MOBILE, Ala. — Twelve combined hours of practices are in the books for the National and American Teams at the Reese's Senior Bowl.
The **more than 130 prospects** invited to the 75th iteration of the annual all-star game will don their college helmets a final time at noon (CT) Saturday on NFL Network. Vikings assistants Daronte Jones, Imarjaye Albury and Michael Hutchings have been **coaching with the National Team** this week.
The Vikings sent a large group from the personnel department to Mobile, and multiple coaches, including Head Coach Kevin O'Connell made the trip to the Gulf Coast. Minnesota's **coaches are getting up to speed** on the work that has been done by the college scouts last fall (and before that in some cases).
The practices are designed to load up on reps, particularly 1-on-1 matchups to allow comparisons.
The wave of information gathered here also includes time spent by players meeting with representatives from each team.
A one-snap video clip can reveal some things but fails to tell the full story.
"The big thing is to not overreact to anything you see," Vikings Director of College Scouting Mike Sholiton said. "If a player drops the ball, is it in their history? There's a lot of moving parts. They're interviewing, it's a high-stress environment, they're learning, they're catching from different quarterbacks, the timing isn't [there], so what we're looking for is a progression day over day.
"If you have players playing out of position, a player that lined up at left tackle his whole career, all of a sudden, they're kicking him over to the right side and he has to block one of the best pass rushers in the draft," Sholiton added. "We're not expecting that to look perfect on the first rep. What we're looking for is from Tuesday to Wednesday to Thursday, is there enough progression? Are there signs where what we might not have liked in early practices, now you go into the game, and it looks like he's been playing here his whole career."
Similar to Vikings practices and games, the players here are wearing trackers to provide information on top speeds and other metrics.
Vikings General Manager Kwesi Adofo-Mensah said it's an appreciated layer of information but added "you always want to be careful with player tracker sample size."
"A lot of those metrics are dependent on your opportunity to express something athletically," Adofo-Mensah said. "You'd prefer to use the thousand snaps they get in a season, but these are good and some measure — you just always want to be careful about context and what those numbers imply, but it is super helpful."
Value of practices/in-person reviews
Every scout and coach readily will have access to film of snaps from the week, but there's much gained by the in-person interactions and observations that can go a little beyond what has been observed in the fall and what will be added by the NFL Scouting Combine at the end of the month, as well as upcoming pro days at colleges coast-to-coast in the lead-up to the draft.
The practices are planned, but they are not completely scripted the way pro days have become custom-tailored, particularly for quarterbacks.
"Football is an unpredictable sport. It doesn't go like pro day goes," Adofo-Mensah said. "Now, there is a dynamic of, 'Hey, these quarterbacks are adjusting to new receivers and scheme and different things,' so you want to, I don't want to say grade them on a curve, but you always want to keep that in mind, but there is a value to be said, 'What does the guy do when he decides to pick up a football and go make a play?' I think you can learn a lot from that as well."
Setting a Pace
One of the best success stories from the 2023 Senior Bowl was Ivan Pace, Jr., who showed what he could do, despite having a smaller stature than most NFL linebackers. Sholiton said the Vikings already had some work on Pace that was reconfirmed here last year.
"It's a chance, for players that we already liked, to have some conviction in a guy like Ivan Pace, who came here and all he did was destroy every rep in 1-on-1s, cover guys man-to-man," Sholiton said. "He showed essentially his entire skill set that we ended up seeing all the way through his rookie year, so whether it was Mekhi Blackmon and his competitiveness, Jay Ward and his versatility, it really does help to have this extra few days of exposure to add to our evaluation process."
Another viewer of Pace's practices was Brian Flores, who was hired as Minnesota's Defensive Coordinator after the 2023 Senior Bowl. When Minnesota signed Pace as an undrafted free agent, Flores began planning for how to deploy him.
Changing college landscape
The COVID-19 pandemic that began in 2020 led to added years of college eligibility for players. The introduction of NIL (Name, Image & Likeness) marketing funds for college players appears to have reduced the number of underclassmen who declared for the NFL Draft.
The scouting department keeps tabs on which players may or may not be entering the draft each year to track positional strengths and depth of each class.
Sholiton said the Vikings view the added challenges as opportunities.
"For every player who returned to school last year," he said, "we have a two-year study of that player, so whether it creates more work or more opportunity to get to know them better, 'Was there a drop off or leveling off? Is this player on the rise? What's the trajectory?' It's an opportunity to study more when you don't know from school to school and day to day who is going to be entering this year's draft and who did you do extra work on, but again, depending on how you look at it, it's an opportunity to get to know guys better and now that we're starting to have a better feel for who is in this year's draft, we can home in on the players we like for the Vikings."
College players now can enter the transfer portal, in some cases becoming like free agents, but if a player jumps from one region to another, there's an added evaluation depth that can occur because of the player moving from one scout's territory to another.
"There's all kinds of new data points. You have how the player interacted at the previous school, how the player interacted at the current school, players earning NIL and how they handled those opportunities," Sholiton said. "For some people, they've actually demonstrated the maturity and an ability to be a selfless teammate, share their wealth, and some guys have proven they don't handle it as well, so those are additional data points we've never had.
"We used to have to project how a player will handle success and fame or other things, and now you can see a player we're scouting on a billboard, and if it changes them or they're the same they ever were, that's in a box that we don't have to guess," he added.
Moving forward together
Adofo-Mensah was hired just a little more than two years ago and retained numerous members of the personnel department who have been with Minnesota for two decades. He added other members, and the department has adjusted some roles, but there's still a strong togetherness among a closely connected group.
"I love our staff. I love the people that have been here through multiple regimes, and I love the new additions that we've brought in," said Sholiton, who joined the Vikings in 2004. "So much of it is chemistry and working together, being able to disagree without being disagreeable and to connect. Now, you marry that with understanding what the expectations are for the coaching staff and the grading scale, and you see a tighter-and-tighter-knit group."
Adofo-Mensah isn't on the road as much as the scouts, but he does enjoy an opportunity like this week as the group works on its part to help advance the Vikings goals.
"I love how they come together because they're all different and have different superpowers. That's why I wanted to work with that group," Adofo-Mensah said. "Over time, through conversations and different things, you see them come together and appreciate their differences and some of the stuff I have been learning, 'how do I get better?' We need more of that just to get on the same page and get that final line of communication.
"I think we've done well as a group, but we need to do better, and we'll keep doing better and growing," Adofo-Mensah said. "I'm excited to see what we do in the future."
Just a couple of observations from Thursday's practices, along with a few takes that other people posted on X (formerly Twitter).
Much like the final day of practice in an NFL week, Thursday's sessions focused a significant amount of time in the red zone.
Folks with family connections to two famous 49ers secured nice catches during the National Team's work.
Luke McCaffrey (Rice University), younger brother of San Francisco running back Christian McCaffrey, and Brenden Rice (USC), son of Jerry Rice, caught passes from Michael Penix, Jr., (Washington) and Sam Hartman (Notre Dame) in 1-on-1 drills.
NFL Media's Tom Pelissero caught up with Jerry Rice to interview the Pro Football Hall of Famer and get a unique scouting report.
Big men got in on the action late in the American Team's practice. T'Vondre Sweat (Texas) hit the Heisman pose after his route on air:
Former Texas offensive lineman Christian Jones picked off a pass when lining up against former Florida State defensive lineman Braden Fiske.
Pro Football Focus also posted about former Georgia receiver Ladd McConkey's 1-handed snag:
Then here's a nice look at a contested catch made by Jamari Thrash (Louisville) on a pass from Spencer Rattler (South Carolina) during the American Team's practice: