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Size, Speed, and Sloppy Play: Five Takeaways From Senior Bowl Practices

A week of workouts in Mobile, Alabama, is in the books, and the standouts include some towering wide receivers, explosive defensive linemen, and two high-profile quarterbacks

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The countdown to the NFL draft began in earnest this week in Mobile, Alabama. Ahead of Saturday’s Senior Bowl game here, a select group of college football’s top seniors spent the week practicing in front of the league’s most important decision-makers, hoping to show off their skills and boost their stock for April’s draft. It’s not always easy to make a strong impression in the event’s stripped-down, truncated practice sessions: Contact is light, the playbooks are basic, and timing and chemistry between these mostly new teammates is limited. Those hurdles didn’t stop a handful of position groups and individual players from standing out, though. Here are five of my top impressions from Senior Bowl practices this week.

Big-Bodied Receivers Stole the Show

The common thread among the standout receivers in last year’s Senior Bowl week was speed, as Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Penny Hart, and a handful of explosive pass catchers caught scouts’ and fans’ eyes. This year, size was a theme that connected many of the star receivers in Mobile. Baylor’s Denzel Mims (who measured in at 6-foot-2, 206 pounds with 33 ¼-inch arms) took center stage, exhibiting excellent body control, aggressiveness at the catch point, and strong, reliable hands to reel in tough catch after tough catch. On Thursday, Mims caught a pair of impressive touchdowns in one-on-one drills, including this one-handed grab:

He made this leaping catch in the corner, where he used a subtle push off right before the ball arrived to separate himself from the defender.

Mims showed off the art of late separation all week, keeping defenders on his hip on deeper routes down the sideline while tracking the ball effortlessly.

The senior pass catcher was highly productive for the Bears, catching 66 passes for 1,020 yards and 12 touchdowns this season to finish his career in Waco with 186 receptions for 2,925 yards and 28 scores. He’ll have to clean up his footwork and continue to expand his route tree at the next level, but Mims showed the ability to get off the line and battle with the ball in the air, likely pushing himself into the day two conversation.

Florida receiver Van Jefferson had a big week in Mobile, too. At 6-foot-1, Jefferson played bigger than his weigh-in weight of 197 pounds, putting on a route-running clinic while using quick footwork to sink his hips and make sharp cuts to gain separation.

Receivers have a heavy advantage in one-one-one drills with cornerbacks (who have no help to funnel their opponents to), but Jefferson displayed the type of varied route tempo and suddenness in his movements that will translate to real games.

Jefferson’s stats at Florida weren’t exactly eye-popping (he caught 49 passes for 657 yards and six touchdowns in 2019, thanks in part to subpar quarterback play), but the former Ole Miss transfer showed this week why he could end up being a more prolific pro.

Liberty’s Antonio Gandy-Golden (6-foot-3, 222 pounds) and USC’s Michael Pittman Jr. (6-foot-3, 219) both boosted their stock as well. Gandy-Golden repeatedly showed off his ability to get off the line, get downfield, and out-physical his opponent or go up high and make a catch. And Pittman Jr. did much of the same, displaying smooth athleticism to beat defenders downfield before effortlessly tracking the ball into his hands. Gandy-Golden should be a fast riser in the next few months and Pittman Jr. has top-50 potential come April (note: Pittman hurt his foot on Wednesday and won’t play on Saturday). Oh, and don’t forget about Tennessee’s Jauan Jennings (6-foot-3, 206 pounds), Texas A&M’s Quartney Davis (6-foot-1, 199 pounds), and Texas’s Collin Johnson (6-foot-6, 221 pounds). Jennings played an aggressive style of ball, showed excellent competitiveness in practices this week, and seemed to consistently raise the intensity level in one-on-ones and scrimmage drills. Davis, meanwhile, impressed with sudden footwork, sharp routes, and physicality at the catch point. And Johnson was surprisingly sudden in and out of his breaks. He made a strong impression both as a route runner and in his ability to go up high and pluck the ball out of the air. His stock is rising.

Defensive Linemen Shined Too

The biggest defensive stars in Mobile came from the trenches, with South Carolina’s Javon Kinlaw as the main headliner. Kinlaw was arguably the “winner” of the weigh-in portion of the event, measuring out at 6-foot-5 and 315 pounds with 34 ⅝-inch arms and meat-hooky 10 ⅛-inch hands. Kinlaw―who checks in at no. 9 overall on my 2020 NFL Draft Big Board―is an incredibly athletic player for his size, possessing the quickness and power to shoot gaps and overpower offensive linemen across from him. He sat out Thursday’s practice with knee tendonitis but certainly made an impression on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Kinlaw notched 16 tackles for loss, including 10.5 sacks, and seven pass deflections in the past two seasons for the Gamecocks, and should bring pocket-smashing potential to the NFL.

Oklahoma defensive tackle Neville Gallimore was another big standout in defensive line drills this week. Gallimore (who ranks 25th on my Big Board) measured in at 6-foot-2, 304 pounds and showed off incredible explosiveness at the snap, regularly swiping, ripping, or spinning past opposing linemen to get into the pocket.

Auburn defensive lineman Marlon Davidson (6-foot-3, 297 pounds) and Alabama edge rusher Terrell Lewis (6-foot-5, 258 pounds with vine-like 34 ⅛-inch arms and 10-inch hands) are another pair of defenders whose stock rose this week. Davidson had no trouble throwing his weight around to create havoc in one-one-one drills, and is getting some first-round buzz. Lewis, meanwhile, was perhaps the most explosive edge rusher this week, showing off a springy first step and the ability to use his long arms to control blockers.

The Tight End Class Is Looking Better and Better

This year’s super-talented and incredibly deep class of receivers (including an elite cadre of underclassmen and the abovementioned seniors) is likely to steal most of the limelight come April, but the tight ends started to feel pretty underrated this week in Mobile. That group was led by FAU’s Harrison Bryant (6-foot-4, 242 pounds).

Bryant, who led all tight ends nationally with 65 catches for the Owls in 2019 (racking up 1,004 yards and seven touchdowns), showed off the athleticism to get open downfield while impressing as a pass blocker. He wasn’t alone; LSU tight end Stephen Sullivan won at the weigh-in, measuring out at 6-foot-6, 254 pounds with huge hands (10 3/8 inches) and a massive wingspan (85 1/8 inches). The little-used college pass catcher showed off some receiving chops, too: He registered a top speed of 19.9 mph on Tuesday (better than some receivers’ top marks) and caught this red-zone touchdown on Thursday.

Dayton’s Adam Trautman hadn’t generated much buzz prior to this week but put together a big week in Mobile, displaying smooth athleticism to go with ideal size (6-foot-5, 251 pounds).

Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins (6-foot-3, 241) and Michigan’s Sean McKeon (6-foot-5, 238) both impressed, too, and let’s add Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool to this group. Claypool was listed at receiver this week and impressed both as a route runner and at the catch point. He also registered as one of the fastest players in Monday’s practice (hitting a top speed of 20.17 mph). Claypool’s future may well be at receiver, but at 6-foot-4, 229 pounds and a massive 80-inch wingspan, the former Golden Domer has a good chance to add a little weight and play a tight end role at the next level, possibly like Evan Engram does with the Giants. His versatility and athleticism makes him a potential riser.

The Cornerbacks Group Was Surprisingly Impressive

With potential first-rounders Kristian Fulton (LSU) and Jeff Gladney (TCU) both dropping out prior to the start of practices on Tuesday, the cornerbacks group seemed to lack star power. Notre Dame’s Troy Pride Jr. quickly changed that impression: The Golden Domer was a must-watch player in practices this week, putting on a clinic with quick feet, top-tier athleticism, and a competitive nature at the catch point.

As noted above, cornerbacks have a near-impossible task in defending receivers in one-on-one drills, and often end up looking silly trying to stay stride for stride with their opponents, who can use the whole field as they please and don’t have to worry about any other defenders. But Pride made the most of a tough situation, making play after play to cement himself as one of the week’s top stars. Pride boasts a strong, well-built frame at 5-foot-11 and 193 pounds, and has top-tier speed (he was the second-fastest player on the field in Wednesday’s North practice, in fact); more importantly, though, he showed excellent instincts and quickness in keeping pace with his quarry, particularly on this rep against Quartney Davis, when he essentially ran the receiver’s route for him.

Pride also showed the ability to get himself into a receiver’s back pocket and stay there in this rep against Pittman.

Pride was joined by another pair of impressive cornerbacks this week: UCLA’s Darnay Holmes and Pitt’s Dane Jackson. Both played with fiery styles, regularly getting their hands on receivers or into passing lanes to disrupt throws. Check out this excellent rep by Jackson:

Holmes, meanwhile, isn’t super long (he measured in at 5-foot-10, 192 pounds with 30 ⅝-inch arms), but he makes up for it with tenacity at the line of scrimmage.

Pride, Holmes, and Jackson should all be rising up boards after strong performances this week.

The Quarterbacks Were As Advertised

Senior Bowl practices aren’t exactly conducive to making quarterbacks look great: Guys like Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Utah State’s Jordan Love―the two top signal-caller prospects in Mobile―are asked to run stripped-down offenses, drop back behind thrown-together offensive lines, and pass to unfamiliar receivers. There’s little chemistry or cohesion, and things can get pretty sloppy. That said, both Herbert and Love played well during the week of practices, with each showing off, well, exactly what pre–Senior Bowl scouting reports might list.

Herbert’s size, athleticism, and elite arm strength definitely stood out. The Ducks passer looked comfortable directing traffic, a good sign for a relatively quiet guy who scouts worry could be a bit too passive in the huddle. I didn’t see any signs of that―he looked like the clear leader of the South squad, made sure to congratulate his receivers when they made a play, and went to pick up those who made a mistake or missed an assignment. Love impressed as well: He showed off easy arm strength, a pretty deep ball, and plenty of mobility to move in the pocket or escape it to pick up yards. He was also a bit erratic with his accuracy and decision-making.

Overall, both passers did enough to prove the first-round hype is warranted. Herbert and Love should have a chance to cement their projected spots as day one picks with strong performances in Saturday’s Senior Bowl game.