This year’s Senior Bowl practices begin today, a change from the normal Monday start time. Over the next three days players will work out at Ladd Peebles Stadium in front of coaches, scouts and general managers. That will culminate in a game on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET on NFL Network.
Of course mixed in we'll have the odd but informative meat market known as official weigh-ins, anonymous scouts will be heard and the online draft cabal will overwhelm with information.
Last year's Senior Bowl was a showcase event for offensive lineman Zack Martin and pass rusher Dee Ford. Martin confirmed himself as a top 20 lock and Ford drove his draft stock into the first round. College all-star games are all about making money. That's done by looking good in the three days of practice.
Here are the keys storylines to follow throughout the week and the players who could enhance their draft status.
Best players in the game
The top players this year start up front with the offensive linemen. The first Senior Bowl player picked out of this year's group could be Pittsburgh right tackle T.J. Clemmings or LSU left tackle La'el Collins. Both players have a chance to get into the top 10 of the draft, if they're not there already. Both are powerhouse blockers who excel in the run game.
Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton could grade out as highly. Shelton could fit in the NFL as a nose tackle, but that might not be the best use of his talents. For a 332-pound player, he's nimble and showed this season he can close on the quarterback.
The South team could have a couple of first rounders on the defensive line in UCLA end Owamagbe Odighizuwa and Mississippi State's Preston Smith. The latter may be a better fit in a 3-4 but will be forced to play in a 4-3 in the game. Mississippi State liked to work Smith to inside and that is his biggest strength. Odighizuwa is a good all-around end who can play the run and get into the backfield. During practices Odighizuwa will get to show off his first step quickness.
Ohio State wide receiver Devin Smith is starting to get some first-round buzz. I'm not quite there yet, but this week could validate him. Smith is a vertical threat because of his speed and ability to go up and get the ball.
Washington defensive end Hau’oli Kikaha is a fringe first rounder who is coming off a season of 19 sacks. Will this week show his skills, though? Kikaha played a hybrid end/linebacker position for the Huskies, and that doesn’t always translate to a more traditional all-star game environment.
2015 Senior Bowl
This year's Chris Borland
At this time last year, everyone called Chris Borland a short, unathletic linebacker who wouldn't make it in the NFL. He came down to Mobile and at times looked like the best player on the field. If there was a tackle to be made in the run game, Borland was often doing it for the North squad.
This year's version is Miami's Denzel Perryman. Similarly, Perryman doesn't have very impressive size for a linebacker, but he gets after it. He's a faster version of Borland. He comes down against the run with fast, aggressive fury. Perryman is a complete player. If he weren't 5-foot-11, he would be a top 20 lock.
Potential fast risers
Even before the Senior Bowl starts, Miami (OH) cornerback Quinten Rollins is becoming a breakout player. Despite playing just one season of college football, Rollins is a favorite among the NFL Draft community (an odd lot). Dane Brugler of CBS Sports took the leap of faith and included Rollins in his most recent mock draft. Rollins is highly thought of because he is a ballhawking cornerback with good size. Want more?
Studying Miami (OH) CB Quinten Rollins...extremely fluid and smooth. Shows some twitch to drive on balls in front. Very interesting prospect— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 19, 2015
After this week Rollins’ reach may extend beyond weirdos who cover the draft all year. The first round may not be such a shock.
Another player who could vault into the first round with a good week is Auburn wide receiver Sammie Coates. This could be the start of a strong wave of positive momentum for Coates. He's expected to shred the NFL Scouting Combine next month. But at the Senior Bowl he can show how well of a route runner he is and if he has suspect hands. Those are the biggest questions about Coates and he could answer them in a big way.
Following the news about the injury to Texas A&M's Cedric Ogbuehi, there is possibly a spot in the first round for a offensive tackle. Colorado State's Ty Sambrailo could be that guy. There aren't questions about Sambrailo's footwork or other technical skills. But there are issues with his ability to power block. Show that this week, and Sambrailo could seize the opportunity.
Under the radar
This game is so packed with good players, it's easy to overlook some of them.
Don't be surprised if teams come out of the week buzzing about Southern California inside linebacker Hayes Pullard, Iowa defensive tackle Carl Davis and East Carolina wide receiver Justin Hardy.
Know the name now
The Senior Bowl isn't just for FBS players. There are a few lower level players who could make a name for themselves this week.
Norfolk State outside linebacker Lynden Trail is the most intriguing. He’s a Florida transfer with a video game body at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds. He could play end or linebacker in the NFL thanks to his length and get off.
Another outside linebacker who could make a name for himself is Harvard’s Zack Hodges. The Crimson liked to move Hodges around, but used him the most at end. Going forward he’s likely a linebacker because he needs to add strength to his game. But he’s a relentless player and shows good speed to chase the ball carrier down.
Delaware tight end Nick Boyle won’t be a high pick in the draft. But this week he can show his combination of blocking and catching skills. In the right situation, he should be a good second or third tight end on a roster.
I'd like to include Samford safety Jaquiski Tartt in this section, but frankly I haven't seen him enough yet. That's what this week is all about, really.
Will a quarterback step up?
The 2015 NFL Draft is desperately in need of good quarterbacks. Will one this week prove to be a top 64 pick?
Bryce Petty of Baylor could be that player. He seemed off at times this season while dealing with a back issue. Some also consider Petty a system player coming out of Art Briles' Baylor offense. If Petty can show good footwork and put some zip on passes, he could substantially help his draft stock.
If not, look out for Colorado State's Garrett Grayson. He's probably not going to rise into the top two rounds with a good week, but the top 100 isn't out of the question. Grayson has solid tools and can really get into a rhythm.
NFL Mock Drafts
Senior Bowl dropouts
It's expected that players will drop out of the game in the weeks leading up to it. This year is no exception. Players like Oregon cornerback Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, UCLA linebacker Eric Kendricks, TCU linebacker Paul Dawson are out because of injuries. Notable players like West Virginia wide receiver Kevin White, Wake Forest cornerback Kevin Johnson and Florida State wide receiver Rashad Greene are also out.
Speaking of Florida State, the Senior Bowl could have been a good showcase for Seminoles players, but four pulled out. Offensive lineman Cameron Erving, wide receiver Rashad Greene, guard Josue Matias and tight end Nick O'Leary will all be absent after initially accepting an invitation. The only Seminoles player will be guard Tre Jackson.