The first, and arguably most important, offseason sales job for prospective NFL players begins this week in Mobile, Ala., where days of interviews and practices will conclude with the Senior Bowl on Saturday, Jan. 24 at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
One hundred ten senior players will try to pad their resumes and make significant impressions on the 32 NFL teams, including the New Orleans Saints.
"It's the most unique job fair in the entire football world, when you have an opportunity to bring 110 players to Mobile, where 32 teams – future employers – want to evaluate, get to know them, interview them," said Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl since 2012. "It makes for a very valuable experience for not only the players, but also the NFL organizations as well."
Savage should know. He was an NFL coach, scout and executive for 20 years prior to becoming the Senior Bowl executive director, including four seasons as general manager of the Browns, where he drafted or acquired five Pro Bowl players.
Thus, he and the staff have worked diligently to ensure that the Senior Bowl issues invites to top-level seniors.
"When I came in June 2012, I met with the staff and said, 'Look, we should do our player evaluation just like an NFL team would do. Let's become the 33rd NFL franchise,' " Savage said. "So we developed a watch list. Three hundred fifty players were on a watch list in August and then through the efforts of me and several of our staff members that are scouts, we go out and see as many players as we can in person, either in practice or live games.
"I do the (radio) color (analyst) for Alabama football, so I get a chance to see them against their opponents for the entire year. And then, once we begin to whittle down the names, I'll vet or review the names that we're starting to zero in on in terms of these 110 players, with my friends in the NFL in terms of, 'Where do you all see this player? What kind of forecast do you have for the draft for this particular prospect?'
"We go from 350 to 110 that will ultimately find their way to Mobile. A good number of players will decline the invite or have an injury from the season, or are in a situation where they're concerned about the NFL Combine and want to be 100 percent (for the Combine). It usually takes about 130 invites to fill 110 spots."
The vetting process has been extremely accurate.
Savage said that last year, more than 80 players in the Senior Bowl were drafted (the Saints drafted cornerback Stanley Jean-Baptiste in the second round, and receiver Jalen Saunders, who finished the season on New Orleans' 53-man roster, was a fourth-round pick by the Jets).
In 2013, more than 90 Senior Bowl players were drafted (including defensive lineman John Jenkins, in the third round by the Saints; linebacker Kevin Reddick made the roster as an undrafted rookie).
"The good news is that of our 110 from last year's game, 99 of them drew an NFL paycheck this year, either on the active roster, practice squad, injured reserve," Savage said. "That's the thing that we really try to emphasize, the competition – to come down and compete against other top players from across the country – and the connections.
"What people don't realize is that beyond meeting and talking to head coaches and general managers, these players are interviewed by assistant coaches and scouts. And in three or four years, a lot of those assistant coaches and scouts are going to be in decision-making positions as a GM or head coach, and that first impression that you make in Mobile can really carry and serve you well three, four, five years down the road."
Among the players seeking to make that kind of lasting impression are LSU offensive tackle La'el Collins and fullback Connor Neighbors, a third generation Senior Bowler.
Neighbors' father, Wes, was a Senior Bowl participant in 1987 and his late grandfather, Billy, played in the game in 1962.
Other notable participants include Nebraska running back Ameer Abdullah, a Birmingham, Ala., native who ran for 1,611 yards and 19 touchdowns; Louisiana-Monroe kicker Justin Manton; Northwestern St. cornerback Imoan Claiborne; and defensive tackle Michael Bennett and receiver Devin Smith, from newly crowned national champion Ohio State.
"This is the opportunity to make that first impression off the field, because oftentimes, the scouts don't get a chance to meet the players during the season," Savage said. "You only get a chance to evaluate the tapes, talk to the coaches and the staff at a particular college. So that's the first impression off the field.
"The lasting impression occurs on the field because this is the last opportunity that these players will have to wear a football uniform and play football. Because from here on out, it's all about the Combine and the pro days, which is a piece of the puzzle, but in a GM's or head coach's or player personnel's mind's eye, their vision is of that player playing football, either here at the Senior Bowl or for whatever the kid did during his regular season at college. It is not what they do in a pro day or at the Combine."
That makes this week's first impression extremely important.
"Every player has his own story, and his own story to tell," Savage said. "Hopefully, the Senior Bowl becomes part of the fabric of their career as we go forward."
Photos of the New Orleans Saintsations at the 2014 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. on January 25. (New Orleans Saints photos)