MOBILE, Ala. - The Panthers' season ended about three weeks ago, and the college football season ended even more recently than that.
But for Panthers director of college scouting Don Gregory, another season kicked off almost immediately.
"This is the second season," Gregory said Tuesday, as he and his staff took in a pair of practices leading up to the Senior Bowl on Saturday. "In the fall, you're going out every day, going to schools, watching games and breaking tape down. Now you get to fine-tune what you saw in the fall, get close-ups of these guys and go thoroughly through it the second time around."
Gregory called the Senior Bowl "a great week," the first real chance NFL staffs get to evaluate college seniors without NCAA rules that restrict access to the athletes.
Off the field, scouts get truly accurate height and weight measurements of senior prospects for the first time, and they also size them up during one-on-one interviews conducted each evening at an area hotel.
On the field, they get to see how many of the top prospects for the upcoming NFL Draft match up against each other between the white lines - on the practice field for five days, then on the field of play come Saturday.
"These are top-tier players from all over the country," Gregory said. "This gives us an opportunity to see their skill set against other all-stars.
"There's one more all-star game after this, and then we'll do pre-combine stuff and then the combine (in a month). It's kind of rock and roll from there, getting ready for the draft."
This isn't the first time nor the last time that Gregory and his staff will evaluate senior prospects, but it is a critical time. Even if the Panthers weren't in the process of hiring a new coaching staff, the Senior Bowl still would be the first chance for coaches to view the prospects, given that most of the prior research on the draft class took place in the heart of the NFL season.
The Senior Bowl helps coaches, scouts and Panthers general manager Marty Hurney get on the same page when it comes to how they value the available talent, moving the front office closer to formulating its all-important draft board.
"Don Gregory and all of our college scouts do a great job of aligning the board," Hurney said Tuesday before ascending to his traditional practice lookout high up in the Ladd-Peebles Stadium stands. "This is always fun, coming down here and seeing the seniors.
"It's going to be a busy couple of months, but it's something that gets your energy going because it does lead to improving the team and looking forward to next season."
The Panthers have the top pick in the April draft, but with underclassmen expected to dominate the early stages of the draft, it's unlikely that their future top pick is in Mobile this week.
Their subsequent picks, however, may well be, so nothing has changed about the importance of the week.
"People have asked if having the top pick changes things. It really doesn't," Hurney said. "You still prepare for the draft the same way. The only difference with having the first pick is that you don't have to guess who is going to be there.
"And as much attention as the top pick gets, the top picks in the rounds three, four, five and six are going to be very valuable picks to us. You get excited about those."