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How coaching the Senior Bowl has affected the Detroit Lions’ draft process

Taking a look back at the 10... yes 10.. times the Lions have coached the Senior Bowl.

Reese’s Senior Bowl Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The Detroit Lions 2021 season is over, but the final game of the season doesn’t end things for them. They’re already busy working on the 2022 season. The first big step for the Lions will be returning to coach the Senior Bowl on February 5.

If the Lions coaching the senior Bowl feels like a familiar thing, that’s because it is. The Lions have coached the Senior Bowl 10 times since 1950. In fact, the Lions coached the very first Senior Bowl. They coached the second one, too. Recently the Lions coached the Senior Bowl with Matt Patricia in 2020. In a few weeks, Dan Campbell will join Matt Patricia, Jim Schwartz, Marty Mornhinweg, Don McCafferty, George Wilson, Buddy Parker and Bo McMillan in the special fraternity of Lions coaches to coach the Senior Bowl.

Real quick, in case you were wondering, the Lions haven’t coached the Senior Bowl the most. That distinction goes to the New York Giants, who have done it 11 times. The Lions will tie that record when they coach the game next month.

Coaching the Senior Bowl has definitely affected the Lions’ draft process, but not as much as you would think. In total, the Lions have drafted 23 players who they’ve coached in the Senior Bowl. They’ve coached in the game four times since 2003. In three of those instances, they’ve drafted at least two players who they coached during the week of the Senior Bowl.

The first player the Lions ever took in the draft after coaching them in the Senior Bowl was LSU guard Jim Shoaf in the 10th round of the 1951 NFL Draft. Since then, the Lions have been grabbing guys they coached in Day 2 and Day 3 of the draft. Some names you’ll immediately remember are Larry Warford, Jonah Jackson and Logan Stenberg. All three were coached by the Lions and all taken later in the draft.

Of course, there is one big exception here. The Lions coached Ezekiel Ansah in the Senior Bowl and then took him with the fifth overall pick in the 2013 NFL Draft. Ansah is one of three players the Lions coached in the Senior Bowl and drafted that went on to be a Pro Bowler. The other two are Larry Warford and Ed Flanagan. The latter was drafted by the Lions in the fifth round of the 1965 NFL Draft.

Here’s the sad thing about the Senior Bowl: the players the Lions have drafted have typically not lasted long. Some of them didn’t play at all. I’m looking in your direction, Michael Williams and Ben Johnson. Since 2003, Ezekiel Ansah is the only Senior Bowl Lions to make it past his rookie deal without leaving in free agency or getting cut.

This doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing. The Lions have grabbed career guys out of the Senior Bowl before. The aforementioned Ed Flanagan played for the Lions for 10 years. Bob Kowalkowski, who the Lions took in that same 1965 draft, played for the Lions for 11 years. Jonah Jackson seems like a guy who might stick around for a while, too. We’ll see.

Maybe some of the issues come from the Lions struggling to draft for so long. This is a team that only has 15 of the 33 players they drafted during the Bob Quinn era left on the team. Sometimes players don’t work out in the draft. It’s just something that happens.

But at the same time, Lions head coach Dan Campbell did warn about getting too hyper-focused and enamored with Senior Bowl players.

“Yes, there is an advantage, but you also have got to be careful that you don’t get swayed by that either,” Campbell said. “Like, sometimes, it’s no different than going, ‘We’re going to go look at these two receivers. You’re going to go look at this receiver who you think is a top-10 pick, but you don’t look at this one where you’re getting anchored by looking at that one live.’”

It should be interesting to see how general manager Brad Holmes and Campbell do on their go around with the Senior Bowl. But let’s hope this is the last time they ever have to do it.