LOS ANGELES -- Cooper Kupp ran an underwhelming 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the scouting combine in March 2017, and Les Snead celebrated.
The Los Angeles Rams general manager figured Kupp's time would cause him to slip behind a plethora of more physically gifted wide receivers in his class, which meant Snead could snatch him in the later rounds for what would eventually become one of the biggest steals from that year's draft. Snead had already seen Kupp shine against elite college talent while playing actual football at the Senior Bowl, a showcase Rams decision makers and evaluators have leaned on heavily in recent years.
From 2017 to 2018, the Rams drafted nine players who took part in the Senior Bowl, tied with the Buffalo Bills for the most in the NFL during that time. This includes the Rams' top picks each year, tight end Gerald Everett in 2017 and offensive lineman Joe Noteboom in 2018. It also includes Kupp, fellow wide receiver Josh Reynolds, safety John Johnson, outside linebacker Obo Okoronkwo, defensive lineman Tanzel Smart, offensive lineman Jamil Demby and fullback Sam Rogers.
It's hardly a coincidence.
Said Snead: "You get to see guys go compete against really good seniors in their class."
In many ways, the Senior Bowl represents college football's premier showcase. The game itself is valuable. But even more so are the three days of practice leading up to it, which offer scouts, coaches and executives an extended look at high-end prospects competing against one another. It proved exceedingly valuable to the Dallas Cowboys two years ago. Their staff was selected to coach the North team, and one of the quarterbacks on the opposite side was Dak Prescott -- a fourth-round pick by the Cowboys who became the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year.
Snead selected more Senior Bowl players in the last two drafts (nine) than he did in the previous five (eight).
One potential reason for is the Rams have recently leaned on more seasoned players to offset a roster that was the NFL's youngest -- and thus one of its rawest -- for several years running. An even bigger reason, perhaps, stems from the reassurance that comes with watching players perform against elite competition on the field at the Senior Bowl. This is especially important for a Rams organization that needs to hit on what little draft capital it possesses.
Using the Jimmy Johnson Value Chart, the Rams' draft capital from 2017 to 2018 ranks 1,388th among 1,413 based on two-year stretches since 1970, according to research from ESPN's Bill Barnwell.
The better they do with that, the longer their contending window will stay open.
The Senior Bowl has allowed the Rams to evaluate how small-school players match up against prospects from FBS programs they never face. Last year, they saw it with Kupp, who broke records against inferior competition while playing at Eastern Washington. This year, they saw it with Demby, who played at Maine and was actually able to spend time blocking Okoronkwo, from Oklahoma.
“You wouldn’t get to see that when you’re watching him play at Maine, and you get to see it at the Senior Bowl," Snead said. "I do think it helps you go, ‘OK, some of the traits that he has will transfer to this league.’”