MOBILE, Ala. -- It is late January, nearly five months since the players in the Senior Bowl began their final collegiate season and some 2½ months before the NFL draft. The players have begun to make their names with the men who evaluate them, but until everyone arrives in Mobile, none of the notes taken have been written in ink. This is the week when the pencils and the erasers are set aside.
Every coach, personnel director and scout who comes to the Senior Bowl has the same goal in mind: to identify the players who can help his team win the Lombardi Trophy. The goal may be the same, but the way that each man goes about it is as individual as his golf swing.
ESPN.com discussed Senior Bowl Week with representatives from every level of the NFL here this week. Here are their thoughts in their own words:
Tim Mingey, Jacksonville Jaguars scout
This is my 13th year here. I like the pro coaches working with them, to see how they assimilate to that.
To me, what's good about the Senior Bowl is you're seeing "good on good." [That means the best playing the best.] You have opinions about certain players. You will see them compete against one another. That sometimes will separate and define the player a little more. Seeing that wide receiver separate from that defensive back who you thought was at the top end in range and coverage. All of a sudden, this guy runs right by him.
Every team may be a little different in how they utilize their scouts. One of my particular functions here is to set up interviews of the players with our personnel directors, to cover some players that may or may not be at the combine but they are people we are targeting or just want to get to know a little better. That would start the night before the players are scheduled to arrive here to catch the early arrivers.
Most of us have a particular position of emphasis to look at. I'm going to focus on linebackers. We try to get at least three to four practices with the players in the week, and we do an informal ranking of the players.
Everything that they do on the field, I zero in on. I'm sitting at the top row of the stadium on the 50-yard line. You're not bothered by a lot of people around you. You get a better angle, I think. Of course, if they are taking a drink of water, you can see the defensive backs, or a one-on-one drill. You always look at the players from your area, or you look at linebackers from all over the country. My area is the Southeast.
After we've had three exposures, we'll have a "roam" day. We walk around and look at our players, the ones from our area, and take another look at them.
We'll have a meeting to talk over the players in general. We'll go over the game tape when we receive it. All of that will be a culmination of a Senior Bowl grade for that player. It will encompass their practice and how they play in the game.
We don't put a great emphasis on the grade. It is an all-star game. It is a new system. They may be playing a little different position. Again, it's part of the process. Being here, just another look under a different type of environment, it's important.
Rick Neuheisel, Baltimore Ravens offensive coordinator
My goal is to get a baseline on the quarterback position. You start with what you've seen over the course of the season watching college games on Saturday. You've gotten an opinion of guys, all the stuff you can learn watching television: playing within a game, how they handle themselves with their teams, did they bring teams back.
Now you get to watch them comparatively. What do they look like throwing this throw? That throw? Here, you get a picture of them in your mind.
Then you you try to go poke holes in the picture and see if it really bears out by going back and studying the tape. You go to the combine and really start doing your work.
You start with a much bigger list. I'll be down to 10 or 12 by the time we get to the combine. Then I'll do a write-up on all of them and give my opinions. I'll deliver my rankings to the scouts. They will do with my rankings what they will.
From there, you say, now I want to go see more of this guy. I want to spend more time with that guy. These are my questions.
I save my opinions. I've got them from two years ago and one year ago and so I can see where I might have made mistakes, as they go off and either make teams or don't make teams, blossom and so forth. I had Vince Young as my top guy last year but I also wrote down that you have to drink the Kool-Aid. You can't put him in a [Matt] Leinart or [Jay] Cutler offense. You can't say that he's going to be the same. If you design the offense around him, I think you're going to have a freak. I think that's going to bear out.
That doesn't mean you would have been wrong taking Cutler or Leinart. I had all three of those guys ranked better than Alex Smith, from the year before. I think if Alex Smith had been in the same draft, [and had] not come out, he would have been fourth behind those three guys, which is probably exactly why he came out, and Aaron Rodgers would have been after them.
You want to see them against top competition here, but you also want to see how they carry themselves. This [week] is hard. They don't know what the receivers are doing. These are all new things. They are trying to spit out language that's completely foreign to them. It's just completely foreign, the language. The routes are all the same. It's like French guys moving to Germany and trying to order off the menu.
But does that frustration translate? When they miss a throw, is the next one bad, too? Or do they pinch themselves and get going? That's what I like to watch in these things.
North head coach Jon Gruden of Tampa Bay
Let's be honest. There are some parameters that make the Senior Bowl a bit unrealistic. There is no blitzing. There are not going to be a lot of mixed coverages, not a lot of specialty substitutions. The parameters of the game really allow the players to go out and physically play. You're going to see the guys that like to hit. You're going to see the guys that like to make plays. You're going to see the guys that really, physically and mentally, are at the top of this year's crop.
We do try to work for the rest of the league to help them with their evaluations. Believe me, we'll get some feedback from the other coaches as we go out tonight for dinner. You want to get a lot of reps on the practice field. You want to have some guys play positions that maybe they didn't play at the college level. Sometimes you got to recruit the players to do that. They might not feel real good about going that route.
I want these guys to feel like they have the best opportunity to go out there and show their best stuff. There's a lot of pressure on them. I want them to feel relaxed, confident, and I want them to show that in their play.
South head coach Mike Nolan of San Francisco
Last year we were here and we drafted four players out of this game, including three from the South squad, which was the one we coached. One was from the North, a player who kind of tore us up in the fourth quarter, so we felt we ought to get him: Michael Robinson from Penn State.
It was the week working with the players that led us to actually drafting the guys we took. I think it's important when you have the opportunity to sit down and eat with these guys and get to know them. I refer to Michael Robinson only because he was a player all week long we did not coach, but we were around him a lot. The night we swapped teams, which was a Thursday night, we had an opportunity to sit with him and speak with him firsthand. We were very impressed with him, and then the game went the way it went and he did some nice things, so it was a no-brainer for us as far as drafting him.
As I told the players two nights ago when we first met, they'll have some relationships that will begin this week that will last a lifetime. Certainly, a lot of them will last their entire careers in the NFL but some will last a lifetime. So the progress they've made right now is just getting to know each other.
Phil Savage, Cleveland Browns general manager
It's a matter of our staff making checks of the grades we made in October to see if the grade still holds up. Is the player performing better or worse? Each scout starts zeroing in on the positions he is responsible for.
Having the NFL here helps to some extent. When you're coaching the game, you don't know for sure what they are taking in. One thing you do see that helps is you see them doing pro drills. This is an all-star game where you see some legitimate work going on. This one is a more serious week than the other games.
The Senior Bowl is another step in the process of lining up all the players. When you have a player who did well on the field during the season, and at the Senior Bowl, and at the combine it's a greater match. Everything is lining up.
If you have a good season, a poor Senior Bowl and a poor combine, you now start to question the player's ability. You're trying to see if you get some consistency. Is he at the same level for the Senior Bowl? Is he at the same level for pro day on campus? The guys who are uneven: that's the art of scouting. We're all uneven. We're all human.
I don't know how the other GMs do it. I try to get a handle on all of these guys as soon as I can. There are other general managers who don't have the scouting exposure but I spend more time on it. They're doing the stuff I don't do as much of, that I should be doing. You try to find a balance.
Ivan Maisel is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to Ivan at firstname.lastname@example.org.