MOBILE, Ala. — A.J. McCarron opted out. Jadeveon Clowney, Teddy Bridgewater and Johnny Manziel weren't eligible to participate. Anthony Barr said he wasn't healthy enough.
So that left Gus Bradley as the star of the Senior Bowl. The head coach of the South team created as much buzz in the stands and on the sidelines as any of the players.
"They have an awesome practice with a great tempo," Chiefs general manager John Dorsey said. "You can see the teaching aspect. They run the position-specific drills we like to see. Guys are competing. It's a credit to Gus and his staff."
Said another high-ranking front-office man, "He is so engaged and he gets the most out of his players. You also can tell he has coached his coaches well, which is something that not many of them do well."
Bradley, unlike well-respected North coach Mike Smith, was somewhat of an unknown to many in attendance. He just completed his first year as head coach in Jacksonville after four years as Pete Carroll's defensive coordinator in Seattle. After this week, Bradley isn't an unknown anymore.
Bradley has been all over the practice field in Mobile, patting shoulders, giving instruction and keeping the pace intense. He spends time with all of the position groups and connects with as many players as possible. "He's got a lot of energy," said Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who is playing on Bradley's Senior Bowl team. "He's fired up all the time. His energy comes off on everybody and we try to work hard for him. He's passionate about what he does."
Bradley likes to keep things moving so his team can get a lot of work done in a short period of time. "Players generally like it when it's highly organized and moving," he said. "They don't like a lot of standing around. I think for us as coaches, too, if there is a lull in practice, sometimes there is a lull in coaching. I think when it's high tempo, it not only amps up the play, but coaching as well. The whole objective is to have high tempo during the week so when you get to Sunday, then it feels like the game is slowing down and they can play faster. It's a balance, though. You have to be careful how much you push them. The objective is not to play on Wednesday or Thursday. It's to get ready to play on Sunday."
Jaguars general manager Dave Caldwell thinks Bradley might run Jacksonville's practices at an even higher tempo than he ran the South team practices. "They hit the ground running and they don't stop until practice is over," he said.
The result in Jacksonville was steady improvement. After losing their first eight games, the Jags won four of their last eight. Some cited the work Bradley did with an inferior roster as part of the reason for the firings of Browns coach Rob Chudzinski and Texans coach Gary Kubiak, both of whom lost to the Jaguars.
"What we've seen from our very first practice in minicamp until the last is guys continued to get better," Caldwell said.
One of Bradley's trademarks that has been evident during practices at Ladd-Peebles is the way he pushes players with challenges. The Jaguars ran three straight days of wide receiver-defensive back one-on-ones here. They designate the matchups in meetings prior to practice. In seven-on-sevens, they keep score—and put it on the scoreboard for all to see. And Jaguars coaches call out players frequently.
Bradley is a lot like Carroll in this regard. Of course, he's also a little like Jon Gruden and Jim Mora, other head coaches he worked for. But Carroll also is a big proponent of practice competition.
"These look like Seahawks practices," Seattle general manager John Schneider said. "They are awesome. Gus is so gregarious. He has that heart, kind of like Pete, where you can see how much he cares about it."
Bradley said the key is to challenge players only on things within their control—things like effort, focus and communication. When a player is physically beaten, Bradley does not see much value in railing at him. "We feel a lot can get accomplished when you stay away from discouragement," he said. "When you stay upbeat and positive, you have an opportunity to get better. So we try to provide that culture."
McCullers said the Jaguars staff has stressed they don't want them thinking negative thoughts, and they have tried to breed confidence.
This is what Bradley told the South team in a post-practice huddle that was videotaped by Jaguars.com: "They showed up a little bit, man. But you know what, you rallied. Take that opportunity and turn it into a positive thing. Remember, we're going up, man. It's was a great job, a great effort the whole way through. Let's keep going man; there's nowhere but up. Keep getting better."
Bradley's approach makes him an ideal coach for the Senior Bowl, and also for the Jaguars. In Jacksonville, he is trying to turn around a team that has a winning percentage of .323 over the past six years.
"Knowing where we were as a franchise, we knew we were going to go through a lot of adversity," Caldwell said. "We knew it was going to be a slow build and there were going to be some ups and downs. So to have a guy who was consistent and consistently positive with a lot of energy was going to help us through those times."
Ladies and gentlemen, Gus Bradley.
• One of the big reasons the Browns were drawn to Mike Pettine as a head-coaching candidate is that they were impressed with the defensive scheme that Pettine runs after learning it from Rex Ryan. The Browns think that scheme will suit their personnel well.
• New Bucs general manager Jason Licht impressed the ownership of the Bucs and Dolphins in interviews and likely could have had either job. Some had the impression Lovie Smith would be hiring the general manager for the Bucs, but we hear the Glazers made the final call on Licht. It's a bit odd that Smith, who has final say on personnel matters, was not given the final say on choosing his right-hand man in the front office.
• Raiders owner Mark Davis didn't make any big staff changes, but the word at the Senior Bowl is he is making changes with the way the team is being run. Davis, as his father did, is flexing his muscle in the Raiders offices and becoming much more of a presence in decision-making. One difference is his father, Al Davis, had the credentials to oversee a football team.
• It took three years for Broncos tight end Julius Thomas to have a breakout season, but no one who has worked with Thomas since he has been in Denver is surprised to see him succeed. His talent was obvious from the first time he put on a Broncos jersey. But Thomas had to learn how to be a football player. Specifically, he had to learn how to play hurt and get through the bumps and bruises. Denver sources say the college basketball player struggled with that early in his career, but finally has figured it out.
• Teams looking for pass-rush help are checking out Jason Babin, who is expected to be cut by the Jaguars. Front-office men say at 33, Babin has declined a little athletically, but he still has pass-rush skills and could at least be an effective situational pass-rusher. Babin had 7.5 sacks in 2013, but is just two years removed from an 18-sack season in Philadelphia.
In a strong draft year, the Senior Bowl rosters were a big disappointment to NFL front-office men. "It's the worst Senior Bowl talent I've seen," one general manager said.
Because of the mass migration of underclassmen this year, many of the top prospects aren't seniors. Last year, many top underclassmen also declared, which left the senior class of 2014 considerably weaker. The Senior Bowl pool was weakened further because nine seniors declined invitations (Michigan State cornerback Darqueze Dennard, Oklahoma State cornerback Justin Gilbert, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde, Florida State cornerback Lamarcus Joyner, Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack, Texas A&M offensive tackle Jake Matthews, Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron, Alabama linebacker C.J. Mosley and Stanford inside linebacker Shayne Skov) and another 19 begged off with injuries (UCLA linebacker Anthony Barr, Alabama cornerback Deion Belue, Massachusetts tight end Rob Blanchflower, Dixie State tight end Joe Don Duncan, Florida defensive tackle Dominique Easley, Virginia Tech cornerback Antone Exum, Virgina Tech cornerback Kyle Fuller, Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney, Arizona State running back Marion Grice, Oregon defensive end Taylor Hart, North Carolina offensive tackle James Hurst, Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan, LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Oklahoma fullback Trey Millard, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, Baylor wide receiver Tevin Reese, Texas Christian cornerback Jason Verrett, Notre Dame guard Chris Watt and Boston College running back Andrew Williams).
Who was left? One high-ranking personnel man said there isn't a single player in the Senior Bowl who is in the top two ranked players at his position.
"There aren't any elite, blue-chip level players," he said. "In the past you always had guys like Von Miller here."
Last year, three of the top five picks in the draft—Eric Fisher, Lane Johnson and Ziggy Ansah—played in the Senior Bowl.
Bleacher Report asked four front-office men how many first-round picks are in the Senior Bowl. Two said two. One said one. And another said none. The most likely candidates, they said, were Notre Dame offensive lineman Zack Martin and Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr.
Though there probably won't be many first-round players who emerge from the Senior Bowl, there could be a high number of second-rounders.
"This is a second-round game," the high-ranking personnel man said. He estimated there are between 15 and 18 second-round players on rosters (including those who were injured during the week).
The second-round-type players: Wisconsin middle linebacker Chris Borland, Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin (prior to blowing out his knee), Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald, Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz, Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman, Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson, Mississippi State guard Gabe Jackson, Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews, Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, Ohio State offensive tackle Jack Mewhort, Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses, Michigan guard Michael Schofield, Alabama defensive tackle Ed Stinson, Virginia defensive end Brent Urban and Brigham Young outside linebacker Kyle Van Noy.
Also, there is a chance Nevada guard Joel Bitonio, Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo or Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas could move up into the second round.
• The thing I didn't like about Richard Sherman's postgame interview is so many kids were watching. Then again, the thing I liked about Richard Sherman's postgame interview is so many kids were watching.
• Sherman is right. He's not a thug. But he is a professional who lost his composure. He also is an individual who put himself ahead of the team. There is no excuse for that, but we've made it a much bigger deal than it is. So can we all move on now?
• All along I thought the Broncos signed Wes Welker to play wide receiver, not hit man.
• Retiring Patriots offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia was one of the great ones. If there were a Hall of Fame for assistant coaches, they'd be making his bust now.
• Right before he's about to cash in as one of the highest-paid players in the game, Ndamukong Suh has sacked his agents. There are no reports that he stomped on them or kicked them in their privates.
• Redskins general manager Bruce Allen says his team will be active in free agency (via the The Washington Post). He needs to start trying to convince Dan Snyder now that Deion Sanders will not be a good investment.
• Browns CEO Joe Banner joked (via NFL.com) that the Browns have found their "Curly" in Mike Pettine. Some think they will be looking for Shemp at this time next year, and for Joe Besser in 2016, and for Curly Joe in 2017.
• Just packed up the Huskies, sleds and ice picks for Super Bowl week.
• People attending the Super Bowl will receive earmuffs, hats, lip balm, mittens, scarves, tissues, hand warmers and a waist-wrap, quarterback-style hand pocket. They would have preferred a promise to never have to come back to New York for a Super Bowl.
Dan Pompei covers the NFL for Bleacher Report.