The Senior Bowl is probably best described as an extended job interview. All-Star players from all over the country of senior or graduated status are invited to participate in what ends up being almost a football season condensed into one week. First, you meet your teammates. Guys you were playing against just a short month ago are now all of a sudden lining up next to you. Then, you meet your coaches. This year, Jon Gruden and his Oakland Raider staff are orchestrating the North team while Kyle Shanahan and his San Francisco 49ers staff are in charge of the South.
Next, you meet the media. After official weigh-ins, where your measurables are compiled in front of a throng of NFL coaches, scouts, GMs and of course, media, you're then led into a ballroom of the Mobile Convention Center to mill about with reporters. It's also a chance to hear from the two head coaches and what they are looking to get out of the week. The teams who coach in the Senior Bowl are chosen from the teams that did not make the NFL postseason. In turn, it actually gives them a little bit of an advantage when it comes to getting to know these all-star players. They're working with them all week and get to know them as people versus the limited time other teams will get with them in formal interviews.
It was 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan that said it really is the 'person' that will separate you from the rest of the pack at this level. When you're talking top-end prospects, they all have talent, they are all successful, but who they are as people can really help to differentiate them from others at their position. Being their coach, Shanahan gets a first look, along with Coach Jon Gruden.
"This is the fourth time that I've coached it and it is an advantage I think because the pool of players every year is what it is," Gruden said. "Sometimes it's a deeper pool, sometimes it's not quite as deep. But you're going to get to learn 100 players and get some hands-on information that you couldn't get if you weren't coaching the game. We drafted players from this game before, I'm sure we'll do that again."
The Bucs have also drafted players from the Senior Bowl. Just last year, in fact, cornerback M.J. Stewart, offensive lineman Alex Cappa and wide receiver Justin Watson were all drafted by the Buccaneers after participating in the Senior Bowl. Guys like Cappa and Watson, particularly, benefit from the exposure. Both were from smaller schools, Cappa out of Division II Humboldt State and Watson out of the Ivy League's Penn. Players who come from non-Power Five conferences are already playing catch up because of the talent level they are used to going against. They are also more off-the-radar for the mainstream media. The Senior Bowl is a chance to step into the spotlight and get some face time with NFL coaches and executives.
It's also, of course, a symbiotic relationship, because the coaches on the field with them get that valuable face time with potential future draftees.
"It's just been great to spend time with players on both teams," Gruden continued. "You might eliminate four, five players from your thought process. Sometimes that's just as valuable as moving four, five guys up on your board. But you get a chance to see them behind the scenes, who really loves it, who really learns it and can really execute a lot of football that you're putting in in a short period of time. It'll be very beneficial to us."
With that, the first practices were underway as coaches and players set out to put together a plan for Saturday's game. The South took the field at Ladd-Peebles stadium first in the cooler temps and drizzling rain. The North came a half hour after the hour-and-a-half South practice ended.
As Gruden alluded to, there's a lot of value in seeing how guys are on the field while their new coaches are working with them. There's even more value in seeing how they match up with their peers from other programs. Practice tape is especially helpful for teams around the league. You can identify matchups in games all you want, but the reps aren't necessarily there. The consistency with which you get to see players go up against one another from different schools and different levels is something totally unique to a game like the Senior Bowl.
"I think across the league people will tell you that they look at the Senior Bowl practice tape, the Senior Bowl game film, over and over and over," Gruden said. "They watch the matchups. You watch this left guard against that right defensive tackle over and over and over. I remember sitting there with Al Davis, we did that. He put the Senior Bowl on for the 44th time and I would say, 'How many more times are we going to watch that game?' But it's a tremendous value, a great tool because you see one-on-one matchups you'd never see if you didn't come watch this."
Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy said he understands what kind of value this game brings to NFL staffs and takes his responsibility in that very seriously. He works year round to evaluate talent and takes great consideration before extending invites to players.
Stay tuned this week for standouts from each team and who Bucs fans might want to keep an eye on this year.