The 69th Annual Reese's Senior Bowl took place this past Saturday, January 27. The game and week of practices leading up to it are held in Mobile, Ala. at Ladd-Peebles Stadium and feature the best college football seniors and graduated juniors in the country.
The Senior Bowl is widely considered the best all-star game for evaluating the country's wide pool of college talent. The athletes invited come mostly from the Power Five conferences and other Division I schools, but luckily for players like Buccaneers' center Ali Marpet, who played in the 2015 Senior Bowl, small-school players are getting their day in the sun more and more in recent years. I caught up with Director of College Scouting Mike Biehl this week to talk about this year's Senior Bowl and the experience the Bucs' scouting and coaching staff had while in Alabama.
"Traditionally, the Senior Bowl is the best of the best," Biehl said. "The East-West Shrine Game used to kind of be on par with it – I think it was even back before I got into scouting, but the Senior Bowl has kind of become the premier, top game."
The Senior Bowl provides a unique opportunity for players from all different schools, including the smaller, lesser known schools, to showcase their talent and gain exposure with the league's top personnel executives.
"Our scouts know those smaller school guys, especially the area guys, but like our national guys, myself, [General Manager] Jason [Licht], [Director of Player Personnel] John [Spytek], we really don't know those guys at that point," Biehl said. "We might have watched a few of them, but it's kind of a good opportunity to see them and talk to them a little bit and get to know them. Of course, as we get to draft time we'll know those guys just the same as we do the other guys."
The reality of it is, the Senior Bowl is just a culmination of months and even years of evaluation done by the Buccaneers' scouting staff all over the country.
"The scouts are so vital to gathering the information and getting to know these kids," Biehl said. "It's not just one year. These guys are in the area so they develop backgrounds and a portfolio on all these guys over the course of time. So, it's definitely a lot more to the process than people really think.
"Our scouts spend the whole fall on the road looking at these guys so when they go [to the Senior Bowl] they already have a pretty good idea of how these guys are as players," Biehl continued. "But from a scouting standpoint and a personnel standpoint we get a lot more out of – it's really our first time to get our hands on the kids and spend a little time and talk to them. You don't have a ton of time so it's just a brief snippet, but as far as the evaluations, we already kind of know what they are. But it's good to see them come down – to me, that's the big difference from the [NFL Combine] and [other] all-star games- they're actually on the field and they're doing football stuff as opposed to the combine where they're just doing drills [and] they're in shorts. Here, they put the pads on and go against each other and you can see usually good-on-good, because like I said, it's the best players in the one-on-one situations. They do nine-on-seven, seven-on-seven, just like watching a practice out here with us. So, you get to see some of that competitive stuff and guys are trying to prove themselves. It's usually a pretty good week for practice."
So, what does a typical day at the Senior Bowl consist of for the scouting staff in attendance?
"They moved the practices back, both the practices are in the afternoon now so the mornings are free," Biehl said. "A lot of times our scouts will try to set up interviews with the players then. And of course, Jason, John and I will try to do some of that, too. Mornings are mostly interviews."
Biehl went on to explain one of the more mundane, albeit unorthodox, events of the week as well: the weigh-in.
"The first morning they have the weigh-in, which is just height, weight, length of arm, all that kind of stuff and the athletes walk across the stage in their tights and underwear and we all just sit there and watch," he said, as he chuckled and shook his head a little incredulously. "It's really an unbelievable thing. If you came from outer space or from another country and you walked into that room, you'd be like, 'what the heck are they doing in here?'
"Anyway, after that morning, the other mornings during the week are spent trying to interview the players and get to know them. Practice is in the afternoon and then at night time we do the same thing. After they're done with their meetings and stuff there's time for them to come out and spend some time with us, too. Like I said, it's not a large window of time that you can spend with them, but it's just an initial snippet to get to know them a little bit. And there's 32 teams trying to do the same thing, so timewise and trying to get to everybody is a challenge. That's why we use our whole scouting staff and try to cover everybody."
Scouts can spend countless hours watching film on a player, talking to his coaches, his teachers, his family, his friends, but the Senior Bowl provides access to the intangibles when evaluating if a player is the right fit for a particular organization.
"You can't replace human instinct and gut-feelings and just old-fashioned evaluation," Biehl said.
He also cited his opportunity to see a lot more of the lesser known and small school guys as what set this year apart from years past: "Being able to see some of these smaller school guys that I didn't have the chance to see in the fall - having exposure to them. I'd done a little bit of tape on them - I've done a tape on a lot of them, actually, but being able to see them live is different. There are only so many days in the fall that I can see guys so that was probably the most different thing about this year than most. They've tweaked it every year […] There are always things they do every year that makes it bigger and better. Whether it's how they do the weigh-in or the interview process, it's more streamlined and stuff. To me, the biggest factor was being able to see some of those - a lot of those small school guys."
Biehl was sure to clarify that while the Senior Bowl has its advantages, most of the weight is placed on what the scouts have already picked up on leading up to the week when evaluating each individual athlete.
"The film work we do definitely takes precedent to what we see on the field because again, it's three practices; they're in a completely different environment. Some of them, it's a chance to prove themselves, so maybe they didn't play as hard in college but they come to these three days and they look like a first-round pick. Whereas, we have three years, four years of tape to see kind of what they really are. So, it's a part of it, it's just you don't really make decisions off of an all-star game, if that makes sense. It's kind of another piece of the puzzle."
Events like the Senior Bowl aren't only just opportunities to showcase collegiate talent, but also a chance for the otherwise underexposed scouting staff to shine.
"Honestly, to me, that's the most fun thing to talk to you about. It's to talk to you about the scouts, because it's such an underappreciated part of this organization, every organization, really. I mean, because they are out of sight, out of mind, people don't really realize how much they do to impact what we do every Sunday."
The Senior Bowl kicks off a spring period for scouting and personnel staffs, with a lot of evaluation and decisions ahead. All this year's work will pay off come April 26-28, during the 2018 NFL Draft, where the Bucs will make their first pick at No. 7.