For the majority of the people who made the Senior Bowl an annual occurrence, whether it was NFL staff in coaching or scouting or media members or perhaps just fans of football, this year's Senior Bowl is unlike any other.
And the main reason is that only just a selected few have gotten the chance to attend this year's practices as the NFL limited each team to take only 10 members down to Mobile as they limit the contact to the players due to the pandemic.
But for someone like Will McClay, the Cowboys' vice president of player personnel, it's a business-as-usual approach this week as they watch the Senior Bowl practice.
"At the end of the day it's still watching football," McClay said in a virtual interview with DallasCowboys.com. "The access is the same. There's not as many people running around. It's more of clear process of the player."
The game will be played Saturday at 1:30 p.m. at NFL Network.
One might suggest this year's Senior Bowl is as important as ever, considering the major changes to the NFL combine. This week's evaluation is a chance to get a firsthand look at several players, including a few that didn't even play this past season, due to Covid-19.
"It's just great to see guys play and participate," McClay said. "This year is so different with schools playing, not playing, guys opting out, opting in – all of those things. It's digging to find that information and find out more about who these guys are."
McClay said is favorite part of the Senior Bowl experience isn't just the guys getting on the field and competing against each other, but how they soak in the entire process throughout the week.
"When you go to a college practice – our scouts – you're going to get bits and pieces and then they kick you out," McClay said of visiting schools on campus throughout the season. "Well, (at the Senior Bowl) we get to view the full process from stretch to the end of practice when they call them up. Those are things that we continue to evaluate on the player – his interactions. The way he interacts with his teammates and coaches. Those are the things that I enjoy the most, getting to watch the beginning to the end of practice and then start to formulate an opinion based off what was told about the player. Then we pick up and have the personal interaction, we can put all that together to really paint a picture on the guy."
For one reason or another, the Senior Bowl players seem to make an impression on the Cowboys. Dating all the way back to 2005 when they evaluated a slender, but explosive pass-rusher named DeMarcus Ware, to Zack Martin, DeMarco Murray and even lately with Tony Pollard and Bradlee Anae, the Cowboys seem to draft players from the Senior Bowl.
While McClay said it's more of a "coincidence," he did recall one of his favorite players the Cowboys ever drafted that participated in this game.
"The big one is Dak Prescott - he was on the other team when we were coaching it at the time," McClay said of the 2016 Senior Bowl when the Cowboys coaching staff was there to coach one of the teams. "When you're coaching it, you get a more intimate feel on the guys because you're coaching them every day and seeing how they take things in and you get to spend more time with them. With Dak being on other the team, the teams get to switch personnel and the coaches get to interview them and the staffs. We got to spend some extra time. Just from that interaction with Dak, watching him at practice but then that interaction with him started to tell us more about who he was and how different he was. And that added more information to what we had. We felt like when the time comes, we have an opportunity to pick this guy – he's the right guy."
And regardless of the position, finding the "right" guy for the team is the No. 1 goal. McClay said as the Cowboys enter Year No. 2 with Mike McCarthy, they have a better understand of what they're looking for, but it doesn't change too much from the overall philosophy.
"It's important to know what they're seeking, but at the end of the day, we're looking for good football players," McClay said. "We understand the profile of the different positions and what we're trying to do. It's an ongoing thing. We have been with Jason (Garrett) and that staff for a long amount of time and there was a better feel for it. Every instance we get to talk to Coach McCarthy and his staff, the better those things match. Our objective is to say what the guy can do. What are his areas of concerns or weakness. And we give that information to the coaches and Jerry and Stephen as we go through it. And that's how we pick our player."