Though the Super Bowl has yet to be played, NFL draft season is already in full swing here in Mobile, Alabama. Ahead of Saturday’s Senior Bowl game, a bevy college football’s top draft-eligible seniors spent the week taking part in a handful of preparatory practices that were directed by the coaching staffs of the 49ers and Raiders and observed by a full complement of the league’s most important decision-makers.
Players did their best to showcase their talents, but for evaluators, there’s a cap on how much useful information can be gleaned from a handful of whirlwind Senior Bowl practices: contact’s light, the playbooks are stripped down, and with little to no experience playing together, the timing and chemistry between players is lacking. What coaches and scouts can assess, though, is the physical makeup, athleticism, movement skills, and competitiveness of each player—and that’s why a handful of football truisms came to the forefront this week. Here’s a few of those oft-cited clichés, along with the players who impressed the most in each category.
You Can’t Coach Size
DE Montez Sweat, Mississippi State
Sweat came into the week projected as a probable mid- to late-first-round pick, and he’ll leave Mobile getting some hype for the top 10. Sweat was one of the biggest winners of Monday’s measurements phase, coming in at 6-foot-6 and 252 pounds (up 11 pounds from his listed weight during the year), with 35-and-⅝-inch arms and an impossible 84-and-a-half-inch wingspan, one of the longest wingspans for any edge prospect since combine data became available to the public in 1999.
And the former Bulldogs pass rusher seems to know how to use that length to his advantage. In pass-rush drills this week, he used his long arms to strike first at offensive tackles, holding them at bay and keeping them from latching on—sort of like he was holding his younger brother’s head to keep him from landing a punch. Then, with an explosive first step and nimble feet, he regularly walked opposing tackles back into the pocket—or bowled through them completely. I mean, just look at this:
Sweat, who racked up 12.0 sacks and 14.5 tackles for a loss in 2018, is a high-cut defensive end with long, almost gangly legs, and a lack of flexibility to turn the corner might be a concern in the NFL. But he showed teams this week that his length can be utilized as a trump card, allowing him to dictate terms to opposing tackles, mix power with speed, and win nearly every hand-fighting battle.
DL Charles Omenihu, Texas
Omenihu doesn’t match Sweat’s star power, but he one-upped the former Mississippi State pass rusher when he measured in with an even longer wingspan: 84 and ¾ inches. At 6-foot-5-and-⅝ and 274 pounds, Omenihu is a hybrid defensive lineman, combining enough size and power to rush from the inside with enough explosiveness to bump outside and play on the edge. His role at the next level may depend on the team that drafts him (and he may end up rushing from all over the line), but the former Longhorn showcased explosive burst off the line, a vicious punch, and plenty of athleticism in pass-rush drills this week.
Omenihu, who collected 18 tackles for a loss and 9.5 sacks for Texas last year, came into this week as a sleeper with Day 2 (rounds 2 and 3) buzz. But after showing off his rare blend of length and explosiveness, he has late-first-round potential. No one’s sleeping on the big, athletic defensive lineman anymore.
DT Daylon Mack, Texas A&M
Mack was a late addition to the Senior Bowl after impressing at last week’s East-West Shrine Game, and he’s taken advantage of the opportunity. The bowling-ball-shaped defensive tackle impressed in drills all week, displaying the ability to grow roots and anchor in the middle of the defensive line while flashing some intriguing pass-rush upside. Measuring in at 6-foot-1 and 327 pounds with a 75-and-¾-inch wingspan, length isn’t Mack’s weapon of choice—it’s leverage—and the stout nose tackle proved he knows how to create plenty of it. In the trenches, the low man wins, and Mack showed off the ability to get under opposing linemen, lift them up, and push them straight back into the pocket.
Daylon Mack was a wall in run fits, and was able to create momentum in pass rushing 1 on 1s. Impressive day. pic.twitter.com/3GLwcBZvzs— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 23, 2019
Some teams may look at Mack’s lack of height as a concern, but the former Aggies lineman strikes opponents with violent hands and possesses an elite power-generating, er, asset:
Daylon Mack... Former 5-star recruit.— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 23, 2019
Had solid week at Shrine, got the call up to Senior Bowl
He has the biggest ass in the country (that's a compliment)... And with this get-off, he'll shock/rock an offensive linemen 1 of 3 reps. Disruptive, powerful, leverage monster
The former five-star recruit was quiet during his first three seasons at Texas A&M but produced in 2018 with 10 tackles for a loss and 5.5 sacks. He’s got the floor of a two-down, run-plugging brick wall of a nose tackle, but he showed teams in Mobile that there’s some pass-rush upside too. His stock is on the rise.
DL Renell Wren, Arizona State
Wren’s another defensive line prospect who won at the weigh-in, measuring out at 6-foot-4 and 315 pounds with an 81-inch wingspan. Wren wears his 315 pounds well―he’s got a thick muscular build with pythons for arms, and he moved with explosiveness this week―like on this swim move in pass-rush drills.
Renell Wren is a machine. His first steps on the interior plus his swim can be dynamite pic.twitter.com/OOf6ok0qvG— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 22, 2019
Wren’s lack of production in college (just 3.0 sacks in three seasons) and tweener skill set (is he a pass rusher or a run plugger?) will keep him out of the first-round conversation. But his athleticism and size will intrigue plenty of teams on Day 2. The interior bruiser believes he’ll hit the high 4.8s in the 40-yard dash at this year’s combine and jump somewhere between 33 and 36 inches in the vert—the type of athletic upside that gives him the potential to become an impact player in the league.
TE Donald Parham, Stetson
Parham’s another Senior Bowl standout with outstanding length. The small-school tight end towered over just about everyone else on the field early this week—he measured in at 6-foot-8 and 243 pounds with 36-inch arms and an 84-inch wingspan—and displayed plenty of fluidity in his routes during passing drills.
The FCS All American caught 85 passes for 1,319 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2018, and the Senior Bowl coaches moved him all over the formation in Mobile. He looked comfortable catching the ball, and while he probably isn’t going to blow anyone away with his 40-yard dash time, he did showcase a silky smooth gait and plenty of runaway speed in the open field. The lengthy tight end, who will miss the Senior Bowl game after injuring his ankle on Wednesday, may have to bulk up a bit at the next level if a team wants him to block in the run game, but he comes with a floor as a mismatch-creator over the middle of the field and a potential jump-ball red zone threat. More than likely, some team’s going to look at Parham and see a weapon they can split away from the formation to attack smaller linebackers and defensive backs.
You Can’t Teach Speed
WRs Penny Hart, Georgia State and Andy Isabella, UMass
Neither Hart (5-foot-8 and 180 pounds with a 74-inch wingspan) nor Isabella (5-foot-8 and 186 pounds with a 71-inch wingspan) has much size, but they both make up for it with jitterbug quicks and explosiveness after the catch.
Hart, a small-school standout who caught 203 passes for 2,960 yards and 19 touchdowns over the past four years at Georgia State, drew plenty of “oohs” and “ahhs” at practices with a combination of lightning-quick feet and the agility to change direction on a dime. He let a few balls get into his chest and dropped a pass in Monday’s practice session, but his ability to separate underneath and then pick up yards after the catch was his calling card all week.
Adderley is one of the best DBs in Mobile and WR Penny Hart got him pretty good with that controlled burst.— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 24, 2019
Twitchy + Crafty = Hart pic.twitter.com/6P6B9RLINY
Isabella, another hyperproductive slot receiver type out of UMass who caught 231 passes for 3,526 yards and 32 touchdowns in his four-year college career, boasts a similar skill set. The diminutive pass catcher showed off the ability to get off press coverage, make sharp cuts in his routes, and separate from defenders before catching the ball with his soft hands.
If you don't get your hands on Andy Isabella, you're toast pic.twitter.com/XGWMe3KVG6— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) January 24, 2019
Both Hart and Isabella made money in Mobile as they consistently left cornerbacks in the dust, and their respective stocks could rise with what I expect will be eye-popping numbers at the combine. In a league that’s seen offenses spread out and slot receivers become more important than ever, it’s not hard to picture these dynamos making an early impact in the league.
WR Terry McLaurin, Ohio State
McLaurin was one of the players I was most looking forward to watching this week and he did not disappoint. The former Ohio State standout—identified before the week as a sleeper by Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy—combines incredible athleticism with excellent body control and put on an absolute route-running clinic in one-on-ones.
McLaurin has speed to burn: He told NFL.com’s Chase Goodbread that he expects to run a 4.35 or better in the 40-yard dash at the combine, a boast made believable by the Senior Bowl’s player tracking data this week. The electric pass catcher was the fastest player on the field for the North Team on Tuesday, hitting a top speed of 22.2 mph, and ranked third on that list on Thursday (19.6 mph). Oh, and he’s more than just a fast guy, too.
That nifty route and smooth catch was a great representation for McLaurin’s week of practices in Mobile. He showcased suddenness in his routes, strong hands to pluck the ball out of the air, and a bendy, flexible athleticism to jump, contort his body, and keep his balance while going up to get a pass. McLaurin, who caught 35 passes for 701 yards and 11 touchdowns last year, was also a special teams ace for the Buckeyes and a willing blocker in the run game. He wasn’t a big name before Senior Bowl week, but he’s probably going to end up being a second-rounder―especially if he can build more momentum with an outstanding combine performance.
WR Deebo Samuel, South Carolina
I probably could’ve put Samuel in the “size” section too after the South Carolina receiver weighed in with a stout, running back–like frame at 5-foot-11 and 216 pounds. But speed and suddenness are the calling card of Samuel’s game: He knows how to shake press coverage and has the ability to separate downfield for the big play, like on this route from Tuesday:
Deebo picked up where he left off on Thursday, registering as the fastest player on the field at the South squad practice with a top speed of 20.8 mph. He’s more than just a deep threat, though, and with his compact, muscular build and top-tier short-area quicks, should be dangerous in the red zone and in run-after-the-catch situations in the NFL. Check out this jaw-dropping whip route he pulled out on Thursday:
Samuel has been arguably the biggest standout of the entire week. He’s looked in complete control during seven-on-seven reps and has the physical makeup to go toe-to-toe with NFL corners.
Quarterbacks Are King
We can’t talk about the Senior Bowl without diving into the performances of a few of the top signal-callers in the group: Buffalo’s Tyree Jackson, Mizzou’s Drew Lock, Duke’s Daniel Jones, West Virginia’s Will Grier, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, and Washington State’s Gardner Minshew. The NFL’s built around the quarterback position and as offenses continually evolve around passing, this event marks a crucial step for what could be the next generation of superstar signal-callers. But while this group of QBs had a chance to make a strong impression heading into next month’s combine, none really stood out above the rest.
While both Jones (6-foot-5 and 220 pounds) and Jackson (6-foot-7 and 249) look the part as big, strong pocket passers, they each struggled at times with decision-making and accuracy. Lock showed off his much-hyped arm strength by throwing crisp passes that cut through windy conditions, but it was Grier who actually delivered the highest-velocity pass of the group on Tuesday; either way, both battled inconsistency this week. And while it was easy to like the chip-on-your-shoulder mentality that Minshew showed in his Tuesday morning presser, he just didn’t have the opportunity to make many big-time throws. I think it says a lot that Stidham, who was quietly competent throwing the ball, ended up being named the Senior Bowl Practice QB of the Week by officials running the event. None of these quarterbacks wowed audiences like some of the big-name passers we’ve seen at the Senior Bowl over the years.
Ultimately, game tape is still the most important tool in the pre-draft evaluation, and events like the Senior Bowl serve as a player’s chance to make scouts and evaluators go back to change their grades. This group of QBs can still impress in Saturday’s game, at the combine, and during the pro-day circuit—but for the guys who came into the week looking to make a meteoric rise up draft boards, an underwhelming trio of practices overall felt like a missed opportunity.