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Scouts Hunt for Outliers at the Senior Bowl

The scouts and the media are here in Mobile to shore up conclusions that they, in many cases,​ have already made about college prospects.
Photo by Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Scouts are at the Senior Bowl to see as much as they can, but they're mostly looking for a few specific things. Most of the work in evaluating a college prospect involves analyzing how he plays on game tape. There are also considerations unrelated to football itself: a player's work ethic, his desire to be in the game, his injury history, his character, and other less tangible, more subjective things. A player doesn't have to check off every box in that list to earn a draft grade, but he's tumbling down the boards if he can't at least half-check most of them.


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The scouts and the media are here in Mobile to firm up their evaluations and shore up conclusions that they, in many cases, have already made. Their job, at this point, can be broken down into two tropes that we see every year.

Can SMALL SCHOOL PLAYER X play with the big boys?

Everyone knows that the Ohio State and Alabama players on the Senior Bowl rosters have game experience against other top prospects. They might not always going up against future No. 1 picks individually, but their opposition is at a certain baseline of talent that is as close to the NFL as football gets.

When you like what you see. Photo by Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

But one of the wonders of the Senior Bowl is that Phil Savage and his brain trust also bring in some kids from small schools. Last year, that player was Hobart guard Ali Marpet, who went in the second round of the draft to the Bucs. On paper, Marpet had standout physical tools. Still, the tape we had of him playing against Division III players was meaningless—great job taking down 220-pound ends and future tax attorneys. The challenge, for scouts and the small school players lucky enough to get invites, is figuring out how those tools translate against actual players.

Bringing Marpet to Mobile helped assure scouts that he could play against Power Five conference players. He stonewalled rushers in drills just as well as a Max Garcia (Florida) or a Shaq Mason (Georgia Tech).


This year's spotlight is focused on North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. Wentz is drawing a lot of first-round buzz based on his physical tools, and he helped lead what has emerged as a bona fide dynasty in FCS. He hasn't exactly blown me away in these practices, at least not to the extent that he should be getting buzz to go to the Browns second overall.

A top — Mary Kay Cabot (@MaryKayCabot)January 27, 2016

That said, Wentz also hasn't looked out of place next to the other, more pedigreed quarterbacks on the North roster. He has the sort of peppy attitude (clapping after every throw) that will endear him to older scouts, and he definitely has the arm to be a franchise quarterback, especially on pure velocity and release speed.

I've also liked what I've seen out of Harvard tackle Cole Toner. Toner has been credible in "The Pit" drills that match up offensive linemen and defensive linemen. He's not an explosive athlete, but I could see him sticking at right tackle if his run blocking is solid.

How Will PLAYER X's Transition to POSITION Y Go?

The Senior Bowl is a great chance to get a first look at a player trying to learn a new position, whether by his own choice or sometimes under the coaching staff's influence. This is where outside linebackers become defensive ends, cornerbacks become safeties, and safeties become interior linebackers.

Last year's big move in this vein was when Auburn's Nick Marshall saw the writing on the wall for his prospects at quarterback and moved to corner. Marshall had all the physical tools to be a good cornerback, but none of the polish or experience against big-time competition. You can understand why this would make scouts hesitant, and so Marshall went undrafted. But the conversion is going well enough, fast enough that he saw the field with the Jaguars towards the end of last season.

This looks fun. Photo by Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

Without a doubt our biggest project here is former Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller. Miller transitioned to being a gadget/receiver last year for the Buckeyes, at times very well; at the Senior Bowl he's actually playing outside rather than in the slot. As he told Bleacher Report's Mike Tanier, either he's going to win or the cornerback will. Through the first two days of practices, Miller has been doing an awful lot of the winning. I'm talking "might sell a team enough to take him in the first two rounds" amounts of winning.

Someone who's had a tough time adjusting to a new position this year is Stanford's Kyle Murphy. He played this season at left tackle, but has been playing on the right side here. It hasn't been pretty, as the edges have put a hurting on him, although going up against the North's bounty of pass rushers hasn't helped. Scouts will have to weigh this performance against the game tape to try to find a medium that they are comfortable with.

And that's the name of the game in Mobile. Scouts are here to see players they might have second thoughts about: the guys who they haven't seen much of in person, the guys that do exceptionally well or poorly, the ones making a position switch. They're looking for the outliers and measuring them against what we already know. The picture is still developing, but a few guys are bucking the odds this year.