The National Football League's championship tilt will be played next Sunday in Glendale, Ariz. While the Giants and the Patriots are the only teams still standing, this is an important week of preparation for each of the 32 clubs.
Mobile, Ala., is the epicenter of the football world for the next few days. More than 800 NFL personnel — coaches, general managers and scouts — are down South watching the nation's top seniors practice. That explains why the hallways are quiet here on the second floor at Weeb Ewbank Hall as the Jets have a large contingent in Alabama.
This morning NFL Network cameras panned to Jets head coach Eric Mangini as he watched the North team work in full pads. Before the players even stepped on the field, they were measured and weighed in front of an interested group of onlookers.
"This is definitely the first day it becomes real," said Indiana CB Tracy Porter in the Mobile Press-Register. "You're officially starting the process of becoming an NFL player. They've been doing this process for a number of years, but it's all new to us and we're just getting started with this process. There's really nothing to be nervous about, but it's just that you have to strip down and you have, what, 1,000 eyes watching you? That's the only thing you have to be nervous about."
Once the Indianapolis Combine commences next month, Porter will probably feel a little less apprehensive when his body is scrutinized once again. These next few days are a critical time for teams and prospects as they prepare for the April draft. Last year 90 eventual draft choices participated in the Senior Bowl and 12 were first-round picks. Michigan LB David Harris was among the 90 and the Jets got first-round value from their second-rounder.
A few high-profile seniors aren't participating in the Senior Bowl. Matt Ryan, the strong-armed passer from Boston College, and fellow signalcaller Brian Brohm, the Louisville quarterback who has been bothered by an ankle injury, are not in Mobile. Ryan will most likely be the first QB selected in the draft and Brohm will also likely get a first-round nod.
On the defensive side, Virginia DE Chris Long and LSU DT Glenn Dorsey are not in attendance. Long could project to be an outstanding 3-4 OLB on the next level and Dorsey is a prototypical big middle man who might dominate working in a 4-3. Barring anything unforeseen, neither defender will be on the board after the first 10 picks.
Brohm's last-minute withdrawal was good news for Tennessee QB Eric Ainge. He is a member of the South team learning under new San Francisco offensive coordinator Mike Martz.
"You are just learning as you go and it's great to be learning from Coach Martz because he's obviously brilliant," Ainge said. "He knows more than we can even begin to comprehend and we're fortunate to have such a smart man teaching us. I mean, if you want to be an accountant, you want to be trained by the best accountant out there. So learning from one of the best coordinators with a great track record is very fortunate."
For the third consecutive year, 49ers head coach Mike Nolan and his staff are coaching the South squad. The Raiders staff, headed by Lane Kiffin, is mentoring the North. Kiffin — the former Southern Cal offensive coordinator under Pete Carroll — must think he's back in LA as his unit features nine Trojans.
"He was kind of the guru at SC who sat back and was real cerebral," said T Sam Baker of Kiffin. "Now he's running the ship, he's leading the group. I didn't get to see a lot of that at SC."
The Trojans' highest-rated prospect is DT Sedrick Ellis. The 6'1", 305-pounder earned a "Baby Sapp" parallel from Mike Mayock — the NFL Network analyst rates him on the same level as Dorsey.
"It's just about coming out and playing against the other top players at different positions," Ellis said. "It's just about proving I can play against guys from other conferences."
There were a record 578 former Senior Bowl players on the 32 NFL teams' active rosters this season, so this is fertile ground.
In addition to the seniors, 53 underclassmen were granted special eligibility to the '08 draft. That list includes two All-America running backs in RB Darren McFadden (Arkansas) and Kevin Smith (Central Florida) and a pair of Kansas Jayhawks, CB Aqib Talib and T Anthony Collins.
But it's Senior Week and the pads are out today. It's time to separate the men from the boys as each NFL club eyes the future.