by Matt Waldman
There will be hundreds of Senior Bowl Previews available within the next seven days. Most of them will explain why the game is important to the NFL and the participating player. Only a few writers won’t provide 3-4 sentence summaries of the prospects.
I have provided this type of preview in one form or another since I began attending five years ago. I’m doing some of that once again this year, but I’m also sharing a more personal preview of the event. In addition to disclosing what I want to see from dozens of players, this preview will cover what else all-star games offer me as an evaluator of talent with my own publication devoted to offensive skill prospects.
Continual Football Education
At its core, studying tape is a solitary pursuit focused on the end product. Attending all-star game practices provides a glimpse into another dimension of the game, its coaches, and its players behind the scenes.
The opportunity to watch two NFL coaching staffs conduct a practice for a week provides insight into not only what's important to them, but also what I can reasonably expect a player to reveal about his game during these sessions.
There are prospects that arrive in Mobile with a reputation for a certain skill set based on their junior and senior film, but the practices reveal something important about their game that the past two years of tape doesn’t show. I was fortunate enough to see Bengals receiver Marvin Jones showcase his skills as vertical threat during his sophomore year, but because his role at Cal changed after his sophomore year, many observers had their eyes opened for the first time when they witnessed Jones' big-play ability at the Senior Bowl.
Practices vary in tone, tempo, and detail and it means the type of information one can gain varies from year to year. While I’ve expressed my utopian ideal for the Senior Bowl in the past, the practical approach is to be prepared to take what you can get.
When Buffalo's staff ran a week of practice a few years ago, special teams had heightened priority and the teaching moments from individual drills were less frequent. There’s still a lot to see, but practices don’t serve as an informal technique clinic, which Bengals and Lions practices often were.
Former Detroit offensive coordinator Scott Linehan’s practice sessions for the offense at the Senior Bowl were especially good. He had an up-tempo style and packed the mornings with a variety of drills that tested and taught details that prospects needed to develop into more complete players.
Learning What’s Valuable (And What’s Not) From Practices
Everyone gets something different from watching practice. My book focuses on skill prospects, so I don’t spend much time watching linemen and I only note what I see from the defensive prospects when they face the players I’m studying.
Although my focus is skill players, I’ve learned that not everything they do in practice has value to me. There are some parts of their individual practices that I now tend to ignore.
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For instance, I rarely have the same interest in pass-protection drills for running backs as others. Until teams incorporate a more realistic diagnostic aspect to the drills, I see far more from the game film. Unless I’ve never see a specific player pass protect, I’m not spending a lot of time watching it.
Despite the minimization of hitting in practice, scrimmages are valuable for running backs. More than anything, it offers a chance to see the initial decision making process at the line of scrimmage. Isaiah Pead’s repeated forays to the edge reinforced what I saw on tape whereas Joique Bell and Alfred Morris impressed with balancing patience with decisiveness.
Interviews on media night can provide a layer of knowledge about a player that corresponds to what you see on the field or provide additional knowledge about his personality and maturity. You just have to be careful not to read too much into it.
DeMarco Murray was unusually candid about why he changed his running style during his college career. He explained the reasons he transformed his game from a freshman phenomenon with breakaway skills to a more punishing, grind-it-out runner.
He also discussed his foray into MMA training to become a more flexible athlete with the hope of limiting major injuries. Although missed time due to injuries have still been a part of his career, the issues have been less severe compared to his years at Oklahoma.
Marvin Jones discussed his daily after-practice routines at Cal with former teammate Syd'Quan Thompson. He explained how it helped him develop his skills against press man. He even demonstrated techniques.
I’ll never forget what happened while watching Cecil Lammey interviewing Russell Wilson 10 yards from me. Lammey mainly covers the Broncos, and Denver was fresh off Tim Tebow’s improbable playoff journey and pursuing Peyton Manning wasn’t the team’s public intention.
Towards the end of the interview, I noticed Wilson puff out his chest as a look of anger flashed across his face. Wilson looked like Lammey insulted the quarterback’s mother. In an instant, Wilson caught himself, his body language softened, and a smile appeared across his face as he responded to whatever Lammey had said to him.
When I asked Lammey what happened, he said, "I asked Wilson, 'How would you like to back up Tim Tebow in Denver?'" According to Lammey, Wilson said he had no intention of being a backup in the NFL.
Studying Wilson’s game and seeing that brief exchange with Lammey, it fit perfectly: Wilson may be a polished young man who visits children’s hospitals and does insurance commercials, but his mentality beneath the surface makes him the Michael Corleone of NFL quarterbacks.
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Many observers spend time comparing notes and pointing out what they see as a group exercise. I’m not sociable for most of practice. I tend to follow the position drills around the field to get the best possible look I can and then climb the stands for an All-22 view of scrimmages.
However, I still relish the opportunity to meet a variety of writers, and former and current NFL personnel staff and talk shop. Some perspectives are more valuable than others, but learning to discern that value is an important exercise.
Many of the stories from former NFL employees add another layer of perspective about the league. If you’re open to learning from others, it’s a great time to engage and absorb information.
This Year’s Players of Note
Here is a partial list of skill position prospects I’ll be studying with a note or two of some of the things I hope to see from each. There are also players that I hope earn late invitations to the game after performances from other All-Star games. Eastern Illinois quarterback and receiver Jimmy Garoppolo and Erik Lora headline this wish-list that also includes tight ends Alex Bayer and Ted Bolser, wide receivers Matt Hazel and Jeremy Gallon, and running backs Rajion Neal and Tim Flanders.
RB Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky: I’m skeptical of his patience and decisiveness as an interior runner. It will be the difference between Andrews having the versatility and reliability of a future reserve and just enough talent to be hunting for a spot on an NFL roster before ultimately considering the CFL.
TE Arthur Lynch, Georgia: I have questions about his speed and quickness as a receiver. His footwork also needs to be more sudden at the top of his stem and I want to see him handle the jam at the line of scrimmage. In other words, does Lynch have the athleticism to see time in the NFL as a contributor in an offense’s passing sets, or is he a special teamer and outlet receiver in two-tight end sets?
RB Carlos Hyde, Ohio State: I want to see Hyde catch the ball in drills. I also have more tape to watch to gauge how much speed and burst he has. If I can see evidence of it in practice, it would make my job in February and March a little easier. If he can demonstrate some success with layering moves to avoid defenders, it would be a bonus.
RB Charles Sims, West Virginia: I want to see better ball security. Sims often carries the ball high and tight enough to believe he’s capable of maintaining possession, but he didn't demonstrate the strength to maintain it when hit hard or ripped at the end of runs. He faced a lot of six-man boxes in West Virginia's (and before that, Houston’s) scheme so I’m looking forward to the scrimmages versus more seven and eight-men boxes. Sims has a tendency to turn his back into contact on inside runs, which is effective for him as a finisher, but it’s also difficult for him to continue downhill and break longer runs.
QB Derek Carr, Fresno State: I’m looking forward to seeing Carr’s footwork on short drops and how consistent his accuracy will be this week. I want to see an aggressive, downfield mentality from Carr and the willingness to place the ball in positions where his receiver can make plays in tight coverage.
WR Jalen Saunders, Oklahoma: I have concerns he’ll get manhandled by better defensive backs in drills. I also want to see better ball protection and more awareness of shielding defenders from incoming targets after his breaks. Saunders needs to illustrate that he’s strong enough to produce in the NFL.
RB James White, Wisconsin: I’m not convinced White has the speed people think he does. I’d also be surprised if White’s listed height and weight of 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, is accurate. He looks smaller and plays smaller on tape. Of course when it comes to film, size is sometimes difficult to gauge. I love his conceptual skills, but I have questions about his physicality and I want to see him catch the ball in drills.
WR Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State: Can he catch passes in tight coverage and/or hang onto targets after contact? His tape reveals a player with a serious deficiency in that department. The film also shows a player who didn't demonstrate good burst against tight man coverage to earn separation in the vertical passing game. His stats scream big play receiver, but his tape whispers inconsistent possession receiver with a lot to learn.
RB Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern: I had a scout tell me that his team is intrigued with McKinnon because they love his athleticism. They think he’ll run a 4.4-second 40-yard-dash. I told him that I didn’t see that kind of speed on tape beyond the first 15-to-25 yards. He told me that his staff believes McKinnon was worn down playing both offense and defense in many games. McKinnon plays in an option offense so I want to see his feel for decision-making from an I-Formation because I have seen little indication that he can succeed in a pro-style offense.
WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt: The toughness and concentration in traffic is there for Matthews, but I want to see more evidence of his acceleration and deep speed against top cornerbacks. Most of all, I have concerns about the timing of his receptions that often occur at the last available window of the target.
WR Josh Huff, Oregon: Excellent athlete, but can he make strides with his pass-catching techniques? His hand spacing need to be narrower and he needs to show he has learned to use the correct hand position to catch the ball. This week will demonstrate how much progress he has made or whether it still appears as if he’s doing a math problem in his head while trying to make a reception with the correct technique.
WR Kevin Norwood, Alabama: I want to see if Norwood can make plays in the vertical passing game and against tight man coverage. I’ve seen flashes of NFL-caliber play from him at Alabama and I wonder if he’s lost in the shuffle in that Crimson Tide scheme. This week should provide more clues.
RB Marion Grice, Arizona State: He’s the one back I want to see take reps in blocking drills because I haven’t seen him use his hands on tape. He tends to deliver forearm shots or lower the pads into defenders as a pass protector. I still have questions about his acceleration and second gear as a ball carrier. I like Grice’s game, but I need to feel better about his speed to be sold on him.
WR Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest: Campanaro needs to display a more active technique to attack the football with his hands in proper position. He’s a shifty player, but I want to see how dynamic he can be in the open field. Most of all, did the Wake Forest scheme make this receiver appear quicker and faster than he really is?
WR Mike Davis, Texas: I need some evidence that Davis can make successful adjustments to targets that aren’t pinpoint to his body. He has the athleticism to become a dangerous big-play threat, but his lack of quality footwork slows him down. Can he demonstrate promise that he can develop as a route runner or is he going to try to get by on sheer speed?
WR Ryan Grant, Tulane: Grant has talent, but he’s lazy with his hands in nearly every facet of playing the position. Can Grant display that he can be the first to attack a defender in press coverage or at least demonstrate improvement using his hands against defenders as the week progresses? He has also displayed a lack of focus and concentration in games. He may bring his A-game as motivation to impress folks next week and then resort to the same behavior if he joins a team in the spring, but I still want to see what that A-game looks like to gauge his potential. Grant reminds me of Jacoby Jones for his inherent talents, but his maddening inconsistency.
QB Stephen Morris, Miami: I hope to see opportunities for Morris to maneuver through pressure in the pocket this week, but it’s unlikely. A lot of my questions with Morris are conceptual rather than physical or skill-oriented so I’m not sure how much insight this week will offer me about the Hurricane passer with NFL fundamentals, but an inconsistent college game.
QB Tajh Boyd, Clemson: Boyd’s vertical game at Clemson is predicated on a lot of misdirection and high arcing throws. Can he drive the ball with accuracy? More importantly, can he demonstrate pinpoint accuracy against man coverage? Can he maintain good form under pressure to deliver with good timing in the intermediate passing game? How aggressive will he be downfield in an offense that won’t install a lot of misdirection?
WR Tevin Reese, Baylor: I’m not a fan of Reese’s peek-a-boo tendencies as an open field runner, but it’s unlikely we’ll see enough during practice to focus on this aspect of his game. However what we’ll see plenty of is Reese having opportunities to look the ball into his hands. He's so used to having space to run that he can become preoccupied with open space and lose focus on finishing the catch. He also tends to trap the ball and he’ll often juggle the ball trying to get the pass into his hands while in ball carrier mode.
Matt Waldman authors the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. The 2014 RSP will available April 1 and if you pre-order before February 10, you get a 10 percent discount. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2012 – 2014 RSPs at no additional charge and available for download within a week after the NFL Draft. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio (2006-2013) for just $9.95 apiece.