The Reese's Senior Bowl is regarded as the crown jewel of the college all-star season, with elite prospects dotting the rosters at every position. Given the importance scouts place on the performance of players in highly competitive matchups, the practice week and game tape provide the answers to many of the questions evaluators have about the top prospects in the 2014 class. With that in mind, here are five guys with a lot riding on their performance this weekend:
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
The NFL scouting community has been buzzing about Carr's potential as a franchise quarterback since his emergence as a standout playmaker the past two seasons. He has lit up the Mountain West Conference for 9,086 yards and 87 touchdowns against only 15 interceptions. Most impressively, he has displayed a lively arm to match his superb athleticism and improvisational skills. Yet, some scouts still question his poise and composure within a muddied pocket. This was one of his biggest flaws that I discovered when I studied his 2012 tape (junior season), and it reappeared in a disappointing showing against USC in the Las Vegas Bowl. With another opportunity to show his wares against a squad with NFL-caliber players at every turn, Carr needs to show scouts that he can deliver pinpoint throws with defenders in close proximity. In addition, he must show coaches that he has the poise to work through his progressions to find an open receiver with the pocket crumbling around him. If he can withstand the pressure, while making a few accurate throws downfield, Carr could leave the Senior Bowl rated as the top senior quarterback in the draft.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
It's hard to find a talented interior defender blessed with Hageman's size and athletic gifts. Measuring 6-foot-6, 311 pounds, Hageman glides across the field like a gazelle, yet flashes explosive strength and power at the point of attack. While scouts are certainly fascinated by his physical tools and unlimited potential, Hageman's marginal production and inconsistent motor keep him from rating as an elite prospect at the point. Now, Hageman has changed the perception of his game by dominating the competition in practice this week, but scouts need to see him take it to another level when the lights come on to solidify his standing as a mid-to-late first-round selection.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste, CB, Nebraska
The league is trending toward bigger corners on the perimeter after watching the Seattle Seahawks make their way to Super Bowl XLVIII behind a physically imposing secondary that features long, rangy athletes on the outside. Jean-Baptiste is a former wide receiver turned cornerback with impressive physical dimensions (6-3, 220) and ball skills. He has been the top cornerback in attendance, displaying a refined game that is ideally suited to play in a scheme that features press-man coverage extensively. Although Jean-Baptiste has made a strong case to be in the discussion as a borderline Day 1 selection, a spectacular performance in the game could send the Nebraska star flying up the charts.
Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn
Scouts pay close attention to players who dominate the practice week at the Senior Bowl. Ford has not only thrashed opponents in drills, he has produced a number of disruptive plays that would qualify as game changers at the next level. Although he flashed that kind of potential occasionally at Auburn, no one expected him to destroy the competition with his speed, burst and athleticism off the edge. In doing so, Ford has convinced several scouts and coaches that his skills translate well to the NFL as a designated pass rusher. If Ford can continue to display the quickness, burst and rush skills in the game that he has shown throughout the week, Ford will be one of the fastest risers up the charts heading into the combine.
Logan Thomas, QB, Virginia Tech
There are some scouts who believe Thomas is better suited to play tight end at the next level, but his combination of size and arm talent makes him too enticing to disregard as a quarterback. Thomas has enjoyed an up-and-down week of practice, but his flashes have been impressive enough to keep his name in the mix as a developmental quarterback prospect. With the NFL ushering in a new wave of athletic quarterbacks, Thomas' performance in the game could significantly impact his chances of getting a legitimate shot to play his preferred position as a pro.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.