Matt Waldman’s RSP 2018 Senior Bowl Practice Wrap

Matt Waldman’s RSP wraps up Senior Bowl practices with thoughts about Day 3 of practice attendance and prediction-based analysis.

The third day of Senior Bowl practices is a weird one. While purely anecdotal on my part, it appears Thursday’s sessions often have the lowest attendance — especially from media and analysts.

Why this is the case is fun speculation — and I emphasize it’s speculative:

Skip practice now and watch the film later: With a film setup available to media, analysts have the luxury to dive deep and deliver fine-grain analysis of the event. I understand the appeal and many readers will enjoy that effort. However, practice and game environments differ enough that it isn’t wise to give them equal weight.

Business decisions, travel, and assignment budgets: Many writers have multiple assignments and must prioritize their time. Limited travel budgets from their publication/site may also be a factor and an editorial team may decide that a sampling of practice and the use of contacts made at the event is enough for a writer to file a useful story.

Socializing: The Senior Bowl is known as the unofficial convention of the NFL and that often extends to those who cover the draft. The opportunity to meet up at local bars and drink with coaches, former players, and prominent media is often the highlight of the week. There’s a point where 2-3 late nights and a row takes its toll on those with good intentions to make practice.

Weather: Those of you up North and in the Midwest will roll your eyes at the prospect weather as a reason when Mobile is usually in the high 50’s and low 60’s this time of year. However, Ladd Peebles Stadium is near the water and a decent breeze arrives during the late afternoon practice. Combine the wind, the setting sun, and a temperature drop, and sitting on the metal bleachers begins to feel like sitting on a shelf in a refrigerator.

I always recommend new attendees to bring layers and I can sense them rolling their eyes at me. They see that I’m close to twice their age and make the jump from middle age to elderly, thinking I’m like their grandmother who is always cold.

Or, knowing that I live in the South, am not used to real winter weather. For those of you who had this thought, I’ve been running three miles and doing sprint work in these conditions…

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When I tell you that you will be far more comfortable with layers of clothing at your disposal for the late afternoon practice, I’m just trying to answer your question ‘what advice to you have about covering the Senior Bowl?’ I’ve seen writers get sick or, after enduring two miserable afternoon sessions, decide that they don’t need to be there for Thursday’s work.

If the no-shows are attributable to the final three factors, that’s too bad because Day 3 is arguably the most important day. Day 1 was installation, Day 2 set the baseline for performance, and Day 3 determines if the player’s work was better, worse, or held steady.

Considering that it’s best to have some scouting done on most of these players well before coming to this game, missing Day 3 doesn’t help you see how these players are acclimating to new practice conditions, teammates, and daily opposition. If arriving in Mobile with the intent of seeing these players for the first time, missing Day 3 will mean the first impression will be even further skewed than it already was without any advanced film study for the event.

With Day 3 of the 2018 Senior Bowl in the books, it’s time to share my cumulative analysis of notable participants this week. Instead of doing what I’ve done on Tuesday and Wednesday, I’m going to share my thoughts on these prospects with predictions about them based on what I’ve seen this week and on tape.

The predictions should not be taken too seriously, it’s simply an entertaining way to introduce you to the analysis of the player. If a player isn’t mentioned here, my impression of him remained the same in Day 3 as it did after Day 2.

Most Likely To Get Eaten Alive By The NFL (QB Josh Allen): The Wyoming quarterback has the raw tools of a top NFL starter but based on his college film and performance in Mobile, the league’s backward approach to quarterback development, and Allen’s lack of poise and maturity in the pocket that leads to him compounding mistakes when things initially go wrong could create a dynamic detrimental to his career.

I hope it doesn’t happen, but if a team buys into Allen as a franchise passer, it’s getting a player whose only differentiating assets are his size and arm. He’s not consistently accurate in a variety of important scenarios and when he isn’t rushing his decision-making, he’s not putting his teammates in positions that maximize their skills. Franchise quarterbacks are good at finding simple solutions to problems but Allen creates difficult scenarios when there is an easier path.

While possible that Allen can mature and refine his game, his playing style has a lot of similarities to DeShone Kizer — except Kizer was a better prospect and the prospect of him being cast aside after a year is a foolish decision steeped in questionable motives involving organizational leadership that has lost its way and political in-fighting. Place Allen in a rudderless, fingerpointing environment where he must start immediately with immature and subpar surrounding talent at wide receiver and Allen’s on-field behavior when under stress could also indicate that his confidence will also crater.

Create an organizational development plan for Allen with intermittent playing time and a goal of him starting full-time 2-3 years from now, and it will be his best chance to learn and make mistakes without losing him completely. Because this rarely happens and the possibility that Allen’s ranking is an agent-influenced big media push, Allen is the player at this event in the greatest danger of getting victimized by the business end of the NFL.

Most Likely To Self-Inflict Damage (Baker Mayfield): He was arguably the best quarterback in Mobile this week. He found first and second reads, he exhibited patience in the pocket, maneuvered away from pressure, threw the ball away when necessary, and had moments of pinpoint accuracy.

Louis Riddick told Bruce Feldman that Mayfield is the real deal.

“When it comes time for 11-on-11 nobody does it as good as Baker Mayfield. He’s been everything as advertised. People are gonna try and poke holes against this kid. But you’d be making a mistake to bang against this kid.”

It’s a compelling statement, but my job is to try to poke holes against every player until I see enough evidence that I can’t do so. Then I take the combination of good and bad and project how it fits into an NFL equation.

Mayfield struggled against man coverage and a pass rush that kept him in the pocket during the second half of the Georgia game. He’s shown previous signs of struggling against these game plans. Nothing from this week’s practice showed otherwise because these 11-on-11s didn’t simulate the conditions that have challenged Mayfield in the past.

Mayfield offers enough skill to earn consideration as a future NFL starter. However, I’m still evaluating the breadth of his upside after seeing the nature of his struggles.

I also know he hasn’t enlisted the help of any coaching to refine the technical tools of his game. Maybe Mayfield will go that route at some point, but quarterbacks usually have a tutor at this point if not much earlier.

Mayfield considered not going with an agent so combined with the news above, there could be a pattern of behavior with Mayfield that makes him less trustful of outside help. I get it. Fast-money performance-related jobs are filled with predatory people posing as teachers, advisors, and protectors.

However, the margin of error in the NFL is much smaller than the Big 12. If Mayfield advances his own game with DYI development practices, he’ll possess extraordinary wisdom and insight based on limited exposure to a level of play that he hasn’t experienced.

I like Mayfield’s game, but I don’t love it — and I’m worried that he’s mistaking “betting on himself” for not asking for help. Kind of like breaking the pocket to throw on the move rather than learning how to better rely on his linemen and staying there for easier results that were there to exploit.

Most Likely To Outplay His Practice Performance (Akrum Wadley): The Iowa runner had several moments this week where he initially appeared lost during drills or made a mistake that led to a coach barking further directions his way. His unfamiliarity with certain footwork and blocking drills also led to measured play that wasn’t inspiring for those judging him without thinking about the true purpose of practice.

Although he didn’t have significant moments in scrimmage conditions, it is clear that Wadley’s quickness and agility are assets. If there’s a player who turns it up a notch on Saturday because he’s reacting rather than practicing, look for Wadley to author a few strong plays as a runner and receiver. He’ll be judged in Mobile for his effort during the week and his results on the weekend.

Most Likely To Surprise (Justin Watson): The Penn receiver stood out to me on the first day with a one-handed grab on a go route against tight coverage. On Day 3, Watson made another one-handed grab against tight coverage on a corner fade during red zone drills. Earlier in the session, he was the only receiver to earn audible praise from the position coach while running C.O.D. drills with cones. Even a novice could have seen that Watson’s work through these cones was the quickest and most fluid performance of the South squad. I can’t wait to watch his tape because his athletic ability and route running held up against top college prospects.

Most Likely To Give Fans Fits With Inconsistent Play (Tre`Quan Smith): He’s a decent athlete with natural quickness, speed, and hand-eye coordination but the techniques aren’t there to maximize those raw tools. He consistently used passive hand position to catch passes that he should have attacked away from his frame. This resulted in drops and juggled passes. Even passes he caught this way don’t project well when he faces tight NFL coverage.

His routes occasionally featured a quick move during an aspect of the pattern but he never put an entire route together that was good from beginning to end. Smith needs a lot of technical work as a route runner and receiver. Until he addresses his issues, he’s an athlete with occasional big moments but easily disappears for long stretches.

Most Likely To Drop A Pass From The Backfield (Rashaad Penny): The Aztec ran some of the best routes of the week from the running back position. He also made some good catches with his hands — one of them was a fingertip catch of a shin-high target on the move. He also dropped more passes than any back this week — catchable targets that bounced off his hands.

Most Likely To Author A Contested Grab Against A Linebacker Or Safety (Jordan Atkins): While Mike Gesicki, Troy Fumagalli, and Adam Breneman arrived with more notoriety in the passing game, Atkins made several contested catches involving adjustments of underrated difficulty. Atkins’ work in these situations was the best I’ve seen from a tight end in over a decade. It may not translate to anything more than strong practice moments, but Atkins is now at the top of my list for additional film study.

Least Likely To Beat A Linebacker Or Safety In Man Coverage (Ian Thomas): The Hoosier’s tight end catches the ball well and can earn good position against his opponents with physical play to the ball, but he won’t earn separation on hard-breaking routes. He’s too slow and lumbering when trying to execute changes of direction.

Most Likely To Lead The Senior Bowl In Receptions (DaeSean Hamilton): He’s a strong short and intermediate route runner with reliable hands who was automatic during all three practices.

Most Likely To Emerge As An NFL Contributor From The Bowels Of A Depth Chart (Mike White): White wasn’t as productive Thursday as he was Wednesday, but he often placed the ball where only his receiver could make the play — and often should have made it. His pocket maneuvering was as effective as Mayfield’s. He was also a little more decisive with his reads. I’m seeing some love for Kyle Lauletta but White’s processing was better even if the results are uneven due in part to the performance of the talent around him.

Most Polished Receiver In Mobile (James Washington): The variety of effective releases and routes, the active hands, and the smooth speed and deceptive strength that is Washington’s game makes him the standout performer in this class. If there’s a skill player in Mobile most likely contribute immediately as a rookie, Washington is on the shortlist.

Most Potential To Develop Beyond His Current Standing (Kalen Ballage): I liked his burst to the corner and his one-cut agility. Ballage also showed incremental improvement with lateral agility drills and caught everything in sight — even on routes that are often difficult for a running back. I heard skepticism about his power and agility, but I think his inexperience at the position gives him intriguing upside if he can seek out the help of a footwork coach.

Most Likely Helped Themselves…

  • Byron Pringle: A quick, fast, and technically-sound receiver with hand-eye coordination, Pringle made plays all over the field and he plays special teams.
  • Luke Falk: Although Mayfield deserves praise, Falk was quietly as consistent and productive as any quarterback here. He was decisive, on-time, and did good work from the pocket. He has long-term starter potential.
  • Jaylen Samuels: NC State’s H-Back displayed burst, good footwork, and decisive running between the tackles. He looked natural enough at the position to earn consideration on draft day.

Most Likely Hurt Themselves…

  • Jaleel Scott: He couldn’t earn consistent separation and frequently dropped the ball from a variety of angles. I expected to see him attack and win difficult targets but the basic skills weren’t there to put him in that position.
  • Allen Lazard: He needs to rely more on his strength to earn separation rather than his lackluster speed and quickness. It appeared that he is still learning to maximize his strengths it’s can be difficult for a player to progress at a fast rate at the highest level when he’s still figuring out what his game should be.
  • J’Mon Moore: A speedster who could not earn separation, Moore appeared as one-dimensional as he was used at Missouri.

More of Matt Waldman’s annual coverage of the 2018 Senior Bowl can be found here at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.

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