MOBILE, Ala. — The Ravens' belief in the value of the Senior Bowl as a tool to compare draft prospects from all levels of college football was evident last April.
The team scouted half of its 10-player rookie draft class at the all-star game — from small-school standouts like third-round defensive tackle Brandon Williams (Missouri Southern State), fourth-round fullback Kyle Juszczyk (Harvard) and seventh-round wide receiver Aaron Mellette (Elon) to two players from the Big Ten Conference in fourth-round outside linebacker John Simon (Ohio State) and fifth-round offensive lineman Rick Wagner (Wisconsin).
With the Ravens sending another large delegation of executives, coaches and scouts — including general manager Ozzie Newsome, assistant general manager Eric DeCosta, director of college scouting Joe Hortiz and coach John Harbaugh — here to attend a week of practice beginning Monday, their concentration on the Senior Bowl isn't an aberration.
The Ravens traditionally have drafted players with Senior Bowl experience, including second-round outside linebacker Courtney Upshaw in 2012, second-round nose tackle Terrence Cody in 2010, first-round offensive lineman Michael Oher and third-round cornerback Lardarius Webb in 2009, and quarterback Joe Flacco in 2008.
"We had a methodical approach going all the way back from the summer, and the Senior Bowl is one step along that journey," said Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, a former Ravens executive and Cleveland Browns general manager. "This is the first time that you have a chance to have that personal interaction. Oftentimes when you go to a Tennessee or a Penn State or a Florida State, you don't meet the players. You're just grading the video and talking to the coaches. So, this is the first time you really get to identify the personality.
"You get a chance to really compare players in one view. You can go watch the defensive backs and watch all of them go through the drills. You get a chance to put small-school players on the same stage in the same venue. That's probably the greatest value of the Senior Bowl, perhaps, from an evaluation standpoint."
This could be another year in which the Ravens construct their draft strategy at least partially based on how players compete at the Senior Bowl. The Ravens could upgrade through the NFL draft at wide receiver, offensive line, tight end and free safety.
And several players in the Senior Bowl could be of interest to the Ravens, including Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews, Baylor offensive guard Cyril Richardson, Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz and Northern Illinois free safety Jimmie Ward.
This week, the Ravens and other NFL teams hope to see how players compete and adapt to a new environment with different teammates and systems while being coached by two NFL staffs: the Jacksonville Jaguars and the Atlanta Falcons.
"You want to see guys who are touted as being good and were a big fish in a little pond and see if they're truly bigger fish in a bigger pond," Oakland Raiders scout Raleigh McKenzie said. "You want to see the competitive juices flow and see them rise up. They're some really good players here. I'm looking forward to seeing that and comparing guys. We want to see how they adapt, how they handle different terminology, the whole nine yards."
Williams, the Ravens' rookie defensive lineman, manhandled offensive linemen last year and proved that his background as a Division II All-American translated against more celebrated players from major conferences.
Although he's on the other side of the football, Tennessee State offensive guard Kadeem Edwards hopes to make a similar impression on NFL scouts.
"It's a new experience, coming here from a small school, and I want to prove to everybody that I can compete with the elite players," Edwards said. "I was elite on my level, and I'm trying to dominate the elite players at the highest level."
Three standout players have pulled out of the Senior Bowl after previously committing to the game — Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde.
"A lot of guys skip this game, and I don't know why," said Doug Williams, the former Washington Redskins quarterback, Tampa Bay Buccaneers executive and Grambling State coach. "This game says a lot about where you are in terms of your character. If you come here, you ain't trying to hide anything. You're trying to get better.
"For the teams, this is a big evaluation period. You see a cross-section of players. You get to see their communication skills, how they react to a different environment. It's huge for the teams interviewing these guys."
Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, a projected first-round pick, is one of the highest-rated players in the Senior Bowl.
Carr threw for 5,082 yards and 50 touchdowns with only eight interceptions as a senior. His older brother, David, was selected by the Houston Texans with the first overall pick in the 2002 NFL draft after taking part in the Senior Bowl that year.
Unlike some other top players, Carr couldn't imagine skipping the game.
"Everybody's entitled to feel how they feel and what they want to do," Carr said. "To me, I always just want to compete. Who wouldn't want to come to the Senior Bowl? It's a wonderful opportunity. I'll compete against anybody, throw for throw."
While the Senior Bowl practices matter, the NFL teams put a lot of time and importance into their interviews with players.
With less structure than the NFL scouting combine, where teams are limited to 15 minutes and 65 total interviews for draft prospects, the Senior Bowl has a more relaxed atmosphere and offers more one-on-one time with players.
"This is a place where you can be more personable with players face to face," McKenzie said. "It's a lot of talent, but it's about what is the player like off the field. You get to know him a little bit and get to talk. You want to see where they stand with their peer group and what kind of person and football player they are.
"These are important decisions, so you need to gather as much information as possible, and that's where the Senior Bowl comes in handy."
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