Buffalo's coaching staff is in the process of getting their first extended look at the top senior prospects in Mobile, AL this week with Senior Bowl practices in full swing leading up to Saturday's game. And the most important thing the staff is looking for is consistency.
"You look for something that stands out in practice and then the next day does it stand out again or is there another attribute or something else that the player does that catches your attention," said defensive coordinator Perry Fewell. "So when you look at the tape of that player and you notice something in their college games, it's encouraging if it also showed up at the Senior Bowl. You want to see that consistent level of play. You look for that more than anything."
For coaches and scouts the practices are more valuable than the actual game because its when the bright lights aren't on that a staff wants to see if a player's approach to the game is the same.
"The more that you can see them in the practice situation the better evaluation you're able to make," said Bills quarterbacks coach Alex Van Pelt. "You can evaluate them on film, but some of the things you see in practice can be vital in telling you about a player."
"You find out who has fun in practice," said Fewell. "You find out their practice demeanor. Are they looking to have fun and play the game and get better or is it a chore for them where they know they have to do it and are trying to impress people, but are not really playing the game. So you pick up on some mannerisms."
Buffalo's staff puts a high premium on work ethic and competitiveness in the practice setting. So if a prospect effectively demonstrates that in addition to his talent, it's a big plus in the eyes of Bills coaches.
"You find out how intense they are in practice," Fewell said. "Are they competing in one-on-one blocking drills or the one-on-ones between receivers and defensive backs? You just kind of pick up on little things that you normally do in your practices and look for them. You can also compare the guys that you have on your roster to the guys you see at the Senior Bowl."
Of course the staff is also closely examining the physical attributes of the prospects as well and that's particularly valuable for Van Pelt in grading quarterbacks.
"At the quarterback position you're looking at arm strength and you can get a better assessment of that live and how the ball comes out of his hand," Van Pelt said. "The quickness of his release and quickness of his setup. All those things you can see a lot better if you watch him in practice for three days. So this really allows us to gather some good notes on some of the first college players we'll get an extended look at."
How quickly the prospects pick up the new schemes during Senior Bowl week is also closely observed by the Bills coaches, knowing the players will be in the exact same boat if and when they come to Buffalo as draft choices.
"You find out how they improve day one to day two," said Fewell. "There should be a lot of improvement because there are pro coaches coaching those guys and so you want to see guys getting better from the first practice to the second practice to the third practice. And so you pick up how they improve and how quickly they absorb things from NFL coaching."
"How they handle instruction if they miss a read with the coaches talking to them and whether they can make good on it the next time," said Van Pelt. "You can tell on the practice field how quickly they're picking things up."
Players that are able to rise above the strong level of competition at the Senior Bowl help their case immensely, even in the practice setting.
"The thing that I kind of look for is who jumps out from the practice," Fewell said. "Who stands out and separates themselves from the others in the practice. To the point where you go, 'Hey he finished that play well or that was a heck of a plant and drive, or that shed or the way a guy stepped up and filled the hole.' I can still remember Chad Johnson at the Senior Bowl. He just stood out and it was like, 'Whoa, this guys has got some talent.' It was untapped at the time, but he had some talent."
Buffalo's defensive staff watches practice a bit differently from the coaches on the offensive side of the ball. By design they will stand off on their own to individually evaluate the talent on hand.
"What we actually do is try to stand away from one another and watch the drills and then we'll get together and point out some things about players and see if we each saw some of the same things later," Fewell said. "We'll also take time to talk to each other and discuss what we liked in some players."
For the offensive side of the ball it's a little bit of both.
"I'll sit with Turk (Schonert) and watch practice in the morning, and in the afternoon I might sit with other coaches that I know in the league," said Van Pelt. "So I move around. We definitely have our own agendas on guys and then as the process develops we'll compare notes. If I like somebody or Turk likes somebody that I didn't, I'll take a second look and see if I missed something in my evaluation. I think we bounce things off each other pretty well."
And just because the players are at the Senior Bowl doesn't mean every one of them is a fit for the Bills. That's what makes the week of exposure to these college athletes so valuable.
"You look at the athleticism and see if the skills are there, if the intensity is there and if the attributes necessary to play the position there," said Fewell. "And then you hope you see all of those qualities on a consistent basis."