Names don’t mean much in college sports anymore. “The Big Ten” has 14 teams. Notre Dame is in the Atlantic Coast Conference despite being located 45 minutes from Lake Michigan. So perhaps we should not be surprised that this year’s “Senior Bowl” includes juniors. And while we’re talking about words not meaning anything, the word “bowl” isn’t really why people come or care. The game played on Saturday doesn’t mean nearly as much as the Senior Bowl week itself, and the practices are often more impactful to players’ draft stock than the game. Coaches, agents, front office personnel, and media mingle, compare notes, and plot. So the Senior Bowl is mostly seniors, not really about the game, and not exactly a bowl. (Though considering some of the players who look the best in practice skip Saturday’s game to avoid injury, maybe it is a real bowl game.)
But the Senior Bowl is the start of draft season. Let’s talk about what we saw, heard, and learned this week in Mobile, Alabama, starting with the wildest story about a high school commute I have ever heard.
The Best Player of the Week Also Has the Best Story
Sometimes it takes only two days of practice to know a guy is an NFL player. A year ago that player was Michigan State receiver Jayden Reed, who looked like a man among boys in Senior Bowl drills. Reed ended up going in the second round to Green Bay, scored eight touchdowns, and usurped Christian Watson as the Packers’ de facto no. 1 WR. This week, that breakout player was Michigan receiver (and recent national champion) Roman Wilson, who has had quite a journey from high school in Hawaii to this week in Mobile.
Wilson grew up on the island of Maui in Hawaii. But he attended St. Louis High School in Honolulu, which is on the island of Oahu. So he flew. For the first month of his freshman year, at just 14 years old, Wilson would wake up at 4 a.m., and his mom would drive him to the airport to make a 6 a.m. flight. He’d land around 7, take the public bus to school, and arrive a little before 8 (which was late). He’d go to school and football practice, then hop on a return flight and be back home around 9 p.m. Wilson’s dad worked for Hawaiian Airlines, allowing Wilson to fly “standby” and sit in unsold seats for free. But it also meant he couldn’t board if the flight was full, and he wouldn’t find out if he had a seat ahead of time. On the weekends, he’d often be stranded at the airport, sometimes waiting for six hours.
“That shit was ass,” Wilson said. “It was hard, man. It was at a young age. That is something I wouldn’t want anyone to go through. But it made me who I am today.”
After a month of flying back and forth every day for school and football practice, Wilson started staying with other families around Honolulu to make the commute easier. He got homesick a lot, but now that he’s on the verge of getting to the NFL, he’s proud of the impact he has on kids in Hawaii. “I’m sure everyone feels like they represent where they are from. It’s definitely different with Hawaii. I feel like I represent it more and it feels good to have kids look up to me and I can be an idol to them.”
Wilson may not be far off being idolized on Sundays. Wilson was consistently one of the most impressive players throughout the first two days of practice, and on Wednesday, he made the play of the week in a one-on-one battle with Toledo cornerback Quinyon Mitchell. Not only did Wilson beat Mitchell off the line, but then Wilson turned around and snagged the poorly thrown pass inbounds.
Wilson said those cool plays are the product of years of improving the skills that did not come naturally to him. “I wasn’t always the best route runner,” Wilson said. “I never had good hands. Just getting in the lab, watching film, critiquing, being my biggest critic.”
The play was even more impressive considering Mitchell was the only defensive back who could keep up with Wilson. Their one-on-one battles were what NFL-caliber matchups look like. Like Wilson, Mitchell looked like a professional among amateurs for much of the week. Mitchell rocked every other receiver he faced during practice. On one snap Mitchell plastered himself to USC’s Brenden Rice—yes, he’s Jerry Rice’s son—then intercepted a pass that was underthrown by Bo Nix. Mitchell made the pick so effortlessly that it might have been the smoothest catch any player, including the wide receivers, made all day. Mitchell may have played himself into being a first-round pick, but he was not satisfied with his performance.
“I’m chasing perfection,” Mitchell said on Wednesday. “It wasn’t a perfect day. I lost some reps. So I really just want to be clean. The one with Roman Wilson, I slipped. In the league, you can’t slip.”
The High-Profile QBs Were Underwhelming
The two highest-profile players in Mobile this year are Oregon quarterback Bo Nix and Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. They are both almost old enough to be kicked off their parents’ health insurance.
Penix will turn 24 in May. He enrolled in college in 2018 (!). He is exactly one day older than Trey Lance, who is entering his fourth NFL season and the final year of his rookie contract. Penix’s football career was long enough that 13 different Marvel movies came out while he was in college. And Nix is even older. He will turn 24 this month, making him four months younger than Trevor Lawrence, who was the first pick in the draft three years ago. Nix is so old some in Mobile were calling him Boomer Bo (OK, that was me).
This is the strange post-pandemic reality of this year’s draft, where extended college eligibility because of the 2020 COVID season plus the transfer portal has extended college careers to the point of absurdity. Last year, the starting quarterback of the College Football Playoff champion (Georgia’s Stetson Bennett, 26) was older than one of the quarterbacks in the Super Bowl (Philadelphia’s Jalen Hurts, 24). Next season, a 26-year-old tight end named Cam McCormick will suit up for the University of Miami after the NCAA granted him a ninth year of eligibility, making him the real-life version of the Steve Buscemi “How do you do, fellow kids” meme. McCormick is a super duper senior on his campus, but is not yet eligible for the Senior Bowl (nor is he likely an NFL prospect) but the point stands: NFL teams have to sort through these practically geriatric college kids.
This is the conundrum facing NFL teams as draft season began this week in Mobile: Should evaluators be impressed that Penix and Nix combined to throw for 81 touchdowns and 9,411 passing yards last fall? Or should they be concerned these guys needed half a decade to finally look like NFL players? For every late bloomer who turned into an NFL star like Joe Burrow, there are more Kenny Picketts who are average against their age cohort and then once they have experience, can beat up on 19-year-old cornerbacks like they’re Billy Madison headhunting third graders in dodgeball.
Against that backdrop, Nix was unimpressive in Mobile this week. Considered a potential top-10 pick (or perhaps even higher) entering this draft season, Nix needed to prove he was more than some QB who was supercharged by Oregon’s offense. According to Pro Football Focus, Nix’s passes traveled an average of just 6.8 yards downfield this season, which ranked 122nd of 125 FBS quarterbacks with 200 dropbacks this year. Nix needed to prove this week that he could throw downfield. Instead, his deep balls often lacked touch and left more than a few cornerbacks beating their chest.
On one hand, Nix’s college experience screams that he could be reliable. Nix started 61 games, the most in college football history. On the other hand, despite all those games, Nix hardly looked like the most experienced college passer of all time this week.
Penix is a trickier player to evaluate. Penix had four season-ending injuries while at Indiana, which is a ridiculous thing to say about an NFL prospect, especially a potential first-round pick QB. Penix tore his right ACL in 2018, broke his non-throwing shoulder in 2019, re-tore his right ACL in 2020, then injured his throwing shoulder in 2021 (that’s knee, shoulder, knee, shoulder if you’re counting at home). After those four brutal seasons, Penix transferred to Washington and promptly threw for 67 touchdowns and 9,544 yards over the last two seasons. On Wednesday, Penix was asked if NFL teams have been asking about his health
“It comes up,” Penix said. “But at the same time I’ve been healthy these last two seasons. I’m out there showing them I’m healthy, showing them I’m willing to compete. I met with Dr. [Neal] ElAttrache, he gave me the thumbs up. He’s seen my body, looked at my MRIs and stuff like that, so at that point it’s not up to me.”
ElAttrache is the same doctor who has operated on Kobe Bryant, Shohei Ohtani, and Aaron Rodgers. But even if Penix gets a clean bill of health, there are flaws in his game that may keep him out of the first round. At the Senior Bowl, Penix showed off the same elite downfield passing ability he displayed at Washington this season. Evaluators should have no questions about his deep balls. But Penix, a lefty, has an awkward, loopy throwing motion. He struggles to throw over the middle of the field. Penix has more interceptions than touchdowns on throws in the middle of the field between 10 and 22 yards downfield.
Despite Nix’s disappointing week and the concerns about Penix’s health and throwing motion, this quarterback class seems deep: Caleb Williams, Drake Maye, and Jayden Daniels as potentially the top three picks, and Michigan’s J.J. McCarthy could be a first-rounder, too. None of those other QBs were here in Mobile. It wouldn’t be surprising if Penix and Nix fall out of the first round. It might be awkward if they wait in the green room a long time on draft day, but after a combined 11 years in college, clearly they don’t mind sticking around longer than everyone else.
NIL Is Changing This Draft
This season, the NFL will welcome fewer young players than ever. Just five years ago, 136 underclassmen declared for the draft. This year there are 58. There are two main reasons for this: name, image, and likeness rules that allow players to sign endorsement deals and get paid while in college, and the transfer portal, which makes it easier for players to change teams. A few years ago, players who expected to go in the fourth round might have declared for the draft because they needed the money or didn’t have a way to improve their draft stock. Now those players can be paid to stay in school and/or transfer to a better opportunity to showcase their skills. Colleges have long treated athletes like unpaid employees, and now the athletes are treating schools like businesses. And now these business decisions are having an impact on the NFL draft. Players like Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson and Emeka Egbuka, both of whom were projected to be picked within the first two rounds of this draft, decided to return to school for their senior seasons after dealing with injuries in 2023. Now that players can be paid, priorities can change. Being the senior starting running back at Ohio State is probably a lot more fun than being a rookie backup running back for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
As more juniors go back to school, the later rounds get watered down. Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, said that the depth in the back half of their projected seven-round 2024 draft class got “wiped out.”
“If I’ve got day three picks, I’m trading and moving around,” Nagy said. “I’m moving up in those first four rounds for sure. It’s not just our board [that got wiped out]. I’ve spoken to teams in the league. They got wiped out as well. So I think you’re going to see a lot of movement of teams, either trying to move up in the first four rounds or trying to move out and get picks for next year.”
Day three draft picks may not sound sexy, but they can be valuable capital. In the past couple of offseasons, receivers Brandin Cooks and Amari Cooper and tight end Darren Waller were traded for mid- or late-round picks. We’ll see what happens to the trade market in March, and whether some teams become more willing to move those later-round picks that might not be as valuable come April.