The Vikings' personnel department has been busy at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., where a week of practices and interviews with top college players started Tuesday and culminates with Saturday's game. For three straight years, general manager Rick Spielman has eventually signed at least five participants from the annual college all-star game.
The event gains even greater importance this offseason as COVID-19 protocols limit prospects' chances to impress before April's NFL Draft. College seasons were shortened or, in some cases, canceled. Senior Bowl week is the offseason's only on-field look at prospects outside of pro days after a slew of evaluation events – the scouting combine, NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and East-West Shrine Game – were canceled. Earlier this month, three Vikings assistants were among NFL coaches picked to run virtual training and informational drills meant to replace the East-West Shrine Game.
More than 120 players are listed on Senior Bowl rosters, after additional invitations were sent this year. COVID testing was required to clear players, NFL evaluators and staff. The National and American teams will be coached through three practices and the game by Brian Flores and the Miami Dolphins and Matt Rhule and the Carolina Panthers. Restrictions, including conducting interviews through plexiglass, will limit a typically free-flowing week of connections between prospects and teams.
The Vikings haven't been picked to coach in Mobile since 2012, when Kevin Stefanski, the assistant quarterbacks coach at the time, made a strong impression coaching a Michigan State quarterback named Kirk Cousins.
The week has remained a valuable resource for the Vikings to not only initiate relationships – like Stefanski and Cousins – but for judging prospects. This week will perhaps be an even bigger piece of the puzzle leading to the draft than in previous years.
The Vikings currently have 10 draft picks, including the 14th overall pick, and are expected to gain a couple more through compensatory selections. Needs will be prioritized after free agency in March, but Spielman will likely pick more than one player from this week's Senior Bowl rosters. He has drafted 14 Senior Bowl participants in the past three years, from first-round center Garrett Bradbury to seventh-round cornerback Kris Boyd, and signed others as undrafted free agents.
"It gives you an opportunity to see them in a different environment," Spielman said after drafting five players from 2019 Senior Bowl rosters. "Especially if they're [from] a smaller school. Or even some of these big-school kids, just to see how they're going to go down there and are they spiraling up after their season? And [can] you see an upward movement through the all-star games and then through the combine and pro day?"
Spielman saw that ascension before taking Bradbury with the 18th pick in 2019. Bradbury's strong Senior Bowl affirmed what coaches and scouts saw on film from his three years as an N.C. State offensive lineman. He had their attention after playing well against a vaunted Clemson defense. Three months later, he again held up in college football's all-star week.
Sometimes it goes the other way.
"Some guys we may have liked, and then all of a sudden we go through this pre-draft process, and they spiral down," Spielman said. "Then, OK, we'll adjust to that, as well. Because I think it's a critical part of our job and a critical part of the whole draft process to get the big picture."
The biggest opportunities at the Senior Bowl are for small-school players outside top Division I conferences or from Divisions II and III. Former St. John's tackle Ben Bartch, taken in 2020's fourth round by Jacksonville, was the first D-III player in five years to get drafted, after impressing during Senior Bowl practices (a knee injury kept him from the game).
Before Vikings tight end Tyler Conklin emerged in the final four games this past season with 15 catches for 168 yards and a touchdown, he was a 2018 fifth-round pick out of Central Michigan and the Mid-American Conference.
"The Senior Bowl was huge," Conklin said. "Coming from a MAC school, people question the lower level than the Power Five. Having the opportunity to go out and compete with the best college football players in the nation was huge for me.
"And kind of tell people who I was, who I am as a person."
Above all, Vikings evaluators needed to know how Conklin would fare against stronger competition. A 16-yard touchdown catch from his Senior Bowl game, when Conklin sped past Darius Leonard – now a two-time All-Pro linebacker with the Indianapolis Colts – went a long way.
"He wheeled around, I think it was on a South Carolina State linebacker [Leonard], who is also an excellent player," Spielman said after drafting five players from 2018 Senior Bowl rosters. "You see all those traits you can develop into a potential mismatch-type guy."
They're on the lookout for difference makers again this week.