To say that the Senior Bowl is a critical piece for NFL prospect evaluation would be an understatement. There are few settings that allow you as much access as the Senior Bowl, giving NFL teams and independent evaluators an unmatched inside look at the participants.
During the week, evaluators will see each prospect weigh in, compete during three practices, and have the opportunity to interview a prospect up to four times. Some prospects are even asked to perform in roles they hadn’t previously, such as special teams. For those evaluators who stick around for the game, it’s a chance to see each prospect’s pre-game habits and energy during live snaps.
On top of those advantages, the XOS film room that produces tape of the practices is an opportunity to go back and watch every rep of the day in order to get as detailed of a look at a prospect as you possibly can.
For these reasons, some NFL teams, such as the Indianapolis Colts, end up focusing in on the group that competes in Mobile more than other prospects. Getting to know a prospect on a deeper level both personally and on the field creates an easier projection onto a specific team’s roster.
While it’s a valuable week for player evaluation, in my opinion, the practices are an even better indicator for wide receivers and defensive backs than other positions on the field.
This article will be aimed at explaining my thought process behind that sentiment.
While wide receivers and defensive backs compete on every snap of a football game, their main job, and ultimately how they’re evaluated, comes down to the passing game. The NFL is a passing league, and they are the final step in the throwing process.
Most wide receivers are running routes on every passing play, which gives you an indication of how they’re able to separate from coverage over the course of a football game. Conversely, defensive backs have to cover the receivers on those plays, giving the evaluator an indication of their coverage ability. Despite this, separation or coverage skills mean little if either player is deficient once the ball is in the air.
Once the throw is released, numerous traits play a factor in whether a wide receiver or defensive back will make a play on the ball. Tracking of the ball in the air, athleticism and awareness to properly adjust their body, extension, and hands all have to be working in unison.
Unfortunately, even some of the best collegiate receivers might only get targeted seven or eight times per game. That means evaluators get to see just a few reps per game where the prospect is able to complete their entire process. Think about the difference in the number of full-process reps a wide receiver gets in game-action compared to a quarterback, running back, or offensive lineman.
The Senior Bowl, and in particular the one-on-one periods that take place during each practice, is an opportunity to see the same number of full-process reps for wide receivers and defensive backs in a matter of minutes as you would over the course of a three-hour game. On top of that, similar to every position competing at the Senior Bowl, there is no sifting through film to find a wide receiver or defensive back facing competition that is NFL-quality, as each and every rep pairs them up with a prospect that could be drafted.
Once the teams are done with the one-on-one period, half-field or seven-on-seven drills takes place, with each rep usually resulting in a pass to a wide receiver or tight end. This means even more full-process reps, but now being able to see more zone coverages being played by the defense.
Over the course of the week, each of these practice periods will take place three times, on top of being able to break down each rep from 3-4 different angles in the film room. All in all, you get almost a season’s worth of pass reps over the week-long event.
While every position competes in position-specific drills, there isn’t as much translation as the wide receiver vs. defensive back competitions. For the offensive and defensive linemen’s one-on-ones and half-line periods, it’s similar pass rushing reps that happen on most dropbacks. The wide receivers and defensive backs need a football in the air to complete their full-process, but pass protection can be simulated pretty well without one.
For quarterbacks, they’re able to operate unrealistically without a pass rush during most Senior Bowl drills. For running backs and linebackers, such a strong portion of their evaluation is predicated on their chops in the running game that there are roles on NFL rosters for prospects who are near incapable in the passing game. That is a reality that doesn’t really exist for wide receivers or cornerbacks.
I’d like to make it clear that the Senior Bowl practices do NOT mean each prospect’s game film or performance at the NFL Scouting Combine become irrelevant. However, the Senior Bowl is an opportunity to essentially double the amount of film and information an evaluator has on a wide receiver or defensive back prospect, an invaluable resource.
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 22, 2019
Evidence of a Senior Bowl success story came just last year with current Redskins wide receiver Terry McLaurin. During his senior season at Ohio State, McLaurin garnered just 46 targets as part of a loaded Buckeyes offense. McLaurin made the most of those targets, racking up over 700 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns.
Despite that, he was still seen as the “other” Ohio State receiver at this time last year, as Parris Campbell was the more productive player in the same offense. However, McLaurin continued to make the most of the wealth of targets he earned during Senior Bowl practices. He arguably had the best week of practice among all wide receivers in attendance last season, eventually pushing his NFL Draft stock up to become a third-round selection.
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 22, 2019
Throughout this season, McLaurin has arguably been the most impressive rookie wide receiver. His ascent started in Mobile, and that happened because his ability as a prospect came to light with an increase of full-process reps and ideal practice habits in front of evaluators.
Make sure you refer back to Cover1.net for the best coverage of the Senior Bowl practices from Tuesday, January 21st through Thursday, January 23rd.
— Brad Kelly (@CoachBKelly) January 24, 2019