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The Big Arms and the Biggest Risers at the Senior Bowl

A quarterback being tabbed as the next Kirk Cousins, a linebacker catching everyone’s eye by doing it all, and a small-school receiver with a Manning connection who’s just catching everything. Plus, O.J. Howard Day comes to Mobile!

MOBILE, Alabama — Greetings from the Port City, as Draft Season is officially underway. Senior Bowl practices wrapped up on Thursday, concluding a week that began (for me, at least) with a tornado warning hours before and after touching down on Saturday. (Luckily it was just that, a warning). I’ve heard the same sentiment repeated by scouts, coaches and personnel guys: This is an especially deep pool of talent at the Senior Bowl, perhaps the best of the past few years. And yet, unless you’re a draftnik, there aren’t too many big names down here.

But big names around this time of year are always quarterbacks, and when Deshaun Watson declined his invite (he was eligible as a junior since he had graduated), the already-shallow senior quarterback pool was quite dry. However in talking to folks in Mobile before practices began, there was a belief that two of the six quarterbacks competing here could strengthen their stock—the ceiling being “the next Dak Prescott.” Those guys: Nathan Peterman of Pittsburgh and Davis Webb of California.

We’ll begin with Peterman because he’s been by far the most impressive quarterback here. Says one evaluator who has studied Peterman extensively: “He reminds me a lot of Kirk Cousins in this sense: He’s not going to blow you away with any of his traits, but he can do everything you need.” The evaluator stressed that Peterman is very mature. A graduate transfer from Tennessee, he enrolled at Pitt in 2015 to pursue an MBA and the 22-year-old got married to his longtime girlfriend in April.

Peterman didn’t have too many weapons to throw to at Pitt; junior receiver Jester Weah (no catches before 2016) came through, and tight end Scott Orndoff had a good year, but other than that “there was not much there,” the scout said. Peterman has been playing for the North squad coached by the Chicago Bears, and yes, they’re in the market for a quarterback. The 22-year-old has thrown some pretty, well-placed balls and earned bonus points at weigh-in when his hands measured at 9 7/8 inches—impressive considering he’s only 6' 2 1/2". (Yes, the hand debate is back! Sorry I’m not sorry. There’s even one more hand-size reference later in the column, though I’ll go on record with my hand-size stance: It does matter, but only for quarterbacks, who have to grip the ball, especially in poor weather.) My sense is that Peterman is not ready to start next year, but would be a solid third to fifth round target and developmental project.

• WHO IS MITCH TRUBISKY?: It’s the question evaluators across the league are scrambling to answer as the first-year UNC starter has established himself as the best draft-eligible quarterback in college football.

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Webb is an interesting case. Coming into the week, one evaluator was effusive about his potential. “He’s put up nearly identical numbers to Goff, playing in the same exact offense,” the evaluator noted.

He’s right. Webb’s final season at Cal: 61.6% completions, 4,295 yards, 37 touchdowns, 12 interceptions.

Goff’s final season at Cal: 64.5% completions, 4,714 yards, 43 touchdowns and 13 interceptions.

The evaluator: “He’s bigger than Goff, sturdier, and has a much stronger arm. Goff might have been more accurate, but I don’t think [Webb] gets enough credit.” One knock on Webb is that he could not win the starting job at Texas Tech in 2015, losing out to Patrick Mahomes. Adding a layer of complexity, though: Webb was named a captain at two different schools, which is a huge plus in the leadership department. He flew into Mobile on Friday night, two days earlier than the rest of his peers.

“I kind of wanted to just adjust my body clock and acclimate to the surroundings down here,” he told me Thursday night after practice. “It’s a long trip from LAX and you know, things happen with delays, etc. I didn’t want to risk being delayed, missing a meeting. Plus, I wanted a chance to explore Mobile. I ate at a really good pizza place.” Once Webb landed, he scrambled to arrange a throwing session with seven receivers from the local college, South Alabama.

His arm strength is worth getting excited over. Accuracy, however, could prove to be Webb’s downfall. He started a bit shaky in the first practice, not appearing wholly comfortable taking snaps under center, but was far more impressive by Day 3. The adjustment to a pro-style offense is what will be monitored closely.

“Obviously I know there’s always the label of being an ‘Air Raid Guy,’ not working under center, it’s the same stuff that Jared went through,” Webb says. “But I’ve been working with Jim Zorn as my coach and I’m getting a lot more comfortable at it. I haven’t had to huddle up and use that verbiage and do the snap count, but that doesn’t mean I’m not capable of it. I think I’ve done a little better at every practice than the last, and I’m showing teams that I can pick things up quickly.”

Webb is on the South roster, coached by the Browns staff. It’s too early to gauge his Senior Bowl performance; he could wow at the game, at the very least proving he can pick up new concepts in a short period of time. And Webb is right—he has improved throughout the week.

• WHAT NFL MINDS THINK OF DESHAUN WATSON: We assembled a panel—a Super Bowl-winning coach and two NFL quarterbacks—to watch the national title game and share their thoughts on Watson.

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Alabama tight end O.J. Howard is a Bama boy; his hometown, Prattville, Ala. is smack-middle of the state. “I wanted to come to the Senior Bowl because it was down here in Mobile,” Howard says. “But also to make a great first introduction to these NFL teams. I know some people out there might say I’m the top tight end in the class, but nothing is certain and I want to prove my case that I’m the guy.”

And so Howard accepted his invite. There was only one conflict: Prattville was planning on having an O.J. Howard Day, complete with a parade, this weekend. When Howard accepted his Senior Bowl invitation, O.J. Howard Day wasn’t cancelled—it was moved, 180 miles down the road. Instead of a parade, a group of 150 Prattville residents will have a big tailgate at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. “Man, I don’t even know the details,” Howard says. “That’s all my mom’s doing.”

And Howard looks like he made the right call, coming to Mobile. One scout told me on Wednesday that Howard is “definitely the top” tight end in 2017, proving he’s a polished pass-catcher (even if he wasn’t maximized as a receiver in the Crimson Tide’s offense) and a very willing blocker. He shined in Day 1 with at least two one-handed catches and a nice grab while beating former teammate Ryan Anderson on a one-on-one drill, with Nick Saban watching from the sidelines.

• THE RETURN OF THE TIGHT END: A tight end hasn’t been taken in the first round of the draft since 2014. However, a stacked 2017 class, featuring Michigan’s Jake Butt, is poised to break that trend.

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In a new segment, a quick Q&A with a prospect generating some buzz. This week, Illinois defensive end Dawuane Smoot. In a deep class of pass-rushers, the 6' 3", 255-pound Smoot is a Top 50 candidate. He’s on the small side, but would plug in well as an end in a 4-3 system. He spent a year playing under long-time NFL coach Lovie Smith’s tutelage at Illinois. Smoot generated enthusiasm from the scouting community early in the season, though it calmed in the second half—while some evaluators raved about Smoot’s burst and ability to disrupt, others questioned long spells where Smoot seemed like a non-factor—he’s regaining momentum and has moved back into the first-round conversation.

Give me a scouting report of yourself…
I lead first step, quick off the snap. I actually feel like I’m an underrated pass-rusher. There’s a lot that I am capable of. I have really good hands and I’ve got a non-stop motor. This week is going to put me on the map, and show teams why I should be a first-rounder.

What do you eat for breakfast?
Usually cereal. Cinnamon Toast Crunch is my favorite.

Who is the toughest lineman you’ve faced?
I’ve had some good competition here at Senior Bowl practices. [Western Michigan’s] Taylor Moton, we had some good battles the first day of practice. Then Zach [Banner] the big guy from USC. That guy is huge. He’s the biggest guy I’ve ever faced. It’s like 50-50, you’re going to get put down or you’re going to get around him.

What’s the craziest question a scout has asked you?

Honestly, nothing has been weirder than your question of what kind of cereal I like. That’s probably the craziest thing someone has asked me. Everything has been pretty routine. So far, I guess.

• ZACH BANNER NEEDS TO BE A ‘LOSER’: When does ‘big’ become ‘too big’? USC offensive lineman Zach Banner is 6' 9" and once weighed close to 400 pounds.

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Scouts had good things to say about Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp.

Scouts had good things to say about Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp.

Recapping the top college and draft-related storylines of the past week…

1. It’s all about the small-school guys down here in Mobile. The player emerging as the Senior Bowl darling is a wide receiver from Eastern Washington: Cooper Kupp. Western Kentucky offensive lineman Forrest Lamp—who first excited scouts with impressive tape against Alabama—wowed on Day 1, but returned home after sustaining a high ankle sprain. Toledo’s Michael Roberts has entered the crowded tight end conversation, rousing scouts at the weigh-in with his 11 5/8-inch hands (bah, hand size!), the largest recorded at the Senior Bowl in five years. And Temple linebacker Haason Reddick is a riser to monitor; I was impressed by how he switched seamlessly from outside linebacker to inside linebacker in drills, blitzing and dropping back into coverage. And this was a guy who walked on at Temple. But Kupp is the guy I’ve heard the most buzz on. One West Coast area scout couldn’t stop gushing over his potential while an assistant general manager I asked about him said simply: “He’s the real deal. Could be a Day 1 starter.” Philly beat guy Jeff McLane has an excellent story about Kupp’s connections to the FCS breakout player from last year’s game, Carson Wentz. Kupp may be from a small school, but he has big connections. His grandfather played with Archie Manning, and Kupp has been a regular at the Manning Passing Academy since childhood.

2. The Senior Bowl game is Saturday at 12:30 p.m. The game airs on NFL Network. Need a reason to tune in? Of the participants in last year’s game, 87 were selected in the draft, including four in the first round: Quarterback Carson Wentz, defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins, guard Josh Garnett and defensive tackle Vernon Butler. Oh, and there was another guy who did pretty well in last year’s game: Dak Prescott.

3. There’s a very good chance 128 new football jobs will be created. A proposal to add a 10th full-time assistant to every college football coaching staff picked up support at last week’s coaching convention, and is expected to be approved by the NCAA’s board of directors soon. It’s unclear the parameters of the new position, though many believe most staffs will promote a grad assistant or part-time positions to a full-time role.

4. The Senior Bowl is really important for some players.Ryan Anderson of Alabama injured his thumb at Tuesday’s practice, needing his hand wrapped on Tuesday night, but refused to bow out, telling organizers it was important to prove himself as a competitor and top-end pass-rusher. Meanwhile Syracuse wide receiver Amba Etta-Tawo dislocated the middle finger on his left hand at Wednesday’s practice—and still returned to play later in the session after meeting with trainers. That’s not to say the players who left with injury or declined invite don’t see value in the game; sometimes it’s smarter not to risk making minor injuries major ones, especially with the combine a few weeks away.

5. Here’s something that irks media-savvy scouts: reports of X team meeting with X player. “Do you know how many players we actually talk to?” is the common refrain. Rules are much looser at the Senior Bowl—there are scheduled interview sessions at night and after practices, scouts grab players off the field. As for what they’re asking? A lot of the time: cell phone numbers. They’re also filling in some background information they might not have, or sorting through discrepancies on background information they’ve already obtained.

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