MOBILE, Ala. – Getting an invite to the Senior Bowl isn't a reward for a job well done in college. It's a sign that people think you can do your job well in the NFL. And that's what makes it more than an all-star game, not a popularity contest.
First-year Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy, who spent 18 years in the league as a scout, built his staff like a personnel department. He cut the country into five areas, dividing them among four other veteran scouts and himself. His first list of 60 invites went out in mid-November, and then he started working his contacts in the NFL to get a feel for which players they want to see. Nagy called 17 teams in all, and a few months later, the whole thing came together for this week in Mobile, Alabama.
Nagy kicked things off with a preview of the week. Here is what he had to say about the top prospects and positions:
NFL TEAMS 'FIRED UP' ABOUT O-LINEMEN
When Nagy was making his calls to NFL teams and going through the positions, the feedback he got was that the league is "the most fired up about the offensive line group." At the center of it all is N.C. State's Garrett Bradbury, whom NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah ranked No. 41 on his top prospects list.
"He was so much fun to watch," Nagy said. "Just in terms of being able to get out and pull and move and play in space, zone-blocking teams are going to love that guy. His ability to (do those things), his initial quickness is off the charts. I remember him just reaching three-techniques (defensive tackles) and stuff, he makes it look so easy. There have been some players where you've really got to grind through some tape to really get a good feel, whereas Garrett Bradbury kind of jumped right out – what his skillset was and what he was good at. Then digging in, I didn't realize he wasn't a lineman the whole time because he's got really nice feel. He takes great angles, sees things really well. I think he's a center only. Like even getting him here, he's not the biggest guy in the world (6-foot-3, 300 pounds), and that would really hurt him if he were projecting as a backup. But someone's going to draft that guy to be their starter."
Nagy also projects Kansas State's Dalton Risner to be a center, despite being listed as a tackle. "But that's what this week is about," Nagy said. He added: "I really think he could play four of the five spots. I don't really see him as a left tackle, but I think you could move him all the way across and play four spots. Gosh, the guy's intangibles are off the chart. He's played a million games. That's what I think the league is interested about with this position group. They're all blue-collar tough guys. They're the kind of guys who play in the NFL, have had a million snaps, have had a million starts at big schools. So he kind of fits the mold of what the league's looking for."
Meanwhile, Washington State's Andre Dillard and Wisconsin's Michael Deiter are names to watch at tackle. "I think Andre Dillard is going to be a huge name out of this week at left tackle," Nagy said. "He jumps off the tape when you watch (Cougars quarterback and fellow Senior Bowler) Gardner Minshew. I had no preparation for Andre Dillard when I put on that Wazzu tape. I think he's going to be a legit left tackle and could get in the first round. Michael Deiter from Wisconsin, I think is going to be in that conversation. It's just such a great group."
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah released the fourth edition of his top 50 prospect rankings.
DIVERSITY, ADVERSITY DEFINE EXPERIENCED QB CLASS
From 6-foot-7 Tyree Jackson, who was a late addition from Buffalo, to 6-foot Trace McSorley, who holds Penn State's record for career wins, the 2019 quarterback class has a player for everyone. North Team coach Jon Gruden, who is coming off his first season as head coach of the Raiders after a decade of being an analyst for ESPN, said Tuesday that he is throwing away the NFL prototype. This is a growing trend highlighted by Baker Mayfield, a 2018 Senior Bowl participant who went on to be selected first overall and set the NFL rookie touchdown record. The Cleveland Browns have him listed at 6-foot-1. Stay tuned to Giants.com for a more in-depth look at each quarterback prospect, but one thing that tends to equal success is experience.
"It goes back to the whole (Bill) Parcells thing where you want the certain number of starts," Nagy said of the Hall of Fame coach's rule about drafting quarterbacks. "Experience matters. It really does. It's just not a developmental league at any positon anymore. So you can't get snaps. You're going to get thrust right in. You've got to be ready to play. I think that when you are the face of a program, you're ready to handle some of that stuff. I think that those guys are more ready with all the stuff being thrown at them and being the guy."
From that experience comes another key element for quarterbacks: adversity. Each prospect at the Senior Bowl has overcome his share, but maybe none more than Minshew, who won the 2018 Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award as the nation's top senior or fourth-year junior quarterback. "The background is incredible because it shows the resilience and mental toughness," Nagy said. "He's bet on himself. He left Troy. He knew he was good enough to play. He saw he wasn't going to play behind Brandon Silvers. He goes to (junior college). This guy is constantly betting on himself. He goes to Washington State. It's not a guarantee."
Nagy said Minshew could be named Senior Bowl game MVP, which has recent significance for the Giants. The team has drafted back-to-back Senior Bowl MVP quarterbacks. Jerry Reese, who is no longer with the Giants, drafted Cal's Davis Webb, and current general manager Dave Gettleman selected Richmond's Kyle Lauletta. And for what it's worth, the Cowboys took Dak Prescott a year before those two. He was named the 2016 MVP coming out of Mississippi State.
"I think what separates (Minshew) and what makes him a really interesting player is coming out of that system up there for Mike Leach, a lot of those guys, the big knock is their program -- 'It's simple read. It's half-field.' Well, when you watch Gardner play, he sees everything. He's got such a good feel for the quarterback position that being down here, he's a guy that in the game, to me he's a guy that could be the game MVP. He'll get in this game and just operate because he just knows how to play quarterback. His vision is great, really accurate, he's a gamer. You can see from the time he's walked in the building here, he's just got something about him. I told the two coaches (Gruden and South Team coach Kyle Shanahan of the 49ers) today, we were talking about the quarterback group, and I'm like, 'Wait until you get around this Minshew kid. He's got something.'"
SENIOR BOWL GAME, NOT JUST PRACTICE, STILL MATTERS
The Senior Bowl is more than just an all-star game played on Saturday. NFL coaches, general managers, scouts, etc., all gather in Mobile for a week of practices and interviews with prospects. Nagy told the players this week that while the money is made during one-on-one drills, the game can also boost draft stock. "I think there's a fallacy out there that it's just the practice week and the game – 'Ah, who cares about the game?' I told the players, like Marcus Davenport (defensive end drafted 14th overall by the Saints), to me, he wasn't great all week last year. He was really good in the game. He had a good week, he didn't have a great week, but he had a really good game. Then certain positions, like Rashaad Penny (drafted 27th overall by the Seahawks) last year, running backs are really hard evaluate down here other than pass pro and the pass game, but in the run, we don't take them to the ground (in practice). So running back, it's critical. The quarterback – Josh Allen (drafted seventh overall by the Bills) got better every day last year and he peaked in that game, Kyle Lauletta, so the game can be really big as well. It's just a big week to connect and get comfortable in the pre-draft press conference." Next up is the combine at the end of February.
DON'T FORGET THE SMALL SCHOOLS
Just because the Senior Bowl takes place in the land of Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide doesn't mean the small schools are forgotten. Nagy deferred to NFL teams to find the diamonds in the rough. "I didn't want to force any small school players into the game just for the sake of bringing a small school guy in," Nagy said. "I think every guy we're bringing in is going to get drafted and play a long time. (Delaware safety) Nasir Adderley is an easy one. … (Charleston defensive end) John Cominsky is another one. I started getting calls on him from friends in the league. So kudos to my friends in the league for helping us out, trying to identify some smaller school guys. Our staff, we were going to go to see all the players in all the big schools, so it took those relationships to get us into those because you won't know about them. We don't have the resources, we don't have the budget to just be on the road and travel every day. The friends in the league steered me towards (Cominsky), and when I started getting those calls it was more, 'Listen, Jim, this isn't a late-round guy. This is a guy who could be like a second- or third-round pick.' So then I sent one of our scouting assistants up, and he came back and he was like, 'We've got to get this guy. He's awesome.'"