The first is the annual all-star game that allows NFL coaches and scouts to watch the nation's top college seniors compete for standing in the draft; the second stage is the one some will walk across in Chicago on April 28, shaking NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's hand and smiling for cameras as first-round selections.
They're all on the first stage with an eye toward the second.
"It's a platform that can help a player rise from obscurity to the first overall pick," said NFL Media Senior Analyst Gil Brandt, referencing Eric Fisher, the tackle from Central Michigan who used his Senior Bowl performance in 2013 to make a name for himself en route to becoming the No. 1 pick of the Kansas City Chiefs.
Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage and his staff of scouts scour the nation in the fall to find the best possible seniors to include on two 55-man rosters that give NFL personnel executives a strong early glimpse of draft-available talent. Fourth-year juniors who have earned their college degrees are also eligible. It begins with a a watch list of 350 players comprised from various sources and data, beginning with the elite underclassmen from the previous year who chose to return to college for their senior seasons, described by Savage as "no-brainers."
"I personally saw 40 teams in person. (Senior Bowl assistant) Patrick Woo saw 45 teams in person, and Ryan Fitzgerald, a scouting assistant for us, saw 25-30 teams. And when we added it all it up it ended up being about 250 live exposures," Savage said. "When we're on the road, we talk to other scouts, and stay up to date that way. By the end of September, I start to put a potential depth chart together."
Formal invitations are sent to players in November and December, and accepted invitations progressively fill the roster until mid-January. For this year's game, only 16 invited players declined to participate, including those dealing with injuries, a record-low since Savage took over as the game's director four years ago. Rosters are somewhat fluid until the start -- and even during -- game week, as players withdrawing with injuries give way to last-minute replacements. Those replacements are often standout performers from the East-West Shrine Game the previous week, recommended to Savage by NFL personnel executives.
Two NFL coaching staffs volunteer to coach for the week. Only clubs with a coaching staff returning from the previous season are eligible, and are given the option based on draft order. With head coaching changes in Tennessee and Cleveland, and extensive staff changes in San Diego under head coach Mike McCoy, the first three teams picking in the draft weren't a possibility to coach the Senior Bowl. The Dallas Cowboys and Jacksonville Jaguars, drafting Nos. 4 and 5, respectively, filled the vacancies. With the benefit of hands-on interaction with the players during the week, the Senior Bowl coaching staffs get an even closer look at the prospects than the other 30 NFL clubs.
Players arrive nearly a week in advance of the game and are almost immediately engaged in informal interviews with NFL scouts. There are also formal interviews that take place at night after practice, giving clubs a chance to speak with as many players as they would like. Each participates in an early-week weigh-in that draws NFL coaches, scouts and executives by the hundreds (Woo estimates somewhere between 800 and 900 attended this year's weigh-in).
Throughout the week, the North and South squads practice once a day, along with meetings and film review with the coaching staffs. Away from the field, they participate in various other events, such as dinner receptions, a community service project, and new beginning this year, a financial education program that helps teach players how to protect their NFL earnings.
Like any all-star game, limited preparation time and the players' lack of familiarity with one another results in very basic strategic implementations. Defenses play a 4-3 scheme with a no-blitz rule. Offenses run a basic pro-style set, although trick plays are fair game.
The Senior Bowl routinely includes several eventual first-round draft picks. Last year, first-round picks Danny Shelton (Browns), Phillip Dorsett (Colts), Stephone Anthony (Saints), Laken Tomlinson (Lions) and Damarious Randall (Packers) were among them. Senior Bowl history includes 17 Pro Football Hall of Famers. Famous alums include Walter Payton, Joe Namath, Bo Jackson, Derrick Thomas, Steve Largent and Baltimore Ravens GM Ozzie Newsome.