More than 100 of the 2017 NFL Draft's top prospects, and NFL club representatives numbering much higher than that, will gather in Mobile, Ala., this week for the annual Reese's Senior Bowl. For all but a few players who also participated in last week's East-West Shrine Game, the week marks the first formal introduction between the draft prospects on hand and the NFL teams they're looking to impress over the next few months in advance of the draft (April 27-29). Here are some of the basics that govern the event, and a look at players who began their path to the draft at the game:
Last year's Senior Bowl Most Outstanding Player was Dallas Cowboys rookie Dak Prescott, who completed 7 of 10 passes with a touchdown. A fourth-round draft choice out of Mississippi State, Prescott, of course, went on to a dazzling rookie season. The Cowboys have said Prescott blew them away at the Senior Bowl a year ago, when Dallas was coaching against Prescott in the game.
Prescott had a message for this year's Senior Bowl crop on Monday, suggesting they should assume their every move in Mobile is being watched:
Four 2016 first-round picks played in last year's game as well, including Eagles QB Carson Wentz, 49ers OG Joshua Garnett, Saints DT Sheldon Rankins and Panthers DT Vernon Butler. ... Some of the Senior Bowl's most famous alums include Walter Payton, Joe Namath, Bo Jackson, Derrick Thomas, Steve Largent and Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome.
With help from a small scouting staff, Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager with the Cleveland Browns, spearheads efforts to identify and secure the most talented collection of players possible each year. From an initial watch list that typically includes 350-400 players, Savage and Senior Bowl scouts travel nationwide to evaluate potential selections in the fall. Invitations are extended in November and December, and the rosters aren't fully set until the last of those invitations are accepted around mid-January. As the game's name would indicate, the vast majority of players are seniors. However, beginning in 2013, the game began accepting juniors who had already earned their undergraduate degree. Players are divided into a North squad and a South squad, made up of 55 players each.
Two NFL clubs volunteer to coach each Senior Bowl squad; this year's game will be coached by the staffs of the Cleveland Browns and Chicago Bears. Clubs are given the first option to volunteer for the week based on draft order, but only clubs with a coaching staff returning from the previous season are eligible. As such, the San Francisco 49ers didn't have the opportunity despite holding a higher position in the draft order than the Bears. The Browns hold the draft's top pick. With the benefit of hands-on interaction with the players during the week, both on the field and in team meetings, the Senior Bowl coaching staffs get an even closer look at the prospects than other clubs.
Players and multiple representatives from each NFL club arrive a week before the game. Practices are held from Tuesday through Thursday, and clubs engage with players for formal interviews on Tuesday night. Informal interviews begin on Monday. On Tuesday morning, each player goes through a weigh-in in front of scouts and coaches where height, weight and other measurements are recorded and distributed to teams. Players also engage in a community service project each year. For many years, the Senior Bowl's opening practice has been held in Fairhope, Ala. However, this year, the Senior Bowl and Fairhope officials were unable reach an agreement to continue that arrangement. As such, all practices will be held at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile.
Typical of all-star games, various restrictions keep strategy relatively plain. Offenses are only permitted to use three personnel groupings (2 RB, 1 TE, 2 WR), (1 RB, 2 TE, 2 WR), (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WR). Offensive formations must be balanced, cut blocks are prohibited, and no pre-snap motion is allowed. Quarterbacks are permitted to audible to a new play at the line of scrimmage, but according to Savage, they rarely do so. Trick plays are permitted. Defenses are not permitted to blitz, and defensive fronts aren't allowed to twist or stunt. On special teams, there are only kickoffs to open each half; the ball is placed at the 25-yard line after scores. PATs are kicked from the NFL distance of 33 yards, and fake punts are not allowed. ... New to the game this year, as part of a Reese's "Go For Two" sponsorship promotion, teams scoring touchdowns in the second quarter must attempt a two-point conversion.