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The Stats Don’t Lie (or Say Much of Anything): Data Takes on the Senior Bowl

| January 23rd, 2017

I’m happy to be saying I’ll be doing a monthly offseason piece here at DaBearsBlog, helping fill the content void of the long offseason. Each one will be a numbers-crunching look at something Bears related in which I attempt to earn the “Data” moniker so kindly bestowed on me by the comments section regulars and, more importantly, answer a Bears question that I’ve been wondering about. If you have anything you’d like me to look into, let me know in the comments or email me at woodjohnathan1@gmail.com and I’ll see what I can do.


I’m starting with a topic that I’m sure you’ll be hearing a lot about this week: the Senior Bowl.

John Fox and company will be down in Mobile, Alabama all week coaching around 100 draft-eligible players, giving them a first-hand look at their skills, mental makeup and attitude. This has many fans excited, as they dream of the surefire franchise-altering draft to come from this valuable knowledge.

So my premise here today is simple. I looked at coaches who coached in the Senior Bowl the last 10 years, how many players from that week they drafted, and how those draft picks panned out. Since Chicago is likely drafting their quarterback of the future this year, I also looked specifically at teams coaching in the Senior Bowl who drafted QBs.

Anecdotal Evidence

First, you should know that coaching in the Senior Bowl is no sure sign of good things to come. The teams that typically coach in the Senior Bowl are the teams with the worst record in each conference the previous season who retained their head coach. With that in mind, it’s not exactly inspiring to see that San Francisco and Jacksonville both coached in this game for three straight years at some point in the last decade. Clearly they didn’t gain valuable enough information to draft players who would stop losing the following year.

Those wanting to stay optimistic, however, would do well to look at San Francisco’s 2007 draft, when they spent 5 picks in the first 4 rounds on players they had just coached in the Senior Bowl. Those picks landed them Patrick Willis, Joe Staley, and Ray McDonald – each part of the core that made up one of the best teams in the NFL from 2011-13. I’m sure we’d all be thrilled if the Bears landed three high quality players like that from their experience this week.

Of course, the 2010 Miami Dolphins spent their first 4 picks on players they had just coached in the Senior Bowl and ended up with Jared Odrick, Koa Misi, John Jerry and AJ Edds. That’s not exactly a draft class that Super Bowl champions are made of.

Draft Frequency

Enough with the specific examples; let’s get into some hard numbers. From 2006-2016, teams coaching in the Senior Bowl drafted an average of 2.3 players from the Senior Bowl that year. This ranged from some teams picking no Senior Bowlers to a few who picked 5, making up most of their draft.

Two comments:

  • This is not a particularly high number. The Senior Bowl has about 100 players on average, and most of them get drafted, meaning that the 32 NFL teams draft roughly 3 Senior Bowlers on average each year. Perhaps there’s value in Senior Bowl coaches learning what players they don’t want on their teams?
  • These were mostly mid-round picks. 11 were from rounds 1-2, 10 in rounds 6-7, and 30 in rounds 3-5. So it seems those coaching at the Senior Bowl mostly look for players to fill out their middle rounds, though it might also be that those are the rounds where most Senior Bowl players get drafted (I don’t have the numbers on that).

General Draft Success

So in general don’t expect that the Bears’ 2017 draft will necessarily be full of guys from the Senior Bowl. Now the more important question: how successful are teams at drafting players they coached in the Senior Bowl?

It’s difficult to quantify draft success. The metric I used for the sake of simplicity – though I will admit this is far from perfect – is the number of draft picks who went on to make a Pro Bowl. Out of the 51 players drafted by these 22 teams, 9 made a Pro Bowl (so far, there’s certainly room for that to increase for some of the players from the more recent drafts). 9 out of 51 is a pretty good hit rate, as most teams would be thrilled if 18% of their picks became Pro Bowlers (typically about 100 out of 1600 or so players in the league each year). That’s especially impressive considering where those 52 picks were spent, with only 11 in the first 2 rounds of the draft. If you want to look at the list and make your own conclusions, feel free to do so here (http://bit.ly/2jsXLqg).

 It’s a tiny sample size, but worth noting that teams coaching in the Senior Bowl who draft Senior Bowl guys in round 1 do quite well.

 4 of 6 1st round picks made a Pro Bowl, though 3 of those 4 guys were drafted in the back third of the round.

 Most top 10-15 picks don’t go to the Senior Bowl for fear of dropping their stock through poor performance or injury.

 The official Senior Bowl site also likes to brag that 23 2016 Pro Bowl players (out of 86 total) were Senior Bowl alumni. Only 3 of those 23 players, however, were drafted by a team that coached them at the Senior Bowl, and only 2 of those three were still playing for the team that drafted them. 2 of 23 is not appreciably different from the 1/16th of the league that coaches in the Senior Bowl each year.

Quarterbacks

Now for the good stuff: did teams who coached in the Senior Bowl with an eye on finding their next franchise QB get what they were looking for? It’s a small sample size, but I think history here is actually quite encouraging. Since it’s a small list, I want to look at each instance one by one. That way we can examine the pick in context.

In 2006, the Titans had the 3rd overall pick. They took Vince Young, who was not at the Senior Bowl. They passed on Jay Cutler – who was far and away the best quarterback in that draft – after spending a week coaching him.

In 2011, the Bengals spent their 2nd round pick on Andy Dalton, who they had coached in the Senior Bowl. They couldn’t have made a better pick there, as Dalton is easily the best QB not named Cam Newton out of that draft and they had no shot at Newton.

In 2012 Washington traded up to the 2nd pick of the draft in the draft to select Robert Griffin III, who was not at the Senior Bowl. History has shown that to be a mistake, but Washington somewhat made up for it when they grabbed Kirk Cousins, who they had coached at the Senior Bowl in round 4. Of course, their best move would have been to wait and take Cousins, or grab Russell Wilson, another Senior Bowl QB that year. Apparently a week with Wilson was not enough to convince them he was a superstar in the making.

In 2013 Oakland spent their fourth round pick on Tyler Wilson, who they had coached at the Senior Bowl. Not exactly an inspiring selection, but at least the QB-desperate team avoided reaching for 1st-round Senior Bowl QB bust EJ Manuel. That entire draft was a wasteland for QBs, as the best ones so far have been Mike Glennon and Matt Barkley. So perhaps Oakland learned enough from that week to not waste a high pick on a bad QB just because they needed one.

In 2014, Jacksonville spent the 3rd overall pick on Blake Bortles, who was not at the Senior Bowl. The 2nd round of that draft saw Senior Bowl QB Derek Carr drafted, who has since blossomed into a superstar. Jimmy Garoppolo was also a Senior Bowl QB drafted in the 2nd round; there’s no saying at this point if he’s better than Bortles, but he looked very good in his brief stint earlier this year and could be a starter somewhere next year.

It’s starting to look like teams coaching at the Senior Bowl should avoid drafting QBs they don’t coach that week at the top of the draft. (Excepting, of course, Tennessee drafting Marcus Mariota 2nd overall in 2015 even though he wasn’t at the Senior Bowl.) I’d say that’s worked out pretty well for them so far.

Finally, both teams who coached at the Senior Bowl in 2016 drafted a QB they coached that week. Dallas grabbed Dak Prescott in round 4, and Jacksonville grabbed Brandon Allen in round 6. That worked wonderfully for Dallas, though to be fair they famously came out of Senior Bowl week wanting Connor Cook over Prescott. You can’t fault Jacksonville for a 6th round QB who doesn’t play as a rookie, but they also saw Prescott for a week and passed on drafting him 4 times.

Add it all up and what do you get? Of the 8 teams that coached in the Senior Bowl and drafted a QB that year, 4 found a solid starter or better. That’s pretty good, especially when you consider only 4 of those 8 were 1st round picks, right? Of course, 1 of those QBs wasn’t at the Senior Bowl, 1 was only drafted as a backup after trading the farm to draft a different QB, and 1 was only drafted because the guy they wanted was gone.

Summing it up

Overall, there aren’t a lot of hard and fast conclusions from this data. You can spin it to make it look good or bad, which means the main takeaway is this: coaching in the Senior Bowl might help, but it is no guarantee of either a successful draft or of finding your quarterback of the future.

So by all means pay attention this week. Watch, listen, and dream of the next Bears superstar who might be getting a head start under Chicago’s coaching staff, of the franchise quarterback who can lead them to the promised land. It absolutely could happen. Just don’t be shocked if that dream ends up being nothing more than a fantasy.

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