Seven days in January can make a difference where a player gets drafted, according to Jon Sandusky, the director of player personnel for the Cleveland Browns.
Those seven days are in Mobile, Ala., at the Senior Bowl.
Players arrive on Sunday, practice Monday through Friday and play the annual all-star game at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Saturday. However, it is what happens before, during and after practice that mean more to the scouts and NFL front office personnel than the actual game. During the week, scouts and player personnel decision-makers have the opportunity to talk with players and figure out who they are on and off the field.
“You go down there and see all of the top seniors working against each other,” Sandusky said of the Senior Bowl. “I think it’s key to go down there, really look these guys in the eye, get down on the field level and see how they compete against each other.”
Sandusky referred to the Senior Bowl as “one more piece of the puzzle” in reference to the draft process.
“We’re looking at guys at the same positions and get to see them do one-on-ones, which is very important to our evaluation,” Sandusky said. “You get to see how they listen to the coaches and take that instruction into the game. Then, you get to see how they perform against their top piers in the country.”
In addition to bonding with new teammates, Senior Bowl participants receive coaching from NFL staffs. This past year, Leslie Frazier and the Minnesota Vikings coached the North team and Mike Shanahan’s staff from the Washington Redskins mentored players on the South roster.
“They’re learning new schemes and they’re working with different players they haven’t played with,” Sandusky said. “The practices are definitely more important to the evaluators and the evaluation process. That’s the first step in the postseason evaluation process after we went out in the fall and written our evaluations. At the Senior Bowl, they like to put them in positions where they’re singled up. They want to put a wide receiver on a defensive back where they are on an island.”
During the week, players are weighed, measured and interviewed by NFL personnel, similar to what they will encounter at the end of February at the NFL Scouting Combine.
The pre-draft evaluation process is important for Sandusky and other decision-makers around the league. All of the work is done well before Sandusky, Browns general manager Tom Heckert, coach Pat Shurmur and others enter the “war room” on April 26 for the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft.
“For us, we just have to worry about ourselves,” Sandusky said. “We just have to stick to our board, take the next guy that’s highest on our board and trust our evaluations. Usually, if you do that, the draft falls pretty good for you.”