There is no ice in Alabama, but Jim Nagy imported plexiglass to Mobile like he was hosting a showcase event for college hockey.
Such is reality for the executive director of the Senior Bowl amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Nagy and his staff, who were set to take the game to the next level with expanded fan experiences as they moved into a new stadium, had to adjust to make the 2021 version as safe as possible for the players and NFL staff. His revised plans included retrofitting space for interviews, which are every bit as valuable to talent evaluators as what happens on the field during this week's practices and the game itself.
"We bought a lot of plexiglass for the event this year," Nagy said on the “Giants Huddle” podcast. "The guys are going to be distanced and masked and all that good stuff."
Nagy wouldn't be sitting in his chair if he didn't think the Senior Bowl had value every year, but he believes it takes on a greater significance given the current circumstances. The biggest reason is the status of the 2021 NFL Scouting Combine, which will not include any in-person activities.
"This might be all these players' only opportunity to get one-on-one face time with NFL guys that are going to be making decisions on their future, the guys that are pulling the names off the board in April, Nagy said. "The guys that are up the decision-making chain weren't out at games this fall because they couldn't go to a college game on Saturday and then re-enter their team's bubble and go to their game on Sunday. Most of those guys travel with the team and went to their team's game, so this will be the first opportunity those guys have to really lay their eyeballs on players, which is a really underrated part of the evaluation process – actually sizing up a guy in person and then sitting across from them. I think we're all getting used to Zoom calls by now, but I think there's something to be said for in-person, human interaction."
The 72nd annual Senior Bowl will be played at 2:30 p.m. ET on Saturday, Jan. 30, at Hancock Whitney Stadium on the campus of the University of South Alabama.
But the week of practices and interviews is when the critical action takes place as the nation's best senior collegiate football players gather to showcase their talents while being coached by NFL staffs. This year, the teams will be coached by the Panthers, who own the No. 8 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the Dolphins, who hold Nos. 3 and 18. The Giants currently have the No. 11 pick.
POSITIONS TO WATCH
Nagy is fired up about all 130-plus prospects set to participate this year, but much like in 2020, he said the wide receiver class is a "really loaded group."
In particular, he mentioned Nico Collins (Michigan), Kadarius Toney (Florida), Tylan Wallace (Oklahoma State), and D'Wayne Eskridge, who isn't a household name out of Western Michigan but could become one.
Nagy also said the edge rush group is the best he's ever seen at the game, and the offensive linemen are "off the charts."
"Two years ago, my first year at the game [as executive director], we had five O-linemen go in the first round," Nagy said. "And just on the North Team that year, we had nine of the 10 guys who went in the first three rounds. I really feel like this year's group is as good – or if not maybe a little better – than that. That O-line group is stacked."
POTENTIAL FIRST ROUNDERS
Senior Bowl alumni dominate Day 2 of the draft, but they have a growing presence in the first round. Nagy pointed to a handful of Alabama products who could fit the bill after they recently accepted invitations coming off their national championship. The Crimson Tide list includes wide receiver and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith, running back Najee Harris, quarterback Mac Jones, and offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood.
Other potential first-round picks targeted by Nagy are Cincinnati offensive lineman James Hudson III ("a name people don't know but they're going to"), Washington defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike ("best D-tackle in this draft"), and Pittsburgh edge rushers Patrick Jones II and Rashad Weaver.
"You work your way across the board and there's really a couple guys at every spot [who could go on Day 1]," Nagy said. "We went over it the other day; I think there's 12 or 13 guys that right now – and you never know, maybe there are some guys that surprise us – but I think there's 12 or 13 that realistically have a chance to get in there."
View photos of players to accept an invite to the 2021 Senior Bowl.
The Senior Bowl is an opportunity for players from smaller conferences to prove they belong with the big boys. Nagy is high on Dillon Radunz, who started 32 consecutive games at left tackle for North Dakota State. Nagy said he has a chance to move up like current Texans tackle Tytus Howard (Alabama State) did in 2019.
"His tape is ridiculous," Nagy said of the 6-foot-6, 298-pound Radunz. "He's athletic and he's mean and he finishes people. Usually, it's like one or the other. Usually, they're athletic but they're more of a finesse player, or they're just like a mean tough guy and they're not a good enough athlete. Whereas Dillon's got both things in spades."
Sticking on the offensive line, Nagy said Spencer Brown of Northern Iowa is another name to watch.
"He's verified over 6-foot-8, which is usually a little bit of an issue from a pad level perspective, but Spencer is an unusual bender for someone that size," Nagy said. "And he's got a great background. He played eight-man football growing up in the state of Iowa. He goes to Northern Iowa as a 225-pound guy and now he's 315. I think he's going to skyrocket; I really do. I think he and Dillon will both have huge weeks."
On the other side of the ball, Nagy is high on Robert Rochell, who is "a big, long corner" from Central Arkansas. Nagy said right now he is probably graded in the third- or fourth-round range for most NFL clubs, but that could change for the 6-foot-2, 195-pounder.
"If he can come down here and cover guys like Tylan Wallace and Kadarius Toney and Nico Collins, he might get up into the second-round area. So [it's] another good group of small-school guys, and that's one of the reasons – even going back 25 years since I've been coming to the game as a scout – I love the Senior Bowl for those small-school guys."
MOVING ON UP
The Senior Bowl is a chance for NFL decision-makers to see up close how prospects can translate to the professional level. It has been especially helpful for quarterbacks as of late. As Nagy mentioned, Daniel Jones (2019 Senior Bowl MVP), Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield, and Justin Herbert were seen as mid-Day 1 picks, at best – until they went to Mobile and became high selections.
At the same time, it doesn't just apply to the signal-callers.
"The quarterbacks really can help themselves," Nagy said. "I think the big guys can certainly, too. Those one-on-one pass rush [drills], I think if defensive linemen put together about three or four good rushes in the week, that's about all they need to do because then you've got defensive line coaches around the league, if they see it once or twice, they think they can get that out of the guy consistently. So those guys can always benefit. I really think all of them can. If you've got a corner that comes down here and locks guys up in one-on-ones or a receiver that just gets open consistently like the group last year did or Deebo Samuel did the year before, all of them can [move up draft boards]."
ABOUT JIM NAGY
Nagy entered the NFL as an intern for the Green Bay Packers during their Super Bowl-winning season in 1996. After spending one season as the West Coast Area Scout for the Washington Football Team, Nagy joined the New England Patriots as an area scout in 2002, spending seven years with the club. He was hired by Scott Pioli in Kansas City as a National Scout before spending five years as the Southeast Area Scout for the Seattle Seahawks. Nagy was a part of six Super Bowl teams and four Lombardi Trophy-winning clubs (Green Bay Packers XXXI, New England Patriots XXXVIII and XXXIX and Seattle Seahawks XLVIII) before taking over as Executive Director of the Senior Bowl in June 2018. One of Nagy's first moves was to build the game's first-ever scouting department composed of former NFL scouts and implement a formal scouting system. The 186 players drafted (80 in the first three rounds) is the best two-year draft record in the Senior Bowl's 72-year history.