At the Senior Bowl, the 49ers and Raiders Get a Head Start on the Draft

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MOBILE, Ala. — In the last 10 years, NFL teams whose staffs coach the Senior Bowl go on to draft athletes they coached in the game 13.8% of the time (24/173). The last time the 49ers were here coaching one of the clubs, they launched the beginnings of a Super Bowl contender, drafting both Patrick Willis and Joe Staley from their own 2007 Senior Bowl roster.

It’s with this in mind that new 49ers assistant coach Chris Kiffin offers rapid-fire coaching points to defensive linemen in a darkened conference room inside the Mobile Convention Center. The 49ers, hungry for an impact pass rusher, are once again coaching in the all-star game designed to showcase the best talent graduating from NCAA football. And while Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan joked this week that one selling point to his newest assistant hires was that they wouldn’t be asked to coach the game, you wouldn’t know the assignment was an undesirable one listening to Kiffin in a film session.

“That’s an explosive run on us,” Kiffin says as a nosetackle fails to fill a gap in a scrimmage. “When we chart explosive runs we ask, where did the system break down? Everybody knows Monday morning when we watch the film—explosive run on you. We’ve got to win the A gap.”

An edge rusher stutter steps off the line. “Everybody’s got to work on that first step,” Kiffin says. “Create the speed vertical first. Make that first step replace your hand.”

The same player walks back to the sideline after a one-on-one rep. “Thirty-two teams are watching this,” Kiffin says. “Thirty-two. Don’t put bad s— on tape. Do not let people in this league see you walking out here. There’s no reason you can’t run. Leave your mark.”

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The Senior Bowl comes at a time when most coaching staffs would rather be fishing, and most of the football world is focused on relitigating the conference championship games and looking forward to the Super Bowl. It’s just another data point in the evaluation of prospects for 30 teams, but for the two teams that accept invites to coach the game, it can be transformative. In 2012, the Vikings drafted future perennial Pro Bowler Harrison Smith in the first round after coaching the former Notre Dame safety in the game. The Bengals and Cowboys both got closer looks at their eventual franchise quarterbacks while coaching against Andy Dalton and Dak Prescott, respectively, in the Senior Bowl. 

San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh was a first-year linebackers coach with Jacksonville when the team drew the 2014 coaching assignment. (Teams are typically invited to coach when they’ve had a losing season but retain their coaching staff; the Raiders are the other staff in Mobile this week.) That spring, they would draft linebacker and eventual team captain Telvin Smith in the fifth round, after Saleh’s hands-on experience with Smith during Senior Bowl week.

“He was fantastic that week. He showcased his ability mentally and physically. It’s not easy to learn all this info and showcase it in a week, but he did that,” says Saleh, for whom Saturday will be his third Senior Bowl coaching stint. “For the most part, these guys come out here and compete, and you end up finding some really good later-round picks and even some second-round guys, too.”

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Lately the Senior Bowl has been more about the former than the latter. The game in years past would reliably attract a dozen or more eventual first-rounders, but since 2014 the annual Mobile game has showcased fewer than eight such players annually, hitting a low point at four in both 2016 and 2017. Longtime NFL scout Jim Nagy replaced former Senior Bowl director Phil Savage in May 2018, and Nagy set about making the game more NFL-friendly. That required hiring four scouts with a combined 69 years of NFL experience, and getting away from Savage’s tendency in the selection process to favor players with ties to the region. 

“This game is for the NFL, these rosters are for the NFL. I’ve taken some flak here locally for not taking some local guys, but you do those guys a disservice when you have them here,” Nagy says. “If a guy comes down here and gets his teeth kicked in for four days, it hurts him in the end. It shouldn’t be a charity game.”

And how do you get the eventual first- and second-rounders back in the fold?

“My thing with the agents all fall is, if your guy is in the mix with a couple other players at his position, why wouldn’t you send him, to let him spend five days with [49ers general manager] John Lynch and Kyle Shanahan and let them see your guy?” Nagy says. “I think it’s a great opportunity to separate yourself, even if you are in that Top 10.

“I think we’ve emphasized the combine a little too much, and I think that’s swinging back now, because this is football. The combine isn’t football.”

For now, meeting rooms at the convention center are filled with mid-round picks with a lot to gain; guys like Wyoming edge rusher Carl Granderson, who catches Kiffin’s eye as he sprints into frame, securing a tackle. “Everybody need to watch 91’s motor,” Kiffin says. 

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Granderson weighed 180 pounds when Wyoming recruited him out of Sacramento to play defensive line. Granderson is 6’5”, so a handful of interested colleges were scared off by his weight. What they didn’t know was that he was one of nine siblings, the son of a single mom who worked as a caregiver for the elderly. He didn’t go to bed hungry, but ramen and ground beef only go so far. In the fall of 2015 at Wyoming, he gained 20 pounds in three weeks. 

He came to the Senior Bowl to do just what he’s done—show teams an unyielding motor. 

“I wanted to show my effort,” he says. “That’s what defines me as a football player. I try to get out of there and get to the ball because crazy stuff happens in football. Fifty yards downfield the safety can make the tackle and the ball’s out, and it’s right there in front of you. I want to be the guy that, when you cut the tape, I’m out of the picture and then I show up and make the play.”

Granderson is one of a handful of players who have received rave reviews from scouts and coaches who spent the first half of the week in Mobile before heading back to their respective cities. But that was for his performance on the field. The 49ers, though, have a valuable head start in understanding the total player, from seeing him off the field, in meeting rooms, watching tape, interacting with coaches and other players. 

“I get to tell a guy something, and see if he can recall it and do it on the field,” Kiffin says. “If I ask him about it, does he remember or does he act like it’s brand new? That’s so much more valuable than watching a guy at his pro day.”

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