Pro days can be easy for the average fan to overlook. In a little more than one month's time, hundreds of prospects work out at dozens of schools, doing positional drills and running 40-yard dashes in front of NFL coaches and personnel men. While these shorts-only workouts don't offer much in the way of drama or flash, they are incredibly useful to the folks who are trying to figure out who to pick in the upcoming draft.
Pro days offer decision-makers a chance to get another up-close-and-personal look at a guy, to talk to his college coaches and trainers and get the inside scoop. Away from the media spotlight, a coach might, for example, offer up a candid explanation of a prospect's off-field troubles. A trainer will tell you which of his guys were always getting hurt and which of his guys never needed any attention, and he'll answer any medical questions you might have. The team's academic guy will divulge who's going to graduate and who isn't. A lot of evaluators even like to talk to a school's equipment manager, to get a real feel for what a prospect is truly like.
And that's the real value here: getting a more accurate picture of a prospect than the arm's-length perspective afforded by, say, the NFL Scouting Combine. At the combine, evaluators sit in the stands and just watch; at a pro day, we can often stand right behind a prospect as he's doing his drills and even ask him to do a certain thing that we want to see him do. You can tell a guy, "Hey, run this route," or "Cover this combination route." The atmosphere is much more relaxed than it is at the combine.
As we get ever closer to the 2013 NFL Draft, here's a look at some prospects who really helped themselves over the past several weeks of pro day workouts:
Matt Barkley, QB, USC: Two things were especially encouraging to me about his pro day: He ran the 40-yard dash and he ran it faster (in 4.89 and 4.92 seconds) than I thought he might. The fact that he was willing to throw into the wind was a good sign. Folks I talked to compared his arm strength to that of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton. His feet were quicker and better than people thought they would be. Barkley's a great example of somebody who was the subject of apprehension but turned things around at his pro day. Everyone was waiting for this one, and it helped him a great deal.
Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU: Mingo worked out both as a defensive end and a drop-back linebacker or space player. He worked out for about an hour in positional drills, and I heard he wasn't even sweating. His stock jumped even higher than it already was.
Kenny Vaccaro, S, Texas: Vaccaro actually was limited by an injury at his workout; he took part in positional drills, but didn't actually run or jump. This is an example of how the drills sometimes aren't the most important gauge for determining a prospect's potential. A guy can run a 4.45 40, but if he doesn't have any football sense, he won't be much good in the NFL. When it comes to straight-line speed, there are going to be safeties who are faster than Vaccaro. But when you take his ability to read and diagnose into account, it's clear he's going to be a top-notch pro. Denver Broncos cornerback Chris Harris is another example of this phenomenon: He didn't run well at all before the 2011 NFL Draft and went undrafted -- simply because he didn't blow up the drills. Since then, he's turned into a major contributor for Denver.
Matt Scott, QB, Arizona: Scott didn't play a lot until 2012, so people hadn't seen much of him, but he had a good pro day. I think he surprised people with his arm strength. Here's what happens: When you're standing behind the drill, you get a better idea of what a guy's velocity is on the ball than if you're sitting up in the stands and watching him throw. You get a better idea of how he can move around. Scott also surprised everybody with his short-area quickness. Finally, his coach, Rich Rodriguez, said he was "as good a thrower as I've coached or competed against." That's the kind of thing that can really carry a lot of weight at a pro day, making evaluators want to dig a little deeper.
Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin: Ball's the kind of guy who you might initially look at as the product of a system, because Wisconsin runs the ball a lot and always has a big offensive line. You just take it for granted and think you could plug anyone in there and succeed, leading Ball to be undervalued. That's another reason pro days mean so much; you get a chance to look past stereotypes. First, when you get a chance to visit Ball in person, you see he's one of those prospects who can really impress you -- a "yes sir, no sir" guy who will look you right in the eye. Then you find out he never really missed any practices or had any serious injury issues to speak of. Finally, you learn he can actually catch the ball and block pretty well, things a back from Wisconsin wouldn't otherwise get a chance to demonstrate. It won't be a shock to me at all if Ball is the first back drafted.
Le'Veon Bell, RB, Michigan State: He caught the ball very well at his workout and really opened some eyes. Bell also showed that he has some wiggle and isn't just a straight-line runner. He helped himself a great deal in terms of his draft status; he'll probably be one of the first three running backs drafted.
Damontre Moore, DE, Texas A&M: Moore's stock cratered after he ran poorly and threw the bar up just 12 times at the combine. But at his pro day, he showed that he has a different attitude, recording 19 reps on the bench press and posting a pretty good workout. He seemed to reinvent himself somewhat; just the fact that he lifted the bar seven more times and ran better was a big help to him.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington: His stock just keeps climbing. Folks thought he might be a second- or even third-round pick until a workout that was described to me with one word: "Wow." He really looked good to those in attendance, showing everyone what he can do.
Jamie Collins, LB, Southern Mississippi: He was stuck on a bad team, and sometimes when that happens, your reputation takes a hit -- because no one looks good on a bad team. So for him, pro day was crucial, and I think he probably helped himself as much as anybody. He really worked out well, showing he can drop into space, which should help make him a highly desirable guy come draft time.
Marquise Goodwin, WR, Texas: I don't think people thought this speedster could catch the ball as well as he showed he could at his pro day, where he made four really nice grabs. When it was over, I told him he added a zero to the contract he's going to get with that performance. Of course, it's important to remember that, as with all pro days, Goodwin did what he did in ideal conditions, with no press coverage and no one trying to disrupt him.
Tyler Eifert, TE, Notre Dame: He dropped the first pass thrown to him ... then proceeded to catch everything else that came his way. He did a great job; I think people saw what good hands he has. He probably launched himself from the bottom of the first round to a much higher spot.
Charles Johnson, WR, Grand Valley State: Here's an example of someone who made a mark after missing out on the combine. Johnson (who measured 6-foot-2 and weighed 215 pounds) worked out well, posting 4.42 and 4.39 40s. Not to mention, a 39.5-inch vertical jump, an 11-1 broad jump, a 4.31-second short shuttle, a 7.04-second three-cone and 14 strength lifts. I would imagine that after that performance, he'll probably be drafted somewhere around the fourth or fifth round.
Follow Gil Brandt on Twitter @Gil_Brandt.