I wouldn’t say it’s a “blessing and a curse” type scenario, but the alternative is more desirable. Each year, the coaching selection process essentially starts at the bottom of the NFL standings. The league office works its way up until it finds the two worst teams with a stable coaching staff. These teams are presented with the opportunity to coach in the Senior Bowl, which provides the NFL’s version of a recruiting advantage. This year, the Cleveland Browns and the Chicago Bears were proudly selected. Two “flagship franchises when it comes to tradition and history” had exclusive access to the 2017 Draft candidates. The players spend a week in an environment similar to an NFL training camp. The coaches watch practice film with these players. They interview the seniors and determine who fits in their system.
Curious to see if the coaching opportunity provided any coaches with draft insight, I checked to see how players recently drafted by their Senior Bowl coaches have fared.
Three years ago, Gus Bradley made his first Senior Bowl appearance for the Jags along with Mike Smith from the Falcons. Bradley drafted exclusively from the Senior Bowl rosters in the third, fourth, and fifth round (four total picks). The Falcons drafted two Senior Bowlers in the second and third round. Of these six picks, five played in the Senior Bowl for the staff that picked them. For Jacksonville, CB Aaron Colvin and OLB Telvin Smith have become regular rotation guys. DE Chris Smith has bounced on and off the Jags’ practice squad. Atlanta’s picks, DT Ra’Shede Hageman and S Dezmen Southward, haven’t exactly been diamonds in the rough. Hageman has averaged less than 1.5 tackles per game in 44 games. Southward has signed with three different practice squads and only appeared in three games for Atlanta.
Result: Jacksonville has seen production from all three of the draftees they coached in the 2014 Senior Bowl. Of Mike Smith’s two selections from his Senior Bowl team, one remained on the roster by the beginning of next season. Overall, a decent crop of role players came for these Senior Bowl coaches.
Titans coach Ken Wisenhunt coached in the Senior Bowl after his first season with Tennessee. He was fired 7 weeks into the following season. Wisenhunt drafted RB David Cobb from his Senior Bowl team, who missed most of his rookie year on IR. Cobb spent a month on the Pittsburgh practice squad before moving to Chicago. The Bears used him in practice and agreed to a reserve/future contract, which means he will be part of the 90-man roster in March. Gus Bradley drafted no one from his Senior Bowl team in the Jaguars’ second appearance. They did select Ben Koyack in the seventh round from Wisenhunt’s team. Koyack made 19 catches for 161 yards and a TD this season after a year on the practice squad as a rookie.
Results: Tennessee may have liked David Cobb, but in hindsight better options were available. Cobb was selected in the fifth round while Stefon Diggs and Jay Ajayi remained available. Pair that with the fact that Gus Bradley selected none of his Senior Bowl team, even though he coached Pro Bowl RB David Johnson. Bradley selected RB T.J. Yeldon in the second round with Johnson still on the board. Yeldon is a fine back, but he hasn’t reached the early levels of performance of David Johnson.
Gus Bradley returned for a Senior Bowl record third consecutive appearance. He went up against Jason Garrett after an alarmingly bad year for the Cowboys. Garrett coached Cody Kessler and Carson Wentz but with Wentz off early, Dallas opted for Ezekiel Elliott. Dallas ultimately selected none of Garrett’s players from the Senior Bowl. Bradley did pick one of his own in 2016, QB Brandon Allen. The former Razorback spent his rookie year on the sideline without taking a snap.
Results: Myles Jack was the second round selection from Jacksonville. Jack was impressive in college, though health concerns left teams passing him out of the first round. Bradley took a chance on him instead of Reggie Ragland, who played for Bradley in the Senior Bowl. Jack was slow to transition, but able to see the field in 10 games. Ragland, meanwhile, tore his ACL and missed the entire year. Of course, Gus Bradley also coached some kid named Dak Prescott. For someone who has all the intangibles, it’s surprising that Bradley wasn’t able to pick up on Prescott’s ability after a week of practice.
Who knows which Senior Bowl athletes will be in the Pro Bowl next year? Only time will tell. For now, the coaches just take the opportunity they have to more accurately guess the answer to that question. John Fox emphasized the importance of getting to know the players as people and the advantage as a Senior Bowl coach. To the Chicago Bears Network, he said this: “You get to know the person. How he competes, how he deals with things, whether it’s stress or adversity or whatever.” By nature, the Senior Bowl tends to see players that matured late. Big college football names often declare after just two or three years of college. You never know who you’ll come up with at any stage in the draft but the Senior Bowl seems to help tilt the odds of avoiding a bust in your favor… and not much else.