What We Learned From a Week at the Senior Bowl

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The 74th annual Senior Bowl is all but wrapped up in Mobile, Alabama, where the only thing left to do is play the actual game on Saturday. But, somewhat paradoxically, the game isn’t actually what’s important about the Senior Bowl. It’s watching the players at practice; talking with scouts, coaches, and agents; and keeping your ear to the ground for fresh rumors. With that in mind, here are my notes from the week’s conversations in Mobile.

Jim Irsay and the Colts Are Leaning Toward Jeff Saturday

The Broncos and Texans jobs were closed early this week with the hirings of Sean Payton and DeMeco Ryans, respectively. That leaves just two teams with head-coaching openings: the Arizona Cardinals and Indianapolis Colts.

Perhaps no job has received more focus than the Colts job, if not for any reason other than the duration of the vacancy and the search. Frank Reich was fired on November 7, almost three months ago; the Colts have been interviewing candidates for over three weeks. They have interviewed 13 total candidates, eight of whom will get a second interview by the beginning of next week. The Colts may even go to a third round of interviews in what is being called one of the most thorough head-coaching searches an NFL team has done.

While it appears from the outside that the Colts are undergoing an extensive search, my sense from speaking to league personnel and people close to the Colts’ search is that team owner Jim Irsay wants to hire interim head coach Jeff Saturday as the permanent head coach, and that is the expected outcome.

Why the long search, then? There’s plenty to be learned from interviewing a diverse set of candidates, as the Colts have. There’s also still the chance that one of the remaining candidates grabs Irsay’s attention and he makes an 11th-hour switch. Irsay was not present for the first round of interviews, so he has only interviewed the Colts’ second-round candidates thus far—presumably, he’d be present for the hypothetical third-round interviews as well.

The long search also serves to provide cover if the Colts do end up hiring Saturday. When Saturday was hired as the interim head coach, Irsay received heavy criticism for passing over qualified candidates, and reports at the time indicated that Colts executives like general manager Chris Ballard and team president Pete Ward “expressed their reservations” over Saturday’s hiring. By interviewing a long series of qualified candidates and landing on Saturday anyway, Irsay can claim that, this time, he did his due diligence.

The hay is not in the barn, and the Colts have interviewed some incredible candidates and still need to interview a few more. Coaches like the Eagles’ Shane Steichen have yet to complete their second interviews with the Colts and subsequently have not yet met with Irsay individually. But as it currently stands, those in Mobile this week expect the Colts to hire Saturday at the end of this process.

New Falcons Defensive Coordinator Ryan Nielsen Is Earning Buzz

People around the league are excited about new Falcons defensive coordinator Ryan Nielsen, a young but experienced defensive coach who has been learning the NFL ropes under Dennis Allen in New Orleans for the last six seasons after jumping up from the college ranks. Nielsen was described to me as an intense coach who understands how players learn—under him, young defensive linemen like Marcus Davenport, Sheldon Rankins, and Carl Granderson have grown into strong players. “He deserves his shot to call plays,” an NFC South opponent of Nielsen’s told me.

Nielsen is faced with a tall task in replacing legendary defensive coordinator Dean Pees, who retired from the Falcons job after two seasons. It isn’t just that Nielsen is stepping into huge shoes—it’s that the defensive scheme Nielsen will likely bring over from his time in New Orleans demands different personnel than what is currently in Atlanta. Under Nielsen, the Falcons will likely transition from a blitzing 3-4 defense to a 4-3 team that doesn’t want to send pressure; New Orleans was known for its size at defensive end, while Atlanta has added undersized outside linebackers in Arnold Ebiketie and DeAngelo Malone in recent drafts. How the Falcons shift their defensive personnel around will be something to watch this offseason.

Scouting Notebook

Two players with health concerns answered some questions.

Two players who impressed all week are Tulane running back Tyjae Spears and ​​Stanford wide receiver Michael Wilson. Spears, who played around 190 pounds, tipped the scales in Mobile at 204 pounds and showcased his typical suddenness without any loss of speed. Wilson has the size and body control of a possession receiver in the NFL, and he demonstrated the array of routes and quickness necessary to become a trustworthy third-down target.

I have included them together because of the medical concerns with each. Spears, who had a dominant and healthy season in 2022, tore his ACL in 2020, and scouts are concerned about the long-term health of his knee. Wilson was a relative unknown entering the week because he has only played 14 games total over the last three seasons due to COVID-related schedule disruptions and a foot injury that lingered for almost a year. Both checked a big box this week with their performances, but bigger boxes—the medical tests at the combine—remain.

The Senior Bowl has an open secret.

There’s often a few names at the Senior Bowl that everyone is trying not to talk about because they want to keep them a secret. This year’s “worst-kept secret” in Mobile was Syracuse offensive lineman Matthew Bergeron, who accumulated around 40 starts as a four-year starter for the Orange at left and right tackle. Bergeron played plenty on the interior this week, where many expect his best pro ball will be played, and he looked like an NFL starter. It’s a quiet interior offensive line class this season, and tackle isn’t too much stronger—I’d wager more and more smoke musters around Bergeron in the coming months as a top guard prospect that some teams still like as a tackle.

The wide receiver class struggled to shape up.

The Senior Bowl regularly has a couple of wideouts that perform well enough in the week to go in the first two rounds. Last year, it was Christian Watson and Alec Pierce—before them, it was players like Dee Eskridge, Chase Claypool, Michael Pittman Jr., Van Jefferson, and Brandon Aiyuk. That is in jeopardy this year, as the Senior Bowl’s crop of receivers largely struggled to stand out.

But if I had to guess today, I think Michigan State’s Jayden Reed will make the cut. Reed is a smaller receiver—just under 5-foot-11, just over 190 pounds—but still has functional NFL size compared to many of the other speed threats in this class. Derius Davis from TCU, Tre Tucker from Cincinnati, and Nathaniel Dell from Houston were all present at the Senior Bowl and measured below 5-foot-9. Davis and Dell weighed in under 170 pounds. Reed separates and opens his stride just as easily as the rest of them but plays much bigger than his frame and has film littered with impressive downfield adjustments and contested catches. Poor quarterback play at Michigan State kept Reed from producing on the stat sheet, but in a generally poor wide receiver class, Reed looks to me like a second-day selection.

One linebacker impressed in interviews.

I asked three scouts who they had the best interview with all week—two said Texas linebacker DeMarvion Overshown, who tests off the charts in the “loves ball” category. The off-ball linebacker class is perhaps the weakest group in the entire 2023 class—the current top off-ball linebacker prospect, Arkansas’s Drew Sanders, is a pass rusher convert who will play a significant number of snaps in the NFL on the edge. Overshown’s intensity and experience have garnered him many fans within scouting circles.

The week had some star physical performers.

The players with the most eye-popping physical dominance this week—the sort that makes you wonder if they’ll become topflight players with NFL coaching—were Georgia Tech edge rusher Keion White, Ohio State offensive tackle Dawand Jones (who was so dominant after the first day of practice that he was not present the next two days, perhaps due to legitimate injury or perhaps due to “nothing-left-to-prove-itis”), Iowa State edge rusher Will McDonald IV, Kansas State corner Julius Brents, and Wisconsin defensive tackle Keeanu Benton. Having watched them perform and spoken to scouts, White and Jones are two names I expect to leave the board in Round 1.

Draft Buzz

The top of the QB class remains in flux.

Everybody that you talk to has a different order for the top quarterbacks in this year’s class. Most rank Kentucky’s Will Levis, Alabama’s Bryce Young, and Ohio State’s C.J. Stroud at the top, but I spoke to one scout who thinks Florida’s Anthony Richardson belongs in the conversation. There’s a lot of the predraft process left—Young’s measurements, Richardson’s work on the chalkboard, and Stroud’s interviews will all affect their draft stocks over the next few months. I don’t think anyone has a clear idea yet of which top teams like which quarterbacks and how the top of the draft will shake out.

The NFL’s love of corners is here to stay.

One thing is clear: The top of the draft will be focused on the cornerback position. Oregon’s Christian Gonzalez and Illinois’s Devon Witherspoon—who accepted a Senior Bowl invite before backing out late—are the names regularly mentioned as options for teams with top-10 picks, like the Lions, Eagles, and Raiders. Penn State’s Joey Porter Jr. should not be excluded from that bunch. We have seen two top-10 cornerbacks in consecutive drafts—Patrick Surtain II and Jaycee Horn in 2021 and Derek Stingley Jr. and Sauce Gardner in 2022. I wager we’ll see two again in 2023.

A strong tight end class generated buzz.

In 2017, we saw three tight ends come off the board in the first round: O.J. Howard, David Njoku, and Evan Engram. It was the first time that had happened since 2002, but it is a possibility again this year. There is first-round buzz for Georgia’s Darnell Washington, Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid, and Oregon State’s Luke Musgrave, who competed in Mobile this week. I don’t think we’ll end up with three by April, but the league loves this tight end class in a largely weak draft.

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