For the NFL talent evaluators attending the Senior Bowl it's a chance to meet face to face with some of the top college players and get to know more about them than just what they see on tape. For fans it's a showcase of the best talent in the senior class. For most players it's an opportunity to solidify their draft stock. But for the lesser knowns it can mean the difference in getting on an NFL roster.
The Senior Bowl is widely considered to be the best collection of senior class talent of all the postseason all-star games. Every year there is also a handful of talent that hasn't been high on the NFL radar. Two such players played in the Senior Bowl last year and made Buffalo's 53-man roster in 2010.
Linebacker Antonio Coleman and wide receiver Donald Jones each had different paths to the Senior Bowl. Coleman was a 1st Team All-SEC performer at Auburn having led the conference in tackles for loss and sacks as a senior. He also was a local Mobile, Alabama product so he was a virtual lock for a Senior Bowl invite.
"For me it was like a homecoming," Coleman told Buffalobills.com. "The exact field where the Senior Bowl is played is where I played in high school and where I played park ball. So I played there a long time."
Playing in a major conference it wasn't hard for Coleman to get noticed, but a wrist injury his senior season had some NFL clubs shying away. For Jones there were other circumstances at work which kept him from being a highly touted prospect. A junior college transfer, Jones was set to play his last two seasons of college ball at Ole Miss, but a coaching change complicated matters and the receiver wound up at Youngstown State, an FCS school.
His senior statistics fortunately were too good to ignore as he posted 77 receptions for 700 yards and six touchdowns in just 11 games. Still, his invite for the Senior Bowl came in the 11th hour.
"I actually went down there I think maybe Tuesday and most of the guys got down there on Sunday. So I was a little later than everybody else, and I still had to grasp the offense but I did a great job with it. They keep it kind of vanilla, but the coaches did a good job of teaching me the offense."
Jones played for the North team while Coleman was on the South roster. Very quickly they both realized that the practices would prove to carry more weight in the eyes of NFL scouts and coaches than the actual game on Saturday.
"I felt like every day I came out there was an interview, not only off the field, but on the field performing in front of all these scouts and coaches that are looking at you," Coleman said. "I just felt like it was an interview so I felt it was in my best interest to get out there play football, stay relaxed and just fly around."
"When you get to the Senior Bowl and you're practicing with the NFL coaches and all of the scouts are standing around the field. You know it's serious then," said Jones. "The practice sessions for Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday are the most important."
The game on Saturday still carries weight, especially for a player like Jones. NFL scouts and coaches want to see that a player from a college subdivision isn't awed by the step up in competition. Though Jones only had one catch for five yards in the game, he showed well on special teams, which is also what largely landed him a roster spot on Buffalo's 53-man squad this past September.
Jones recalls NFL scouts and coaches at the NFL Combine last February talking to him about his Senior Bowl performance.
"They definitely comment on what you did at the Senior Bowl," he said. "They bring everything back up. They remember everything. It's crazy."
"When I spoke with the Bills I talked with coach (George) Edwards, who had been following me for a while when I was at Auburn," said Coleman. "(Outside linebackers) coach (Bob) Sanders was all telling me to stay strong, and that they liked how I worked and they liked my production and thought I could be a good player. I like to think that even though I wasn't drafted that what I showed at the Senior Bowl helped."
Both Coleman and Jones went undrafted last spring, but Jones is convinced that the practice time and game time he got at the Senior Bowl could very well have been the difference in getting his name out there to more NFL talent evaluators.
"The Senior Bowl for a guy like me coming from a small school is like my Super Bowl," he said. "It can help you a lot and it can hurt you a lot too if you go out there and just stink it up. It's an important week for anybody playing in the game even if you're a guy that's high on the radar."
Coleman, who had three tackles in the game last year including one for loss, also believes his Senior Bowl opportunity helped get him an NFL shot. But for the Mobile native, the significance of the game clearly ran deeper.
"It was awesome," he said. "I actually dreamed about it playing park ball in the same stadium. I used to go to those Senior Bowl games and I always thought I would play in that game one day. So it was definitely a dream come true. And I tell all the kids down here about the Senior Bowl and how special it is to play in front of all your fans and your family that cheered for you all through high school. At the game last year I had a couple of hundred family members at the game. So it was something special."
Full coverage of the Senior Bowl practices begins on Buffalobills.com on Tuesday and runs through Friday with daily written reports, a video roundup of the day's action and interviews with Bills coaches and NFL prospects.