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Senior Bowl offers parallels to training camp

Posted Jan 26, 2012

The Senior Bowl is the biggest fact-gathering event between the end of the college football bowl season and the NFL Combine. History says at least one or two future Chargers are practicing at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile this week.

SAN DIEGO – The talent-rich Senior Bowl is in some ways more beneficial than the NFL Combine.

Granted, just 104 players attend, as opposed to the 325-plus expected in Indianapolis next month. And there are no underclassmen at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile this week.

But the North and South squads wear pads and participate in pro-style drills run this year by the Washington Redskins’ and Minnesota Vikings’ coaches. That will give San Diego’s scouts something they can’t glean from a fall college practice, from watching film or from seeing the players run, lift and jump in shorts at the NFL Combine.

The Chargers’ scouts travel the country during the fall to visit schools, which have different restrictions on how long scouts can watch practice. Some colleges will only let them stay for stretching. Players don’t wear full pads every day and are focused on game-planning, much like the NFL’s in-season sessions.

“These bowl games are true NFL, almost training camp-type practices where you’re in full pads, you’re live in drills,” director of college scouting John Spanos said. “It’s really good exposure for us to evaluate. It really is a unique platform that’s real beneficial to us.”

The Senior Bowl is just one of a handful of showcases, including the East-West Shrine game (Jan. 21). But it’s the only one to which San Diego sends its entire scouting department, which spends all day watching each squad practice and interviewing players at the hotel into the evening. The other games are split. The Chargers usually send two or three scouts to each. And many of the next tier of games have gone defunct, changed names or changed locations in the last five years.

San Diego’s 2011 roster included 16 Senior Bowl and five Shrine game participants.

“I do think it’s safe to say that perhaps the importance of the other bowl games is understated,” Spanos said. “(But) the Senior Bowl usually attracts the top talent. It’s probably fair to say from the end of the season to the Combine, it’s the most important thing that goes on from an evaluation standpoint in terms of gathering information.”

Said director of player personnel Jimmy Raye: “The Senior Bowl is the best game without question. They have the best players every year. It’s the best of the best, really. I think players gravitate toward that game just because of the NFL coaches (directing practice).”

General Manager A.J. Smith is on record as being cautious to put too much stock into any one practice or portion of the pre-draft buildup, seeing it as another line on the résumé rather than cause to rip up the dossier and reposition everything.

One week of an all-star game, in other words, won’t replace a college career. But in some cases, it makes a difference.

“There are times where it could be the system that he’s playing in, and working with NFL coaches allows the player to flourish,” Raye said. “So you get to see some things that maybe open your eyes: ‘The ceiling of this player could be a lot higher than I thought it was.’

“Having the NFL guys teach the players and seeing how they react to learning a small package of what they may learn in training camp or mini camp gives you an idea of how quickly they can adapt and adjust to an NFL style of play.”

Each scout focuses on a specific position for multiple bowl games, so he can dissect the guys individually as well as compare them to each other. For example, Jim Jauch, the Southeast scout, focused on defensive backs at the Shrine game, Senior Bowl and Battle of Florida.

The organization looks for specific skill sets and physical traits at each position. The scouts spend every practice analyzing their targeted group in detail against the list.

During the present era, colleges run more types of offenses than ever, and many of them do not mimic the system the Chargers use under Head Coach Norv Turner.

“You see all these spread passing attacks,” Spanos said. “For example, evaluating an offensive lineman from that type of an offense, you really don’t get to see a lot of run-blocking (or) NFL style in-line blocking. With these practices, you get to see an O-lineman in team and 9-on-7 drills. You get to see more scheme-oriented things that you’d see in the NFL, but you don’t see from their traditional spread passing attack where they’re throwing 90 percent of the time.”

The Senior Bowl practices offer 1-on-1s between receivers and defensive backs as well as offensive and defensive linemen, another useful evaluation tool.

Scouts gauge a quarterback’s arm strength much easier in person. They judge a defensive back’s hips better and determine how quickly he can get out of his backpedal.

Evaluating a receiver sometimes means going through four games of video for a handful of catches. If they watch the same receiver go through every drill for a week at the Senior Bowl, you see him run more routes by an exponential value. The attention to detail is critical in separating players from each other.

“I’ll narrow it down to 15 or 20 players that are of great interest to me and I’ll zoom in on that,” Smith said. “It’s kind of the way I’ve handled it before rather than have a roster full of both teams. The number is too great.”

With Smith as general manager, the Chargers have drafted 27 players from the Senior Bowl in addition to Philip Rivers. More than 39 percent of Smith’s draft picks have participated in the Senior Bowl, including last year’s draft choices Marcus Gilchrist, Vincent Brown, Shareece Wright and Stephen Schilling.

San Diego’s personnel department will meet after Saturday’s game to discuss how each player performed compared to what they’ve seen from the player’s college career.

“That’s the way we go about dissecting it,” Raye said. “One thing you don’t want to do is put too much emphasis on one week of an all-star game compared to three or four years of game video.”

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