Mobile, Ala. – The New Orleans Saints drafted nine players last year. Four of them played in the 2015 Senior Bowl.
That's not to say that the bowl game that features only specific, invited senior college players is the basis upon which the franchise drafted 44 percent of its rookie class last year. But it does speak to the level of talent that is targeted and invited to play in the game, and the regard with which NFL franchises view those players.
Coaches get extended, first-hand looks and one-on-one interviews with players who soon may become members of their roster. And it's a different peek from the one that coaches get of players who attend the NFL Combine, or wait until pro day to show off their physical skills, or both.
"There's something about a senior that if two players were equal, one a junior and one a senior, the player that's been in school longer, maybe graduated – this environment is so different," Saints Coach Sean Payton said Tuesday from Ladd-Peebles Stadium, site of the Senior Bowl. "Because you get to see them in contact, you get to see them in one-on-ones, you get to see a lot more than maybe a Combine or a pro day.
"This bowl has had a history of really, really successful players in our league. It's the Senior Bowl, so it's the premier all-star game for these guys. The challenges (are), there are a lot of juniors that come out that can't play in this game. But for us, really just focus on who it is we're evaluating here.
"I think there's a little bit of an advantage when you get to coach in this game, too, because there's that added time when you're installing, teaching, being around the players. To see the football drills and to see these guys in that environment is really good."
And the Saints have a clear idea of exactly what it is they're looking for during the evaluation process at the Senior Bowl.
"I think it's a handful of things: How they interact when they're away from the meetings, on the field how they're competing, do they stand out in a good way or a bad way," Payton said. "One of the challenges is if you can just sit and watch a couple of guys, and just literally watch the two-and-a-half hour practice, you kind of get an idea of what that first practice is going to be like when he's on your team.
"That's something you can't do the rest of this evaluation process. To see how they handle it – some of them are going up from a small school, some of them are already at a big school and competing against somebody else at another large level, they're all trying to make impressions. So when they're practicing, that field impression, if you watch long enough, is pretty important."
Also important, General Manager Mickey Loomis said, is the interview process.
"I think we value (the personal interviews) a lot," Loomis said. "We get to get a gauge on the personality and just how sharp they are, what they know in terms of football and our coaches get to spend a lot of time with them. That's an important part of this process.
"For both Sean and I, this is kind of the introduction to what our scouts have been seeing all year. We get a look at some of the guys, we get a report on the guys that our scouts like, the guys that we have some questions about. It's really kind of a first look. We're not making any decisions based upon what we see and hear here, but it's very important and a great part of the process."
Loomis said that having Jeff Ireland, the team's assistant general manager and college scouting director, with the team for Ireland's second year helps enhance the Saints' evaluations. Ireland was general manager of the Dolphins for six seasons prior to joining the Saints.
"Jeff's got a little different way of doing things than what we've been doing in the past, and so we've been able to blend some of the best things he does in terms of the process with what we've done before," Loomis said.
Payton detailed several staff additions and subtractions Tuesday. The team has added Dan Campbell (tight ends), Aaron Glenn (secondary), Peter Giunta (senior defensive assistant) and Joe Lombardi (quarterbacks). Dan Roushar (offensive line) coached tight ends last season; Bret Ingalls was not retained.
Mike Neu (quarterbacks) left to become head coach at his alma mater, Ball State; Wesley McGriff (secondary) departed to become the co-defensive coordinator and secondary coach at Auburn; and Greg Lewis (offensive assistant) took a job with the Eagles, as wide receivers coach.
On Campbell: "Dan, I first got to work with when I was with the Giants and we drafted him out of Texas A&M. Then, later with the Cowboys, we signed him in free agency. I've always followed his career, I've been just a huge fan. We had a short time frame in '09 where he was with us before he retired. Just a hard worker, I think a real good teacher. He'll come in to the tight end position. Dan Roushar will move over into the offensive line position. He's had a ton of experience coaching the offensive line. That was a real good hire for us."
On Glenn:"Aaron Glenn will come in and coach the secondary. He, too, had a brief stop at the end of his career with us. I was with Aaron with the Cowboys. (He's) a real smart player, a guy that played a long time in this league and really has a real good understanding of the back end. He was always that guy that players gravitated to with questions while studying film.
On Giunta:"Peter Giunta will be a senior defensive assistant. He's a veteran NFL coach. I've never worked with Peter but I've competed against his teams all the way back to St. Louis, when he was with the Rams. He was the defensive coordinator in their Super Bowl season. He's been with the Chiefs, most recently with the Giants. His experience, I think, will help us tremendously. He'll be a real good ally for (defensive coordinator) Dennis (Allen) in regard to having seen and done a number of things. He'll help us on the back end with third down, just one of those real sharp, veteran coaches."
Payton said he will attempt to fill the spot vacated by Lewis this week.