MOBILE, AL. – The NFL potential on display this week at the Senior Bowl is impressive — it always is. But some will tell you the blue-chip talent is in the underclassmen, with more than 100 declaring already.
For the Buffalo Bills in the last two years, however, the Senior Bowl has been an important source of talent. They drafted four Senior Bowl performers in 2017 (CB Tre White, WR Zay Jones, T Dion Dawkins and QB Nathan Peterman). In 2018, they drafted five Senior Bowl players (QB Josh Allen, DT Harrison Phillips, CB Taron Johnson and G Wyatt Teller) and signed one more as an undrafted free agent (CB Levi Wallace).
Without a doubt, the Bills have used the Senior Bowl to re-stock their talent shelf in the last two seasons.
"Without giving away too many secrets, I feel like when you stick with smart, tough and guys that are hungry to be the best as what they do and are passionate about what they do, those are three good qualities to start with." Head coach Sean McDermott
"That's why I'm here," head coach Sean McDermott said this week in between Senior Bowl practices in Mobile. "That's why we're here. We believe in this process here. We get a chance to not only watch these young men perform on the field, but also get a chance to be around them in the evening where we can interview them and get up close and personal with them, have a better understanding for who they are as people and what motivates them as professionals."
The night time interviews are critical for the Bills. They've got McDermott, his coordinators on offense, defense and special teams, new offensive line coach Bobby Johnson, and general manager Brandon Beane and his personnel staff in a hotel meeting room three nights this week. More than 20 Senior Bowl prospects will be put on the interview schedule.
"You want to see the guys where it's not all about themselves," Beane says about the night time sessions. "Especially, what's their leadership like."
"You also watch these guys in the hotel when they're not watching you. We have all our scouts taking notes, not just on what happens out on the field, but if you see anybody acting out of character or anything that would be a red flag that we would be concerned about.'
The Bills brain trust will obviously be watching the practices during Senior Bowl week. And Coach McDermott says he's got some specific player traits he looks for during the workouts.
"Without giving away too many secrets, I feel like when you stick with smart, tough and guys that are hungry to be the best as what they do and are passionate about what they do, those are three good qualities to start with," he says.
Those are qualities to look for on the offensive line, where the Bills are undoubtedly looking to upgrade. Senior Bowl Executive Director Jim Nagy says there are several top-flight prospects here on the interior of the offensive line. The Bills have their eyes on them, but they're also aware of the increasingly difficult transition college linemen must go through to fit into the pro game.
"The game has changed quite a bit at the college level for sure, our level maybe not as much. But it's changed, and we have to adjust," McDermott said this week. "That's what we do—that's what we get paid to do.'
"Sometimes what they're taught at that level is different than what we teach here," he continued. "Just because you're not seeing the skill maybe at that level, doesn't mean you're not able to do it here."
What hasn't changed is the Bills interest in the Senior Bowl and their commitment to the draft. Even with plenty of cap money this spring and plenty of needs all over the roster, Beane believes the smartest way to assemble talent is through the draft, not in free agency.
"I like the draft best," Beane says. "You control it. You're not fighting for anyone—you're right there—you're at pick nine and you get to take who you think is the best player available.'
"In free agency," he says, "you can think you've got a guy and he's halfway in the boat and somebody else trumps you, or takes the value, so there are a lot of moving pieces with free agents. That's the harder one. I like when free agency is done, and then you can just focus on the draft."
Free agency is seven weeks away, March 13. The draft begins in three months, April 25.