more prominent program, he probably would be considered a top-end prospect. He has both the size and the production (47 receptions, 577 yards in 2013) to interest pro scouts, but a lack of elite competition kept him out of the national spotlight.
He proved just how big of a receiving threat he can be in the Senior Bowl, leading all players with 61 yards and a touchdown on five receptions.
Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir was far from the nation's best-known defensive back heading into Senior Bowl Week, but he could wind up being one of the most highly coveted defenders in May's draft.
The 6'1", 195-pound corner drew positive reviews for his performances in Senior Bowl practices and followed up with an impressive showing in the actual game.
ESPN's Louis Riddick lauded Desir's technique during the game.
Pierre Desir/Lindenwood, and Stan Jean-Baptiste were by far the most skilled at playing from a pedal in terms of cadence and pad level.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) January 25, 2014
Desir played a physical and fundamentally sound brand of coverage and consistently appeared one step ahead of his receiving matchup. He was rarely targeted by opposing quarterbacks in the game, yet managed to come away with one of only two interceptions for the North team.
With bigger and more physical cornerbacks in increasing demand at the pro level, Desir was likely already a popular name among NFL scouts. However, he likely eased concerns about his small-school status and increased his stock with a strong performance in the Senior Bowl.
Big-school prospects are not the only players who come to shine in the Senior Bowl, as Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid proved on Saturday.
Only the the second Princeton player to ever earn an invite to the Senior Bowl and the program's only two-time All-American, Reid entered Senior Bowl Week amid more hype than Ivy League players typically enjoy.
He justified every bit of the hype on the field, however, consistently generating pressure from the interior of South's defensive line.
His performance culminated with back-to-back sacks of Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas in the third quarter of the Senior Bowl. One of the sacks came against highly-regarded Baylor guard Cyril Richardson.
NFLDraftScout.com currently projects the 6'2", 301-pound Reid as a fourth-round pick, but he could easily see his stock rise after Saturday's performance.
Perhaps the best takeaway for NFL fans is that this year's draft class is shaping up to be one with immense talent—and not just at the top end.
While only a handful of Senior Bowl participants are currently pegged as potential first-round selections, several players on both sides of the football appeared more than capable of performing at a high level on Sundays.
May's draft is going to feature plenty of value picks, quite a few late-round steals and will provide every NFL franchise with an opportunity to upgrade the talent on its roster.