MOBILE, Ala. – The players' day began early with meetings and official weigh-ins. A few hours later, the Cowboys-coached North squad took the field for the first of three Senior Bowl practices this week at Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
Head coach Jason Garrett and his staff are coaching an entirely new group of players than the 53 on the Cowboys' roster in 2015. But the structure of practice wasn't much different than the workouts at Valley Ranch during Cowboys season.
"Pretty similar – a couple of little tweaks," Garrett said. "We like how we practice. I think it gives us a chance for us to get guys ready to play but also gives these guys a chance to show who they are. One-on-ones (drills) are important down here, so we extended those a little bit to make sure they got plenty of reps at that, it's a big part of the evaluation. We like to have the rhythm of practice and they responded well to it."
One noticeable similarity: the "compete drills" in which the entire team gathers around for three one-on-one passing drills, offense versus defense – best two out of three wins the drill. Defense won the first matchup with a pass breakup by Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell on the third attempt.
"I think this week is a lot about how you respond to playing on stage," Garrett said. "There's a lot of NFL people in the stands watching you practice and your every move all week long. So we like that idea. We like to see how guys respond and I think they did a good job. Guys are chomping at that bit to have those opportunities."
Indeed, Senior Bowl week features many of the best senior prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft. The North squad includes notable names such as North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz, Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller, Penn State defensive tackle Austin Johnson and Ohio State defensive tackle Adolphus Washington.
The coaching and learning process is condensed into a week: three full practice days and a walkthrough Friday leading into Saturday's game between the North and South teams.
Concepts and instruction are coming at the players quickly, and Garrett believes that's a good barometer for life in the NFL.
"We understand that we just got here, we're putting a lot of stuff in and throwing a lot of stuff at them, but you've got to see how they respond," Garrett said. "When you go from being in a college situation to a pro situation, oftentimes game plans each week are extensive and they change, and learning is a big part of it and they're being able to take that learning from the classroom or from a walkthrough onto the field and see if they can play with the same speed and explosiveness that you need them to play with. And that's a big part of the evaluation."
Before Senior Bowl week, the Cowboys' staff began their own evaluations of the 2015 season that ended with a 4-12 record. Those internal meetings and evaluations will continue after they return from Mobile, but Garrett emphasized the Senior Bowl isn't setting back their normal offseason timeline.
"I think this is a great week. This will help us in our draft process," Garrett said. "We'll get to know these guys, many of the best players in the country. We'll get to know them better than we would have if we hadn't been here. So we're excited about that. But there's a lot of work to do. We have to evaluate last season in all different aspects and we have to get better through our evaluations, but also adding football players matters, and the draft is the best way to do that."