MOBILE, Ala. — The Senior Bowl, in theory, was made for a player such as A.J. McCarron.
The college all-star game is a mecca for NFL scouts, coaches and personnel people, and they flock here for a few days every late January to watch up close some of the top senior prospects for the following spring's draft.
Many of the top players who are locked into the top 20 picks choose to opt out of the game, as is their God-given right. But the players who do come have a chance to showcase their skills against top-level competition and raise their stocks heading into the Combine.
The stakes are raised for a player such as McCarron, who grew up within a few miles of this event, attended it nearly every year and went on to star as a quarterback a few hours up the road at Alabama, winning two national championships.
But McCarron can't seem to shed the label of being the much-maligned "game manager," or worse, a "system quarterback" who merely fed off the wealth of talent that Nick Saban has brought to Tuscaloosa.
The criticisms perhaps are unfair, but this stage would have afforded McCarron the chance to dispel them — especially given his familiarity of the event and his local roots — through a good week of work here. Instead, under the advisement of his agent, Todd France, McCarron is not attending Senior Bowl practices or playing in the game.
There has been talk that the McCarron camp believes he'll be a top-20 pick when it's all said and done, which is part of the reason they opted out. But that will have to come from what McCarron already has accomplished, plus the Scouting Combine and his pro day and individual workouts prior to the May 8-10 draft.
But as Savage points out, "At the same time, that was then and this is now. [NFL teams] are not worried about what you did; they are worried about what you’re going to do."
The quarterbacks who are here are an interesting lot, but save for the South team's David Carr from Fresno State, there are none who are being discussed as a possible first-round pick. The Senior Bowl staff held a spot for McCarron as long as they could, knowing he would be a big draw locally and that his talent was good enough to get him here.
Few scouts know McCarron's game better than Phil Savage, the former Cleveland Browns general manager who now is the Senior Bowl executive director. Savage also just happens to be a proud local resident, and he called all of McCarron's 40 college starts (36 of them victories) as a color analyst for Bama football radio.
Savage obviously hoped to get McCarron here but said he's now focused on the players who are attending, not the ones who chose not to.
"Well, he had his own choice to make in terms of his participation in this college all-star game," Savage told Yahoo. "Our position on it is that we’re committed to the players who are here, not the ones who are not.
"We had a chance to have five Mobile players in our game if A.J. and [Alabama LB] C.J. Mosley were here. We have Jake Prosch from Auburn, Solomon Patton from Florida and Jimmie Ward from Northern Illinois. It would have been a great representation of our city and the great football we have here. So it’s disappointing in that regard, but there are other players who are not here and we are not here to question anyone’s decision to be here or not."
A safety on the North squad, Ward caught passes from McCarron as a youth player growing up in Mobile and said he would have relished the chance to get on the same field as him again.
"We played on the youth all-star team together, even won a championship together," Ward said. "I haven't seen him in a few years, but he's a great player."
Had McCarron played in the game, Ward would have had a chance to pick him off in Saturday's game.
"I would have loved to get my hands on one of his passes," Ward said with a cheeky smile.
McCarron's roster spot on the North squad was taken by Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo, who stood out at the East-West Shrine Game last week, but he had an up and down first day. Carr had a solid first day in the South practice, standing out above Garoppolo and San Jose State's David Fales, and Carr earned some praise from scouts from getting in some extra reps after practice with Vanderbilt WR Jordan Matthews on the far end of the field.
Even Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, a four-year starter who suffered a torn ACL in the Bulldogs' penultimate game this season, is here, sitting in on the South team meetings, working with the players and coaches and doing interviews with NFL talent evaluators while he rehabs.
Bama teammate Kevin Norwood, who became one of McCarron's most trusted receivers over their career together, said it was a little odd in the first day to be catching passes from unfamiliar quarterbacks. He also understood why McCarron would stay away and would not question the decision, but that doesn't mean he wouldn't have wanted him in Mobile.
"I definitely wish he was here," Norwood said. "He’s one of my brothers. But that decision not to come is on him."
Jacksonville Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley would have coached McCarron had he come here this week, and his team needs a quarterback. But he, like Savage, is choosing to focus this week on who is here, not who is elsewhere.
"Everyone’s got their own reasons to attend," Bradley said. "We really want to spend our time with the guys that are here. But he’s a great talent, and I am sure he’s got his reasons.
"We have guys who are trying to showcase their talent, but at the same time you’re trying to form a team. For them to come in here with new receivers, and the timing might be off, new verbiage, I think it really shows a competitive spirit."
Few are doubting that McCarron lacks the competitive spirit. In fact, that might be one of his strengths in some scouts' eyes, and Savage believes McCarron has what it takes to be a good pro.
"I have seen every snap he’s taken in college," Savage said. "He’s obviously had a superb college career. He won a lot of game. He showed a great capacity to take care of the football. I think he has excellent potential for the pro game, and he has done a lot of things that can translate from college to the pros."
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