MOBILE, Ala. — Despite increasing pushback from the Shrine Game, the Senior Bowl remains the premier all-star game for NFL Draft prospects. As this year’s version of the event got underway Tuesday, The Athletic draft experts Dane Brugler and Nick Baumgardner checked in with their first impressions.
Which draft hopefuls made the biggest early impressions, and which ones need to bounce back the rest of the week?
1. Dawand Jones’ measurements were ridiculous, as expected. You both had him in Round 2 of your most recent mocks, but could he be a big riser?
Dane Brugler: Jones made impressive strides during his senior season at Ohio State and didn’t allow a single sack. He also pitched a shutout on Day 1 of Senior Bowl practices, using his rare size and width to engulf rushers. He doesn’t have rangy feet, but with an 89 1/2-inch wingspan, he compensates well and uses his aggressive hands to snatch, trap and bury opponents.
Official Senior Bowl Measurements #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/yGR0SZcVkx
— Reese’s Senior Bowl (@seniorbowl) January 31, 2023
Coming into the week, Jones was the No. 1 prospect I couldn’t wait to see in person, and I’m eager to watch how pass rushers adjust to him throughout the week. Although he might not be an ideal fit for every scheme (some teams have fourth-round grades on him), he could be a riser on a few boards. He played with improved patience, balance and strike timing over the last year, and that was clear Tuesday.
Nick Baumgardner: If he’s as consistent the rest of the week, I don’t see how he slides at all. Whether he rises? That’s kind of tough.
I didn’t see Jones lose a single one-on-one rep in individual periods Tuesday morning. I also didn’t see him get beat cleanly at all during team periods later in the day. His first matchup in run drills was against Army’s Andre Carter II (who measured at just over 6-foot-6) and Jones completely erased him with his frame, using a quick set. Despite being huge, Carter had absolutely no chance.
Jones also showed solid foot speed and agility in run drills, as was the case on film at Ohio State. He’s quick enough even at 6-8, 375 to corner some edge defenders — the key word there being “some.” Which brings us to the second part of this conversation, and that’s whether the test Jones gets from the defensive linemen this week will be enough for scouts to bump him up.
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There’s a stiffness to Jones’ game. He’s massive, which means he’s going to tire easier. Sometimes, he’ll bend at the waist. Will his length be effective against the NFL’s most explosive cornering ends? That’s still a question for Jones, and it’s probably going to be one after this week, too. All that said, though, he looked terrific Tuesday.
2. It’s always a little clunky for the quarterbacks out of the gate (and Malik Cunningham didn’t practice due to illness). Did anyone stand out from that group on Day 1?
Brugler: I’ve learned plenty of lessons in the dozen years that I’ve been coming down to Mobile. One of those is to overlook quarterback performance on Day 1 of practice, and Tuesday was a reminder why. All five quarterbacks struggled with new coaching and new receivers. Most of them, especially TCU’s Max Duggan, struggled with their placement on throws. Shepherd’s Tyson Bagent struggled to find his rhythm and be on the same page with his receivers.
It wasn’t all bad, though. I thought Bagent threw the ball really well over the middle of the field, and Houston’s Clayton Tune showed off his impressive placement. But evaluators will be hoping to see progress from this group throughout the week.
Baumgardner: As Dane said, the first day tends to be adventurous. Desmond Ridder wound up having a solid showing last year but barely looked like he could tie his shoes without falling over during the opening practice. It happens.
I thought Duggan settled down and made some solid throws later in team period (as did Tune), which is really where Duggan’s going to have to impress to make a move. He had a nice off-platform throw, after evading pressure, to an open target. Later, he stood in the pocket and delivered a strike into coverage against a heavy rush. He can make his mark by being a confident QB in the pocket who isn’t fading or bailing out. He’s got a long way to go there, though.
Also: Be sure to read Dane’s story on Bagent and his dad, who is a world-ranked arm wrestler. Amazing.
3. Anyone else — on either side of the ball — really hit the ground running Tuesday? Were there any big surprises?
Baumgardner: Iowa State’s Will McDonald IV weighed in at 241 pounds this week. On the field, he looked freaky (to no one’s surprise) off the edge. He’s all gas and twitch off the ball. When he wins with his punch, he can make guys 75 pounds heavier than him look foolish. Is that weight enough, though? Will we get to see him do any coverage drops or is that something that can be added to his game? If so, he could be a monster in a few years. He’s an outstanding athlete.
Official Senior Bowl Measurements #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/iGZmw0JXi1
— Reese’s Senior Bowl (@seniorbowl) January 31, 2023
Maryland OT Jaelyn Duncan had a really nice day for the American side in one-on-ones. He was able to notch an impressive win versus Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey (who responded by trucking Michigan OT Ryan Hayes a few reps later) and seemed to hold up well enough at left tackle. Chattanooga’s McClendon Curtis also had some nice moments early. And Michigan center Olu Oluwatimi was able to win plenty with power inside in pass pro, although he did have some trouble with quickness. It’ll be interesting to see if Oluwatimi works at guard at all this week. He’s seen mostly as a center-only prospect, but some versatility could help his stock.
Cincinnati TE Josh Whyle is all about it as a blocker. He had a few really impressive moments in individual drills and was pure intensity on every snap. He still has work to do as a pass catcher, though, so scouts will need to see more.
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Brugler: Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton entered the week as my clear No. 1 senior defensive tackle, and he backed that up. A nose tackle in the Badgers’ scheme, Benton is a stout run defender, but his potential as a pass rusher is intriguing. Using both quickness and power, he consistently won his one-on-one reps and showed why he landed in the second round of my latest mock draft.
Michigan State’s Jayden Reed is one of the fastest players at this year’s Senior Bowl and that was clear during Tuesday’s practice. He repeatedly won on vertical routes and created late separation as he tracked the football. He registered a GPS time of 20.03 mph during practice — the only player to surpass 20 mph on the National Team — and also handled punt return duties. Coming into the week, Reed was looking to cement his status as a second-day prospect and is off to a great start.
WR Jayden Reed showing off his see-yah speed.
Also did a nice job returning punts today. pic.twitter.com/6BaAZvAFpT
— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) February 1, 2023
Several of the running backs looked great. Tulane’s Tyjae Spears caught the ball really well and was a tough cover for linebackers. Oklahoma’s Eric Gray did an outstanding job running low to the ground and using tempo to hit the hole. And Texas’ Roschon Johnson did everything well. All three players are examples of the depth of this running back class.
4. Be it from the coaching staffs or the prospects, what are you eager to see in Wednesday and Thursday’s practices?
Baumgardner: BYU offense tackle Blake Freeland can be a frustrating watch, at times. He’s such a good athlete and so light on his feet at 6-8, 305, but the play consistency — be it play strength or just general technique from snap to snap — leaves way too much to be desired. If you took all the offensive linemen here and had them run agility drills, Freeland would impress. When they line up and play, though, hiccups happen. Freeland really, really could use a steady close to the week, especially when the contact picks up.
Foskey is the player here who I think has the best chance to change some minds. As Dane noted, he has top-50 potential, possibly even top-30 if the right defensive coach falls in love with him. He’s one of the freakiest guys here: 6-5, 266, can win off the edge with his hand in the dirt or play standing up and covering. I think Foskey could hang athletically in the stack as a linebacker, if a coaching staff taught him.
There are Micah Parsons-like traits there, but we need to see him show them all of the time.
— Notre Dame Football (@NDFootball) January 31, 2023
Brugler: I’m interested to see Cody Mauch continue to work at guard, after he was basically a tackle-only player in college (and a tight end and defensive end in high school). Everything happens a lot faster on the interior, and that reality forced him off balance, at times, in the first practice. But his athleticism and instincts also kicked in and helped him recover during team and individual reps. Mauch is the type of competitor who will have his nose in the playbook all night to build his confidence at guard the rest of the week.
Speaking of the non-FBS prospects, I want to see how Princeton’s Andrei Iosivas continues to adapt to better competition. He did a nice job catching the ball, but cornerbacks gave him trouble when they got in his face and pressed him off the line. His play strength and release packages are both areas where Iosivas needs to improve.
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I’m also eager to see more from the pass rushers. I thought it was a relatively quiet day from a group that is considered maybe the deepest on the Senior Bowl roster. McDonald, Foskey and a few others have a chance to be top-50 picks, and I’m hoping to see more positive flashes as the week goes on.
(Photo: Vasha Hunt / USA Today)