It's been 20 years since I walked into Ladd-Peeples Stadium hoping to prove to NFL scouts that I was one of the top players in the 1994 draft. I eagerly accepted my invitation to the Senior Bowl with that thought in mind, but I remember the self-doubt that consumed my thoughts as I walked onto the practice field surrounded by All-Americans at every position.
Now, I certainly believed that I was good enough to play at the next level, but seeing decorated wide receivers like Derrick Alexander, Lake Dawson, Shelby Hill and Ryan Yarborough running through drills like Pro Bowlers ramped up my anxieties. Additionally, the sight of seeing Don Shula, Jimmy Johnson, Bill Parcells and a host of NFL coaches circling the field throughout the practice created a sense of urgency that was nerve-racking.
From a player's standpoint, the challenge of competing at your best while learning a new scheme and acclimating to new teammates requires outstanding concentration and focus. In addition, it requires a player to bring an A-plus effort despite internal doubts and anxiety that leads to hesitancy on the field.
As a scout, I always leaned on my personal experience in this game to keep a prospect's performance in perspective. I understand the challenge of performing in this environment, so I give extra credit to those who are able to manage the stress of the situation and perform at a high level against elite competition. Therefore, I focus my evaluation on critical areas outside of size, speed, athleticism and position-specific attributes. I believe there are three core traits that elite players in the NFL possess: competitiveness, adaptability and perseverance (mental toughness). Here's why these traits are important.
Competitiveness: To properly evaluate top prospects, scouts prefer top prospects face other highly regarded players in competitive situations. Although evaluators would prefer to see those matchups take place in the regular season, the Senior Bowl provides plenty of opportunities to see elite players work against each other in various individual and team drills. These scenarios are as close to NFL competition as you'll find at the collegiate level, helping scouts make hard assessments on talent and potential at the next level. That's why it's important to not only play well on Saturday, but to excel on the practice field throughout the week. If a player brings exceptional effort and performance in drills during the week, coaches and scouts feel better about the prospect's ability to win as a pro.
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Adaptability: The changing nature of the NFL requires players to adapt to different situations and circumstances at the drop of a hat. At the Senior Bowl, players must master an NFL playbook in less than six days while adjusting to new teammates and possibly new positions on the fly. These challenges allow scouts to see how well players learn and adapt in a pressurized environment that is similar to the NFL. Although the coaching and scouting staffs of each squad are really the only ones who fully understand the potential shortcomings of every player, the information circulates rapidly around the league, which ultimately affects the final grade on draft day.
Mental toughness: The aforementioned attributes are critical to a player's success at the next level, but mental toughness might be the biggest determining factor in the evaluation process. NFL players must be able to bounce back from poor plays and/or games without those disappointments affecting future performance. At the Senior Bowl, scouts get plenty of chances to evaluate how prospects respond to difficult circumstances. From bouncing back from mental lapses and blown assignments to recovering from a poor play in individual and team drills, scouts look closely at the body language and behavior of prospects in this game to see if they become discouraged by disappointments. If a player struggles bouncing back from a few bad plays or a horrendous day, it could say a lot about his ability to persevere at the next level.
Given that information as a back drop, here are some of my thoughts and observations from the first day of practice at the Senior Bowl:
» Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas: Thomas has driven scouts crazy with his erratic play over the past two seasons, but it's possible that he might have enjoyed the best day of any quarterback on either roster. He delivered the ball with excellent velocity and zip in drills and looked like a confident passer from the pocket. Additionally, Thomas flashed timing and anticipation on a handful of throws in 7-on-7 that showcased his potential as a passer in a pro-style offense. Now, the impressive showing will not erase the two seasons of bad film put up by Thomas, but it could entice a team in need of a developmental prospect to take a chance on a 6-6, 254-pound athlete with intriguing physical tools.
» Wyoming WR Robert Herron: Herron opened eyes in the scouting community with his speed, quickness and route-running skills. He was untouchable in 1-on-1 drills against big, physical corners, showing exceptional burst and separation quickness. In addition, Herron used a variety of stems and releases to stack defenders at the top of the route to create separation with hard plants and head fakes. Herron's surprising polish as a route runner took me by surprise based on his reputation as a speed demon. If he continues to impress as a slot receiver with big-play ability, Herron could make a huge jump on the boards heading into the NFL combine and pro-day workouts.
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» Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste: Jean-Baptiste is the kind of long, rangy defender that NFL scouts are coveting in the wake of the Seattle Seahawks' success this season. Measuring 6-3, 220 pounds, Jean-Baptiste has the size to match up with the big-bodied receivers that are dominating the NFL. Additionally, he displays exceptional ball skills and awareness for a man of his size. Now, some of that is to be expected based on his experience as a receiver -- Jean-Baptiste played wide receiver for nearly two seasons at Nebraska before moving to cornerback. He naturally plucked the ball in drills and showed excellent awareness defending receivers on deep balls. With Jean-Baptiste possessing the size and movement skills to snuff out elite receivers in press coverage, the buzz is building for Jean-Baptiste to enter the conversation as a top cornerback prospect.
» Miami QB Stephen Morris: I confidently boasted about Miami QB Stephen Morris' talent and potential after seeing him at the Manning Passing Academy this summer. However, he looks nothing like an elite quarterback prospect at the Senior Bowl. Morris struggled with his accuracy and ball placement throughout the day. He also failed to string together completions in 7-on-7 and team drills outside of an occasional check down. I didn't expect Morris to complete every ball with a handful of new receivers, but he was so off with his accuracy that it is an obvious concern for scouts looking for a legitimate prospect at the position.
» BYU WR Cody Hoffman: Hoffman was regarded as one of the top receivers on the west coast, but he was a mild disappointment in drills today. He didn't show elite quickness or burst in routes, and failed to separate from defenders in tight coverage. Although big-bodied receivers can succeed in the NFL without exceptional speed, they must be able to create space with their size and strength. Hoffman didn't show that ability on the first day of practice, so it's important for him to find a way to get open over the next few days to convince evaluators that he has the potential to be a possible difference maker at the next level.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.