MOBILE, Ala. -- The Senior Bowl is the marquee event of the college all-star bowl circuit, and scouts have descended upon Mobile in droves to see a deep and talented roster of top prospects display their skills this week.
Players at this event are given the chance to experience a week under NFL-like conditions, as they are challenged to learn a complex playbook while receiving direction from pro coaches. This provides scouts with an opportunity to see how quickly prospects are able to assimilate into the pro game, and how well they respond to teaching at the highest level.
But the Senior Bowl is about much more than learning how to play as a professional, it is about seeing how well top prospects fare against quality competition.
While the regular season may grant elite players with only a few opportunities to match up with highly regarded prospects, this week provides plenty of chances to go toe-to-toe with the best players at a position, and the results help evaluators determine the order at the top of the draft board.
Although some scouts operate under the opinion that a player's performance at the Senior Bowl can only help their draft status, it is hard for evaluators to shake off the impact of watching a top player struggle under these conditions.
Given the importance of performing well at the Senior Bowl, let's take a look at some of the headliners from the first day of practice:
» Washington quarterback Jake Locker is an outstanding talent, but looks like more of a developmental prospect at this point. His arm strength rates off the charts, but he struggles with his accuracy and touch on short and intermediate throws. He repeatedly overshot receivers during individual and team periods, and failed to find the range on a few deep throws to open targets. While his athleticism shines in drills, he needs plenty of fundamental work and will need to show gradual improvement throughout the week to convince evaluators that he is worthy of being selected at the top of the draft.
» Iowa quarterback Ricky Stanzi didn't have a great initial workout, but scouts are intrigued by his potential. He improved tremendously over the course of his final year, and he has the requisite tools (arm strength, accuracy and intangibles) to be an effective player on the next level. Although some cited his inability to come through in late-game situations as a concern, his weak supporting cast made it tougher for him to succeed in those spots and should keep him from fully shouldering the blame. If he can perform at a high level surrounded by better weapons at the skill positions, Stanzi could experience a significant bump up draft boards.
» It's not often that a school sends two receivers to the Senior Bowl, but Boise State has a pair of playmakers (Titus Young and Austin Pettis) in attendance, and scouts have quickly noticed their ability. Young has impressed scouts with his speed and explosiveness. He has a knack for getting behind defenders on vertical routes, and his sudden separation with the ball in the air makes him an intriguing possibility as a No. 2 receiver. Although he let a few balls slip through his hands in individual and team drills, he looks like a potential impact player at the position. Pettis doesn't possess the speed or explosiveness of his teammate, but he is a polished route runner with good hands and ball skills. He shows a good understanding of the passing game, and does a good job of utilizing his size and quickness to get separation on possession routes. He looks like a nice fit as a potential No. 3 receiver.
» Tight end Lance Kendricks of Wisconsin didn't catch a lot of passes in team drills, but he shows outstanding athleticism as a "move" tight end. He gets in and out of his cuts quickly, and shows a little burst while working downfield on vertical routes. While he didn't get many catchable balls thrown in his direction, his ability to get open repeatedly stood out in the workout.
» Boston College tackle Anthony Castonzo looks like the real deal. He is a sound technician with good footwork and movement skills. He shadows speed off the edge, and has a fairly powerful initial punch. Speed rushers will give him problems due to his big frame, but his ability to play with power while remaining under control makes him a valued asset.
» North Carolina cornerback Kendric Burney is ideally suited to play in a Cover 2-based scheme as a pro. He lacks the speed and movement skills to cover elite receivers in man coverage, and his diminutive size makes it tough for him to battle tall receivers in jump-ball situations. He struggled in the one-on-one period, but played better in team drills.