MOBILE, Ala. – Through the years, the Senior Bowl has lost plenty of juice as a college football all-star game showcasing premier talent for the NFL.
That’s because its players are - as the name indicates – seniors, and NFL teams have long made it clear they prefer using premier draft picks on underclassmen.
Each year, a number of players with collegiate eligibility remaining enter the draft because of the likelihood – influenced by consultation with the league – that they’ll be selected in the early rounds. As a result, many of the ones who stay in school do so hoping their stock will increase, but knowing they’ll more than likely fall into the mid- to late-round category.
The consensus among league talent-evaluators watching the North and South team practices this week is that Saturday’s Senior Bowl is heavy with players who fall into that group. Put it this way: two of the more impressive players during workouts have been North offensive tackle Ali Marpett from Division III Hobart College and outside linebacker Zack Hodges from Harvard. It also didn’t help that the nation’s two most prominent seniors, Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota and UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, declined invitations to play in the game. Mariota, who had college eligibility left when he announced he would enter the draft, was eligible to play in the game because he has graduated.
Still, the Senior Bowl remains an important piece of the draft-preparation puzzle. Scouts and coaches flock here every year to keep a particularly close eye on how players respond to the instruction they’re receiving for the first time from NFL coaches (the Tennessee Titans’ staff is leading the North squad, the Jacksonville Jaguars’ coaches are guiding the South).
New Buffalo Bills coach Rex Ryan, in particular, is a huge fan of the Senior Bowl and established himself among his peers as one of the most consistent attendees during the previous six seasons he spent at the helm of the New York Jets.
“Obviously, it’s your first opportunity to really see these guys up-close,” Ryan said. “But the thing that I enjoy most is watching them compete against the best of the best in college. You see the competition in the shorts, those kind of Olympics, if you will,” at next month’s NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis. “But this is true football. For football junkies like me, it doesn’t get much better than this.
“We can get a track and field guy to get somebody to run fast. But getting the opportunity to come out, compete against the best of the best in the country, I think it’s a great opportunity.”
Ryan is to the point where he has specific traits he looks for in Senior Bowl participants at certain positions.
For instance, quarterbacks generally face the greatest challenge to succeed because they have a short time to learn an unfamiliar offensive scheme and develop timing with receivers.
“So I recognize that, but I also remember seeing Philip Rivers here and the passion he had in the huddle and everything else,” Ryan said. “I think that’s important. It’s not going to be perfect by any stretch of the imagination because you’re force-feeding these guys a brand new offense, but still I love seeing the guys that get there and have the guts to say, ‘Hey, you know what? I’m going to do it anyway.’ And those are the guys you want leading.
“You saw Russell Wilson do it. You see different guys that have come down the road. And the great ones find a way, and that’s fun to watch. It does put up a little flag on why somebody wouldn’t take that opportunity. There’s nothing to be fearful of. Let’s go out here and compete. I think this is more important than what you run at the Combine.”
Another benefit of the Senior Bowl is the ability to track a player’s progress through practices. Ryan’s defensive background naturally draws him to players on that side of the ball, especially those who are converting from outside linebacker to end or vice versa.
“There’s times when you’ll see a guy, maybe he was a 3-4 outside ’backer and now he’s putting his hand in the dirt or vice versa, whatever it is,” Ryan said. “But you’ll see where they start the week and how they finish the week. I remember when Brian Urlacher went from safety to linebacker. He was a little fish out of water, but one thing you saw, he was still in synch and he could flat run and hit.
“You want guys with that right kind of mentality and who just love to play. They’d be happy as heck if the practices went longer and longer. Those are the guys that always tend to jump out at me.”