Since the beginning of last football season, Panthers scouts have fanned out across the country, traveling to college campuses far and wide to get up-close looks at future NFL prospects.
Next week, the NFL prospects will come to them.
The Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., serves annually as the unofficial kickoff to "draft season." It's actually a long ways from the starting line for NFL scouts, but it does kick off the crucial stretch run, when draft boards that had been set based on game-day evaluations will begin to shift based on more in-depth interactions.
Monday, the scouts will divide and conquer practices, some leaning against the chain-link fence around the Ladd-Peebles Stadium field to watch the North team while others venture out to Fairhope Stadium and stand on the sideline to watch the South team.
When each practice ends, scouts from basically every NFL team will descend on the field, getting some of the prospects for a few precious minutes before the players board buses bound for their next destination. Each night, team personnel will get still more time with the prospects during one-on-one interviews at an area hotel.
In the midst of all this, Panthers scouts will carve out some time for each other, comparing notes they've culled from their individual assignments across the country throughout the season. And this year when they get together, they'll be doing so under the direction of a new boss.
Panthers general manager Dave Gettleman plans to attend Senior Bowl week, and that's where he'll set the tenor for his inherited staff, getting the scouts up to speed on what he expects from them and how he plans to attack all aspects of the draft process.
His marching orders will shape the details of how the Panthers as an organization approach the week and how the team eventually will set its big board heading into the April draft. Those details, of course, are trade secrets, but in the big picture there's no secret about how much ground can be gained in Mobile.
Even with the proliferation of underclassmen in recent NFL drafts and the trend toward cream-of-the-crop prospects skipping all-star games, eight Senior Bowl participants were drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft. Thirty more went in the next two rounds, and all told 82 were drafted – roughly one-third of the total player draft.
Last year, three of the Panthers' seven selections - wide receiver Joe Adams, cornerback Josh Norman and punter Brad Nortman – participated in the Senior Bowl.
In addition, there's a different type of prospect roaming among the people that line the practice fields. Two years ago, the Panthers hired assistant offensive line coach Ray Brown during Senior Bowl week. Last year, they hired assistant special teams coach Richard Rodgers, who took over as special teams coach for the final seven games of the 2012 season.
On so many levels, the week that will culminate with the Senior Bowl itself on Jan. 26 is a big one for the Panthers organization. And it's a big week for Panthers fans as well, signaling that the all-important NFL Draft will be here before you know it.