MOBILE, Ala. (AP) – Being a senior NFL prospect does have some perks.
While many of the likely top picks are underclassmen, their slightly older counterparts get an expenses-paid week at the Senior Bowl to showcase their talents before a few hundred NFL coaches, executives and scouts plus the chances to make a good impression in face-to-face meetings.
Saturday’s game won’t feature three top-5 picks like 2012, when Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson and Ziggy Ansah catapulted into that rarefied air. The weeklong audition could make some prospects extra money when the draft comes around in May.
“I do think you’re going to see some players maybe that were second- or third-rounders that could elevate into the first round, because they’re seniors and that reliability and the willingness to compete and those sorts of things are going to be an easier sell,” said Phil Savage, the game’s executive director and a former general manager of the Cleveland Browns.
“They are going to know these players better than the junior who just declared, who they’ve got to figure out in the next three months.”
The game has opened its doors the past two years to juniors who have graduated like Alabama linebacker Adrian Hubbard.
Potential No. 1 pick Jadeveon Clowney and North Carolina tight end Eric Ebron even took in a Tuesday practice.
Clowney was among the record 102 underclassmen who declared for the draft. He, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel, Clemson receiver Sammy Watkins and Auburn left tackle Greg Robinson are among the potential Top-5 selections in that group.
They’ll get plenty of chances to impress NFL teams before the draft, including the combine. They just don’t get to do it in Senior Bowl practices with the bleachers and sidelines packed with potential employers watching matchups like Baylor guard Cyril Richardson going against Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
“We concern ourselves with the guys on our list that come out to compete,” said Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley, who’s leading the South team. “With the juniors coming out now, it places much more emphasis on this opportunity there. There are so many evaluations that take place that you can come here and see a lot of guys in a three-day period. That part’s great.”
The Senior Bowl has averaged 10 first-rounders over the past nine drafts. The NFC Championship game between San Francisco and Seattle featured quarterback alums Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson.
You never know who you’re going to run into at Senior Bowl practices, or nearly run into.
“We ran an out route and I went to throw it and the ball was headed right at (Jets coach) Rex Ryan, so I was hoping my guy would catch it so he wouldn’t send those extra blitzes at me later on,” said Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, whose brother David was the No. 1 overall pick after playing in the 2002 Senior Bowl.
This year, nine eligible, uninjured players turned down invitations, including Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde and Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner.
It might not affect their draft status, but NFL teams do notice.
“Personally, I believe when you’re given an opportunity to go out and compete and show what you’re capable of doing, you should take advantage of every opportunity,” Atlanta Falcons and North coach Mike Smith said.
Top talents like Matthews, Mosley and, of course, Clowney and Manziel aren’t likely to need a week like this to help their stock. Others can benefit either in the draft or down the line as free agents with impressions made in Mobile.
“I wouldn’t throw a blanket on it and say if you’re a first-rounder you shouldn’t come here because there’s guys that are coming up behind you that want that spot,” Savage said. He encourages players who are projected as late first-rounders or early second-rounders to participate.
Top linebacker prospect Anthony Barr of UCLA was among 19 other invites who are recovering from injuries.
Their absences opened up slots for others, a potentially useful reminder for future pros.
“It’s just like the big leagues,” Savage said. “It’s next man up. That’s the stark reality of pro football.”