LAS VEGAS — The East-West Shrine Bowl is a unique experience for the coaches who participate. It’s one of the two college all-star games, along with the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, that attracts players who have a substantial chance to be selected in the NFL Draft later that spring.
The NFL started supplying the coaching staff for the game in 2017, allowing teams that did not make the playoffs to nominate coaches for it. But this year marks the first time just two teams will provide their full staff.
Those teams are the Atlanta Falcons and the New England Patriots. For a rebuilding team like the Falcons, an opportunity like this can give them a leg up on the rest of the NFL at this juncture in the offseason.
Falcons general manager Terry Fontenot emphasized that sentiment when he spoke following the final Shrine Bowl practice of the week. Rebuilding teams can benefit from these exposures to potential players they can add to their roster. There’s a difference between meeting a guy for a few minutes at the NFL scouting combine versus getting to see how they act and operate over a week of practice.
“It’s twofold,” Fontenot said. “The opportunity to do some different things with the staff, so that’s an opportunity for us to grow and develop. Also having access to these players — and there’s a lot of good football players out here. We’re able to get a different level of access than the other 30 teams, talking about us and New England.”
Most of the Falcons’ coaching staff is in Vegas, including head coach Arthur Smith and newly hired defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, but special teams coordinator Marquice Williams has been running the show.
The Falcons have drafted players like Kyle Pitts, AJ Terrell and Chris Lindstrom in recent first rounds, and all of them look to be foundational pieces. The later rounds are trickier, although this past draft yielded standout rookie running back Tyler Allgeier, promising linebacker Troy Andersen and potential starting quarterback Desmond Ridder on Day 2 and beyond.
This point in the offseason, for all 32 teams, is about evaluation. From their own roster, to potential draft selections, to the coaching staff — this part of the NFL calendar is all about finding an edge that can manifest itself in the fall and winter. Getting first access to these players is a crucial piece to that puzzle.
“Coaches are actually with the players in the meetings,” Fontenot said. “You’re teaching them, you’re seeing how they take notes, you’re seeing how they learn, you’re seeing how they take that to the field and if they can make adjustments.”
It’s a higher level of access than most teams get to have at any point in the offseason or during their draft prep. Every team will send scouts to watch these games, and the Senior Bowl also selects NFL assistants to coach. But not every team gets to know the players intimately throughout the week.
“It makes a huge difference. There’s a touch point with the players,” Fontenot said. “Again, the access that we have and the time that we get to spend with them here, it’s really, really valuable information.”
Getting to know the players on a personal level is a crucial part of the draft evaluation process.
“We want to get players with the right mentality and their makeup,” Fontenot said. “When you have a quick 20-minute meeting or a quick 30-minute interview, or we have college scouts that work really hard to get all the information from the schools, there’s a lot of layers of information that we get. But getting to spend time with them this week, you’re going to learn a lot.”