MOBILE, Ala. – It was 37 degrees at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Tuesday for the first day of Senior Bowl practices. Two-thirds of the players who will get drafted in the first round of April’s NFL draft were not on the field because they’re underclassmen. The best receiver in town wasn’t practicing due to injury. And the South squad had just lumbered through a disjointed, pre-snap-penalty-filled 90-minute workout.
Yet Buffalo Bills General Manager Brandon Beane had no trouble laying out the many benefits his scouts get from the annual all-star event while holding court with reporters between the North and South practice sessions.
A reminder to fans: Let’s not get too carried away with the first-round decision.
“There’s good players out here, there really are, all up and down,” Beane said at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. “Sometimes guys don’t get drafted high because they weren’t used a certain way in college or maybe they were injured or they transferred. Things just didn’t mesh. But we see it every year, guys that don’t get drafted or guys that are drafted late, they come in and you say how did this guy fall? So it’s our job make sure we comb through every player here and make sure we know them the best we can. It’s part of the process.”
“But we’ll go back and watch these practices even in April before the draft. If we’re trying to say this tackle vs. this tackle,” Beane said. “They played in two different conferences, they never faced the same competition. How did they fare against the same guy here for a week or so?”
There are 119 players in Mobile for Saturday’s game. The Bills drafted five players in 2018 who played in the game: Josh Allen, Harrison Phillips, Taron Johnson, Siran Neal and Wyatt Teller. In 2019, the Bills took underclassmen with their first five picks – Ed Oliver, Cody Ford, Dawson Knox, Devin Singletary and Vosean Joseph. Two Bills picks, Jaquan Johnson and Tommy Sweeney, played in the Senior Bowl.
“This puts a bow on some of the seniors for now, where we can really focus our efforts on all these underclassmen who are coming out,” Beane said. “But we’ll circle back to these guys. We want to hit that fourth-round pick just as much as we want to hit the first-round pick. There’s value throughout the draft and you see it. We’ve got guys playing who were undrafted.”
A big benefit to the Senior Bowl is coaches and scouts can conduct as many one-on-one interviews with players as possible. At the NFL scouting combine in February, each team is limited to 60 15-minute interviews. So every senior they interview in Mobile is one less player they need to meet at the combine in Indianapolis.
“Definitely, this allows us a chance to talk to guys, seniors for the most part, which allows us to focus more on the underclassmen (at the combine)," Beane said. “There still will be some seniors there that aren’t here. But it definitely allows us to check some boxes and knock guys off.”
"The combine is more limited because their time is so slotted,” Beane said. “It’s very regimented. Here its more loose and you’ve got more time. ... If you want 12 with this guy and 25 with another guy, you can do it.”
What to do with nine picks? The Bills have two fifth-round picks and three sixth-round picks this year, for a total of nine. They have no seventh-rounder. It was dealt to acquire receiver Corey Coleman. The trade that sent Teller to Cleveland gave the Bills a fifth and a sixth. The other sixth came in the trade that sent Russell Bodine to New England.
Can nine rookies make the roster of a Bills team that went 10-6? Not likely.
“It’s a good question,” Beane said. “I remember in Carolina, as our roster got better towards some of those better years we had, it was: Are we gonna spend this sixth-round pick on a guy who’s really going to make our roster? You do weigh that. Part of that will be as we get through this process in March and April, how deep is the draft? How deep is it truly? Some of it will come down to medical as well. There will be some guys we have good grades on that we would like to take, and our medical guys will have major concerns on them. You do want to see how deep the draft is before you decide how far you can go, before you’re drafting guys and saying this guy’s probably going to be a practice squad guy at best.”
“You don’t want to draft a guy who you know, looking at your depth chart, that there’s no way barring injury that this guy is making it,” Beane said. “To your point, maybe we use a later asset for a future pick or to trade up in this year’s draft.”
A sluggish start. Maybe the unseasonable chill had something to do with it, but the South team’s 90-minute practice was choppy. There were a lot of pre-snap penalties, and a lot of balls hitting the ground. The North’s session looked a little crisper.
“It gets better every day,” Beane said. “It’s like when we start in May and June. It gets better, the timing. And these guys, it’s their first day. The coaches have taught them all new stuff, all new concepts, and they’re working with new players. ... Again, you see how guys deal with adversity, which is important.”
Key injuries. The top receiver on the rosters is Arizona State’s Brandon Aiyuk, who could be picked in the latter half of the first round or in the second round. He could be a target of the receiver-needy Bills at No. 22. Aiyuk is in Mobile and is meeting with teams but he is not practicing due to injury.
Other noteworthy players who were scratched from practice due to injuries announced on Tuesday were: Auburn tackle Prince Tega Wanogho, Utah defensive tackle Leki Fotu and California safety Ashtyn Davis. All three could be second-day picks in the draft.
Testing the market. Free agency starts on March 18. It’s likely that the Bills’ two most in-demand players set to become free agents, defensive tackle Jordan Phillips and defensive end Shaq Lawson, will want to see what offers are on the open market before making a decision. Beane didn’t speak specifically to Phillips or Lawson but acknowledged the obvious.
“Some of these guys, we’ve had preliminary discussions with their agents,” the GM said of impending free agents. “Like we said at the end of season press conference, some of these guys, I know they’re going to want to see what their market is. They’ve earned the right to go to free agency. If we come up with something that they feel, doing their research, is of their market value or greater, then I’m sure they’d sign beforehand. It doesn’t mean that if it goes to March and we haven’t got them signed that we won’t get it done. Sometimes guys truly have to get a feel for what their market is before they want to make a decision, if they’re going to stay.”
“We have to set a value, just like we do with the UFAs we’ll sign from other teams,” Beane said. “We have to put a value, and if they go outside of that value that we put on them, then we have to be willing to let them walk and understand now we’ve got to find a replacement for them.”