MOBILE, Ala. -- The scouting combine in February is the made-for-TV main event leading up to the NFL Draft, but no pre-draft gathering will have a greater effect on adjusting player grades than this week's practices at the Senior Bowl.
In Mobile, 109 of the nation's elite senior prospects auditioned in front of hundreds of NFL scouts and personnel men. Roughly 30 more turned down the invitation due to injury or personal choice. A year ago, Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher's dominant play led to his steady ascent toward the No. 1 overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs. EJ Manuel rode an MVP performance in the game to become the only quarterback to earn a selection in the first round -- No. 16 overall to the Buffalo Bills.
The No. 1 pick this May will almost surely be an underclassman, but don't be fooled -- top prospects at the Senior Bowl have had a lot on the line this week, and my current Big Board reflects it.
The Big Board isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the projected selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 50 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.
1. Jadeveon Clowney*, DE, South Carolina (6-feet-6, 268 pounds): There's no denying Clowney failed to live up to expectations, statistically speaking. He also inflamed concerns about his maturity with two speeding tickets before the Gamecocks' bowl game. Clowney's red flags are real, but so is his talent. Imposing, explosive and more technically sound than many realize, Clowney competes only with former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers (2002) as the most gifted defensive end prospect I have ever seen.
2. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 305): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews, Jake proves the cliché -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He has played well at left tackle this season after starring at right tackle over his first three years. Matthews is a terrific player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency. He is not, however, an elite athlete and some view his future back on the right side in the NFL.
3. Greg Robinson*, OT, Auburn (6-5, 320): Redshirt offensive linemen rarely earn more than a whisper in scouting circles, but the buzz around the Tigers' star left tackle is venturing into deafening. Physical and tenacious, Robinson is a grizzly bear in the running game, mauling opponents with an exciting blend of size, strength and athleticism. Auburn's reliance on the running game gave Robinson few opportunities in pass protection, meaning he could struggle initially in this role. Robinson isn't as polished as Matthews, which is why he ranks behind the Aggies' star for me, but the redshirt sophomore has an extraordinary upside which could lead to his earning a higher selection come draft day.
4. Teddy Bridgewater*, QB, Louisville (6-3, 220): In an era in which college quarterbacks' numbers are often inflated by short passes and relatively simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. His success (71 percent completion rate with 31 touchdowns against just four interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that requires him to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and complete NFL throws. Those traits make Bridgewater an ideal fit in new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien's offense, making him the safest candidate to be the No. 1 overall pick.
5. Sammy Watkins*, WR, Clemson (6-1, 200): Scouts love players who rise to the occasion in big games, and no one played better under the bright lights of bowl mania than Watkins, whose 16 catches for 227 yards and two scores lifted Clemson to a 40-35 victory over Ohio State in the Orange Bowl. Watkins is an explosive athlete whose instant acceleration, impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball should earn him Pro Bowl consideration early in his NFL career.
6. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA (6-4, 238): Barr's emergence as an elite NFL prospects has been well documented. A running back early in his career, Barr exploded in 2012 in his first season on the defensive side of the ball and backed it up with another spectacular campaign in 2013 -- 65 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles, earning him the Lott IMPACT Trophy. His burst, length and power make him tough to handle on the edge.
7. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo (6-3, 248): With an FBS-record 16 career forced fumbles and record-tying 75 career tackles for loss, Mack's statistics jump off the page. Against the most gifted opponents he faced this season (Ohio State, Baylor, Connecticut), it was his game that jumped off the screen. His size, instincts and agility as an edge rusher make him equally intriguing to teams operating out of a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
8. Blake Bortles*, QB, Central Florida (6-3, 230): A prototypically built pocket passer with good awareness, athleticism and arm, Bortles looks the part of an NFL starting quarterback. He is methodical in his setup and delivery and is a bit inconsistent with his accuracy, but the mettle he showed in guiding UCF to several comeback victories in 2013 has scouts buzzing. Bortles isn't as polished as Bridgewater, but he may have an even higher upside. A top-10 pick is likely and it isn't out of the question that he'll rank as the best quarterback for some, potentially including Bill O'Brien, whose Penn State team lost to Bortles and UCF in 2013.
9. C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama (6-2, 232): A bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass. Mosley lacks the bulk scouts want in a pass rusher but his awareness in coverage is special. While the tape is phenomenal, Mosley has undergone multiple surgeries (knee, shoulder) over his career and could be the latest Alabama player to receive medical red flags from some evaluators.
10. Marqise Lee*, WR, Southern Cal (6-0, 195): A nagging left knee injury hampered Lee for much of the 2013 season, robbing the 2012 Biletnikoff Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State, however, Lee showed off his playmaking ability, hauling in seven passes for 118 yards and two scores. Lee's relatively slight frame could lead to durability issues in the NFL, but his first-round skill set is undeniable.
11. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State (5-11, 197): Quick feet, loose hips and a fluid turning motion make Dennard a classic cover corner capable of shutting down half the field. Dennard allowed only three completions in 31 passes of 15-plus yards targeted against him this season. His ability in coverage played a huge role in the Spartans' run to a Rose Bowl victory, and was recognized with Dennard winning the Thorpe Award as the nation's elite defensive back. The only factor keeping Dennard from a selection in the top half of the first round is a question about his straight-line speed.
12. Eric Ebron*, TE, North Carolina (6-4, 245): Ebron has a jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism that has earned comparisons to 49ers star Vernon Davis. Like Davis, however, Ebron struggles with consistency, relying too much on his athleticism rather than dedicating himself to learning the finer techniques of the position.
13. Johnny Manziel*, QB, Texas A&M (5-11, 210): Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy on the move make him a mesmerizing prospect who will almost surely be drafted higher than I rank him. While dynamic throughout his career -- including in the Aggies' thrilling comeback over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- red flags were raised with mediocre performances against LSU and Missouri to end the regular season. Bottled in the pocket by both, Manziel was unable to throw his receivers open and he struggled. The NFL rule books have never been more accommodating to dual-threat passers, but consistent accuracy from the pocket remains the most critical element to quarterback play at the next level.
14. Mike Evans*, WR, Texas A&M (6-5, 225): Like Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he has shown star ability in dominating the SEC. Deceptively fast with great body control as well as timing, Evans is an exciting split end prospect who reminds scouts of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Vincent Jackson. Of concern, however, is the fact that Evans does not have elite top-end speed and struggled when defenders matched his physicality.
15. Zach Martin, OL, Notre Dame (6-4, 308): The vast majority of Martin's school-record 52 career starts came at left tackle but his square-ish frame and 32¼-inch arms will earn him a projection inside to guard for many. Regardless of where he lines up, Martin plays with the controlled aggression I love along the offensive line, latching on and controlling opponents with excellent strength. Martin was the best player on the field during practices in Mobile.
16. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (6-7, 310): With an impressive combination of size, strength and toughness, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career with the Wolverines. Lewan was one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2013 season in Ann Arbor. Before drafting him, however, NFL teams will want to investigate Lewan's role -- if any -- in an alleged assault on an Ohio State fan following this year's Big Game.
17. Stephon Tuitt*, DL, Notre Dame (6-5, 303): Clowney isn't the only highly regarded defensive lineman who struggled under the burden of monstrous expectations in 2013. After dominating as a sophomore, Tuitt began his junior campaign out of shape (after missing spring due to hernia surgery) and struggled with consistency all season. Highly athletic with the frame to star as either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, Tuitt's upside is just too tantalizing to ignore.
18. Cyrus Kouandjio*, OT, Alabama (6-5, 312): Nick Saban questioned draft analysts for pegging Kouandjio as a first-round talent before the season, but given the junior left tackle's exciting skill set the projection fits. Long-armed, athletic and aggressive, Kouandjio has many of the traits scouts are looking for in a potential Pro Bowl offensive tackle. However, a lack of elite foot quickness was exposed by the Oklahoma Sooners' pass rush in their Sugar Bowl upset win over the Tide.
19. Jace Amaro*, TE, Texas Tech (6-5, 260): The NFL is looking for seam threats rather than extra blockers at tight end. There wasn't a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro, who finished the regular season with 106 catches for 1,352 yards -- the most ever from a tight end in FBS history. Despite Amaro's size, he doesn't provide much as a blocker as he was split out wide as a glorified slot receiver throughout most of his collegiate career. In this role he has proven to be a Jimmy Graham-like matchup nightmare for defenders.
20. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State (6-2, 215): Carr's staggering production (68.2 completion percentage, 50 TDs, 8 INTs) was certainly inflated by head coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack and Fresno's talented receiving corps, but any questions about his talent were put to rest with a stellar week in Mobile. While no one questions Carr's arm, some wonder if he has the grit to hold up as the leader of an NFL huddle.
21. Ryan Shazier*, OLB, Ohio State (6-2, 226): Shazier may be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts would prefer but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender offenses must account for on every snap. Statistics don't always tell the story, but they do with Shazier, whose 143 tackles, including an eye-popping 22½ for loss, not only led the Big Ten this season, they combine to rank among the best seasons from any Buckeyes defender over the past quarter century.
22. Kony Ealy*, DE, Missouri (6-5, 275): While teammate Michael Sam garnered more hype, scouts are increasingly intrigued by Ealy due to his impressive combination of size and athleticism. A highly versatile defender with experience inside and out for the Tigers, Ealy projects nicely to both the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments and the first-team All-SEC pick is just scratching the surface of his potential.
23. Calvin Pryor*, FS, Louisville (6-2, 208): With all of the focus on Bridgewater, Pryor was overshadowed a bit at Louisville. His stock will climb once scouts turn their attention to the instinctive and hard-hitting defender. Boasting the size, agility and physicality that every team is seeking to lead the deep patrol, Pryor is my top-rated safety of the 2014 draft class and projects as a first-round pick if he can assure scouts of his straight-line speed.
24. Timmy Jernigan*, DT, Florida State (6-2, 298): Jernigan played a critical role in the Seminoles' rise to the BCS national championship, showing a unique burst to penetrate gaps as well as the leverage and strength to hold up against the run. His upside is undeniable and could earn him a significantly higher grade for some. The fact that he has started just one year at the collegiate level and was clearly gassed against Auburn raises red flags about his readiness for the NFL, however.
25. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200): In terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill set than the Cowboys' star. Gilbert, a Thorpe Award finalist, led the Big 12 with six interceptions this season and returned just as many kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.
26. Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU (6-3, 244): Van Noy may not be the most physical linebacker in the draft, but he might just be the most efficient. As he demonstrated throughout a spectacular career in Provo and again in Mobile, he's just as slippery and savvy in attacking the line of scrimmage as he is in dropping back into coverage.
27. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 318): Just as he did at times during his career with the Golden Gophers, Hagemen flashed a dominant combination of size, strength and athleticism during Senior Bowl practices. Scouts wish he was more consistent but given his position and scheme versatility, Hageman is a first-round gamble worth taking.
28. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU (5-10, 182): Verrett lacks the size so en vogue in today's NFL, but agility and ball skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012. Through the end of the 2013 regular season he led again in pass deflections (16) while recording two pass thefts. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz.
29. Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State (5-10, 186): Beavers coach Mike Riley has made a career out of finding undersized pass-catchers to star in his offense, but Cooks is a different level of athlete from Sammie Stroughter, Markus Wheaton and the Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz). Boasting a combination of elusiveness, acceleration and toughness that is earning comparisons to Tavon Austin, the Biletnikoff Award winner shattered school and conference records and has already announced his intentions to enter the draft.
30. Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh (6-1, 288): Donald was arguably the Senior Bowl's MVP throughout the first three days of practice, routinely penetrating to make the kind of big plays behind the line of scrimmage that led to his earning CBSSports.com's Defensive Player of the Year, along with a host of other awards. Scouts wonder if he can hold up to the size and power of the NFL as a full-time defender but given his burst, 8-10 sacks a year as a three-technique pass-rush defensive tackle deserves late first round consideration for me.
31. Marcus Roberson*, CB, Florida (6-0, 195): Limited to just seven games (including only four starts) in 2013 due to a knee injury and one-game suspension for violation of team rules, Roberson surprised many with his decision to leave early for the NFL. While his knack for injuries (he also missed three games in 2011 with a neck strain) is certainly cause for concern, Roberson started 18 career games for the Gators and his fluidity, awareness and competitiveness at the catch-point are obvious. If team doctors clear him at the combine, expect Roberson's stock to steadily rise as the draft approaches.
32. Scott Crichton*, DE, Oregon State (6-3, 265): Crichton will not test as well as Clowney or Ealy, but he has been the more consistent defender over his career, racking up an eye-popping 51 tackles for loss and 22½ sacks over the past three seasons. He has an impressive initial burst, uses his hands well to defeat blocks and plays a tough, tenacious brand of football that I expect will help him outperform some of the players selected ahead of him in the NFL.
Just missed the cut
Ha Ha Clinton-Dix*, FS, Alabama
Ka'Deem Carey*, RB, Arizona
Bradley Roby*, CB, Ohio State
Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn
Troy Niklas*, TE, Notre Dame
Xavier Su'a-Filo*, G, UCLA
Allen Robinson*, WR, Penn State
Kelcy Quarles*, DT, South Carolina
David Yankey*, G, Stanford
William Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Kelvin Benjamin*, WR, Florida State
Austin Seferian-Jenkins*, TE, Washington
Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois
Morgan Moses, OT, Virginia
Jarvis Landry*, WR, LSU
Marcus Smith, OLB, Louisville
Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford
Davante Adams*, WR, Fresno State