MOBILE, Ala. – As Mike Zimmer engages in a conversation with a reporter along the sidelines of a Senior Bowl practice, he sees a player that catches his eye and glances down at a laminated card to find out which draft prospect he just saw in action.
It’s the time of year when NFL coaching staffs are catching up on the college talent that will be available to them in April’s draft. After six months of heads-down work with their own team – from the dog days of grueling summer heat in Mankato to the frigid ending to the regular season in the final games at TCF Bank Stadium – Zimmer hasn’t had much of a chance to figure out the “what’s next” part of his roster for the 2016 rookies.
Minnesota Vikings coaches spent hours in meetings in Mobile, Ala. on the eve of the first Senior Bowl practice earlier this week, being made aware of the players picked apart over the last year by the scouting staff. What does this linebacker do well? Where does this offensive lineman struggle? How does this 6-foot-2 receiver differ from the next one?
This week at the Senior Bowl was a first introduction to some of the possibilities available in April’s draft, and Zimmer and most of his coaching staff were on hand – newly hired tight ends coach Pat Shurmur being the exception – surrounding the sidelines and stands at Fairhope Stadium and Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile this week, trying to figure out what they could about this year’s rookie class.
“Quickness, acceleration. Just seeing them move, athletic ability,” Zimmer said of the trait’s he is in search of. “And then the rest of the stuff you’ve got to get on tape. And see how they react in different situations with all these people around, see how they react with going against people they don’t really know.”
It’s all new for the players, as well.
Small-school prospects, like North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, are tested against the best of the power conferences. But much of the value of the Senior Bowl is the additional access NFL decision-makers have to the players. At the NFL Scouting Combine, formal interviews with the players are limited to 60 players per NFL team, and 15 minutes per interview. Interviewing them at the Senior Bowl allows NFL teams to concentrate on mostly the underclassmen for the formal Combine interviews next month.
“We talk to all those guys,” Zimmer said of the Senior Bowl participants. “But it’s just trying to find out what kind of people they are, really – how smart they are, but we’ll have a lot of exposure between now and the draft.”
Zimmer referenced “my kind of guys” several times during the 2015 season when talking about the players on his roster. At the Senior Bowl, he’s in search of more of his kind of guys, but there is a lot of time that goes into determining which ones fit the profile.
“You’ve got to ask a lot of people – trainers, weight coaches, assistant coaches, the head coach, people in the cafeteria,” Zimmer said. “You’ve just got to try and find out everything you can about them.”
While that started a long time ago for the scouting staff, the process just began this week for the coaching staff in Mobile.