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Senior Bowl

Why the 2015 Senior Bowl matters for the Browns


MOBILE, Alabama -- When the nation's top senior prospects converged here for the 2014 Senior Bowl, Ray Farmer wasn't yet the Browns' general manager and Mike Pettine had yet to be hired as the head coach.

Even through the ongoing transition, seeds were planted. Three of them.

Offensive lineman Joel Bitonio came from Nevada, linebacker Chris Kirksey from Iowa and defensive back Pierre Desir from tiny Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. Together, at the time, they represented some of the best senior prospects in the country. And together now, they represent a big chunk of the Browns' future plans.

Their years of success at their respective colleges brought them to what Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage called "the greatest job fair in the football world." How they handled their first impression paved their way to the Browns.

"You're going to be interviewed by scouts and directors and assistant coaches and coordinators," Savage said. "it's important because three or four years from now, those same people might be head coaches and general managers, so that first impression that a player makes here can go so far."

In Farmer's case, it was just a couple of weeks later, as he was promoted from assistant general manager to general manager one week before the NFL's Scouting Combine. Though Bitonio's, Kirksey's and Desir's performances at the week of Senior Bowl practices can't be solely pinned as the reason why they became Browns, it was a significant step in the process that, perhaps, made things a little easier as they moved forward to the Combine and their respective Pro Days.

"One-hundred ten players, 32 teams. You're not going to have that ratio at any other point in the time of your career," Savage said. "You can make some hay here. Absolutely.

"When I go to the Combine, the players that have gone through Senior Bowl week really have an understanding of, 'these are the questions I'm going to be asked.' They don't seem overwhelmed by all of this."

Their respective impacts as rookies differed, but it's hard to say Bitonio, Kirksey and Desir looked overwhelmed throughout the 2014 season. In one of his final press conferences of the season, coach Mike Pettine singled out each member of the trio for their advanced maturity.

Bitonio, described by his teammates and coaches as wise and mature beyond his years, landed a starting spot and never gave it up. He played so well that both Pettine and veteran left tackle Joe Thomas said he deserved a spot in the Pro Bowl.

Kirksey wasn't a regular starter but he played significant snaps throughout the season and finished with 81 tackles, the fourth-most on the team. The third-round selection has said he constantly peppers veterans Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertson with questions to get a better grasp on the advanced level of play in the NFL.

Desir appeared to be headed toward a redshirt season of sorts before injuries ahead of him on the depth chart sped up his timeline. He thrived in his extensive opportunities against the Bengals and Panthers and enters the offseason with plenty of optimism surrounding how he's handled himself on and off the field.

The Browns' roster boasts 11 Senior Bowl alums. All were regular contributors and a number of whom -- Bitonio, Alex Mack, Mitchell Schwartz, Ahtyba Rubin, Phil Taylor and Billy Winn -- were every-game starters when healthy.

Pettine said in December it was impossible to predict how a player would handle the transition to the NFL from a maturity standpoint. Some have it right away; others, Pettine said, are late-bloomers.

From the aspect of locating players who fall into the first category, the Browns batted 1.000 in 2014. The quest to do the same in 2015 has already started.

This article is part of the Road to the Draft series, driven by Liberty Ford.

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