When bowl season arrives in college football, the goal posts get moved for NFL teams.
Unlike the regular season, when teams can scout as many games as they want, a little-known different set of rules applies for the postseason.
“You don't get the same access that you would in season,” said Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane, explaining that every NFL team is provided credentials for just five of the 40 bowl games. “Basically they divide the bowls into an ‘A’ category, ‘B’ category and ‘C’ category. You might get two As, one B, and two Cs. You'll get two of two of them, and one of the other.”
The draw is random and teams have no say in which games they get credentialed for.
“What's crazy, let's say your stadium, like in Carolina we had the Belk Bowl, or Miami, they’ve got the Orange Bowl,” Beane said. “You don't need a credential for that, but you'd get it anyway.”
Teams are permitted to buy tickets and send scouts to as many games as they want, but having a credential “allows you to go down pregame, watch them warm up, see them move around a little bit closer down on the field. It's not as easy trying to scout in the stands.”
Not every team is interested in scouting every game, though, which leads to some “trades.”
“Let's say I get the Camping World game, and I don't want to go to it, but I want to go to the Peach Bowl. If I see one of these teams that got it, I can send an email to them and say, ‘would any of you be willing to swap?' ” Beane said. “That happens a lot. … We've already given one, it was a lower-level bowl that we're not going to. A team and asked and we're like, ‘that's fine.’ "
Beane said the Bills plan to scout “three or four” of the games they’ve been credentialed, and will buy tickets to one game. With two exceptions, Beane said the Bills don’t put any added significance on performance in bowl games.
“Every team's importance is different,” he said. “You've got teams that are 6-6, 7-5, 8-4. Really and truly the only games to me that you would look at as a true playoff game, are those playoff games, where you win and go to the next game. The pressure of those two games, I would say, you could view from a pro style. ‘How did the guy play, when we're doing free agency, how did he play in the playoffs, when it meant the most?’ ”
In recent years, the topic of players skipping their bowl game to guard against an injury that may hurt their draft stock has come in vogue. Last year, the draft’s top two running backs — LSU’s Leonard Fournette and Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey — did just that. This season, Texas offensive tackle Connor Williams, Florida State safety Derwin James and West Virginia running back Justin Crawford are among those who also opted out.
“Every team's got their own view. It's not going to cripple me. I get it,” Beane said, who was with Carolina when the Panthers drafted McCaffrey eighth overall in April. “I think this is just a trending thing. It's the business side from agents. So everybody's got their own perspective.
“Now, if your team was in one of the playoff games. I would probably view that a little different. But you ask around the league, there are some teams I know that, in their mind, they dock players for” skipping out on bowl games. “To each his own. You understand that when you see what happened to Jaylon Smith,” the Notre Dame star who suffered a devastating knee injury in the Fiesta Bowl on New Year’s Day 2016, dropping from a consensus top-10 pick to the second round with the Dallas Cowboys. Smith has made it back onto the field, but is still regaining his form.
Skipping bowl games is a natural progression among the game’s elite prospects.
“Many moons ago, even before I started scouting, you look at some of the rosters of the Senior Bowl,” Beane said. “That was like, the legit deal, before all these juniors started coming out. Guys were begging for that Senior Bowl invite. They wanted to go down there and prove their worth. It was the best of the best. You talk to older scouts, that was the most fun week of scouting all year.”
Today, the Senior Bowl still gets draftable prospects, but not at the level it once did.
“I give O.J. Howard a lot of credit. He went last year,” Beane said. “If he wasn't going to be a first, he was going to be a high two. That was kind of the consensus on him. He went down there and dominated, showed ‘I am above most of these people.’ Generally, though, you don't get a lot of what I call, first-day talent at the Senior Bowl anymore.”
That’s because a lot of the elite talent isn’t eligible. Last year, there were 103 players who entered the draft who still had college eligibility. While 27 of them weren’t drafted, there were 22 underclassmen taken in the draft’s first round. Under Beane, the Bills scout every underclassman they think might have a chance at declaring for the draft.
“We try and at least get a peek at him playing football before you flip the film on and it's too late in February and there's no more games,” he said. “None of those guys are going into all-star games, because they're not seniors.”
Earlier this month, the Bills’ scouting department gathered at the team’s Orchard Park headquarters to put together an initial list of draft prospects. After the bowls and all-star games are completed, the staff will again meet back in Buffalo before the NFL Scouting Combine begins in late February.
“Now that they're done, you're not going to see them with a helmet on again, so let's talk about we've seen before we go into the underwear Olympics, the pro days, the visits and all that,” Beane said. “We’ll have marked things that we need from certain players, — 'we still need to find out about this on his character, or this guy injured his shoulder — what's the deal, is he going to have a surgery, is he not?’
“That's part of the reason we do it in December. A lot of areas get double covered through our national scouts. One scout may have already found that out. We're just basically comparing notes and then making our checklist of ‘this is what we still need to do.’ ”
Ranking the Pro Bowl snubs
The vast number of injury replacements every year has watered down what it means to be a Pro Bowler, but the three Bills named to the game this week — LeSean McCoy, Richie Incognito and Micah Hyde — are all deserving. Who else could make a case that they should have had a spot? Here's my list:
5. K Stephen Hauschka — The veteran kicker set an NFL record for consecutive field goals from 50-plus yards earlier this season when he made his 13th straight. Hauschka is 23 of 26 on field goals overall, and hasn't missed an extra point. Because the Bills' offense has struggled, though, Hauschka ranks just 17th overall in scoring because he hasn't had as many attempts at those kickers ahead of him.
4. DT Kyle Williams — This would be on reputation more than merit. Williams has 34 tackles, two sacks and two passes defensed this season. Those numbers are slightly below his career averages, but Williams' impact is bigger than what appears in the box score. He's the Bills' unquestioned leader and an inspiration in the playoff push. That doesn't factor into Pro Bowl consideration, though.
3. C Eric Wood — The veteran center has successfully come back after a broken leg that ended his 2016 season early. Wood, who signed a contract extension before the season started, ranks 16th among all centers according to analytics website Pro Football Focus. Like Williams, Wood is one of the Bills' most dependable leaders.
2. S Jordan Poyer — He's the only player with 85-plus tackles, at least three interceptions and at least two sacks. With Hyde getting in for the Bills, though, getting two safeties from the same team is unlikely.
1. CB Tre'Davious White — A leading candidate for the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year award, White is tied for fourth in the league with four interceptions and is third in passes defensed with 18. The analytics website Pro Football Focus ranks White as the No. 3 cornerback in the entire league.
Practice squad switch
The roster churn never stops in the NFL. The Bills showed that Saturday when they released defensive end Marquavius Lewis from the practice squad and signed defensive tackle Rickey Hatley.
Doing so now allows the Bills to get a brief look at Hatley before the end of the season, and gives them the chance to sign him as a reserve/future free agent if they like what they see. A 6-foot-4, 285-pounder, Hatley played collegiately at Missouri. He spent time earlier this season on the Kansas City Chiefs' practice squad.