The Senior Bowl features the best that college's senior class has to offer. And though the intensity is high and jockeying for draft position is on the line, what most NFL prospects take away from that week of work in Mobile, Alabama is a sense of friendship developed through the common goal of making it to the NFL.
Two of Buffalo's 2008 draft picks were part of the Senior Bowl experience last year. Top pick Leodis McKelvin and third-round choice Chris Ellis both remember the close-knit atmosphere amongst the players. But what stood them immediately at attention were the NFL staffs working with them in the practice setting.
"The biggest thing was seeing the NFL coaching staff on the field and the pace of practice and knowing you're on the practice field with the best guys in the country," said Ellis. "That's kind of the first introduction into the NFL and having to step your game level up and getting better as a player. That was the eye opener. You're getting the best of the best and you're quickly aware that it's an opportunity to bring what you have to the table."
"Just the experience of interacting with NFL coaches was valuable," said McKelvin. "Then testing yourself and showcasing your talent against the top notch seniors in the country. That came next."
And practice proved to be far more intense than the game. McKelvin and Ellis quickly adjusted to the pace of the practices knowing there were several hundred sets of NFL eyes watching every rep.
"It was like game time at practice," said McKelvin. "Practice is the most important thing because the coaching staffs and GMs are out there watching you. The time that you're out there at practice everybody is going to be there. Only the scouts stay for the game. So you had to make sure you were out there competing every day."
"There was no doubt about it, practice was definitely like a game," said Ellis. "Most guys I'm sure would agree that the practices are harder than the game. I was more sore after three days of practice than I was after the game."
For McKelvin coming from Troy he was eager to show how he could stack up against the major college talent on hand.
"When you come from a smaller Division I school you always want to play against the guys that are on TV for most of their college career," he said. "And you want to showcase your ability, and represent where you come from and do well for yourself."
Coming from Virginia Tech, Ellis was more accustomed to seeing top talent at every position, but it made it easy for him and every other prospect to bring their best every snap.
"For a lot of the guys out there it was like a dream come true," Ellis said. "There was not much that you had to dig deep for. You just had to go out and make a difference in your own way. Everybody's team practices aren't like that, otherwise you wouldn't make it through the season. But everybody knows why you're there so once you see the tempo everybody brings all that they have."
Unlike the combine there isn't much time for interviews with teams, though some will ask players to fill out questionnaires for five minutes or have a quick word with a player or two. Coaching staffs and scouts realize they'll see a lot of the same players in February at the combine where there will be more of an opportunity to sit and talk with players.
But what the future NFL players take away from Senior Bowl week is not the way they played in the game, or how they fared in the high intensity practices. They remember the bonds they made with fellow players knowing they all were that much closer to the same goal they had all held for a long time.
"Just being with all the best football athletes from across the country was special," said McKelvin. "It's basically the best of the best."
"The camaraderie with the players is what you take with you because everybody knows we're out there for one purpose," said Ellis. "Everybody respected everyone else's game even though it was a battle out there for jobs in a way. Besides practice everything else was laid back and relaxed. We had a good time and a lot of laughs and when you see guys in the league now you remember the friendships you built there. That's what I take away from it."