Last week the bulk of the Patriots coaching and scouting staff spent time in Mobile, Ala., at the 2003 Senior Bowl. The game matches the best senior college football players in the country against each other, the North defeated the South 17-0, but more importantly it gives NFL talent evaluators a chance to observe this year's draft crop. As important as the game action itself is, even more information can be gained about players based on the practice action from the week leading up to the game.
Patriots Head Coach Bill Belichick, who did not attend this year's Senior Bowl practices as he remained in the New England area to attend the funeral of * Boston Globe* football writer Will McDonough, believes that the Senior Bowl is an important piece of the talent evaluation process and draft preparation.
"The big thing about the Senior Bowl is that it's run buy pro coaches so it's a pro system that's fairly similar to what we're doing regardless of which team is coaching it," Belichick said in an interview with Patriots Football Weekly on Jan. 17. "A lot of the bowl games are coached by college coaches – maybe a head coach from one school with a couple of head coaches from other schools as his assistants. This is a true [pro] football staff that is doing a pro program with the drills that we do."
"It's the first time you can see players working side-by-side against a high caliber of competition. You see a guy from one school playing against another and sometimes you get real good matchups here or there, but when you watch one-on-one drills at the Senior Bowl all of those guys are going to get drafted and all those guys are going to be in the NFL next year – they may not all make it but they're all going to get to training camp and you can start evaluating them against each other. Generally there's just a better crop of players at the Senior Bowl than at some of the other games."
Belichick, whose staff spent Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday of last week in Mobile evaluating the practices, believes that many times you can see more in those practices than in the actual game action.
"In a game on offense you only get maybe 65 plays and the guys alternate so you only get a guy for maybe 30 plays in a game and see them against the other team." Belichick said. "In practice, you get to see the offensive linemen from the north blocking the defensive linemen from the north and you're evaluating that, and then you go to the game and see the north against the south. Some of the matchups show up, some of them don't. But in practices you get more looks and opportunities against different people."
But as important as the postseason all-star type bowls can be in evaluating players against a high level of competition, they are also just a small piece of the draft process. Between college game films, scouting research into each player, the upcoming NFL Draft Combine and various other tools teams put together an abundance of knowledge on a player before selecting in April's draft.
"I'd say it's a piece to the puzzle," Belichick of the Senior Bowl. "The downside to the bowl game is the guy is going there and learning a new system. It's not really a true picture of a player who's been in a program for three or four years, is really confident in the system, knows what he's been doing and has worked with those people and has his timing of his teammates over a period of time. Some kids do better in one setting and some kids do better in another. I don't think it's the end all but it's another look at them."
For more of Belichick's interview with Patriots Football Weekly check out the upcoming February issue.
According to Pro Football Weekly here are some of the interesting physical statistics from this year's Senior Bowl. … Texas quarterback Chris Simms, Florida tight end Aaron Walker and Michigan linebacker Victor Hobson had the largest hands, all measuring and impressive 10 and a half inches. … Syracuse linebacker Clifton Smith had the smallest at 7 and three quarter inches. … Illinois offensive lineman Tony Pashos was the heaviest player at the game at 6-5, 339 pounds. … North Carolina defensive lineman Terrance Martin had the longest arms of any player at 36 inches. … The lightest player was slender Georgia wide receiver Terrence Edwards at 163 pounds.
Penn State running back Larry Johnson was the game's overall MVP. Johnson rushed for 59 yards on 13 carries. Penn State defensive lineman Michael Haynes was the North defensive MVP with four tackles, two for a loss, one sack and two forced fumbles. Notre Dame wide receiver Arnaz Battle was the North offensive MVP with two rushes for 19 yards and three catches for 27 yards.
North Carolina wide receiver Sam Aiken was the South offensive MVP with nine receptions for 69 yards. Texas A&M defensive lineman Ty Warren was the South defensive MVP with five tackles and one sack.
Notre Dame defensive back Shane Walton had the game's biggest play with a 99-yard interception return for a touchdown in the fourth quarter. The play was the longest return in Senior Bowl history, besting a 97-yard return by Fred Weary in 1998. Heisman Trophy winner Carson Palmer of USC had an impressive game completing 9-of-15 passes for 74 yards.