MOBILE, Ala. – The argument could be made that this year’s Senior Bowl is the most important week of 2021 NFL Draft evaluations. For some prospects, Tuesday was the first time that they stepped onto a football field for meaningful reps in approximately one year due to the current climate of the pandemic.
Other prospects are still firing on all cylinders just weeks removed from the college-bowl postseason. NFL scouts from every team were represented on Day 1 of the Senior Bowl, including the Denver Broncos — who have reportedly sent nine scouts to Mobile, three of whom I noticed Tuesday.
What were the takeaways from Day 1's activities? Here are my first five impressions from this year’s only in-person college talent evaluation.
New Year, New Stadium
Since 1951, the Senior Bowl has been hosted at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile. But for the first time, this year's week of practice for the premier all-star game will be held at the University of South Alabama’s Hancock Whitney Stadium.
Although there were inclement weather concerns initially, the sun and overcast made for an ideal practice. Scouts, coaches, media, and fans had an opportunity to observe practice within the precautionary safety protocols, in various assigned sections.
For any football fan let alone a draft analyst, the new outdoor stadium was a sight for sore eyes. Call me crazy, but there’s just something magical about observing young men strive to fulfill their dream of playing the best game on the planet.
Flores' & Rhule's Style of Practice
Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores has undoubtedly changed the culture in his locker room. On Tuesday, the 39-year-old coach, who’s representing the National Team, brought a sharp and deliberate tone to practice.
Not only was there a heightened sense of urgency during position drills, but players understood the expectations of performing at the highest level of competition. Whether it was in team periods or special teams Flores and company placed a heavy emphasis on improvement after each rep. Thus, it’s no wonder that the Dolphins have made a franchise directional move from mediocrity to AFC East relevance.
Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule and his staff held their first American Team practice in the afternoon. Rather than using a traditional air horn to transition from period to period, Rhule implemented the use of sirens.
While it seemed bizarre to hear sirens, it was refreshing to see the 45-year-old Rhule’s intensity represented in his voice and tone. To the untrained ear, it might sound like yelling and screaming at players for silly mistakes. But there was not a single doubt that Rhule was replicating the pressures of an NFL practice field.
His coaching did not stop with just the players, as the second-year head coach demanded exemplary performances out of his assistant coaches. For the players, perhaps some of the biggest takeaways from Rhule’s practice on Tuesday was that of intensity, purpose, and work ethic.
Alabama’s Mac Jones is a Bonafide First-Rounder
While everyone on social media has poked run of Jones’ post-national championship shirtless photo, he is far from a punchline, let alone a joke. The 22-year-old native of Jacksonville, FL, had complete control of the American Team’s offense.
Jones' arm talent and accuracy were demonstrated through short, mid, and deep throws. Similar to his 77.4 completion percentage last season for the Crimson Tide, Jones’ exemplified ideal field vision, touch, and confidence.
Jones demonstrated strong and consistent mechanics with not only his arm but driving the ball using his lower body. Doing so, demonstrated exceptional footwork in various positional drills and team periods from the shotgun, to under center, and play action. With 31 career games under his belt for the powerhouse that is Alabama, Jones’ experience allows him to receive, process, and implement coaching in real-time.
Many football fans like to throw the term 'swagger' around very loosely with some of their favorite players. Instead of describing Jones in that way, I would insist that he is comfortable, confident, and consistent with his demeanor and performance as soon as his cleats hit the turf.
Oregon CB Thomas Graham, Jr. can Rise up Draft Boards
It was not the majestic metallic Oregon helmet that makes scouts notice Graham of the National Team. Instead, it is his natural ability to play football. Although he received offers from Alabama, Notre Dame, LSU, and Oklahoma, Graham took his talents to the Pacific Northwest where he thrived as a shutdown cornerback.
After completing a successful junior campaign where he led FBS in pass break-ups (32), Graham wanted to compete for a national title as a senior. Little did he know that the pandemic would halt his momentum, as he opted out of the 2020 season.
Today, Graham proved that he has not missed a beat in his return to the gridiron. He has a natural fluidity with his hips that allow him to immediately change direction. Although somewhat undersized as a prototypical NFL corner, he matched nearly every wideout stride-for-stride on the perimeter and in the slot.
Graham's energy and high motor could be felt from the stands as he consistently spent time coaching up teammates and engaged in friendly banter with his opponents. Graham is an ideal fit in a defensive zone system in addition to press-man, but his talents suggest a universal fit.
Before the day started, Graham was projected as a third-round selection. But if he can continue his ferocious momentum the rest of the week, I fully expect his draft stock to dramatically increase.
Kansas State DE Wyatt Hubert Wrecked the LoS
It did not take long to notice the 6-foot-3, 265-pound defensive end from Kansas State. For the first time in my scouting experience, I noticed the detail-oriented work ethic of Hubert during special teams drills. Most times, players can leave something to be desired in special teams practice, and their NFL draft-stock suffers because of it.
But that is not the case for the 3-4 style defensive end/outside linebacker, who demonstrates his grit in anything that is asked of him. At Kansas State, Hubert was extremely active getting after both the QB and stuffing both inside and outside runs. In 34 games for the Wildcats, he totaled 94 total tackles (72 solo), 33 tackles for a loss, 20 sacks, three forced fumbles, and two batted passes with one interception.
Hubert's statistical production was evident as he started the American Team’s afternoon practice by wrecking the offense on two straight plays. During one of the first offensive series, Hubert was able to contain his right edge during a play-action boot, where he would not be fooled by the inside handoff and would have logged a monster sack.
Moments later, Hubert was observed once again containing his edge and bottled up the play by driving the right tackle directly into the running back on the perimeter for another tackle for a loss. His performance today showcased his raw athletic strength, but more importantly his discipline and fundamentals.
Not once was Hubert duped into giving up his edge, and therefore, he never left any of his linebackers or safeties hanging out to dry. One of the most important characteristics for any NFL edge or D-end is to be technically sound with their respective assignments.
If Hubert can continue to frustrate the American Team’s offense in practice, the raw bull rush and intelligence of Dalton Risner's former college teammate will capture the curiosity of NFL scouts.