MOBILE, Ala. -- The Senior Bowl, arguably the most important week of scouting in the lead up to every NFL Draft, kicks-off on Monday in Mobile, Alabama. This year the annual event features many of the top-rated players at a number of positions. Here's a breakdown of each unit and what scouts will be looking for.
The quarterback position is loaded with talent and a lot is on the line in Mobile. Derek Carr of Fresno State hopes to replicate the phenomenal performance of his older brother David, who solidified his status as the top pick of the 2002 NFL Draft after his showing at the Senior Bowl. And while Derek won't be the first selection of this year's draft, he could cement his place in the opening round with a knockout week.
A pair of ACC passers, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Logan Thomas of Virginia Tech, have been tumbling down draft boards and hope to stem the bleeding. Each offers a big arm, yet can be all over the place with throws. The ability to accurately deliver passes during three days of practice is critical for both.
Finally, Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois, a late addition after A.J. McCarron dropped out, hopes to build upon the momentum he started last week at the East-West Shrine Game and further improve his draft grade.
One of the more intriguing stories at the position is Jerick McKinnon of Georgia Southern. A quarterback by trade, McKinnon will asked to line-up at running back, the position teams project him to play in the NFL. On film, he's swift, elusive and creative when the ball's in his hands. He must now prove he can handle those duties when not lined up under center.
Antonio Andrews of Western Kentucky is another sleeper of sorts to watch this week. Entering the season graded as a free agent, Andrews posted career highs for rushing yards (1,730), receptions (41) and touchdowns (16). He's a ball carrier with a complete game who can line up as a third-down back or situational starter at the next level. His mission at the Senior Bowl is to put all his football skills, both physical and mental, on display which will only enhance his draft stock.
Another college quarterback, Kain Colter of Northwestern, will be moving to a new position in Mobile. The Wildcats' leader under center for three seasons, Colter was productive passing the ball as well as running it. He now must prove he has the ability to catch the ball as a true receiver. The Senior Bowl has a history of college quarterbacks successfully transitioning to receiver as Matt Jones (2005) and Antwaan Randle El (2002) both shot up draft boards after a terrific week of practice.
Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz is all over boards, yet, by my grade, he's the top-rated senior at the position. A tight end in an offensive lineman's body, Fiedorowicz is a devastating blocker with better-than-advertised pass-catching skills. Can he get down the field as much teams want in a tight end these days? Or is he just a short-range target? The answers scouts come away with this week will impact Fiedorowicz's draft grade.
The offensive line offers an eclectic group of prospects with the versatility to line-up at several positions.
North Dakota State's Billy Turner rates as the top small-school prospect invited to the Senior Bowl. He's a college left tackle projected by many to the right side, though some have him pegged as a guard. Turner will earn a lot of money if he's able to competently hold down the blind side spot this week.
The same goes for Brandon Thomas of Clemson. Forced to the left tackle slot early in his career, Thomas has the size and style most project to guard in the NFL. Should he display any skill protecting the edge at tackle during practice, Thomas will watch his stock soar.
Morgan Moses of Virginia and Jawuan James from Tennessee both showed great ability early in their college careers yet never elevated their games and are close to being labeled as underachievers. The Senior Bowl is their chance to show scouts they have bright futures and the desire to play pro-ball.
The top five defensive tackles from the senior class are slated to be in Mobile, while the defensive end position offers one of the most underrated players at the position.
Ra'Shede Hageman of Minnesota has been on a tear this season. Unheralded entering the season, he now has some believing he's first-round material. The athletic lineman has the skill to line up at several positions up front, something he'll be asked to do next week. More than anything else, Hageman must show constant intensity and play hard on every snap, something he did not do in college.
After watching his weight move North, Will Sutton of Arizona State saw his draft stock turn South. Monday's weigh-in is important for Sutton (anyone remember Terrence Cody?) as is his ability to play at a high level throughout the week.
Given the recent failure of highly rated defensive linemen coming from the North Carolina program, it's easy to see why scouts are suspicious of Kareem Martin. Yet Martin was a one-man wrecking crew for the Tar Heels, posting 21.5 tackles for loss, 11 sacks and 14 quarterback hurries. Senior Bowl week offers Martin an opportunity to receive the praise from scouts he so richly deserves.
Finally, it's interesting that Stanford linebacker Trent Murphy is listed at defensive end on the Senior Bowl roster. Most project Murphy as a solid 3-4 outside linebacker for the next level, though some question whether he possesses the athleticism to stand up over tackle in the NFL. Scouts will have a better grip on Murphy's next level position after three days of practice.
There are a number of players to watch at the linebacker position but the week is most critical for Michael Sam of Missouri.
Dominant as a pass rusher from his defensive end position, Sam was a presence in opponent's backfields last season, totaling 11 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss. And while he showed great skill up the field, Sam will now be asked to move in reverse as well as laterally to show similar playmaking ability. Shea McClellin found himself in a similar position in 2012; a dominant college defensive end who moved to a traditional linebacker spot at the Senior Bowl. He made a seamless transition and displayed so much versatility that McClellin landed in the bottom half of round one that year. If Sam displays a similar aptitude for the linebacker position he could move into the draft's initial 60 picks.
After graduating, redshirt junior Adrian Hubbard of Alabama received a Senior Bowl invitation. Statistically, Hubbard was not super impressive this season (33 tackles, 3 sacks), but he possesses the body type and instincts to play at the next level. Watch how Hubbard performs in coverage drills this week as well as how he plays when lined up as a 4-3 linebacker. The results will have a big effect on his draft grade.
Cornerback Keith McGill is a player who soared up draft boards after a successful senior campaign. Missing the 2012 season with a shoulder injury, the 6-foot-3 McGill flashed dominance last year and offers the size and speed teams want at cornerback these days. Yet there are questions about his NFL readiness; is McGill a prospect who can start as a rookie? Or will he need time to polish his game? The completeness he displays this week could be worth a full round to McGill's draft value.
At safety, the highest-rated players heading into the week are Craig Loston of LSU and Jimmie Ward of Ball State. Loston is the more impressive physically at 6-2, 209, and started two seasons for the Tigers. Loston is an imposing presence in the box, but he'll have to prove he can hold up in coverage. Ward, meanwhile, is a Mobile native who was a three year starter in the MAC. A bit undersized at 5-11, 192, Ward will be tasked with showing he can handle the step up in competition.