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23 Jan 2013

Futures: Making Sense of The Senior Bowl

by Matt Waldman

And what information is really that vital? That Melvin Ingram looks great? Duh. That the Jaguars are kicking tires on every wide receiver they can find? That anyone down here in search of a franchise quarterback is going to go home and tell his general manager to call Matt Flynn’s agent at the first possible opportunity? -- Mike Tanier, from his 2012 column Southern Gothic

My initial thought about the Senior Bowl and other college all-star games echoed this quote. What’s the point? But, after attending three years of practices at Mobile, I can tell you that the event simply is not meant for everyone.

Where most get it wrong is the quest for vital information. Seeking big takeaways at a college all-star game is as useless as waiting to hear Hank Williams tunes at a Marilyn Manson show. The value of all-star games like the Senior Bowl comes from keeping your eyes and ears open, your mouth shut, and your mind focused on the long view.

What’s seen and heard on those days at the weigh-in, at media night, and at the practice fields may be useless when it comes to the immediate headline. It proves invaluable when adding depth to story lines that travel far from Mobile. The problem for the reader, which Tanier pointed out last year, is that there is a high noise-to-signal ratio emanating from the Senior Bowl. I hope I can arm you with the perspective to get the most from the takes you’ll see from the media.

Game Study: There is no substitute

Because so many of the observers are unfamiliar with the careers of these prospects, the on-ground views have a myopic scope. Sometimes what’s shared about these players has a revelatory tone. Understandably, most people writing about the practices don’t spend six-to-eight hours a day studying college football players.

The truth is that the practices and games are just another bullet point on a player’s resume of strengths and weaknesses. Alfred Morris wasn’t a different player when he came to Mobile last year, but he showed the same skills in South Team practices that he did at Florida Atlantic. The difference for Morris was a broader stage and a greater concentration of meaningful onlookers to display his talents.

If there is a prospect like Morris, who is a potential revelation, you best believe that scouts and personnel directors will be going back to the player’s tape for additional study. Scouts are often given regions to cover. The breadth of both the regions and volume of players is large enough that it’s not possible to conduct focused, in-depth study on every player. This is why players like Morris, Victor Cruz, or Kurt Warner fall through the cracks every year.

A former scout I met at this event two years ago told me that there are NFL scouts who paraphrase internet scouting reports into their own team paperwork. That seems unbelievable until you consider the context of the workload. The more I study players, the more I understand why it happens.

Focus and Perspective: No one can see everything

I cover practices with two other writers. While I may see something notable from a defensive player or an offensive lineman, I’m focusing my attention on offensive skill players. The emphasis on the verb "focus" cannot be understated.

Other than scrimmages, where I get an end-zone view in the stands and can see as much of the action unfold as possible, I get as close to the action as I can when I observe drills. This helps me examine technique. It also gives me the chance to listen to the coaches when they give instruction and feedback. It’s a great learning experience for the player as well as the observer.

Two years ago, I was about 15 feet away from Bengals wide receivers coach James Urban while he was introducing a player to the North squad’s route tree. That player was Ohio State receiver Dane Sanzenbacher –- an injury replacement flown into Mobile on late notice. The coach walked out portions of the routes, explained the angle of the breaks, and noted where they liked the quarterback to place the ball at on each route. This was all happening 10 minutes before practice, while trainers were fitting the future Bears and Bengals receiver with pads.

Sanzenbacher not only caught everything thrown to him in drills, but his route technique and release techniques were so spot-on that the coach repeatedly pointed to the Buckeyes receiver as a positive example for the rest of the receivers to follow. Yes, Sanzenbacher was cut by the Bears this year: he lacks starter-level athleticism and size. But these are the types of clues you can get about a player from up-close observation of drills: their depth of knowledge about the demands of practice, and the speed a player can assimilate concepts mentally and physically execute them. These things matter. They often explain why lesser-known players succeed in the NFL, whereas higher picks fail.

Last year, Marvin Jones was the sharpest and most consistent receiver in drills. He routinely got deep on corners in scrimmages and made big plays in the vertical game with nuanced routes, where he set up defenders with his footwork, blew past them with his speed, and maintained good position with his hands. Many in attendance were surprised that Jones had deep-ball skill.

Those who watched enough of his games knew better. Jones played four years in a west coast offense. One of the big reasons he was a "surprise" was that Jones was relegated to possession duty during his final two years of school. If you’re a scout assigned every team (and every player) in the Pacific region, studying a wide receiver’s freshman and sophomore tape isn’t going to be a priority task.

In contrast, Jones’ teammate Brian Quick repeatedly made mistakes in drills and rarely made an impact in scrimmages. The wide receiver told reporters that these drills and techniques were new to him. Practice may not seem as important as in-game performance, but when a player’s games feature him on the most basic routes in the business and he’ll have to show more to succeed in the NFL, it’s telling that he can't execute them.

Many of the practice reports I read were about Quick flashing big-play ability and impressing scouts with his size and speed. While Quick was a second-round pick and Jones went in the fifth round, the Rams arguably had a greater need for receivers than the Bengals and it was Jones who saw the field more often and with greater impact as a rookie. Quick may eventually become a quality starter with big-play ability, but I believe Jones will continue to prove he was the better draft-day deal. This leads me to another point about these drills and practices.

Much of the game is still new to these prospects

Each level of football requires an additional layer of technical skill. Some prospects thrive in the college game and later falter in the NFL because they have rare, top-percentile athleticism that doesn't give them the same advantage in the pros without technical and conceptual skill. Likewise, some top college prospects have thrived due to great intellectual and technical nuance, but lack the physical skills to match up with the overall athleticism of their peers. What’s important to remember is that the best idea is to approach player development with a long view that balances physical talent with the capacity to develop the rest.

Dwayne Harris was a player that one of my colleagues (out of respect, I won’t mention him by name) said had bad Senior Bowl. In one sense, he was correct: the East Carolina star did not display the crisp positional techniques you want to see from a receiver with high-round physical ability. However, East Carolina’s offense didn’t use Harris on many timing routes. Harris was featured as a slot receiver on crossing routes, swing passes, and screens.

However, I remember Harris took well to instruction and his performance in drills got incrementally better with every rep. The second-year receiver is becoming a valuable player for the Cowboys. It remains to be seen if Harris will develop into a productive starter in the NFL, but incremental improvement during these practices paired with good athleticism and a strong understanding of what this player was asked to do for his team provided a more nuanced and accurate evaluation of him.

In contrast, that same colleague loved Colin Kaepernick. Although I reported the love for Kaepernick, I was wary of him in much the same way my colleague was down on Harris. It’s another lesson that technical polish, athleticism, and team fit are variables with different weights for each individual. Age and experience are also factors.

As Ben Muth said a couple of weeks ago in Audibles about the development of 49ers lineman Anthony Davis, it’s a "great example of people not recognizing how important age can be for a young guy. All rookies are not the same age. Davis took his rookie lumps area, but he was the youngest player in the league. He’s still only 23, which is about the age of a guy that stays in college all five years, and he’s an above average starter."

Offenses and defenses are vanilla

These all-star games will rarely do anything special to tailor a scheme to a specific player’s talents: there’s not enough practice time. I also think the stripped-down, basic schemes help evaluators see the baseline athleticism required of a prospect to play at the pro level while putting all players in a relatively equal learning scenario when it comes to processing information. As I mentioned above, the more a player is thinking about new techniques, the slower he plays. There is also the fact that receivers and quarterbacks lack the rapport to place the ball in positions that they might otherwise have with an offseason of practices. When it comes to quarterbacks, a successful practice week is when there are no glaring negatives.

Still, there’s a lot of valuable information to mine from each position. Other than pass-protection drills, which provide a limited glimpse due to the fact that they don’t test the player’s skills to read a defense, the scrimmage might be the only time where you can see something of value with running backs. Joique Bell and Morris both demonstrated a blend of patience and decisiveness to find the crease and get downhill in a hurry. DeMarco Murray showed he could bounce plays outside at will. Isaiah Pead showed all he was willing to do at this stage of his development was bounce it outside. It’s worth noting that Morris, Murray, and Bell all fared well in pass-protection drills.

By the way, I was a huge fan of Murray’s game; he was a player that several observers in the media thought was having an underwhelming week in Mobile. During the second day of practice, I was watching Murray when one of my all-time favorite players, Browns and Redskins runner Earnest Byner –- then the Jaguars running backs coach -– sidled up to my right. He told former Patriots fullback and Lions running backs coach Sam Gash at my left that Murray could be potential thoroughbred. Not a whiff of a mumble.

More Perspective: Frame of Reference Matters

This is the difficult part. No one can see and hear everything. The only "big cat" Tanier saw last year was Jerry Jones. I saw Ted Thompson last year. I’d say he’s a "big" NFL kitty. I think he’s been there every year I’ve attended.

Ozzie Newsome’s a pretty big deal. I see him every year, too. I stood feet away from Seahawks general manager John Schneider during weigh-ins in 2011. I thought I saw him in 2012. Perhaps he listened to Tanier, went home early, and called Flynn’s agent after watching the quarterbacks practice ... but methinks he and his crew of scouts also kept an eye peeled on Russell Wilson.

Speaking of Wilson, one of those bits of information that wasn’t useful to everyone last year but can add depth to a prospect’s story came on media night, held every year at a hangar near the U.S.S. Alabama. Nope, it’s not held on the battleship, sorry to disappoint those who had a different idea. The Wilson interview was one of my favorite Senior Bowl moments.

My colleague, ESPN 102.3’s Cecil Lammey, asked Wilson how he’d like to back up Tim Tebow in Denver. Although Wilson handled the question professionally, based on the quarterback’s body language and tone of voice, it was easy to notice that Wilson didn’t like the questions. Wilson’s tone of voice sounded like Lammey insulted the quarterback’s mother. Wilson responded that he had no intention of backing up anyone. We liked Wilson’s uncharacteristic reaction.

Pete Carroll claims that many football player-personnel men told Carroll that Wilson clashed with previous coaches. Carroll told the media that he asked Wilson about this and the quarterback gave him specific examples. Depending on one’s frame of reference this was a positive or a negative. Carroll had the right frame of reference.

Sometimes the personal feelings of others can cloud a writer’s judgment about a player. Many scouts were told that Arian Foster was soft and didn’t love the game because he was a philosophy student with a variety of interests outside of football and he questioned the University of Tennessee’s policy to make every football player attend every class when this didn’t apply to the rest of the student population. Former Georgia coach Ray Goff barred scouts access to Terrell Davis’ game film and badmouthed him at every turn. Goff thought Davis' injuries weren’t as big of a deal as the runner made them out to be.

Want to get the most out of these Senior Bowl reports? Find the ones that offer specific details about on-field performance. Ignore the armchair psychology personality assessments (even if they prove true); there are a lot of successful head cases and immature superstars in every field. Understand that bad moments this week don’t damn a player just as good ones won’t deify him.

Posted by: Matt Waldman on 23 Jan 2013

16 comments, Last at 10 Mar 2013, 12:33pm by yedam


by IB (not verified) :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:05pm

That ... probably wasn't the best quote to lead with.

by Roch Bear :: Thu, 01/24/2013 - 3:25pm

Perhaps, but I loved it. Don't know if that was Tanier's opinion, but I like to see every hint of just our variable scouting opinion really is. Wouldn't we all love to see a *prospective* rank ordering of the prospects (draftees) from a large set of professional scouts? I'd love to know the correlation of that rating to player ability as measured years later.

by LionInAZ :: Fri, 01/25/2013 - 7:51pm

How about this one:

"And what is good, Phaedrus,
And what is not good --
Need we ask anyone to tell us these things?"

-- Plato

by Dean :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:37pm

I find it interesting that Jeff Fisher seems to make a particular point of emphasis in scouting the Senior Bowl, and two of the players you criticized were both guys who Fisher picked. Both showed flashes of big play ability but both were raw, smaller school guys who got passed on the depth chart by other rookies with more polish but less upside. So the question is, what is Jeff Fisher seeing in these guys that you aren't?

by CBPodge :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 4:24pm

The upside, at a guess.

Apparently the pick of Quick was made after he absolutely blew the coaches away at a private workout.

by Matt Waldman :: Sun, 01/27/2013 - 8:27pm

Or perhaps, the question should be what is Jeff Fisher not seeing that has led him to select receivers that haven't panned out since Derrick Mason and, some may argue, Kenny Britt?

by Dean :: Mon, 01/28/2013 - 11:25am

Except that I was looking at both Brian Quick and RB Isiah Pead. Although it is still a valid question and one that can only partially be answered by pointing to his run-first philosophy.

by justanothersteve :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 2:58pm

First, I'm not surprised that GMs that started as scouts like Thompson and Schneider are at the Senior Bowl every year. I believe Ron Wolf also regularly went to the practices (but not the game) back when he was the Packers GM. Second, my respect for Arian Foster just went up exponentially. A football player who majors in Philosophy rather than Communications or "General Studies" would definitely catch my attention as a GM as someone who is more than just an athlete. Reminds me of Robert Smith, another RB who was thought of as too smart.

by HHH (not verified) :: Mon, 01/28/2013 - 5:36am

i had foster in a couple classes when we went to ut. hes not very smart.

by Will Allen :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 3:07pm

I'm a litle surprised that no NFL team hasn't tried to get a leg up by employing, I dunno, 50% more scouts than anyone else, in an effort to lessen the chance that a Victor Cruz gets overlooked, by making sure that every player at the top 200-250 schools gets intensively scouted. Maybe there has been, and I don't know about it, but I hear a lot about the cheapskates, like the Bengals, who have often tried to get by with fewer scouts (don't know if this is still true), but I don't remember a story, at least since the '70s, along the lines of "Team x is investing significantly more in scouting than everybody else". Thus, while I agree with the notion that the finite time available for scouting presents a conumdrum, I'm a little surprised that, to my knowledge, nobody has, to a larger degree than everyone else, tried to reduce the conumdrum via the brute force of capital.

by Tino (not verified) :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 3:32pm

Mel Kiper's annual draft guide is only $30. If you just draft according to his rankings, you'll probably please 80% of your fan base! At least for the 3 years you have a job!

by LionInAZ :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 5:07pm

It probably comes down to a lack of good scouts combined with cheapskate owners.

by rageon :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 6:39pm

I assume there'a almost certainly a way to do it very cheaply, given the propensity of people looking to "get into sports" to be willing to work for little or nothing. Even if they aren't known to be "good scouts" yet, the odds are that among those willing to work for next to nothing, at least a few are diamonds in the rough who may never get noticed. Do everything redundantly, compare results, see who saw what the others missed, give them more responsibility, and repeat.

I'm certainly of the mindset there is probably a giant edge to be gained by finding the talented players who just don't get noticed for one reason or another, whether it's a small school, they started playing late, things didn't "click" until late in college, etc... Sure, guys like Kurt Warner are rare, but there's at least a very, very good player who falls to the 6th round or later every year I assume. And I'd guess that the value of finding such of player (and playing him league minimum) is worth a savings of enough to hire an entire time of cheap scouts for a decade.

by Independent George :: Thu, 01/24/2013 - 10:42am

I would guess that the number of scouts employed is inverse to the consistency and quality of the scouts. It's a lot harder to keep them grading on the same scale as you keep adding warm bodies, and I think it might be better to be more confident in a smaller pool of prospects than to scan a larger pool with less confidence.

by Sifter :: Wed, 01/23/2013 - 5:16pm

Nice article Matt, has made me think about some different perspective. I wonder whether teams would prefer the Combine to come first, rather than the Senior Bowl ie. get the measurements, 40s etc. done and dusted, see who rises to the top and then test them out in practices and a game. Because at the moment it seems players can push poor performance at the Senior Bowl under the rug with a good performance in shorts - I think that's the opposite of the way it should be.

by yedam (not verified) :: Sun, 03/10/2013 - 12:33pm

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