Last year's Senior Bowl MVP, Penn State DE Michael Haynes, was drafted 14th overall by the Chicago Bears
The Senior Bowl, as Ruston Webster asserted on Wednesday, is the most valuable college all-star game because it draws the largest number of potential high-round draftees.
It does not, however, draw all of them.
There are, of course, the underclassmen who have declared for the NFL Draft and figure to be featured prominently in the early picks. But there are also a good number of seniors who feel good enough about their draft prospects to skip the trip to Mobile, Alabama.
"There are always those guys who feel like they have more to lose than the game by coming, and they don't show up," said Webster, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' director of college scouting and a veteran of many Senior Bowls. "But there are a lot of guys who have something to gain, and if not gain at least solidify their place in the draft."
Last year, Penn State defensive end Michael Haynes had an outstanding day in the North's 17-0 victory, was named the Senior Bowl MVP and was eventually the 14th player drafted overall, by the Chicago Bears. There is no telling if Haynes' performance affected his draft slot, but it certainly couldn't have hurt.
That's what the Senior Bowl can do for established stars and relative unknowns alike.
"I think players can help themselves, yes, and I think they help themselves more than they hurt themselves," said Webster. "Throughout every Senior Bowl week there are guys, probably four or five, who really help themselves and take away some doubts, answer some of the questions and remove some of the doubts that maybe people had about them. As far as the players are concerned, that is the reason for them to come to these games."
Haynes' North crew pitched last year's shutout against a South squad that was led, in part, by USC quarterback Carson Palmer. The South offense moved into North territory three times under Palmer but couldn't get the ball into the end zone. That made for a frustrating afternoon for the South, but it didn't hurt Palmer's standing; he was still the first player chosen overall three months later. The year before, eventual top pick David Carr, the Fresno State quarterback, was also a Senior Bowl participant.
That streak may be broken this year if the top pick is spent on Mississippi's Eli Manning, as many draft pundits believe it will be, or even if he is overtaken by the rising Ben Roethlisberger of Miami (Ohio). Neither Manning nor Roethlisberger are competing in this year's Senior Bowl. However, the six passers who are in Mobile this week – Tulane's J.P. Losman, North Carolina State's Philip Rivers, Virginia's Matt Schaub, Bowling Green's Josh Harris, Michigan's John Navarre and Washington's Cody Pickett – are likely to figure prominently in how the draft shakes out at that position. Last year, the Buccaneers took a Senior Bowl passer, Texas' Chris Simms, in the third round.
If the purpose of the Senior Bowl for the players is to improve or strengthen their draft standing, then the purpose for the attending NFL teams is to make a big dent in their draft preparations. In addition to the practices, which pit top players against each other in one-on-one situations, the week offers plenty of time for the interviews that help teams form opinions about character and work ethic.
The Buccaneers have made significant changes in their player personnel department since the end of the 2003 season, but they still put great emphasis on these player interviews. That makes the Senior Bowl somewhat of an all-day, all-night affair for Tampa Bay's scouts and coaches.
"I meet with the scouts every night, and then we'll interview players at night," said Webster. "We try to get as many guys as we can, talk to them here. Obviously, we'll get to do that again at the combine, but you'd like to narrow down the list and meet some of these guys. That's something that, especially with the big-college guys, we really don't get to do during the season. You hear a lot about them, but it's nice to meet them and see how they come across. (The other) night, we went from 6:00 to 10:30 doing interviews, so we've been busting it pretty good."
Webster and the other Buccaneer representatives have a feel for the type of men they'd like to see in Tampa Bay uniforms, and they use the interviews to see who fits into that mold.
"We want guys that are going to come in here and be serious about football," he said. "Guys that are going to play smart, be tough and put in the time and effort that it takes to win, like the guys on our team now have done. Guys that football is important to them and they are going to do what it takes to be the best player they can be.
"We should be able to hit on the talent. But, we also want to make the right decisions on the guy's intangibles. When I say intangibles, I mean football intangibles. How's he going to work? What kind of member of the team is he going to be? How's he going to learn? All those things."