Senior Bowl offers chance for players to introduce themselves

The Wisconsin Badgers celebrate a fumble recovery by Chris Borland #44 during the second quarter of the game against the Minnesota Golden Gophers on November 23, 2013 at TCF Bank Stadium in Minneapolis, Minnesota.  

Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

MOBILE, Al. –– It’s Senior Bowl week, meaning many of the NFL’s key figures are here in Mobile on an important business trip.

The players involved are discovering a little about the business of the NFL, too. By the time it’s done, more than 80 players of various college backgrounds and presumed NFL interest levels will have had a week’s worth of practices, hours worth of interviews with scouts and other personnel people and a condensed but heavy taste of pro football.

There’s money to be made. A lot of it, in some cases.

The Senior Bowl is the most prestigious of the postseason all-star games and a destination for coaches, general managers and other team personnel leaguewide. They come to see highly-competitive practices involving top prospects, who spend their week learning NFL systems and doing up-close interviews with scouts from every team.

The Jacksonville Jaguars staff is coaching the South team and the Atlanta Falcons are coaching the North, making the week as close to a real NFL week as it gets. The tape of Saturday’s Senior Bowl game will be evaluated, but the eyes of the NFL are here to see these prospects go through practices, put faces and tendencies to names and gather information as the draft season builds towards next month’s NFL Scouting Combine and high-level meetings for all 32 teams that follow.

Now in charge of the Senior Bowl is Mobile native and former Cleveland Browns general manager Phil Savage, who tries to attract the top talent and provide as much access to the players as possible for scouts and other NFL people in attendance. In many cases this week provides teams their first chance to actually talk with prospects and fill in vital information in painting the picture of each prospect, information that comes in handy as each team eventually builds it draft board.  

It’s not likely that players the Browns will covet with their two first-round picks are here this week, but it remains to be seen. There are Senior Bowl success stories leaguewide, guys who cemented their first-round status, came from obscurity to the middle rounds or even came from nowhere — Seattle Seahawks cornerback and TV star of the moment Richard Sherman was a late addition three years ago — and used the Senior Bowl as a springboard to NFL success.

Basically, if you watch coverage on the NFL Network this week or follow it online, there are names you should know and names NFL teams will know much better by the end of the week.  

Some of the more recognizable names either declined or accepted then dropped out, a group that includes Alabama linebacker C.J. Moseley and Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, a player whose absence is puzzling not just because he’s from Mobile but because his NFL Draft status seems less than certain. By late last week, 10 players had declined invites and in the neighborhood of 20 more had opted out due to injuries or rehab situations.

After Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde dropped out last week, Toledo running back David Fluellen was added. Fluellen’s senior season was cut short by injury, and in many cases a back who’s battled injury issues the way he has would sit out.

A kid from Toledo, though, needs this stage. He’ll have a chance to earn points just by showing up and competing.

"It’s a different era now than it was 15 years ago…it’s just part of it," Savage told AL.com last week. "I think for the 20 or 30 players who won’t be here, every one of them has a different reason for why they’re not going to participate."

Among the notable Ohio names here and set to participate are Ohio State offensive lineman Jack Mewhort and Wisconsin linebacker Chris Borland, a Southwest Ohio native.  

The week is about being seen and telling the truth off the field — exiled LSU underclassman Tyrann Matheiu showed up last year to shake hands and tell teams he’d gotten clean — and for those involved, it’s about answering questions and making plays on it.  

Browns fans probably don’t want to be reminded that two years ago, then-coach Pat Shurmur and other team personnel watched Brandon Weeden’s every move from the sideline in his first practice with the South team. Also on that team was Nick Foles. It was ultimately the call of Mike Holmgren to draft Weeden in the first round, and in two years Weeden played for two different coaches in two different systems.  

And here the Browns are, again looking for a quarterback. Again. Foles had a pretty good year with the Philadelhia Eagles.

Among the quarterbacks here, Fresno State’s Derek Carr is the headliner. Clemson’s Tajh Boyd, San Jose State’s David Fales and late addition Jimmy Garropolo of Eastern Illinois also figure to draw interest. Quarterbacks, as usual, will be the post-practice stars among both scouts and TV cameras. Six years ago, Joe Flacco came here and solidified himself as a first-round pick, and now he’s one of the NFL’s richest players.

Russell Wilson, here and sharp for the North team despite being way too small by NFL standards two years ago, is two weeks from playing in the Super Bowl.

The week officially starts Monday morning with Senior Bowl participants in shorts — and often less — for the official weigh-in and measurements. College scouts who spent all season watching these guys up close and on tape now get to see them in their underwear. Things like wingspan, hand size and body mass index matter, and players who show up in less than premium shape will have to answer for it.  

Maybe that’s why some players decline Senior Bowl invitations late. Maybe conditioning has nothing to do with it. It’s quite a puzzle teams are asked to put together, and that’s why many coaching staffs join scouting staffs and personnel staffs in Mobile this week.

No, the Browns still do not have a coaching staff. Some of the other teams who replaced coaches following the season are still finalizing staffs, and hiring coaches — and coaches trying to get hired — is sometimes a big part of Senior Bowl week. Lots of teams bring their salary cap guys, too, because it’s never too early for agents and potential suitors to toe that fine line between tampering and, well, blatant tampering with free agency a little more than six weeks away.

The Senior Bowl is one big NFL convention.

It’s a time for NFL people to just be themselves and talk football with familiar faces, too. There are autograph hounds and regular fans who stop by practices, but the small-town setting of Mobile allows those involved the privacy to both work and catch up with old friends. The author of this article may or may not have seen Jets coach Rex Ryan rolling into morning practice with McDonald’s bags on multiple past occasions.

It’s time to fuel up for a draft season that this year is two weeks longer than usual.  

There are a record 98 underclass entries to this year’s draft, and even those who stop by Mobile to shake hands this week are technically off limits to NFL scouts. As far as who is here and what work can be done, many players started arriving Saturday and at least some scouts did, too. Lots of NFL eyes are seeing the Senior Bowl prospects for the first time. There are players in Mobile this week from Lindenwood, Georgia Southern, Eastern Illinois, Coastal Carolina and North Dakota State, and all trying to prove they can play with the big boys.

For all involved in the scouting, there’s a lot of work to be done.

Even without a bunch of big names, this week is a big part of it.