Upon arriving in Mobile, Ala. in January, I asked Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage if he believed any quarterbacks were poised to break out during the week.
“Davis Webb,” Savage, the former Cleveland Browns GM, said without hesitation.
I had heard moderate buzz about the Cal quarterback throughout the fall but never considered him a top-tier prospect. He couldn’t beat out Patrick Mahomes at Texas Tech, so he transferred to Berkeley. He followed Jared Goff in Cal’s Bear Raid offense, meaning that the same steep learning curve (commanding a huddle, taking snaps from under center) that kept the Rams rookie off the field until late November will likely apply to Webb. But back in January, Savage was sensing momentum, and now it’s tangible. Six weeks before the draft, Webb is a legitimate second-round candidate, and it’s feasible that, come the last weekend in April, he will be billed as someone’s quarterback of the future.
In January, Webb flew into Mobile two days earlier than his Senior Bowl peers to adjust his body clock, and he arranged a throwing session with local University of South Alabama receivers. As you learn more about the 22-year-old Webb, stories like this become common. He’s the son of a coach and after his playing career wants to be a coach himself. When he watches football on TV, he splays out 50 index cards in front of him, scribbling down plays he likes. He has already built the framework for his eventual coaching playbook—down to situational red-zone plays—in a binder he keeps at home. He had keys to the high school gym, and janitors found Webb running cone drills past 9 p.m. more than once. He packed up his car the day after Texas Tech graduation—under NCAA rules, a player who receives his undergraduate degree and has eligibility remaining can transfer to another program to pursue a master's without sitting out a year—and drove the 20 hours to Berkeley with his mom so he could get started as soon as possible. He out-clocked a few coaches in the Cal football building, self-imposing a 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. workday. He rehearses play-calls in the mirror. He stayed up an extra two to three hours at Senior Bowl practices to study the exhibition game playbook.
Says Jake Spavital, Webb’s offensive coordinator at Cal: “Sometimes you hear all of this and say, Alright, you’re probably full of s---. Sure, he’s always up at the offices, and always working and all of that. But when you do the research, and a lot of NFL teams are, you start seeing it. And you say: Damn, this kid is the real deal.”
* * *
Webb completed his goal at the combine: He wanted to finish top-five in every category. He had a terrific throwing session, highlighting his arm strength on vertical routes while shrinking the gap between himself and the presumed top four—DeShone Kizer, Mahomes, Deshaun Watson and Mitchell Trubisky. “But the interviews were my best part,” Webb said in a phone interview last week.
This was the second time Webb met with many teams—the first being the Senior Bowl—and his football obsession and ultraconfident personality resonated. Webb is so personable, it can be mistaken as inauthentic. One scout was surprised that one month after chatting with the quarterback in Mobile, Webb addressed him by name in Indianapolis. But these traits trace back to Webb’s upbringing.
Webb’s father, Matt, coached high school football in suburban Dallas. He switched schools five times—according to Davis, always accepting better job offers—and so Webb cheered for five different schools, himself switching schools once. “I’ve kind of become used to making new friends,” he says. He attended a Texas Tech camp his sophomore year of high school, and fell in love with the program. On the drive home, Webb pledged to his father that he would make Lubbock his home. When Tech offered a scholarship, Webb told his other suitors (among them: Iowa, TCU) to back off. He committed the same day.
By the second day of spring ball Webb was practicing in the first-team huddle. He switched off with incumbent Michael Brewer, fully supplanting him as starter by the bowl game. (Brewer would transfer to Virginia Tech; Webb’s emergence also pushed Baker Mayfield out to Oklahoma). Webb, as a freshman, won the Holiday Bowl MVP, leading the Red Raiders to a 37-23 upset over No. 16 Arizona State, completing 28 of 40 passes (to 10 different targets) for 403 yards and four scores.
A dark-horse Heisman candidate, Webb started the first eight games of 2014 before a season-ending ankle injury in October. A few weeks later he underwent surgery on his shoulder from an injury in September. As Webb sat out, coach Kliff Kingsbury inserted a true freshman, Patrick Mahomes. Webb’s trajectory was suddenly thrown out of whack.
In 2015, Mahomes won the starting job in camp. “I feel like I never really got the chance to compete,” Webb says. Factoring into Kingsbury’s decision: Mahomes had two years of eligibility on Webb.
It was a harsh shift. “I was a team captain, I was the guy for the first couple years,” Webb says. “And then all of the sudden I was just the backup. It wasn’t easy. I think it would be easy to bow my head and feel sorry for myself, but I knew as a captain I had to be a great teammate.”
Webb stayed in the top pack of conditioning drills. He lifted like a linebacker. He made himself available to freshmen (Need help with a move? Want to go over plays?). He was now leading the No. 2 huddle and took pride in working with the younger players. “And the next year, it was so fun watching [wideouts] Keke Coutee and Jonathan Giles have a great year with Patrick [Mahomes],” Webb says. “Because I felt like I had a hand in their development.”
By December, the worst-kept secret in Lubbock became official: Webb would transfer.
* * *
Webb chose Cal over Colorado, with Spavital’s arrival as offensive coordinator being one of the biggest factors. A quick primer for those who don’t follow college football:
In 2008, Kevin Sumlin became head coach at Houston and, with offensive coordinator Dana Holgorsen, helped Case Keenum become one of the most prolific passers in NCAA history. Kingsbury was a quality control coach who worked closely with Keenum. In 2009, Spavital was hired as a grad assistant. Sumlin and Kingsbury brought their offense to Texas A&M in 2012. Spavital moved briefly to West Virginia with Holgorsen (helping groom Geno Smith), then joined the Aggies in 2013 for the prime of Johnny Manziel.
“I’m really close with Kliff, and we’ve always traded tape,” Spavital says. “Every single week we trade tape. He critiques me, I critique him. Throughout the year when Davis was the starter, I was like, This guy is really good. Kliff spoke so highly of him. He said he has one of the better arms you’ll ever see. Though Kliff went with Pat Mahomes, it was kind of like just giving it to the hot hand. He never thought anything less of Davis.”
And so when Spavital took the Cal job, Webb followed. It was a perfect match. Spavital was going to install his offense (which, according to Spavital, is essentially the same as Kingsbury’s with a few variations) and had an incoming quarterback with a base knowledge. The transition from the farmlands of Lubbock to one of the most liberal campuses in the U.S. was jarring. Knowing his grad transfer was essentially a six-month audition for NFL scouts, Webb accelerated the process. He wanted to know every player on the team, their hometown, their hobbies. “I didn’t want to look at it like memorization or trying to suck up,” Webb says. “I just tried to be as human as possible.” If he sat with a group of five offensive linemen for breakfast, he’d join wide receivers for lunch. He even got to know defensive players. Within two months of being on campus, Webb was named a captain (a badge he proudly reminds NFL interviewers).
“For six months, we pretty much lived together,” Spavital says. “He was in the office so much he forced me to get in there too. If he liked a certain concept, even if I wasn’t the biggest fan of it, I still put it in because the kid did his homework.” Webb and Spavital did a few studies on footwork. They broke down just about every NFL quarterback’s tape. Webb’s mechanics were already pretty sound—he’s been tutored by George Whitfield in offseason, and is a veteran of Elite 11 camps—and his arm talent is undeniable. Webb has a quick release, to the point where sometimes it feels like he’s just flicking the ball. Though Spavital’s offense is different from the one Goff ran a year earlier, it has enough similarities that evaluators talking themselves into Webb have pointed to this:
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.
“I’ve known Jared for a long time, because of Elite 11 camps, and I think comparisons are O.K., but we are different leaders, different quarterbacks,” Webb says. “Jared is a little more laid back. I can be laid back, but I’m pretty high strung.”
“Oh, Davis is a competitor, he’s a very emotional player,” Spavital says. “He’d get so intense with stuff, and I’d say, Relax relax, relax. Two weeks later, if I was losing my mind, he’d come up to me and say, Relax, relax, relax. That’s the type of relationship we had.”
Their bond was so strong, Spavital treated Webb like a grad assistant. “He was the only player I’ve ever allowed to run my meetings on Friday,” Spavital says. “I’m used to splitting my meetings in half. I let him have one, and let him run it. He made cutups throughout the week of things he wanted to show the skill players. I met with the entire unit at night.”
Spavital is now back at West Virginia with Holgorsen. “Davis will end up being my fifth quarterback to enter the NFL,” Spavital says (the others: Keenum, Manziel, Smith and Brandon Weeden). “Everyone has their own path, but the kids who put their whole life into the game, you root for those kids.”
* * *
THE COMBINE’S BIGGEST RISER
There’s an old adage in scouting circles: trust the tape. A mediocre 40 time? Just so-so on the bench press? If he’s impressive on tape, he’ll be impressive for you. Alabama’s Jonathan Allen is Exhibit A for the “trust the tape” crowd.
UConn’s Obi Melifonwu? Consider him the opposite. Melifonwu blew up the combine. Scouts buzzed about his agility and quickness in position drills. At 6' 4" and 224 pounds, with 32.5-inch arms, Melifonwu blazed through the 40 in 4.40 seconds, leapt 11 feet, 9 inches in the broad jump and, most impressively, posted a 44-inch vertical, catapulting himself into the first-round conversation.
“He never flashed that high-point ability on tape,” said one evaluator. Indeed, while Northeast scouts had flagged the safety by his sophomore year, Melifonwu’s stock was always muddled by inconsistent film. He improved in each of his four years as a starter, but never generated the hype surrounding him now. “Scouts were on him very, very early. I just think they were trying to play coy to angle themselves appropriately,” says Bob Diaco, who was the head coach at UConn for Melifonwu’s final three seasons. “Not only did Obi have a strong Senior Bowl, but he did what everyone who knew him knew he was capable of at the combine in terms of his testing numbers. Now the cat is out of the bag. Obi is the best safety available in this draft.”
Diaco is right about the Senior Bowl being a pivotal moment for Melifonwu’s draft-season ascent. Some scouts who believed Melifonwu looked stiff on film commented on how well he moved in person. UConn, quietly, has had six defensive backs drafted over the last nine years—most notably Byron Jones, the Cowboys’ first-rounder in 2015. (In fact, Melifonwu’s 11-9 broad jump is second-best by a defensive back since 2003, only trailing Jones’ record leap of 12-3 in 2015.) Diaco said Melifonwu made the biggest jump between his sophomore and junior seasons, specifically during his junior season “the light just turned on.”
According to Diaco, Melifonwu spent “a massive amount of time” with then-Huskies defensive coordinator Anthony Poindexter, who was a star safety at the University of Virginia. “I think Obi was always a freakish athlete,” Diaco says. “There was just a level of physical conditioning and mental conditioning he needed to do to unlock it.”
So here’s what NFL evaluators will have to decide: Can you trust those traits will translate?
* * *
FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW
1. Washington cornerback Sidney Jones sustained a serious left leg injury at his Pro Day on Saturday. He was carted off the field after going down in one of the final drills of the day. The Seattle Times reported Jones tore his Achilles tendon. A physical, lock-down corner, Jones was a first-round candidate. (I consider him the second-best corner in this draft, after Ohio State’s Marshon Lattimore). Depending on the severity of the injury and projected recovery, Jones could fall out of the Top 32. While Jones’ injury highlights the physical risk prospects inherently accept, I’m not sure it will instigate any pre-draft workout reforms.
2. Pro Days continue this week. Two sessions I’ll be tracking on Tuesday: Kansas State and Northwestern. As I mentioned last week, Kansas State outside linebacker/defensive end Jordan Willis is a riser this draft season. Meanwhile, while the entire city of Evanston celebrates Northwestern’s first NCAA tournament berth, some attention should be paid to inside linebacker Anthony Walker, the first Wildcats player to declare early for the draft in 20 years. On Wednesday at Virginia Tech, keep an eye on tight end Bucky Hodges. Athletic and long, Hodges posted great numbers at the combine. While his biggest question mark is blocking, route-running will be a focal point for scouts in attendance. Thursday is Clemson’s day, which should draw a huge crowd. Deshaun Watson is obviously the marquee name here, but wideout Mike Williams needs a big day, too. Speed is not his best attribute, but Williams opted not to run the 40 at the combine, so he needs a solid time to solidify his spot as the top wideout on the board. And don’t forget about College Column alumnus Germone Hopper. After a year away from football, scouts will determine if the wide receiver is worth a late-round flier.
3. There is a direct correlation between this year’s draft class and free agency spending habits. Notice the dormant market for veteran running backs? As a group of proven vets (Jamaal Charles, Eddie Lacy, Latavius Murray and Adrian Peterson) remain unsigned, many running back-needy teams are waiting until they can get a bargain, knowing this is an extremely deep draft year (even beyond the first-round household names of Dalvin Cook, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey) with a diverse group of runners. Conversely, historic spending on offensive linemen coincides with a shallow pool of ready-to-play O-linemen from the college ranks.
4. It’s hard to understate just how much draft capital the Browns have stockpiled. With the crafty Brock Osweiler trade—in which the prize was a second-round draft pick, not the maligned quarterback—Cleveland has 11 picks in 2017 and 11 in 2018, most of which are front-loaded in the first three rounds. Including 2016, the Browns will have 36 picks over a three-year stretch. Last year, all 14 of Cleveland’s draft picks made the final roster in September. It’s unlikely the Browns can keep that pace. So while Jimmy Garoppolo reportedly tops Cleveland’s wish list, the rest of the NFL wonders: If that fails, how else will the Browns leverage their bounty in the next two months?
5. Don’t read too much into which general managers or coaches attend which Pro Days. It’s easy to connect dots—for example: Vikings coach Mike Zimmer and GM Rick Spielman attended Oklahoma’s Pro Day. Joe Mixon is a running back at Oklahoma. The Vikings need a running back. But Pro Days are just a fraction of evaluations. Many high-ranking officials already interviewed targets at the Senior Bowl or combine and can book sessions for team visits. Related: this is prime smokescreen season.
* * *
GET TO KNOW A PROSPECT
A quick Q&A with a prospect generating some buzz. This week: Washington defensive lineman Elijah Qualls. It’s the Huskies’ deepest prospect class in years—highlighted by wide receiver John Ross and a trio of talented defensive backs—but evaluators have taken notice of Qualls, the 6' 1", 313-pound run stuffer. Is he a two-down nose tackle or every-down lineman in the NFL? Evaluations vary, but there’s no question Qualls can bolster a front seven. He has quick feet, thanks to a high school stint as a fullback, and an inspiring backstory—at one point, he was homeless. The California native has a bright future in football, and plenty of creative inspirations off the field…
Tell me about your upbringing.
I began playing football at 5-years-old. My stepfather, who I was raised with, saw I had athletic ability. I had a little bit of a temper and football was a great way to channel it and be productive with it. I moved back and forth between Sacramento and Oakland, always in the Bay Area though. My stepfather was trying to find a better situation for me. By junior year of high school, I didn’t really have a home and I was sleeping anywhere I could. Finally by my senior year, [a teammate’s] family took me in and I lived with them for a bit. I still have a great relationship with that family.
Washington had a great defense last year. Tell me something I don’t know about you guys.
Our defense literally got together—just players, no coaches—and would put up some film of our next opponent. Then one of the starters would call a play and he’d make the adjustments, communicate what he was seeing, how he saw the play going. We’d take turns. We’d do that for a good 30 minutes, all because we just loved doing it.
Naturally, you get some comparisons to former Huskies defensive lineman Danny Shelton, a first round pick of the Browns. How do you feel about that?
He’s definitely a mentor to me. I wouldn’t be where I’m at if it wasn’t for Danny. He taught me technique, he taught me how to read formations and how to watch film and how to keep my cool under certain situations. Honestly, a lot of what he’s taught me is off the field. How to be the best person I can be. The only thing I’m against in the comparisons is, obviously he was drafted high into the league—and not that it’s a bad thing—but it just sets the bar high.
You were tied with Myles Garrett among defensive linemen at the combine for the second-most bench presses, with 33. A lot was made about fans being able to watch that portion–and if they were loud. Did that distract you at all?
It was the same thing that happens with the game—I didn’t really hear anything. I was in my head counting the reps. Beforehand, I was scared because a few people ahead of me weren’t getting the reps I thought they would. I wanted to get 35 reps, but I was shooting for 30. Let me get 30, I told myself, and that would be a success. Then I hit 30, and I’m not done yet, and I was excited as hell! I almost got to 34 but I think he pushed [the weight] off a little early.
Worst part about the combine?
The MRI sucked. I’ve literally never had a torn muscle or broken bone, but I had a hip bruise and they made me take a MRI because of that. There was nothing to see! But it took two-and-a-half hours, I think because they messed up the monitor, but I had to hold my hands over my head the whole time. I don’t even know how I benched that well the next day after going through that.
You were a drama major at Washington?
Yes. I want to act and direct. I love watching movies. Being a drama major I took two or three acting classes, but I also really like writing. I’ve written the outline of a movie and a show. One is a drama and the other—it’s hard to describe the genre. I’m actually working on another movie currently with [Washington wide receiver] Dante Pettis. He’s a literature major and he’s interested in writing the scripts, so I’m giving him the outline of the story and going from there.
* * *
@Mwiedy: Steelers taking a patient approach to FA as usual, where do they go in draft to close gap with Pats?
The Steelers’ priority this offseason was taking care their own: working out a long-term contract with Antonio Brown and now working on a deal with Le’Veon Bell. I think the Steelers need to go defense in the first round, and their most obvious need is linebacker—ideally an outside linebacker who can be a presence on the edge. In my mock draft last week, I paired Pittsburgh with Wisconsin OLB T.J. Watt. Temple’s Haason Reddick or Florida’s Jarrad Davis are other targets.
@SpaceBard: Where do you project Jabrill Peppers to go; if the Bears don't trade down, is #3 too early to take him?
Yes, I think No. 3 is too early for Peppers. The Bears need a safety to pair with Adrian Amos, but I believe they found their guy in free agent Quintin Demps. Peppers was notably absent from my mock draft last week, though I wouldn’t be surprised if he goes first round. I’ve long said Peppers can be a dynamic talent, I just hope the team who drafts him already has installed a plan for how they will use him. Personally, I think evaluators should forget about his versatility and use him as a strong safety. As for his projected range? Wide. No. 10 to mid-second round.
@SNFMikeRyan: What injuries will most impact 1st Round picks like we saw last year w/ Jaylon Smith & Myles Jack?
Unfortunately, one of those injuries happened a day after you sent question, to Washington cornerback Sidney Jones (more on that below in the column). Another player that comes to mind is Michigan tight end Jake Butt. A late-first round candidate throughout the year, Butt tore his ACL in Michigan’s bowl game. Considering his injury history (he previously tore his ACL before his sophomore year) and the depth at the tight end position (it’s supposed to be the strongest class in a decade) Butt now is projected somewhere in the third- to sixth-round range.
@SoLockedIn: Will we see a trade up for a QB? Poll some scouts please?
It’s a very strong possibility. The consensus at the combine: talent-wise, this is a draft where it doesn’t quite matter if you have the No. 2 pick or the No. 20 pick. There’s also a lot of quarterback-needy teams lurking late in the first round (either with a need for a starter right away, like the Texans, or to groom a quarterback of the future, like the Giants or Cardinals). Thus, if a team has fallen in love with one of the quarterbacks, they might try to slide ahead into that No. 2-to-20 range. The prospect a team is most likely to trade up for? Clemson’s Deshaun Watson.
Question or comment? Email us at email@example.com.