MOBILE, Ala. — The Senior Bowl is, by its nature, an exclusive venture. Only the best of the best NFL Draft prospects get invite to the five-day scout-and-media bonanza in Mobile, and with this year’s inclusion of junior players for the first time, it’s even more exclusive, with more potential first-round picks than ever gathering in Mobile.
The change has been a long time coming, as NFL clubs wanted to see those highly sought after underclassmen perform in the same intense practice setting that has become invaluable for evaluating seniors over the years.
Of the top 32 players in the NFL Mock Draft database consensus big board as of Wednesday, seven are practicing in Mobile this week. Last season, there were only three. Theres is also a trickle-down effect from there. Overall, there has been an increase from three to seven projected first-round picks and from 14 to 17 projected second-round picks, going from 17 to 24 of the top 64 players.
That’s generally a good thing, as teams will leave Mobile with a much clearer evaluation of the players in the first couple of rounds in the draft.
The flip side of that, is that there will be even more unknowns than usual in Day Three. Those extra juniors are pushing out players from the bottom that might have been some team’s sleeper choice if they had gotten to see them on the field.
Another factor is also making the third day of this year’s draft class much more difficult to evaluate. That’s the NIL factor in college football. There were 69 underclassmen that declared for the NFL Draft in the 2023 cycle. This year, that number was just 58, the fewest in over a decade. There were over 140 just five years ago.
With players that likely would have been selected on the third day choosing to go back to college and earn NIL money, and players that would have been in the Senior Bowl pushed out by those first-round juniors at the top, this might be the least-certain Day Three of the draft process in quite some time.
“It wiped out Day Three of the draft,” Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy said. “There was guys that went back to school that we didn’t think would go back, because of NIL money. There was guys we were hoping to get and we didn’t get. When we came back to the next group of seniors, they were gone.”
The transfer portal has also helped players in uncomfortable college situations have more options to make for a better path to the pros that just jumping ship for the NFL.
That will mean that as the NFL Draft evaluation process goes on, teams like the Steelers will have to lean harder than ever on their in-person scouting of college football games and spread themselves around to as many pro days as possible in order to get a good read on the third day prospects.
While it will be more difficult, it is also an opportunity for teams with excellent scouting staffs to find a way to shine.