Senior Bowl week is upon us, the last major stop on the road to the draft before next month’s scouting combine in Indianapolis. By the time Saturday’s Senior Bowl ends, those making the decisions for NFL teams will have a much clearer picture of the 100 or so players descending on Mobile, Ala. The Browns and Bears have unique opportunities within the event, too, as they’ll split up to run the teams—John Fox and the Chicago staff will have the North roster; Hue Jackson and the Cleveland staff have the South.
Much has been made about Deshaun Watson’s decision to decline his invitation—he would have been a South representative. And, obviously, the Browns hold the No. 1 pick (and No. 12 pick) in this year’s draft. Perhaps a great week for Watson under the direction of Cleveland’s coaching staff would have tipped the scales in his favor. Both Dak Prescott and Carson Wentz attended last year’s Senior Bowl, with Prescott winning game MVP honors for the South. (The Cowboys’ staff coached the North.)
More likely, the lack of exposure this week will not harm Watson’s case. There is more than enough game tape available of him, plus upcoming opportunities to see him during the combine, Clemson’s Pro Day and any individual team workouts. In addition, none of his main competitors for the 2017 draft’s QB1—DeShone Kizer, Mitch Trubisky and long-shot Patrick Mahomes—are even eligible for the Senior Bowl. If Watson has a gap on those players, in the eyes of the Browns or Bears or any team picking near the top, it won’t be closed this week.
Enough about the prospects that will not be in Mobile, though. What of those who will? Here’s a look at a dozen players (six per team) worth paying extra attention to as the week progresses:
1. Dawuane Smoot, DE, Illinois: There always are one or two edge rushers who climb during Senior Bowl week—Noah Spence was the guy last year, with NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks even comparing his work in Mobile to Von Miller’s Senior Bowl trip.
Smoot could be it this year. His quickness off the snap coupled with his ability to win inside or outside will make him a tough one-on-one matchup for North offensive tackles in drills during the week. There was a lot of buzz on the Illinois product earlier on the season, which died down a bit in October and November. He could propel himself back into the Round 1 conversation with a big week.
2. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo: Once we clear the obvious potential Round 1 backs (Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey, maybe D’onta Foreman or a wild card like Alvin Kamara), Hunt is right there with the best of the Day 2 group. After opting to return to Toledo for the 2016 season, he finished his career with close to 800 carries—high given the NFL’s focus on RB durability.
However, he also caught 41 balls this season, at a 9.8 yards-per-catch average. Yes, that further added to his workload, but it gave him more the look of a three-down back. He’s a patient back who can kick it into high gear once he reaches the second level.
3. Haason Reddick, LB, Temple: This week might help clear up the mystery of what role NFL teams view for Reddick. He was an edge rusher for the Owls (22.5 tackles for loss, 9.5 sacks this season), but his 6' 1", 230-lb., size could force him into a linebacking spot at the next level.
To that end, the Senior Bowl’s official roster actually lists him as an inside linebacker. He played LB, briefly, between a move from cornerback—his initial position as a walk-on—to his current spot on the edge. What instincts he has a linebacker will be put to the test in Mobile, but he should have some opportunities during practices to rush the quarterback, too.
4. Julie’n Davenport, OT, Bucknell: Always important during Senior Bowl week for small-school prospects to acquit themselves well against the big boys. In addition to Reddick and Smoot, Davenport’s North squad also features the likes of Chris Wormley (Michigan), Derek Rivers (Youngstown) and Tarell Basham (Ohio)—defenders who know how to get to the quarterback.
How Davenport holds up between Tuesday and Saturday will go a long way toward determining his draft stock. His frame (6' 7", 315 lbs.) is intriguing, to say the least, but he’s raw.
5. Jaleel Johnson, DT, Iowa: Javon Hargrave and Vernon Butler excelled at the 2016 Senior Bowl. Danny Shelton and Carl Davis did the same in ’15. A lot of eyes will be on Johnson—a former teammate of Davis’s—to star between the tackles this year. He can be difficult enough to block when interior O-linemen have help, so he definitely could emerge as a standout during one-on-one drills.
6. Jalen Robinette, WR, Air Force: Jeff Risdon, a two-time guest of our On the Clock draft podcast, recently tweeted that Robinette reminds him of Laquon Treadwell. That’s bad if you’re thinking of Treadwell’s rookie year, but it’s great if you remember the physical gifts that led Treadwell into Round 1. Robinette is listed at 6' 4", 215, and he averaged 22.5 career yards for catch in Air Force’s triple-option attack. How will he perform in those highly anticipated red-zone drills, up against Desmond King (Iowa), Jourdan Lewis (Michigan) and others?
1. Taywan Taylor, WR, Western Kentucky: I’m high on his South teammate, Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M), but Taylor may be the best receiver in Mobile. He’s listed at 6' 1", 195 lbs.—his official measurement this week figures to come in closer to 5' 11" or 6' 0".
Either way, Taylor displays excellent fight for the ball when it’s in the air. He averaged 17.9 yards per catch this season and scored 16 times, with the ability to make things happen both by creating separation deep and piling up yards after the catch. The Senior Bowl drills will offer a prime showcase for Taylor’s well-rounded game.
Another Western Kentucky product, OL Forrest Lamp, can make his own case to skyrocket up draft boards this week. The perception of the 2017 class’s weakness at OT has opened the door.
2. Davis Webb, QB, Cal: Have to include one quarterback on the list, right? With Watson opting not to attend, the Senior Bowl is left with a rather low-profile group at the QB position: Webb, Antonio Pipkin, Josh Dobbs, C.J. Beathard, Nate Peterman and Sefo Liufau. There are a couple of interesting prospects on that list, but any future NFL starters?
Webb probably has the most favorable chance, based on what we saw from those quarterbacks in college. He has the experience, size (listed at 6’ 5”, 230) and arm strength to appeal to pro teams. He also played for both Texas Tech and Cal, two programs whose offenses have not made for easy college-to-NFL transitions (see: Goff, Jared).
3. Antonio Garcia, OT, Troy: The hype train might fly the tracks before Saturday’s Senior Bowl game. Garcia (6’ 7”, 302) is drawing comparisons to All-Pro OT Tyron Smith, and Rotoworld’s Josh Norris listed him as this week’s top prospect—just ahead of Alabama TE O.J. Howard. (By the way, the South team features Howard, Mississippi’s Evan Engram and South Alabama’s Gerald Everett in a loaded tight end trifecta.)
Garcia was a four-year starter at left tackle for Troy, this season showing up with strong performances against Basham in the Dollar General Bowl and—more importantly—against Clemson early in the season. He’s darn near NFL-ready as a pass protector, because of his length, his footwork and how effectively he can use his hands. If his run blocking proves to be up to the task, too, Garcia may yet land in the top 20.
4. Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida: He just could not stay healthy at Florida, suiting up for 18 games over four seasons. This year, he racked up 53 tackles (4.0 for loss, 3.0 sacks) in eight games. He’s a read-and-react linebacker with a quick step to the ball. How will he fare playing in space this week? And, just as critical to his draft evaluation, can he get through the entire Senior Bowl process without a health setback?
5. Keionta Davis, DE, Chattanooga: If you crave ”flash,” maybe move on, but Davis brings it off the edge as a high-motor player. He notched 10.5 sacks this season and 31 for his career. It’s possible the Browns’ coaching staff tests him out as a stand-up linebacker at times this week, but, at least to me, Davis’s powerful game makes him better suited to be a 4-3 defensive end. The South’s OTs include Lamp, Garcia and Conor McDermott (UCLA), so Davis can drive up his stock with a strong week.
6. Damontae Kazee, CB, San Diego State: Good luck to the QBs and WRs this week. Kazee, Tre’Davious White, Corn Elder, Cam Sutton ... the South roster is chock full of talented cornerbacks, all of those names listed likely headed for Rounds 1-3.
That said, this can be a tough environment for a defensive back like Kazee. He is excellent in coverage (15 INTs the past two years, 29 career pass break-ups), but among his best selling points is how willing and able he is to get involved in run support. There are limited opportunities for defensive backs to play downhill during Senior Bowl week, with the majority of their work instead coming in seven-on-seven or one-on-one drills.
Kazee’s height (5’ 11”) probably will push him inside to a slot role in the NFL. He could be one of the better slot CBs in the league, if that happens. He can show this week he’s capable of being an outside defender, even if the format of practices and games stack the odds against him a bit.