The Buffalo Bills' coaches worked out 53 of the top senior college football players in the country for 90 minutes Monday afternoon.
It was the first on-field work for the 2011 Under Armour Senior Bowl, and the Bills think it's going to pay dividends in late April when the NFL draft rolls around.
"We get to learn about these players intimately, which you don't get the opportunity to do unless you coach them for a week," said Bills coach Chan Gailey. "It's a great opportunity for us."
Getting sent to the Senior Bowl is one of the few perks of finishing near the bottom of the NFL. Gailey and his staff are coaching the South squad. The Cincinnati Bengals are coaching the North team.
The NFL determines which teams coach the annual all-star game. It traditionally gives the bottom teams first crack at the job. The Carolina Panthers have the first pick in the 2011 draft, and the Denver Broncos are second. But both those teams fired their head coaches after the season, and their organizations are too busy putting new coaching staffs in place to spend the week in Alabama.
The Bills have the third pick and jumped at the chance. Cincinnati picks fourth.
Buffalo can use any leg up on its competition it can get in the player evaluation department.
The Bills' coaches got to spend about three hours of preparation time with the South team before Monday. Practices run 90 minutes Monday through Thursday, and the coaches meet with the players for about an hour each day before the workout. The game is at 4 p.m. Saturday in Mobile's Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
"There's a major, major value," said Bills outside linebackers coach Bob Sanders. "The opportunity to work with the guys, get to know 'em, get to know 'em as a person, not just as a player. Seeing how they interact in meetings with teammates and coaches, installs, seeing how fast they pick things up on the field. It's all invaluable."
The third pick in the draft probably will not come from the South squad. Underclassmen make up eight of the top 10 ranked players overall by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper. The top four defensive players on Kiper's list: Auburn defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Clemson defensive end Da'Quan Bowers, Louisiana State cornerback Patrick Peterson and Alabama defensive end Marcel Dareus. The top two quarterbacks, arguably Auburn's Cam Newton and Missouri's Blaine Gabbert, both are juniors as well.
The top-rated player on the South team is Texas A&M outside linebacker Von Miller, who Kiper currently rates as the 10th-best player in the draft.
What are the odds the Bills draft one of the players they coach this week? Pretty good, if recent history is to be believed. Over the past five years, seven of the 10 NFL teams that have coached the game have picked a player on the squad their men coached. Eight of the 10 teams picked a player on one of the two squads in the game.
The Bills no doubt are pleased to be working with the South, since that team includes the players from the Southeastern Conference, the best conference in college football. The Bills did not get to pick which side they're coaching.
"That's our choice," said Senior Bowl spokesman Kevin McDermond. "They certainly lobby, but we make the call."
The Bills' staff gets some leeway in the way it views the players. The coaches decide who starts. Gailey said he will make every effort to see all the players get equal playing time in the game. But the coaches also can use a particular player in practice whatever way they want. If they want to see a defensive end drop into coverage more, they can do it. Two years ago Louisville center Eric Wood (the current Bill) was played at guard in the Senior Bowl.
"In the game we're gonna play him where he needs to play," Gailey said. "But in practice we can do whatever we want, we can put him in any drills we want."
None of the three quarterbacks on the South squad are likely first-round picks. They are Florida State's Christian Ponder, a possible second- or third-rounder; Texas Christian's Andy Dalton, perhaps a fourth-rounder; and Alabama's Greg McElroy, a late-round prospect.
Here are some of the other top players on the South team at three Buffalo areas of need: defensive end, linebacker and offensive tackle. The number in parentheses is the round in which they are projected to be picked by NFLDraftScout.com.
Defensive end: Miami's Allen Bailey (2-3), Mississippi State's Pernell McPhee (2-3), Texas' Sam Acho (3).
Outside linebacker: Mississippi State's K.J. Wright (3), Arizona's Brooks Reed (4).
Inside linebacker: Miami's Colin McCarthy (3-4), LSU's Kelvin Sheppard (3-4), N.C. State's Nate Irving (4-5).
Tackle: Mississippi State's Derek Sherrod (1), Arkansas' DeMarcus Love (2), Baylor G-T Danny Watkins (2-3), Florida's Marcus Gilbert (3-4).