An annual ritual every January, all forms of draft picks come together Sunday in Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl week, which begins in earnest with weigh-ins Monday morning. No other pre-draft event draws the attention, offers the intensity or has as many future first round picks on the field at the same time banging helmets as does the week of practices leading into next Saturday's game.
It is a chance for players to solidify themselves as the draft's number one pick, as David Carr did last year, or make a precipitous move up charts, which was the case for Donovan McNabb in 1999. Many prospects will be offered the opportunity to display they are capable of handling positions other then the ones they manned in college, like Antwaan Randle-El did 12 months ago. It is also a chance for small-school products to prove they are capable of competing on a higher level of competition.
So which players have the most to gain from a productive week of practice in Mobile? The answer is many.
The talent at quarterback on hand could be stunning next week as a trio of quality passers lead the South squad.
Tying up all the loose ends in 2002, Carson Palmer overcame two consecutive seasons of mediocrity and won the Heisman Trophy on his way to leading the USC Trojans to an Orange Bowl victory. Considered a draft afterthought last September, Palmer is poised to become the number one pick overall this April, and just as David Carr did last year, a solid week of throwing the football in Mobile could lock up the top spot for Palmer.
Much maligned throughout his career at Texas, Chris Simms finished the year with a spurt of productivity and became the first Longhorn signal caller to engineer back-to-back ten win seasons. He now has people wondering if he's worth a first round pick. Simms must come to the Senior Bowl and display a command of the offense and leadership intangibles if he wants that question answered affirmatively.
Kliff Kingsbury was the nation's leading passer and became only the third quarterback in NCAA history to throw for more than 5,000-yards in a season. Though he benefited from an offensive scheme where running the ball was an afterthought, Kingsbury built upon a strong 2001 campaign and proved his junior season was no fluke. He must now show scouts he has the arm strength to play at the next level and is not just a product of the system. Starting with Monday's practice Kingsbury has the chance to prove he belongs in the draft's first day.
One area seemingly void of talent next April would be running back but just as Carson Palmer's surge to the front enhanced the quality of quarterbacks available, Larry Johnson of Penn State has done the same for the running back position. A consensus All American who broke the 2000-yard barrier carrying the ball, Johnson set the Nittany Lion single game rushing record when he totaled 327 against Indiana. Yet with all the deserving accolades he received during the season there is a concern; while he beat up on lesser opponents Johnson's four worst games of the year came against State's toughest competition and he was barely a factor. He now has the opportunity to prove doubters wrong as Johnson will against the nation's best defenders all week and good results may push him into the initial twelve picks of round one.
Well represented every year at the Senior Bowl, Florida State seniors have taken advantage of this week as present NFLers like Javon Walker and Tommy Polley played lights out in Mobile which enhanced their draft positioning; will receiver Talman Gardner continue that trend? A bit of an enigma, Gardner is a physical specimen that looks like a man amongst boys either running away from opponents down the field or just plain out muscling them for the football in a crowd. Unfortunately he also has a penchant to drop the easy throw (as he did in the Sugar Bowl) or too disappear for long stretches. Three consistent days of productive practice could move Gardner into the draft's first sixty choices next April.
This time of year the phrase "size/speed" is commonplace as many are literally measured by fractions of an inch or tenths of a second. Such is the case for Michael Haynes, a defensive end that has terrorized quarterbacks for the Penn State Nittany Lions since he was a sophomore. Haynes impact on the game is apparent, as is his 6-foot 2-inch frame, which draws the concern of scouts who feel he may not have the size to stand up against the run at the next level. If Haynes holds his own against a talented group of offensive tackles in the coming days he stands a chance of sliding into the first round.
Last year small school cornerbacks Roosevelt Williams of Tuskegee and Joe Jefferson of Western Kentucky proved their talents during Senior Bowl week by competently competing against eight receivers selected during the first day of the 2002 draft. How ironic is it that once again the top prospects from the little known programs are a pair of defensive backs and one was Williams' college teammate?
Tuskegee's Drayton Florence is another terrific cover corner with raw physical skills coaches can't wait to mold. Like his former college teammate Florence end up as a third round selection if he shows well in Mobile.
Safety Rashean Mathis has been a terrific player for the Bethune Cookman Wildcats three years running and was given the Buck Buchanan Award in 2002 as the top defensive player in Division I-AA. A game impacting centerfielder with cornerback-type cover skills, expect Mathis to be used a both corner and safety next week as scouts want to test his versatility. Should he successfully carry out his duties the end reward could be a calling of his name in the middle of the draft's second frame.
It should be an exciting week with the usual surprises and disappointments from more than 100 NFL hopefuls that will fill the fields for practice twice a day. Whatever the end result the impact will surely be felt in three months.
*Starting Sunday evening the TFY Draft Preview will be posting reports several times daily from Senior Bowl week. Our subscribers will have full advantage of a scouting database in which we will track the progress of prospects from Monday's weigh-in through Thursday afternoons practice. Also included will be NFL team reports and and notes from around Mobile at least twice a day. As a result we may be a little slow, actually very slow, in responding to your questions on the message board so please bare with us.