Matt Waldman shares his thoughts about the NFL Draft prospects who participated in this week’s 2020 Senior Bowl practices.
What did I learn about the skill prospects at the Senior Bowl?
I’d like to tell you that I learned dozens of definitive things about the players I observed this week that will be predictive of an NFL future. So does everyone else covering the week.
It’s why the most important thing I can continue stressing about the Senior Bowl is that it is only part of the puzzle. Sometimes it offers a piece or two on a player that makes the picture abundantly clear. Terry McClaurin’s route work at Mobile solidified that he was more than a special teams player.
Sometimes, it obscures massive talent. Russell Wilson had a non-descript week of Senior Bowl practices. When a quarterback doesn’t generate a strong impression and didn’t enter the week with Day 1 value, the lack of buzz reinforces the false idea that the player is a limited talent.
It’s a boring answer for those who consume click-bait, water-cooler content—and there is a place for this type of work (and there is good work of this type)—but most of the lessons learned from a week of all-star practice sessions that operate basic schemes built to establish a minimum amount of cohesion and rapport are rarely game-changing weeks for these players. Writers will dramatize it as such…
Liberty wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden wasn’t a household name for NFL draftniks upon his arrival in Mobile but after a week of overpowering cornerbacks during practices, NFL teams were placed on notice that Gandy-Golden has legitimate starter potential.
This is a common “setup” (journalism feature-writing lingo for the part of the story that tells the audience what the piece is about) we see about small-school players with talent and it’s true for most of the audience—the average fan or football writer whose target audience doesn’t include hardcore draftniks or people who had ample opportunity to see Gandy-Golden play before the Senior Bowl. For that audience, Gandy-Golden fits the appealing storyline of a player who is emerging from anonymity.
All of this is true despite the fact that anyone who watched Gandy-Golden prior to Mobile could see that Gandy-Golden has been a legitimate talent. Good journalism strives for the truth but by necessity, it must package that truth into a compelling story—a little like giving cough medicine a berry flavor.
My Senior Bowl Wrap-Up won’t have this packaging. Instead, I’ll share observations that either reinforced my view of the player in some way or raised questions. I’ll also share the role(s) this player could have with an NFL team.
This is the first year in over a decade of attendance that I didn’t officially report on the quarterbacks at the Senior Bowl and it feels great to intentionally avoid them. I’m sure the teams that interviewed and worked out this group of passers gained valuable intel. I’m also positive than anyone outside the NFL team structure who studies quarterbacks in-depth did not.
Last year was the first season I studied the practice tape from the event. Naturally, I honed in on the quarterbacks and the exercise reinforced that these practices have a greater risk of distorting the value of the players rather than enhancing it.
If you’re interested in the round that a player will be drafted, then you’ll want this information. I don’t play the draft game. While the round that a player is drafted creates latent biases among GMs and coaches when deciding playing time and practice reps (see The Hidden Advantage of Being a High NFL Draft Pick), which can encourage or discourage talented players from continuing their quest to play in the NFL, draft round is not a predictor of talent.
I’m here to evaluate talent regardless of the significant risk management exercise embedded into determining draft round. As such, I could care less about which quarterback upped his draft stock based on how pretty his arm looked in limited exercises that don’t do a good job of integrating all of the skills that truly separate a quarterback on the field.
Darius Anderson: The most significant layer of information this week revealed was Anderson’s weigh-in. Listed at TCU as 5’11”, 212 pounds—the sweet spot for an every-down runner—Anderson’s actual weight of 195 pounds offers a starter reality for his short-term potential. While possible that Anderson will add 5-15 pounds to his frame, it will likely take a year or two for Anderson to get there and it means that most teams won’t see Anderson as a legitimate every-down player until it happens.
Still, Anderson’s practices reinforced that he’s a smart runner between the tackles with the vision, agility, and footwork to create solutions when penetration creates obstacles for planned plays. Anderson showed that he can work open efficiently against off-man coverage and there’s potential for him to become a competent route runner against tight man coverage.
Anderson’s pass protection has promise because earns depth into the line, scares his opponents, and has the quickness and lateral movement to maintain position against the rush. He must get stronger, develop a punch, and become confident with becoming the initial attacker.
Wherever Anderson lands, expect him to compete for a contributing role on the depth chart. If he has an excellent NFL Combine that reveals elite speed and quickness, a team could pigeon-hole Anderson as a potential starter within a year or two. If not, Anderson will begin at the bottom half of a depth chart and try to work his way into a contributing role.
Again, adding muscle without sacrificing the explosion of his athletic ability will be a big part of Anderson’s future if he doesn’t show elite speed, acceleration, and change of direction at his 195-pound weight.
Joshua Kelley: I haven’t seen a lot from Kelley as a receiver prior to the Senior Bowl. He has 38 total receptions during his past 2 years at UCLA and only 11 in 2019. I’ll dig into more of his portfolio in the coming weeks but it was good to see Kelley show competent hands and ability to win against man coverage as a route runner in the underneath zones. He was more efficient against tight man coverage than Anderson and Kelley’s size helped him make the most of his second-efforts as a pass protector.
Kelley, like Anderson, must become the aggressor on pass protection assignments. Kelley has the weight to do the job, so developing a good punch and then transition from punch to locking onto the opponent could elevate his work from competent enough to earn a roster spot to having starter-grade techniques.
This week of practices reinforced that Kelley is a mature runner with the acceleration to create yards or challenge the second level of a defense when a create provides him a runway to get there. What I am still seeking from Kelley’s game as I begin diving into more tape are things that practices won’t reveal: power, balance, and improved ball security.
These three things are the difference between Kelley vying for a roster spot and vying for a contributing role on the field.
JaMycal Hasty: Baylor only game Hasty an inch to his height and five pounds to his weight, which isn’t much measurement inflation compared to other programs. The football scenarios that would showcase Hasty’s low-center of gravity aren’t a big part of all-star practices.
However, there were isolated runs between the tackles where Hasty could have used his height to his advantage by dropping his pads and ducking under the oncoming linebacker in the hole. Instead, Hasty ran into the defenders upright and eliminated any chance of gaining yards after contact.
I see more potential from Hasty as a tackle-breaker than he’s realized but runners rarely change their pad level this late in their development. I will be searching for reps from Hasty’s tape that show his pad level tendencies to determine if what I saw at the Senior Bowl was as a product of him overthinking with a new blocking scheme or a common issue with his game.
Hasty reinforced that he’s a valuable check-down receiver who can win one-on-one against linebackers and safeties. He’s an aggressive pass protector but often to a fault—overextending and missing with his hands.
If he can correct this issue as a blocker, Hasty has the potential to earn playing time as a scatback. Think of a role that ranges from Ito Smith in Atlanta to a lead scatback role that a player like Ahmad Bradshaw once had in New York and Indianapolis.
Quartney Davis: The Aggie’s practice sessions reinforced that he’s an aspiring slot receiver that an offense will hope it can move into position against safeties or linebackers for a mismatch as a field-stretcher. This is his immediate fit as a potential NFL draft pick.
Technique-wise, Davis also reinforced what I’ve observed from his film: He has a lot of details to refine in order to become an NFL starter. As it stands today, these details are either inconsistent or non-existent:
- Framing his hands appropriately to the ball while working in traffic.
- Withstanding swats to his arms and frame at the catch point.
- Breaking back to the football.
- Developing more release footwork so his efforts aren’t predictable to coverage.
- Gaining additional strength and awareness against tight man coverage so he’s not re-route so easily.
Davis will have some admirers for his speed and after-catch production but he’s a limited technician for either the slot or the perimeter.
Michael Pittman, Jr.: The Trojan receiver’s weigh-in revealed a player who can get stronger and more explosive as an athlete. It’s a promising development considering that he’s already a larger receiver. After this week’s practice, I’ll be revisiting how well Pittman uses his hands against defenders because he did little in Mobile that impressed me.
He’s one of the players that I have a lot more to study before I arrive at a definitive stance. However, based on what I saw prior to this week, Pittman didn’t play with the explosion or physicality that I expected from him.
James Proche: The SMU receiver reinforced my stance that he’s strictly a slot player. Although I’ve seen Twitter analysis that notes Proche’s early separation during isolated reps during these practices, none of them point out that most defenders he beat recovered fast enough to create a tight-coverage situation on targets that were not solely thrown with a lot of air under the ball.
If you’re a team seeking a slot receiver that can stalk block, win contested and second-chance catches, and find openings in zone coverage, he’s high on your list. If you’re seeking a mismatch for man coverage, a vertical threat, and a player who beats press, he’s not on your list.
Antonio Gandy-Golden: Liberty’s primary receiver performed well this week. He reinforced that he’s skilled at winning the ball at the catch point against tight coverage and that he’ll adjust to targets that aren’t pinpoint accurate. He’s physical enough to maintain his the lines of his stems even against defenders trying to reroute him and he has enough athletic ability to develop into a route runner of patterns inside the numbers.
Gandy-Golden only has one effective move with his hands against press coverage. This may be a “bad” thing for his immediate draft profile but long-term it’s a great sign of his promise because he showed this week that he could win with that one move repeatedly—even when opposing corners knew it was coming. Gandy-Golden has the skills and promise of a future starter.
K.J. Hill: Van Jefferson earned a lot of praise as a technician. Hill’s displays on the North roster are also noteworthy and reinforced what I’ve seen from him in the slot and occasionally on the perimeter at Ohio State.
As we’ve seen for years under Urban Meyer and his successors in Columbus, the Buckeye’s system doesn’t show the complete NFL potential of its receivers. Add Hill to this list because he showed off the routes, releases, hands, and vertical prowess to become an early contributor with the right team fit.
Denzel Mims: Also one of the most technically-sound receivers in Mobile this week, Mims demonstrated the suddenness, the catch-to-run transitions, the hand-eye coordination, and a range of release techniques that mirrored his portfolio of work on tape. Mims is one of my top perimeter receivers entering my final phase of film study before I construct the Rookie Scouting Portfolio. I’m seeking specific types of physicality from his game that this week that this week’s format would unlikely reveal.
Chase Claypool: A banger with length who lacks suddenness, Claypool has enough skill to make a roster but I didn’t see anything from this week that showcased route refinement or explosion. If he has a significant NFL story, it will begin with him working his way into that spotlight, refining his route running, and finding an excellent scheme fit.
Charlie Taumoepeau: Fluid and technically proficient as a pass-catcher, Taumoepeau didn’t showcase the speed and acceleration of a downfield receiving option. If he tests well at the NFL Combine, then I’ll be revisiting his tape in order to determine if his comfort level at Senior Bowl practices might have slowed him down. At this point, Taumoepeau looks like a reserve H-Back competing for an NFL roster spot.
Sean McKeon: Because of his size and skills as a blocker, McKeon will earn an earlier pick in the NFL Draft than players with greater upside as receivers. Think of C.J. Fiedorowicz’s career and I think McKeon will be valued in similar ways even if I don’t expect it to translate to a third-round selection.
Adam Trautman: The Dayton Flyer’s performance in Mobile is a good example where there’s a legitimate reason for his draft stock to rise because small-school players must prove that they can athletically match up with Division-I all-stars. Trautman demonstrated the acceleration and fluid movement of an NFL athlete. I could harp on the details of his blocking, releases, and route running but the primary point of this week for Trautman was if he had the size and athletic ability to compete for a professional role and he does.
Brycen Hopkins: Blocking isn’t the strength of Hopkins’s game but he has the athletic ability to develop into a competent H-Back in an offense that uses him more as a fullback or backside blocker who helps on double teams. Hopkins’s upside comes in the receiving game where he showed off impressive violence and versatility with his hands at the line, during the stem against tight coverage, and at the catch point. Hopkins also displayed a violent snap to his turns on stop routes. I think Hopkins has an immediate fit in the NFL as a receiver, as long as he maintains his confidence as a pass-catcher against top competition. However, his blocking is the one thing that could hold him back.
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