For the players at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., the week of practices doubles as an introduction to pro football. For the scouts and coaches in attendance, it's an opportunity to see how the players handle tough questions and situations
MOBILE, Ala. — Tajh Boyd felt the occasion called for a suit. He chose navy blue, with a light blue shirt. He skipped the tie, because he guessed (correctly) that almost everyone else would be wearing warm-ups. The former Clemson quarterback wanted to stand out, but not overdo it.
This was Tuesday night, during the week of practices leading up to Saturday’s Senior Bowl all-star game, and Boyd was among the scores of draft-eligible players who met with NFL teams in a convention center ballroom. When he finally left, well past 11:30 p.m., he had company on the walk back to the players’ hotel—Rex Ryan and John Idzik, the head coach and general manager of the Jets.
As they crossed a pedestrian bridge, Ryan told a story about meeting Boyd moments before Clemson’s season kicked off against Georgia in late August. Boyd put his hand out toward Ryan for a fist-bump, and Ryan, who was on the sideline because his son, Seth, is a walk-on receiver, was struck by Boyd’s calmness.
“That leadership,” Ryan told Boyd as they made their way to the hotel. “You just said, ‘Hey, Rex,’ and I was thinking, This is a big game for me.”
Boyd grinned, having made a good first impression long before he put on his navy suit. But he also thought to himself, What will really matter at the next level?
More than 100 players—all of them from college football’s recent crop of top-tier seniors—plunge into a microcosm of NFL life during the Senior Bowl showcase. They learn an NFL playbook, receive NFL coaching and have their strengths and weaknesses picked apart. For the group of North team quarterbacks The MMQB followed during the week—Boyd, Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas and Miami’s Stephen Morris—this was uncharted territory.
Falcons coach Mike Smith, whose staff is coaching the North team, offered this bit of advice to players at the first team meeting: This is a job interview, but don’t look at it like that.
Easier said than done, right?
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The North team’s offensive installation was completed last Sunday night, six days before it would take on the South team at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The North has 50 plays, all from the Falcons’ playbook that were taught using video cut-ups of Matt Ryan and his offense. Then there was another order of business, making sure these college QBs, who are used to working from the shotgun, could take snaps under center. They were still practicing the exchanged on Wednesday morning, as well as rehearsing drops (“Shoulders perpendicular!” quarterbacks coach Glenn Thomas called out) and play-action fakes (“Better rotation,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said).
The playbook for this kind of all-star game is relatively simple. The game allows only static formations and 2 x 2 sets, and just three defensive coverages: Cover 1, Three Deep and Cover 2. But the primary goal is to showcase these NFL hopefuls as team executives watch practices from the stands, so Smith manufactured chances for the quarterbacks. He set up drills, for example, and asked them to make reads against more complicated coverages.
The highest-ranked quarterbacks in this year’s draft class are players who left school early—Louisville’s Teddy Bridgewater, Central Florida’s Blake Bortles and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel—so they weren’t eligible to play in the Senior Bowl. Fresno State’s Derek Carr, who is playing for the South team, has also been in the conversation of possible first-rounders. Others such as Thomas, Boyd and Morris all came to the Senior Bowl with questions to answer and unclear draft statuses.
Thomas, who stands 6-6 and weighs 250 pounds, has physical skills akin to Ben Roethlisberger and an arm that one scout called a “hose.” He’s struggled with accuracy—he threw 16 touchdowns and 13 interceptions during his senior season—and pinpoint control continued to elude him during Senior Bowl practices. In a one-on-one drill, he placed a beautiful 30-yard pass outside of the defender’s reach (though the receiver dropped it)—but a handful of passes also landed five feet out of bounds.
Boyd responded well to a windy practice Tuesday, and he showed off his arm with a 45-yard touchdown pass during 11-on-11 drills Wednesday. His athleticism can help compensate for his height (a shade under 6-foot-1), but like Thomas, he didn’t consistently place his throws on target. Morris may have been the most inconsistent, his frequent fluttering passes betraying his reputation for having a strong arm.
Throughout the week, the three quarterbacks huddled with Koetter and their position coach every afternoon in meeting room 204B at the convention center, studying film beyond the all-star game’s limited playbook. “When you throw the out route,” Glenn Thomas told Boyd one day, “make sure you get that shoulder and hip open a bit, and make the play not so hard.”
Advice at this time of year comes from many places. After one practice, Morris’ agent, Drew Rosenhaus, approached him with instructions. Morris played most of his senior season with a bone bruise and an Achilles sprain, and Rosenhaus reminded him this was his chance to show more.
“Do what the coaches say,” Rosenhaus told Morris, “but...”
The rest didn’t need to be said: Run the ball. Throw it deep. Showcase everything.
Do not hold back.
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The kind of questions players can’t answer on the field were handled on hotel couches, in conference rooms, or at the formal interview night for which Boyd donned his navy suit. The evening ran like a speed-dating event; players moved from table to table, sitting down with teams, until the double-tap of an air horn signaled that it was time to move on.
Logan Thomas finished the rounds just before Boyd, his jaw sore from three hours of talking and his brain still processing the quiz he’d been given by the Raiders. Their quarterbacks coach taught him one of Oakland’s protections, then flipped over the sheet and asked him to draw the “Ricky” to its “Lucy”—the same call going to the opposite side. He needed three tries, but Thomas finally got it.
His least favorite question, though, was the one he’d gotten from several scouts earlier in the week: What if I asked you to play tight end?
“I would disregard y’all right off the top,” was Thomas’s reply.
Morris was asked how his injuries affected his senior season, and he was given a hypothetical: You’re an NFL starting quarterback, but you hit a rough spot and are benched. If I pull you into my office, how do you respond? (Morris said he’d simply do whatever it takes to get back on the field.) Some teams sent scouts, assistant coaches or personnel executives to the interviews; the Eagles included their sports-science coordinator. The Jets’ contingent was one of the biggest, and they appeared to be the only team with its head coach in attendance.
Teams are always looking to crack the code for predicting players’ future success, particularly when it comes to quarterbacks. As a beacon for quarterback-needy teams, look no further than the two recent draft gems who started in last week’s NFC Championship Game, Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick. Mike Smith is one who believes there’s a higher hit-rate for franchise quarterbacks among the kind of players who get spotlighted at the Senior Bowl—signal-callers who played through their senior seasons and matured in the college ranks. Wilson, Kaepernick are among them. So is Smith’s QB, Matt Ryan.
Of course, that doesn’t mean anything about this year’s draft class. Just like Boyd’s extended chat with the Jets’ brass doesn’t say anything about their interest. This is how it works when you’re on the threshold of the NFL: You can have some 20 job interviews in one night, but you aren’t sure if you really even went on one.