The NFL has had a turbulent spring. Free agency has reshuffled senior talent across the league. Coaches rebuild schemes to strengthen weak points and better utilize their playmakers’ talents.
Even the NFL combine in Indianapolis, a fixture on the NFL calendar for decades, has changed.
It wasn’t the first time the Super Bowl champion Rams didn’t send their GM or coach to Indy. In 2020, the Denver Broncos joined L.A. in avoiding the combine.
Despite the change, one institution has retained its prestige: the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama.
Most people believe that “The Draft Starts in Mobile” at the Senior Bowl.
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1 For the first time, GMs and other decision-makers can begin analyzing prospects. Unlike Indianapolis, teams don’t seem to avoid Mobile.
“Most teams send all coaches, front office, and player personnel as part of the week’s evaluation process,” Andy Dengler, the former Jacksonville Jaguars assistant director of player personnel, told SB Nation in 2021.
The Senior Bowl’s elevated status in the draught order seems odd, given that it only accepts older players.
2 Younger players who excel early against older opponents have a better chance of NFL success. It goes against the findings.
It appears likely that GMs are aware of the importance of young players, but regard Senior Bowl players as safer bets.
“We’ve taken our share of juniors,” Colts GM Chris Ballard recently told ESPN.
However, “players who have [long] productive careers in college and then have a terrific week here usually end up being quite good in the league.”
Ballard’s remark drove us down a Senior Bowl rabbit hole to see if his impression is right.
Are Players Invited to Mobile More Likely to Be Productive NFL Players?
To get a solution, we used MSOE, a metric we created in 2021. For example, in 2011 there were 17 regular-season games, therefore MSOE is the number of snaps a player plays over (or under) projected. 3 Meaningful snaps occur when the game is still uncertain – between 10% and 90% win probability.
A model was developed and tested on NFL players drafted from 2012 to 2021 who attended the Senior Bowl the year before.
To help ground the analysis, let’s first review MSOE’s flaws: It gauges potential — not the value of a snap. 4 Asymmetry in injury distribution among position groups affects the measure.
The statistic also disadvantages players picked on teams with deep benches, as they must overtake a skilled veteran or two to gain meaningful snaps.
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Teams with a thin bench are more likely to start young players early and give them meaningful snaps.
Finally, keep in mind that MSOE favors teams that find starters in later rounds of the draught.
The fact that players selected early offer more significant snaps to their squad is not a problem, but worth highlighting.
Don’t Anticipate Senior Bowl Guys to Get More Significant Snaps
Yes. Participants picked from 2012 through 2021 generated 35,542 MSOE, proving Ballard’s prediction about Senior Bowl players turning into good players is accurate.
MSOE by position has the same effect. Since 2012, the NFL has chosen Senior Bowl players with positive MSOE except for quarterbacks and running backs.
The defensive back had the highest player-season hit rate5 and total surplus value among position groups with positive MSOE.
Senior Bowl defensive backs usually get action.
Meaningful Snaps Expected for NFL Drafted Senior Bowl Players, 2012-21
An important snap is one for which the pre-snap win probability is between 10% and 90%. The sample size excludes special teams players.
Since 2012, the NFL has used 143 choices on Senior Bowl defensive backs. Senior Bowl DBs played 16,697 significant snaps more than predicted, and 49 percent of their teams’ picks returned surplus snaps.
If we look at MSOE by round, the model implies that the NFL finds most of its surplus Senior Bowl players in the first two rounds.
Since 2012, more Senior Bowl players have been selected in the third round than any other, reducing the per-player average.
Significant Snaps Over Expected for NFL Players Picked After Competing in the Senior Bowl, 2012-21
An important snap is one for which the pre-snap win probability is between 10% and 90%.
This snap distribution should cause us to pause. Confirmation bias affects everyone, and early-round picks have a better chance of success than late-round picks.
Former NFL player Ryan Riddle argues that first-round draught picks must repeatedly demonstrate their inability to play, whereas late-round prospects must do so.
However, coaches and GMs whose careers depend on early draught picks may continue to favor those players, skewing the results.
It’s also true that a team’s interest in a player goes beyond whether or not he attended the Senior Bowl.
To be selected in the first or second round of the draught, a player must be invited to Mobile.
“Look, some of it is definitely random and timing of need and us loving a player,” Ballard admits.
A Senior Bowl advantage, like many in the NFL, is marginal. And in a league where even the best GMs have limited careers, you don’t get many chances.
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