The 2014 Senior Bowl had a bit less hoopla than previous renditions, a byproduct of fewer invitations and the cascade of underclassmen declaring for the draft.
Nevertheless, the game may have elevated a few mid-round prospects into early-round consideration, even with a seemingly innocuous 20-10 scoreline. The Senior Bowl represents the final chance for scouts to see draft prospects in live game action, so those who rose to the occasion provided crucial boosts to their stocks.
At this point, stopwatches and measurables are going to take over as NFL organizations poke and prod at players at the combine and pro days. Here's a look back at the players who made the best impressions at the last exhibition of real football.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The Auburn product was the game's most dominant presence, as Ford notched two first-half sacks as part of an eye-opening MVP performance. Indeed, Ford appeared to be playing at a different gear than his collegiate counterparts:
#Auburn's Dee Ford has a different gear than every other linemen at the Senior Bowl. Crazy 1st step quickness.— Bruce Feldman (@BFeldmanCBS) January 25, 2014
The MVP capped a huge year for Ford, who compiled 10.5 sacks as part of a playmaking Tigers defensive line. As Bleacher Report's Kristopher Knox notes, his versatility makes him a complete player who could capably fulfill a variety of roles:
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.
Ford entered the game as a borderline first-rounder, and his performance may have vaulted him over the top. Look for Ford to hear his name called sometime late in Day 1, early in Day 2 at the latest.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
Carr entered the game with tons of questions, most notably his ability to anticipate blitzes and move around in the pocket when facing pressure. After going 7-of-12 for 45 yards and a touchdown, Carr appears to have answered those questions and solidified himself as an early-round possibility.
It's important not to get too overworked about Carr's performance, for there were numerous screens that served as gimme passes designed to get him comfortable. Nevertheless, his touchdown throw answered a few questions from scouts:
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
Carr's downfield passing was actually his most impressive quality during the game, as he demonstrated excellent accuracy, with his final numbers deflated by a couple drops. As NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah notes, Carr's game action only further separated him from his quarterback peers:
Carr was clearly the top signal-caller during the week of practices and he played at a high level during the game on Saturday afternoon. He had plenty of arm strength to cut through a heavy wind early in the week and he threw the ball accurately both from the pocket and on the move. I talked to a few teams that interviewed him and they came away very impressed with his maturity and football intelligence.
Carr remains a project who will need a bit of developmental time before being thrust into the NFL fire. Nevertheless, he demonstrated noticeable improvement over the week of practice and looks like a one of the best prospects in the second tier of quarterbacks.
Aaron Donald, DT Pitt
Ford may have attracted the most attention of the defensive prospects, but at least one analyst thought another defender was more impressive:
Dee Ford may have gotten the sacks, but Aaron Donald was the most dominant player yesterday— Steve Palazzolo (@StevePalazzolo) January 26, 2014
Pitt's Aaron Donald piled up the college postseason awards, winning the Outland Trophy, Lombardi Award, the Bednarik Award and Nagurski Award. Donald proved his prolific college success could translate to the pros, impressing Falcons coach Mike Smith during practice, per Mark Inabinett of AL.com:
"Donald is a very explosive defensive tackle," said Mike Smith, the coach of the Atlanta Falcons who is guiding the North team this week. "I've been very impressed with him. He's short in stature by NFL standards and doesn't maybe have all the measurables, but he's one of the more explosive guys we have on the North squad. He's done a very nice job both in the running and the pass game."
At 6'0" and 288 pounds, Donald is a bit smaller than the prototypical NFL defensive tackle. However, he compensates for that size deficiency with explosive burst and snap anticipation, often overwhelming lead-footed interior offensive linemen.
Donald may be undersized, but his production and quickness are too significant to ignore. Donald is starting to garner some first-round hype, and whichever team drafts him will be receiving a high-upside product.
James White, RB, Wisconsin
Unfairly or not, Wisconsin running backs have a stigma in the NFL. Underwhelming past production combined from Badgers backs has forged that perception, but James White looks poised to break the mold.
White was the lone bright spot for the losing North squad, rushing for the only touchdown. The running back ended up earning the team's Most Outstanding Player distinction as a result of his explosive per-touch production:
In an NFL where passing backs are emerging as explosive mismatches, White has an opportunity to find a niche immediately. Despite his tiny 5'9" and 206-pound frame, White possesses deceptive power to go along with his speed and vision, according to NFL.com's Bucky Brooks:
Watching White perform against BYU last weekend, I saw an effective running back with explosive short-area quickness and burst. Although he lacks elite top-end speed, he is a shifty runner in the hole, with a knack for making defenders miss. Throw in his willingness to finish runs with power and pop, and it is easy to see White carving out a role as a complementary runner at the next level.
Unlike the above prospects, White will not be an early-round selection. But for someone who may only be a mid- to late-round selection, the former Badger is a player who could step in right away and infuse an offense with explosive receiving back abilities.