As we move closer to the next big step in the draft process -- the combine (Feb. 19-25) -- I don't think anyone should underestimate what Dee Ford did for his draft stock at the Senior Bowl.
He created plenty of buzz with his performance, and the high praise he has received is justified.
Ford flashed in every aspect of practice during the week. It was clear he was on a different level as I watched him go through agility drills with other defensive linemen -- and when the game started, he did it again (he earned game MVP honors).
He did it all week long, and the former Auburn defensive end wasn't one of those guys who needed the game to rescue him from a tough week. He wasn't a player who had a great week and then just shut it down in the game. He carried all the way through, and it was impressive.
It wasn't a surprise, though.
Ford had been building up to the moment throughout 2013, and it was clear he had the ability he showed in Mobile as he racked up 10.5 sacks during the season. He played well on the biggest stages, including against Missouri in the SEC title game, and he got after Jameis Winston in the national championship game. He's always around the ball and wasn't one of those guys that just feasted on inferior opponents and piled up stats.
What can a strong Senior Bowl performance do for a prospect on the rise? Look no further than last year, when Central Michigan's Eric Fisher went from being penciled in as someone who would go in the second half of the first round to the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. His Senior Bowl performance helped start his ascent. Of course, Ford's circumstances are different. I wouldn't project him as anything less than a second-rounder at this point, but the Senior Bowl is a big-time testing ground and Ford helped himself quite a bit over the course of the week, perhaps enough to put him in the discussion for some teams as a potential late first-rounder.
That is the big question for him: Can he convince teams in the next few months to vault him up to Round 1 on their draft boards? It will depend, in part, on how teams want to play him as clubs determine whether he's a fit for them.
He lined up as a defensive end all week at the Senior Bowl, but I think he will be best utilized as a 3-4 outside linebacker in the pros. At 6-foot-2 and 243 pounds, he's a speedy guy who can rush the passer. His athletic ability, agility and foot skills are outstanding, and when he goes to the combine, I think he's going to test off the charts. I think he's going to blow NFL teams away, and he's going to be one of those defensive linemen that will get pulled to go through additional linebacker drills. Teams will want to see how he fares in those situations, and I think he'll show them he has the skill set to excel at the position.
If a team departs the combine thinking that Ford is worth nabbing in the first round, I will not be surprised.