The 2016 Senior Bowl week is just days away, adn the buzz is already building for some of the top NFL Draft prospects who will be participating in this year's game.
The Scouting Combine gets plenty of media attention as an opportunity for players to boost their draft stock with impressive 40 times, bench press numbers or individual drills, but Senior Bowl practices provide a much better picture of a prospect's true abilities, as they're forced to go toe-to-toe with some of the best players in the country. Whether it's 1-on-1 drills or full team sessions, players get three days of actual football practice to show NFL decision-makers what they're capable of.
Plenty of NFL players have turned a solid week in Mobile into a higher draft spot, and no two players know that better than Tampa Bay's second-round picks in 2015, Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet.
A relative unknown from tiny Hobart College in New Jersey, Marpet was dominated lower-level competition at left tackle for the Statesmen. A source told me during last year's Senior Bowl that Marpet only ended up there because a scout from the Green Bay Packers lobbied for his inclusion, and if that's true, Marpet owes that scout a night at Bern's Steakhouse. After being moved to guard, Marpet wasted no time proving he belonged against the nation's best, turning heads all week with his toughness, athleticism and work ethic.
On draft day, the Bucs traded up into the late-second round to make Marpet the highest-drafted Division III player in NFL Draft history.
Heading into the 2015 Senior Bowl, Penn State tackle Donovan Smith was projected as a mid-round pick who would likely have to slide inside to guard. Instead, after looking like one of the best lineman in Mobile, he saw his stock improve significantly, with many putting him in the second-round conversation.
The Bucs were so impressed, the spent the 34th overall pick on Smith, planning to put him at left tackle to protect top overall pick Jameis Winston.
Not only have those strong Senior Bowl performances turned out well for Smith and Marpet individually, they've also paid dividends for the Bucs, who inserted both into the starting lineup immediately. Smith started all 16 games for the Bucs at left tackle, while Marpet started 13 games at right guard, missing three with an ankle injury. Though they both certainly took their lumps in their first NFL seasons, they were easily two of the most pleasant surprises for a 6-10 Tampa Bay team. They helped anchor a unit that paved the way for the NFL's second-leading rusher in Doug Martin and allowed just 27 sacks all season, tied for the fourth-fewest in the NFL. Just this week, Smith and Marpet were two of four Bucs to be named to PFWA All-Rookie Team.
Sometimes, "draft buzz" or "draft stock" can be a figment of one's imagination. But as both Smith and Marpet know rather well, a strong week in Mobile can translate into a higher draft slot, more money and a chance to make an immediate impact at the next level.
Who should the Bucs have their eye on in Mobile this year? Find us on Twitter @TBBucsOnScout and let us know!