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David Johnson Proves Senior Bowl's Importance

College All-Star game allows small-school stars to test their mettle


Cardinals running back David Johnson shined in the Senior Bowl two years ago.

It's easy to see now, with the benefit of hindsight, how well David Johnson's abilities translated from college to the NFL.

The Cardinals running back averaged 5.4 yards per carry and doubled as a receiving threat in four seasons at Northern Iowa before seamlessly bringing those attributes to the professional ranks.

But two years ago, there was lingering doubt among NFL evaluators as Johnson wrapped up his college career.

"The only thing I heard was really that I was coming from a small school, and that they didn't know how I would play with higher-level skill guys," said Johnson, the Cardinals' third-round pick in 2015.

It's a legitimate concern. There are myriad small-schoolers who eventually find success in the NFL, but others that can't make the jump. Scouts must discern which ones have the requisite talent, which is why All-Star games are an important step.

Senior Bowl practices begin Tuesday in Mobile, Alabama, and the game will be held on Saturday, broadcast on NFL Network. Every team will send a host of scouts and front office personnel in order to get a first-hand look at numerous draft prospects throughout the week.

Johnson played in the game two years ago and finished with 10 carries for 43 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, he proved throughout the week of practices that he matched up well athletically with some of the best collegiate players in the country. Johnson always believed that to be the case, but was anxious to prove it.

"'Once I get there, I'll be able to show my skills,'" he told himself before the week began. "'I'll be able to definitely perform and do my best and be able to play with those guys.' That was my biggest thing. That's what motivated me more when I went to the Senior Bowl and the (NFL Scouting) combine. I wanted to prove myself, that I was able to be a dominant back."

With thousands of players to evaluate throughout the season, teams are liable to overlook a few. John Fassel, then the special teams coach for the Rams, didn't know much about Johnson until watching him at the Senior Bowl.

"Kid out of Northern Iowa, I remember clearly like, 'Man, this guy, who is this?'" Fassel said in a conference call with Arizona media in late December. "Then, after the Senior Bowl, going back and doing more research on him as a (special) teamer. Honestly, not surprised the success he had, really just based off his Senior Bowl performance on special teams. You go back and look at it, it was pretty impressive."

Parity is rampant in the NFL, where some of the worst teams are capable of hanging tough against some of the best. In college, the talent gap is much bigger, which makes it tougher to know if a player is gold or iron pyrite.

While the scouts make their initial judgments by looking at traits and production, Senior Bowl practices help clear up the picture by letting players from every conference compete on an even playing field.

"In the game there was too much going on (for a proper evaluation)," Johnson said. "In practice when we did 1-on-1 blocking, 1-on-1 routes, where every rep you run there's a play, I started figuring out what I could do."

The next crop will look to prove itself this week, and it will be under the microscope. Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, who played in last year's game, sent a Tweet of advice for this year's players, reminding them that every step they take will be evaluated.

For some, their stock will dip, a cruel reality when top players go toe-to-toe. For others, the practices and games will be more evidence that they belong in the NFL.

"After the Senior Bowl, I literally knew for a fact that I was going to be able to be successful," Johnson said.

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