Next week is Senior Bowl week, a 6 day period, where 30 of the 32 NFL teams (everyone outside the two Super Bowl teams, and they’ll be well represented) will be focused in Mobile, Alabama. The Senior Bowl is second to only the NFL Combine in terms of pre-draft events, and in many ways it is even a better evaluation tool. In terms of looking for insight on the future of the NFL, there is no better place to turn than Mobile, Alabama next week.
The Senior Bowl is a chance for every NFL team to evaluate essentially the top 100 senior prospects in college football (some guys will have to pull out due to injury). So of the 256 draft picks next April, between 80-90 of those prospects will be in Mobile next week. And the 10+ players who don’t get selected should all be priority undrafted free agents.
Not only does the Senior Bowl have prospect quantity, but it has quality as well. Between 20-25 players will hear their name called in the first two rounds, and typically 60+ will be drafted by the end of the 4th round. These are the guys who are going to make not only a major impact on the NFL, but an early impact as well.
This past year Senior Bowl Alumni, Von Miller, Ryan Kerrigan, K.J. Wright, DeMarco Murray, Titus Young, Roy Helu, are just a few of the players that made a major impact on their teams. Now I left two guys off the list purposely, and that is OLB Brooks Reed, and QB Andy Dalton.
Now it is one thing to highlight the exploits of a Von Miller or Ryan Kerrigan since they were first round picks, and there was little question about what type of impact they might have. Reed and Dalton are a bit different though. Both entered Senior Bowl week with some nice upside, but some serious questions as well. For Reed the question was would he be enough of an impact pass rusher, and hold the edge well enough to warrant a starting role. Dalton on the other hand, had questions about his arm strength and how he’d preform in a more pro style system. Reed and Dalton answered those questions in part that week, and became 2nd rounders. Both players also ended up having major a impact to their team’s playoff runs this year.
While much of the media and fan focus is on the game itself, the most important part of the evaluation process is the practices. While that is not to say a strong game can’t help a player, but in reality little stock is placed on what happens in the game.
DeMarco Murray, Roy Helu, and Kendall Hunter were three of the top rookie running backs this past season, yet in the actual Senior Bowl game they combined for -1 yards on 6 carries. Dalton was easily the worst of the six quarterbacks during the game, completing just 3-7 passes for 22 yards, while being sacked twice. Yet these players made a mark on NFL teams in large part due to their work during the week.
Dalton didn’t wow anyone with his arm, but he showed confidence and leadership. He took to the NFL coaching pretty well, which probably convinced the Bengals that he could perform at a high level early. Roy Helu was considered to be below most of the backs in Mobile, but a strong week of showing excellent burst and catching ability out of the backfield, showed Mike Shanahan that he was the type of back that could fit his zone blocking rushing attack.
Now some might question how much evaluation can there be since even in practices many of the defensive concepts are ‘vanilla’, with no blitzing, limited coverage’s and little creativity. While that is true, it is important to remember two key things. One, you are taking these players out of their comfort zones, forcing them to work with new teammates, and learning NFL plays in a very short time period. It might just be a fraction of what they will deal with the next year, but how these players react and how quickly they pick up their assignments is a pretty good litmus test of how they can perform.
Also, in practice they will work on certain situations, of down and distance, or time winding down off the clock. The second thing to remember is the positional 1-on-1 drills. So while you won’t see much of how a QB and receiver reacts to man coverage in the team drills, you will see it in the 1-on-1’s. Just as you will see how the best offensive linemen handle the best defensive linemen.
Finally, the most important thing to remember is even while watching the practices, don’t focus on the end result, but the “how”. Whether a ball carrier gets 4 yards or 40 on a play isn’t what matters, but rather why it happened. Did the runner just get excellent blocking, or multiple defenders miss their assignment? A completed pass where the receiver has to jump or dive for it, isn’t nearly as impressive for a QB (though nice for the WR), as an incomplete pass that was on target, but the receiver dropped.
Football is a game of nuance, so a lineman that gets off the snap a fraction of the second late, or a receiver that rounds off the top of his route, can turn a great play call, into a disaster. So if you want to watch the Senior Bowl practices like the NFL teams will, focus on the little things, that separate the star players from all the rest.