I spent the past week in Mobile, Alabama for the 74th annual Senior Bowl. It was my 14th trip to the event, the preeminent postseason all-star game and draft showcase. These are the primary things that stood out in Mobile
$.01--Every year there is one player who seizes upon the opportunity and proves to be a better prospect than expected coming in. There were a couple of candidates this year, but the biggest riser in my eyes was Michigan State wide receiver Jayden Reed.
Reed had an okay collegiate career for the Spartans. He flashed at times, including a scintillating performance in the 2021 win over Western Kentucky that I attended in person. But overall he looked more like a dime-a-dozen Day 3 receivers that crop up every draft cycle.
Then Senior Bowl week happened. Reed consistently got open down the field and presented himself as a bigger target than his 5-11ish frame would suggest. He adjusted nicely to balls in the air and showed soft hands to secure the catch as he went to the ground. The open-field speed was on full display; Reed was the first player in Mobile to top 20 MPH on Zebra Technologies tracking. The ability to run away from man coverage on a crossing route is something Reed proved time and again.
It’s important to temper the conclusions drawn from three days of practices and an exhibition game with a limited playbook. However, Jayden Reed made the most of his opportunity and that shouldn’t be written off, either. He was the week’s biggest winner in my eyes.
$.02--This Senior Bowl week featured an interesting crop of prospects. There were probably just two to three first-round picks on the field.
Minnesota C John-Michael Schmitz should be one. He was dominant in 1-on-1 reps and also fared very well in team drills. The blend of quickness and power was very impressive. He’s not quite the elite athlete of an Alex Mack, but Schmitz had the best Senior Bowl week of any center prospect that I’ve seen since Mack back in 2009.
The other likely first-rounder is another offensive lineman. Tennessee behemoth Darnell Wright put on a staggering display of power and aggression at both right and left tackle. A one-time top-shelf recruit, Wright never really had it all click in his years in Knoxville. In Mobile, it clicked.
Wright gave the best impersonation of Lions Pro Bowl RT Penei Sewell that can be done during the practices. Like Sewell, Wright brings the pass protection to the rusher, proactively attacking. He’s strong enough and quick enough off the snap to make it work. There were actually a couple of pass pro reps where Wright would have been guilty of illegal man downfield because he pushed his blocking mark so far back off the line.
Wright didn’t win every rep. He got beat a couple of times in team drills over his inside shoulder, which--ironically enough--is Sewell’s primary weakness. I don’t see Wright as the high-end athlete Sewell is, but for a team picking in the 20s and in need of an upgrade at right tackle, Wright sure looks like the right man for the job.
$.03--One of the fun parts of the practice week is getting more exposure to small-school players. Two FCS-level talents really stood out to me during the week: Sacramento State LB Marte Mapu and UT-Chattanooga OL McClendon Curtis.
Mapu was easy to spot with the safety group on the American team. Standing over 6-foot-2 and weighing 217 pounds, he looked more like a linebacker. NFL teams are going to view Mapu with his size, range and quick click-and-close ability in the attacking box safety role, a la Jabrill Peppers. Mapu handled himself well in 1-on-1 coverage drills and in the team drills on Tuesday.
Curtis was a revelation in balance and positional versatility. He lined up at both tackle spots and also inside at guard. While he did have a couple of losses in 1-on-1s facing off against brute power inside, his footwork and hand placement were always synced up. His ability to recover outside vs. speed was as good as any OL in Mobile.
I hadn’t seen either player before I arrived for Senior Bowl week. Now I’m scrambling to get to watch as much as I can of both Mapu and Curtis to see if what I saw in Mobile matches the tape.
$.04--It was not a great week for quarterback play. That was somewhat expected with the six guys on the rosters, but it wound up being worse than hoped. There was a different “best” QB each day, and it was more about not being bad than being great. Having said that, there were some really promising flashes from most of the guys, notably the third one here.
Clayton Tune, Houston--handily the best QB on Tuesday, where he showed his precision and aggression in giving receivers chances to make plays against coverage. His arm is better than advertised but also prone to erratic misses outside. Tune really struggled in team drills on Wednesday with the speed of the defense as both a passer and a scrambler. Looked better on Thursday when the weather was a little calmer and his receivers played better. Did not like his odd delivery platform on deeper throws.
Malik Cunningham, Louisville--missed the first day in the process of getting to the game as a late call-up from the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. Smallest QB in Mobile and it appeared more drastic in person than it does reading the measurements. When he kept his eyes up on the move, Cunningham was at his best. Really struggled with accuracy and timing from the pocket, though when he targeted his first option in team drills, Cunningham was better. Best runner of the group, but his decision-making was spotty.
Jake Haener, Fresno State--Haener was my top QB of the group coming into Mobile. He didn’t exactly solidify that status in practices, notably on Wednesday in the wind. His arm strength is average at his best, and he lacks the size and agility to thrive under pressure. Haener is also small with short arms and very little body mass. But when the lights came on, Haener was great. Gamer. Senior Bowl MVP, and deservedly so. Whole lot of Gardner Minshew or Taylor Heinicke to him in a game; winning with guile, creativity and sheer force of will. Haener throws harder and better in game situations than in practice, something Daniel Jones did in Mobile too.
Max Duggan, TCU--Duggan was all over the map in practices. He would throw 3-4 brilliant strikes in a row and then airmail the next two where you wondered if he was deliberately throwing the ball away. Like Haener, Duggan was at his best in team drills and using his improvisational skills and testicular fortitude to make plays. I don’t think Duggan hurt himself in Mobile but he didn’t raise his stock either, not in my eyes.
Tyson Bagent, Shepherd--the D-II standout has a live arm and supreme confidence in it, too. That was evident from the first reps on Tuesday. Controlling the arm and delivering catchable passes was not so evident. Bagent had several wild misses down the field, notably in team drills on Wednesday, where he had one throw hit the brick wall some 20 yards out of bounds. Pocket manipulation and processing speed are works in progress. He’s draftable based on the arm and the swagger, but God bless the team that might have to play him before late 2024 at the earliest.
Jaren Hall, BYU--Hall was consistently the most accurate thrower all week. His ability to quickly sync with receivers was impressive. Hall flashed a good-not-great arm and the ability to throw on the roll. Best touch on deep throws, too. Hall didn’t play in the game, and it’s hard not to notice his lack of size and arm length. Has all the trappings of a reliable, long-term backup even though he’s already 25.
$.05--One quarterback was in Mobile but didn’t participate in drills. Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker was on the sidelines, in all the interviews, even in the helmet listening to the offensive coaches make calls.
Hooker, of course, tore up his knee in December. He had surgery six weeks ago. In an interview from radio row in Mobile with us on the Detroit Lions Podcast, Hooker indicated he was “going ahead of schedule” and feeling good. He wore a therapeutic brace that went from his heel up well over his knee for support and stability, but Hooker walked without a limp and comfortably sat down and got up from our interview chairs.
Two things were very evident in talking to Hooker:
--he’s a very sharp guy who can think on the fly
--the charisma and leadership that he wore very well at Tennessee is no fluke
There are issues. He just turned 25 and is unlikely to participate in any offseason work entering his rookie season in the NFL thanks to the injury. But the guy who threw 58 TDs and just 5 INTs in the last two seasons for an SEC team rising from the ashes is undeniably appealing. After talking to him for about 10 minutes and watching him lead players despite not playing, I feel very good about Hooker’s chances to make the most of an NFL opportunity. It’s going to require some patience, alas…
Bonus quickie cents…
--Tom Brady retired during the week. Good. He looked decidedly un-Brady in his final game, a humiliating playoff loss to Dallas. The Buccaneers\\\' relative lack of success in 2022 shouldn’t fall on Brady, but it was hard to not notice some growing falloff in his game. I don’t need to see any more from Brady.
--The Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas ran somewhat concurrent with the Senior Bowl. For the second year in a row, it was a logistical nightmare for draft coverage. Some brave souls made both trips. It used to be common to catch both; I did it every year but one from 2012-2020. Both operate outside the formal NFL structure so it’s effectively impossible to force the two games back to a more desirable schedule, but it’s ridiculous that both exhibition games and their rich histories force us to not be able to do our jobs thoroughly.
--Alabama QB Bryce Young is going to be a wildly polarizing draft prospect discussion over the next months. My general takeaway from talking to several NFL draft analysts is that folks are more than a little afraid to say how they really feel about a 5-10, 185-pound QB for fear of being shouted down, or being proven wrong by the exception to the rule. It was almost startling to hear the real unfiltered opinions once the mics and social media were off. I cannot speak on how the NFL feels about Young, but there are scads of draftniks who think Young belongs in the 20-50 overall range a lot more than he belongs in the top-5. And they’re scared to death to say it publicly.