Johnathan Abram could’ve easily been sent home from the Senior Bowl. The Mississippi State safety had a shoulder injury that was red-flagged during pre-practice week medical evaluations, preventing him from playing in the annual college all-star showcase.
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy knew about the injury coming in but still allowed him to come down to Mobile, Ala. for a check, with the possibility he could even practice but not play with the injury.
“The way John plays, it was probably unrealistic that he could play," Nagy said Tuesday in an interview with NBC Sports Bay Area. “He only knows one speed. He goes a thousand miles an hour. He’s one of my favorites in this draft for that reason. He’s a complete tone setter and so much fun to watch on tape.”
Abram’s shoulder wouldn’t accommodate light practice, so Senior Bowl protocol suggests he be sent away to free up a roster spot. The Raiders and 49ers, staffs coaching the game, flashed a stop sign on that.
“We would’ve added another safety, but the Raiders and 49ers wanted to be around him so bad, and he wanted to be here so bad that there was no real thought of sending John back to Starkville or Dallas to train,” Nagy said. “Both staffs were bummed he got flagged, but both were quick to ask if they could keep him in town. Everybody wants to be around this guy.”
Especially Raiders head coach Jon Gruden. An immediate and powerful bond formed that week, making it easy to select him with the Raiders’ No. 27 overall NFL draft pick.
Abram wasn’t the only Senior Bowl player the Raiders took after spending a full week with these players. They ended up with seven, drafting four and signing three more as college free agents.
That list also includes Houston cornerback Isaiah Johnson (fourth round), LSU tight end Foster Moreau (fourth round), Clemson receiver Hunter Renfrow (fifth round), UC Davis receiver Keelan Doss (UDFA), Wisconsin fullback Alex Ingold (UDFA), and Notre Dame linebacker Te’Von Coney (UDFA).
Abram, however, was that Senior Bowl haul’s crown jewel. Mike Mayock loved Abram well before he became Raiders general manager, asking Nagy about him way back in September. Then an NFL Network draft analyst, Mayock was peppering Nagy, a former NFL scout, about his Senior Bowl prospects board and Abram’s place on it.
Mayock’s affinity, Gruden’s quick bond and some excellent game tape made Abram a logical draft target for a team needing safety help.
“I met him at the Senior Bowl and he was on the other team, but I couldn’t get rid of the kid,” Gruden said. “He loves football and is a coach on the field. He has a magnetic personality.”
Abram had a hint that might’ve been a week well spent.
“I could tell at the Senior Bowl that the Raiders really liked me, the way I played and the way I carry myself,” Abram said. “I had a really good feeling this might be my spot.”
That sentiment was echoed several times among the drafted Senior Bowl alums, despite all of them playing on the 49ers-coached South squad. The Raiders liked several from their own team – all three undrafted players came from the North – but the stars didn’t align as they did for those selected to join the Silver and Black. Bonds formed during the practice week helped lock down the undrafted signings, who are free to find the best possible fit.
The Raiders and 49ers swapped squads for a spell the Friday prior to the Saturday game, allowing coaches and scouts to familiarize themselves with the opposing team.
“We leave it open as an option between the staffs,” Nagy said. “It’s not for a huge window of time, but it gives you an opportunity to cross check the other team. That’s valuable, and something the other teams don’t get.”
It solidified a Gruden-Abram-like tie between Moreau and Raiders tight ends coach Frank Smith. Smith was passionate that Moreau could be a quality pro and was a better athlete than many thought. He arranged a private workout with Moreau later in the pre-draft process and stumped for him leading up to the selection days.
“I met with Frank and I fell in love with the way he coached, how he addressed the game and what he does for his players and how he coaches,” Moreau said. “You know it’s funny, I kind of kept up with him through the whole process and I really have an affinity for the Raiders. I obviously have an affinity for Coach Gruden and his staff; one of the great minds in football. So, I kind of hoped this would happen.”
Good Senior Bowl connections helped the Raiders land some of their rookie class. Coaching the game can provide a lift in the evaluation process, enhancing stock for some while eliminating others.
“It’s invaluable,” Nagy said. “If you’re coaching the game, it’s so much more hands on in the meeting rooms. You see how they absorb information, and what methods work best in teaching. You see their attentiveness. Heck, you even see if they’re consistently on time or not. You see how they practice, and how they bounce back from bad reps. You also get to know these guys so well. It’s an immersive experience, and it can help minimize mistakes on draft day.”
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Nagy admits some bias pulling for Senior Bowl alums – “I’m invested in all these guys,” he says – but believes the Raiders mined his game for guys who can make it in this league.
“I would be surprised if one of those seven didn’t make it,” Nagy said. “They’re all really good players.”