What I’ve learned about these practices and events and how I approach them.
[Matt’s Note: I originally wrote this in 2017. With minor updates, these thoughts still apply.]
Whether you’re a writer attending the Senior Bowl for the first time or you’re new to the all-star game as a fan, I’m sharing my perspective here. Some of what I share will be in line with what you’ll read elsewhere, other points will depart from the norm.
There are multiple ways to study this event well. Keep that in mind.
You Won’t Get Comprehensive Coverage
The big networks will come close if they have multiple writers, analysts, and broadcasters in attendance and the producers, directors, and editors organize coverage that defines roles. Even so, deep-level analysis of every single player will be hard to come by.
The teams running practices break up the session into smaller groups with several units of focus. If a media outlet doesn’t have 4-6 analysts assigned to a position, it’s unlikely to they will deliver a full picture of every player’s performance. If not assigned wisely, the group may also miss on the incremental signs of improvement or regression that players experience during the week.
I learned early that I am happiest with the work that I do at the RSP when I am delivering reports focused on specific parts of practice. It usually means a few position groups, at most, and certain phases of practice.
Practices By Position
There are some things that I try to note about players regardless of position. Body type at the weigh-in is one of them. I’m not looking for every player to be extremely ripped.
What matters to me is the player appears to be in good enough condition that he appears to be caring for his body on a routine level. Based on the position, it’s either a baseline expectation or a positive if he has a developed and flexible core (above the knees to the neck).
A well-developed core often indicates an explosive player and although I don’t expect to see any budding gymnasts in warm-ups, I am taking note if a player is notably inflexible and I’ll be seeking film or reps in practice that reveal how much this hinders his play.
Sometimes, a highly-muscled human being is more prone to injuries than those who aren’t ripped but have looser muscles, tendons, and ligaments, which can help them bend at awkward angles with less risk of a specific injury. Patrick Mahomes has this kind of build.
I am not a big proponent of the data that you’ll get from observing quarterbacks at these games. There is value to glean from the sessions, but it’s worth remembering that the offenses this week will be stripped-down.
Basic footwork and release techniques will be worth seeing. So will general accuracy and the ability to develop rapport. If you can somehow hear the communication between the quarterback and his receivers, which is more difficult to do now that only the major networks have access to the field during practice, you might also get a small idea of how well the quarterback leads an offense on a daily basis.
You won’t get consistently reliable information on how well a quarterback reads the field, handles true pressure (they don’t get hit), or see the fullest extent of his athletic and conceptual creativity. Remember, the defenses won’t be playing exotic or complex coverage or implementing a game plan that focuses on a passer’s weaknesses.
I will note things that I see from quarterbacks this week, but these thoughts will take a backseat to game film.
Backseat? They might even run behind the car.
If you’re satisfied with analyzing running backs from solely the realm of the physical, there’s a lot to see during practice: speed, acceleration, agility, and sometimes balance and power. But decision-making and pass protection are two of the most important facets of RB play.
Although the conceptual demands of the position are underrated, it’s not as complex as quarterbacking and the Senior Bowl will offer good clues about these aspects of the position. There are essentially two types of blocking schemes and prospects are usually experienced in one of them. It’s a chance to see how conceptually developed they are.
There are some extenuating factors that could color the observer’s eye, such as developing timing and rapport with linemen. It is something that may not happen right away during practice.
But these sessions will often reveal which players have the most experience and functional understanding of the run schemes most often found in the league. If a runner is always bouncing plays to the perimeter in practice or getting swallowed up at the line of scrimmage due to tentative decision-making, it’s often a sign that he’s not experienced with the style of blocking.
David Johnson’s physical talent and receiving ability were undeniable at this game six years ago, but he was tentative when running zone plays. This was one of the reasons he was the third-string back for Arizona when he began his rookie year and why the coaches were cautious about him heading into the following summer—at least until he demonstrated improvement with zone schemes, which he credited Chris Johnson for his assistance in this area.
It means that decisive, successful runs up the middle are positives while repeated bounces outside can mean a lack of experience or maturity as a decision-maker. I won’t write off runners who exhibit the latter, but it means I’ll need to see more tape.
Pass protection drills for running backs are also limited in scope. It’s a lot like performing to a test rather than real life. Diagnosis isn’t part of the drills.
You’re looking for good depth of position, first contact, a proper punch with placement and contact generated by the hips and footwork. If a player consistently performs all of these things against safeties and linebackers, he’s one of the best-equipped prospects we’ll see all week.
Most backs will not look this good. The less refined they are with these skills, the more they will have to learn this summer and it reduces the odds of them earning a consistent role as a rookie.
If the player demonstrates notable improvement throughout the week, it’s an indication that he’s a quick study. Pass protection isn’t brain surgery, but the technical details and the desire to attack bigger opponents are not always qualities that happen fast—especially when they are not emphasized as heavily at their college programs.
There are ample opportunities to study vital aspects of the position because many of the position’s skills are effectively simulated in drills without the aid of teammate:
- Release footwork.
- Use of hands in conjunction with the feet.
- Library of release moves.
- Level of refinement with the stem.
- Execution of speed breaks and hard breaks.
- Setting up breaks.
- Attacking the ball.
- Tracking the ball
Only the last two points remotely require an accurate throw. Because NFL defenses use press coverage fare more often than most college teams, the Senior Bowl offers evaluators a good look at route varieties and release techniques that may not be seen on tape.
Marvin Jones was a deep threat for Cal as a sophomore, but he was used as a possession threat as a junior and senior. Watching him get the best separation of any receiver during Senior Bowl practices on a consistent basis was eye-opening to some and a reminder to others that Jones had a deeper game than the reputation preceding him before the week began.
While we won’t see huge hits during the catch point at practice, we will see tight coverage and skill at rebounding the ball. The one-on-ones offer a glimpse of a receiver’s competitiveness and maturity.
Even if we get a chance to see a receiver improve with a specific release, route, or catch angle, there are so few reps and no real game situation to lean too hard on these events as supporting analysis.
In addition to the information that applies to receivers, we’ll also get a glimpse of run blocking. The intensity won’t be as extreme as game scenarios, but a chance to see good form on a variety of blocks will be there.
You’re going to read snap judgments about players based on 10-15 minutes spent with a player. It can get ridiculous.
These sessions are slightly organized chaos. This is by no means a criticism of the Senior Bowl staff. They do a fine job of trying to create an event where media gets one-on-one access without placing too many demands on players.
Even so, if you have a shred of empathy and can remove your head from your ass long enough to see these sessions for what they are, you don’t try to play armchair psychologist. These players are in their early 20s and still learning to become fully mature adults—bashing them for a lack of full-fledged answers, shutting down because they are emotionally tired, or for their body language can be foolish.
These players are getting interviewed by NFL teams throughout the week and there are upwards of 50-60 reporters (and well over 100 in attendance) on Media Night vying for his time during a 45-minute session for each team. Many of the questions are the same.
Sad to say, but some reporters can lack basic knowledge of the game. Asking a wide receiver if he hopes to run a 4.7-second 40-yard dash, is an ignorant question. When the receiver responds, “I sure hope so, that’s a really slow time,” the ignorance can cross the line to stupid if the reporter’s response (which it was) is, “I don’t think so. That’s really fast.”
There are other questions I’ve heard or heard about (which I admit could have been hearsay so I’m not listing them) that are also inappropriate or unprofessional. Yes, players have to get used to this environment and pressure, but bad moments on Media Night don’t mean much to me. Just like the rest of society, there are also a lot of players who know exactly what to say and none of it was genuine.
The Senior Bowl offers an excellent snapshot of players, but there’s still a lot of room for growth physically, mentally, and emotionally. In fact, it’s best to remember that the NFL is hiring from a pool of talent where much of the talent comes from high-risk environments.
The U.S. is a huge and diverse nation. Frequent visitors often describe it as a series of different countries in terms of cultures, beliefs, and behaviors—even within one city. Many cities can be like different planets when it comes to education, law enforcement, and other public resources.
What was “presumed” and constructive for you growing up is often completely absent if not destructive somewhere else. Many NFL teams are sensitive to these differences and attempt to account for these factors in ways that we don’t expect from other businesses.
After all, the requirements for a starting job in the NFL doesn’t have a large pool of people capable of doing the work, so many teams have figured out (in some ways) that treating their talents as significant financial investments and catering to specific needs can deliver short- and long-term results. This means knowing that many players are evaluated more on the basis of their potential for maturing as opposed to how mature they are right now.
As long as you understand that these events are pages of information in the book—and not the entire book—there’s value to gain from the week.