MOBILE, Ala. — When general manager Ryan Pace met with the media after the Bears’ disappointing 3-13 season, his eyes lit up when the Senior Bowl was mentioned.
“We are never going to be in this position again, but we better take advantage of it while we’re here,” Pace said.
It’s not quite a playoff berth, but it is a tremendous reward for having the third-worst record in the league in 2016.
“We’re picking high in the draft. We better take advantage of that,” Pace said. “We’re coaching the Senior Bowl. That’s a huge opportunity there. Our training staff, our equipment guys, our coaches, our scouts, our video guys, we’re down there the whole time.”
For those new to the Senior Bowl, it’s technically considered an “All-Star Game” but it’s the most competitive all-star game you’ll see. That’s because it’s really an NFL Draft event — a week-long job interview for very motivated football players. The seniors (and some fourth-year junior graduates) who are invited to the Senior Bowl are here because NFL talent evaluators asked that they be here. The game will take place Saturday, but the practices and late-night meetings with NFL teams during the week are actually more important than the game. After mostly playing in and against spread offenses in college, these players will be run through a gauntlet of pro-style drills designed to test their ability to adapt to the pro game. With pads on and no collective bargaining agreement limiting the amount of hitting, NFL general managers, coaches and scouts get a unique, intimate look at these prospects that isn’t available at the NFL Combine or team-controlled Pro Days.
And the Bears will get an even more intimate look at half of these prospects as they coach the North squad, while the Cleveland Browns coach the South.
“You’re not just on the field with them or just having some 15-minute formal interview where they’re coached up,” Pace said. “We got them with our trainers. We got them with our equipment guys. We got them in environments where I can really tell what kind of people they are.”
Pace isn’t exaggerating the importance of this opportunity. There’s a big difference between sitting in the stands with binoculars and actually having your coaching staff run the drills on the field.
“It’s not just identifying who you like, it’s identifying who you need to eliminate,” Pace said.
So with that in mind, here are 10 players on the North roster to keep an eye on this week, as well as five on the South team.
QB Nate Peterman, Pittsburgh – It’s a weak quarterback class in Mobile this year and Peterman is the most talented on the North squad (I would put him behind Cal’s Davis Webb on the South team). Peterman has a good chance to impress this week primarily because he comes from a pro-friendly offense at Pitt. I saw him up-close at the Pinstripe Bowl where he showed off average arm strength and made a couple questionable decisions before leaving the game with a head injury. Peterman is most likely a mid-to-late round pick, but could be under consideration for the Bears if they don’t go with a quarterback early.
OT Adam Bisnowaty, Pittsburgh — While watching Peterman on tape, it’s hard to ignore his big left tackle who has a good chance to make it at the next level. Bisnowaty won’t be among the top two or three tackles drafted, but he could have some value in the second or third round.
OT Dion Dawkins, Temple — Down the road in Philly, Dawkins was also proving he belongs in the NFL. Teams will want to know if he’s better suited at guard or tackle, and the Bears will be the ones tasked to test him this week.
OG Dan Feeney, Indiana — Another player I was able to watch up close this season, Feeney might be the best offensive lineman the Bears coach this week. The problem is, with Josh Sitton and Kyle Long entrenched at the guard positions, is Feeney worth taking in the second round?
CB Jourdan Lewis, Michigan — Jabrill Peppers grabs the headlines, but Lewis grabbed more footballs (see: his incredible one-handed interception against Wisconsin). There are some questions here, but the playmaking ability is evident and Lewis could be a guy the Bears take a close look at considering their secondary needs.
CB Desmond King, Iowa — After a really strong junior year, the buzz seems to have faded a little bit after King’s senior season. Still, he’s a solid football player and could rise with a strong week in Mobile.
WR Amara Darboh, Michigan — Speaking of fading, Darboh is in a similar position. But he too could rise if the big receiver can show he can separate against top Senior Bowl corners.
WR Zay Jones, East Carolina — Despite catching 158 passes — 158! — as a senior, Jones has flown under the radar a little bit. He fits the mold for Senior Bowl risers once he gets the chance to perform in front of the entire NFL community.
WR Cooper Kupp, Eastern Washington — Ditto for Kupp, who has big playmaking ability, but few have seen him in person. The Bears could use some depth at the wide receiver position and there are some intriguing second/third round options on the North roster.
TE Jeremy Sprinkle, Arkansas — There’s little doubt this big tight end can play, but he has to answer some off-the-field questions after getting suspended for his last bowl game because of a shoplifting incident. The top two tight ends in Mobile (O.J. Howard and Evan Engram) are on the South team, but the Bears will get a good opportunity to get to know Sprinkle.
QB Davis Webb, Cal — I first noticed Webb when he was a freshman at Texas Tech and I thought right away that he looked like a future pro. The rest of his college career didn’t exactly go as planned, but he looked pretty good in his final year at Cal. Now he’ll have to prove he wasn’t just a product of the system. I expect Webb to show that he has the best arm among the Senior Bowl quarterbacks.
DT Montravius Adams, Auburn — Holding the No. 3 overall pick is great, but what’s not talked about enough is the value of the Bears’ 36th overall pick, where a few first-round talents will likely still be available. Adams could potentially be one of those players and the Bears need defensive line depth.
OLB Ryan Anderson, Alabama — Anderson might have been the best player on the field during the National Championship Game earlier this month. He covered a lot of ground making plays and could be an intriguing option for the Bears in the second round if he isn’t taken in the first.
OLB Takkarist McKinley, UCLA — Another first-round talent who isn’t necessarily a lock to go in the first 32 picks. If he’s still available at No. 36, the Bears might be tempted by this talented edge rusher.
TE O.J. Howard, Alabama – If you just watched the National Championship Game, then you know Howard can be a dynamic tight end at the next level. He’s a first-round talent, no doubt.