MOBILE, Ala. – It's annually the first major stop of the NFL offseason.
It's also annually the best pre-draft All-Star game. So, even in a "normal" year, the Reese's Senior Bowl matters a lot when it comes to the NFL Draft.
In this decidedly abnormal year, it matters even more.
"This year, it's very important," Pro Football Network chief draft analyst Tony Pauline said. "It's always one of the most important ones, and now it's one of the only ones."
Pauline spoke Tuesday at the Senior Bowl, which – primarily because the NFL Scouting Combine will not be held this offseason – indeed has taken on new meaning in this time of COVID-19.
"This is a real unique year and a really unique opportunity," Ohio State linebacker Tuf Borland said. "It's possibly the only time we'll be out in front of these coaches. We're just going to have to go all in and have a great week."
One draft analyst this week said he wondered as recently as a week ago if the Senior Bowl would take place, and analysts and players alike credited the event – particularly Executive Director Jim Nagy – for finding a way to hold the game.
Distancing protocols are in place, with media viewing practices separate from scouts – and with distancing and masks required for all. The streets and restaurants of Mobile, typically busy with team officials throughout the day and night, have been mostly quiet – particularly in the evenings.
"It's a weird year," Notre Dame quarterback and Senior Bowl attendee Ian Book told media Tuesday. "Every day you're just kind of waiting for some news, like something being canceled or not. As for the Senior Bowl, I was really happy they could get this going."
COVID-19 is affecting the scouting process beyond eliminating the combine. Teams will not be allowed private workouts with prospects – and for a second consecutive offseason, COVID-19 will prevent teams from bringing prospects to their facilities for pre-draft visits.
The lone opportunity for many prospects to work out for NFL teams this offseason outside the Senior Bowl will be their Pro Day workouts, with the NFL reportedly hoping to work with schools to ensure some level of consistency between the drills.
"This is your only chance to see, feel, touch these prospects," said Matt Miller, longtime NFL Draft writer for Bleacher Report who now works for The Draft Scout. "You only get so many opportunities to impress scouts. This year you get one -- maybe two with your Pro Day.
"So, if you bomb here, everything goes to your Pro Day. That's why it's so huge."
COVID-19 also had a less public but equally important effect on in-season scouting, with area scouts – teams' front-line eyes and ears in the scouting process – unable to visit college campuses, watch practices or attend games last fall.
"These area scouts have been locked in their rooms at home and they haven't gotten body types on guys," Optimum Scouting president Eric Galko said. "Seeing those kinds of things are really important. Scouts were here early, lined up, getting body types on guys."
COVID-19 forced the final stages of the scouting process to be virtual last offseason, eliminating most of the Pro Day schedule and prospects' facility visits. Many analysts believed this led to teams drafting more off college performance than workouts, a trend analysts say could continue – and that could benefit Senior Bowl participants.
"I would be shocked if all these guys aren't drafted because teams have seen them up close and personal," Galko said of the Senior Bowl participants.
Miller also said he expects the tape-over-measurables trend to continue in '21.
"I do think you're going to see good football players drafted earlier instead of workout warriors," Miller said. "This is a huge opportunity because they can just say, 'This is who I was as a player. This is what my film was. This is who I am as a football player.'
"It's not about going and training in the 40 for six weeks and running really fast."