MOBILE, Ala. – They came, they saw and they asked questions. The eyes of the NFL, from coaches to scouts to those with fancy titles in between, were on 100 or so football players of various builds, various backgrounds and various skill sets.
It was another Senior Bowl, the first with former Browns general manager Phil Savage in charge and the latest (and probably fanciest) edition of what’s undoubtedly the best of the postseason all-star games. The game is played Saturday, but the real work is done during the week with the players being evaluated by day in NFL-structured practices and by night in interviews with potential employers.
This Senior Bowl, like this April’s draft, lacked big-name sizzle but has plenty of depth. The practices and interviews serve as the most important job interview any of the participants have encountered, and in many cases it’s simply the biggest week of these young players’ lives. It’s a quasi-convention for coaches, agents and other NFL types, too, as everybody is looking for information and any possible edge as 30 teams are already working on 2013.
Below is my list of 35 things seen, heard, pondered, argued or accomplished in and around the Senior Bowl practices this week. Opinions are my own. Sarcasm, as always, comes at no extra charge.
1. Not every head coach was here. But every team that has a top personnel exec had him here with the exception of the Browns. Now, that’s not a huge deal as the film of every practice will be available, and the Browns’ full college scouting staff was here doing its usual work and research. But none of the guys who will sit at the head of the draft-day table — Joe Banner, Michael Lombardi, Rob Chudzinski — have had much (if any) exposure to this crop of college players turning pro, and the countdown to the 2013 NFL Draft isn’t going to slow down.
2. Stopping down to the Senior Bowl, if only for one day, might have been good for a quick but lasting impression in regard to a player or players and/or good for PR (national media now flocks to what was once an off-the-radar event). But, what do I know?
3. Different strokes for different folks. The Bengals use their coaching staff to drive draft decisions more than most teams, so being here, doing interviews and making impressions was more important for the Bengals coaches than it is for most. The Browns are still hiring a coaching staff, might still be trying to add to their personnel department and still have to get the new honcho(s) introduced to their scouts and the prospects in this draft. There’s time, but this is what happens when change is the one constant.
4. The Browns scouts come to town for full-throttle meetings the week after the Super Bowl. Presumably, the coaching staff will be in place by then. Name tags might be necessary, but that week will be used to officially get the new thing rolling. There’s plenty of time to make up for whatever time has been lost, though a potential change to a 3-4 defense could be a little tricky since those in place spent the fall scouting for the 4-3.
5. The Browns pick at No. 6 in the first round, then don’t pick at No. 40 in the second round because they used that pick last summer on Josh Gordon in the supplemental draft. The Browns’ pick at No. 6 was probably not here at the Senior Bowl this week. There’s something resembling a good chance that pick will ultimately be a pass-rusher, and BYU’s Ziggy Ansah is a top talent. Is he that good? Where will the Browns go with that pick? Probably not to him, but again it’s too early to tell.
6. The Bengals’ picks at Nos. 21 and 37 might be here. It was disappointing to see Texas safety Kenny Vacaaro as a late Senior Bowl scratch and Kansas State linebacker Arthur Brown be unable to go due to injury, as those are names the Bengals will likely be watching through this process.
7. Yes, the Bengals pick at No. 37, early in Friday night’s second round. The Carson Palmer trade is the gift that keeps on giving.
8. If the Bengals value a running back with one of their first two picks, he wasn’t here. If they want Florida’s Mike Gilislee a round or so later, they won’t be the only ones. It makes sense that the Bengals would value a true speed back, and they’ll be watching the underclassmen closely at the combine next month.
9. There were just three near-certain first-rounders in this year’s Senior Bowl: Ansah, Georgia nose tackle John Jenkins and Central Michigan offensive tackle Eric Fisher. There may be two or three more, and Oklahoma offensive tackle Lane Johnson is probably in the discussion, but until teams get to know the underclassmen who have entered the draft and teams with new coaches and bosses prioritize their needs, it’s tough to say for sure.
10. There were a lot of good cornerbacks here, most of them on the smallish-side and carrying second round-type grades into the next phase of the draft process. Of the ones in the Senior Bowl, Washington’s Desmond Trufant and Leon McFadden of San Diego State probably will hear their names called first in the draft.
11. Every NFL team needs cornerbacks. A lot of them need safeties, too, but this passing league thing is more than just a trend and every team is looking for help at corner. All four AFC North teams figure on some level to be looking for help in both spots.
12. Mamas, it’s time to stop raising your babies to be running backs who take too many hits and start raising them to be defensive backs who can cover in the slot. There’s good money involved.
13. Speaking of, whether it’s here or elsewhere, scouts tend to cringe when they hear a player yell on the practice field, “Get that money!” It seems they believe the ones who are actually going to get said money generally don’t have to scream about it.
14. Kent State guard Brian Winters was so good here, according to a couple people who know what an NFL guard looks like and is supposed to do, that he might be gone before the Browns pick early in the third round.
15. Baylor wide receiver Terrance Williams looks the part. He looks like a guy who could come off the board in the top 50, depending on how he runs. He’s certainly no Josh Gordon, though, and it’s been a while since you could say that about a guy the Browns had.
16. When it comes to Manti Te’o, EVERYBODY here has been talking about his situation. Nobody seems to have any straight answers, including how it might affect his NFL standing. His 32 private interviews with teams at the NFL Scouting Combine next month are surely going to be interesting.
17. In the history of gross understatements, saying Te’o will have interesting interviews with GMs is certainly one of them.
18. If Te’o needs any advice on how to pass the time in the green room, the good news is he already knows Brady Quinn. There was a time in early November when it looked like the Bengals might have a chance to draft Te’o in the top 10. Now, they might have a chance to get him at 37.
19. Again, I’m guessing. Nobody knows. But the last linebacker the Bengals got when he surprisingly dropped out of the first round in 2009, Rey Maualuga, is eligible for free agency in March.
20. Speaking of the 2009 draft, I told North team fullback Kyle Juszczyk — a Harvard kid from the Medina, Ohio area who grew up rooting for the Browns — that it’s a shame he missed that Eric Mangini draft. A Harvard kid who can play multiple positions and isn’t afraid of special teams? TURN IN THE CARD.
21. I really did tell Juszczyk that. I couldn’t help myself.
22. Juszczyk, by the way, looked like an NFL player here this week. There’s a chance he “got that money,” though he’s still waiting on a combine invite.
23. I asked around about the quarterbacks — both the six in the Senior Bowl and the ones in this draft who aren’t here — and got a variety of answers. Nobody seems to know. More importantly and more accurately, no one seems convinced about any of them. West Virginia’s Geno Smith declined an invitation, and USC’s Matt Barkley reportedly wasn’t healthy enough to come to Mobile.
24. In some mock drafts, Smith is a top-five pick. In others, he’s a top-five pick in the second round. Barkley will be very much back on the radar by the time the combine rolls around, but this week more people were talking about Ronaiah Tuiasosopo than Matt Barkley.
25. If Smith truly is the consensus top quarterback in this draft, none of the six quarterbacks here did a thing to change that perception. The quarterback play in three days of competitive practices was closer to brutal than promising. A few scouts think Tyler Wilson of Arkansas is back on the rise after a nightmare senior season, but most say that North Carolina State’s Mike Glennon is far and way the best of the Senior Bowl bunch when it comes to consistently making quality NFL throws.
26. Glennon measured at 6’6, 220, and he’s so skinny that he looks like he weighs 170. Non-prototype, former Senior Bowl quarterbacks are quite the buzz right now — thanks, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson — but it’s hard to see such a skinny, stationary quarterback like Glennon being viewed as a franchise saver.
27. So, the question(s). Is this just a down class, a down year, and are teams willing to let quarterbacks slide down the first-round board? Or is this Senior Bowl class so ordinary that Smith’s value will rise among QB-needy teams? And another question — who and where, exactly, are the quarterbacks of the near future? Where does Teddy Bridgewater fit a year from now? Anyone else?
28. Hug the quarterbacks you love, NFL. And if you’re not sure you love ’em, hug the ones you’ve got and coach ’em up like crazy.
29. America’s scariest jobs: Being the person in Pittsburgh to tell James Harrison that sometime next month the Steelers are going to need him to take a pay cut. That’s why you get that money; eventually, it’s going to get taken away.
30. One of America’s coolest jobs is becoming at least a bit more mainstream. More NFL teams are hiring stat geeks/really smart people in non-traditional research and analyst roles. Part of what these guys are doing — or are going to be doing — is helping coaches with the management of situations and time outs on game day. During the week, they’re watching tapes of other teams in two-minute situations, fourth-and-short situations and two-point conversion situations and typing up reports for their own coaches based on statistical percentages, possible scenarios and just plain-old screw ups.
31. What teams — and fans — will get if this research/stat geek thing catches on is a cleaner game. The teams hope it will be a smarter, more efficient game, as well as lead to fewer coaches who make millions of dollars blowing games based on adrenaline or spur-of-the-moment calls. Thousands of fans of those teams hope that, too. Fewer angry Monday morning sports-radio calls never hurt anybody.
32. When I asked, two people who work in the league said they wouldn’t be surprised to see Joshua Cribbs stay in the AFC North — a potential case was made for all three teams — if he reaches the free agent market in March. As for Phil Dawson, the guesses vary but lean towards his staying with the Browns. In general, it’s still very much the guessing stage. By the time the combine rolls around next month, we’ll be much closer to the happening stage.
33. Besides that whole untied shoelaces thing, it’s possible that no player made a better off-field impression here this week than Michigan’s Denard Robinson. His transition from quarterback to wide receiver/utility man is very much a work in the progress, and he’s going to have to test well both medically and in regard to learning a new offensive system while also learning a position. But Robinson was friendly, forthright and open to whatever might come his way. He posed for pictures with fans and answered scouts’ questions honestly. He didn’t get medically cleared for full contact until Wednesday, but he stuck around and stuck it out, taking the whole thing as a valuable learning experience. Scouts will remember that.
34. Nice guys sometimes finish last. Being a nice guy certainly doesn’t hurt a third-day draft prospect when it comes to finding a home.
35. It’s officially NFL Draft season. Now go on and get that money.