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? If you read the North Wrap-Up, skip ahead to my position-by-position reviews.
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.
Eno Benjamin: As is the case with Darius Anderson on the North squad, the biggest development of the week for Benjamin was his weigh-in. Although Arizona State only listed Benjamin at 201 pounds, the fact that Benjamin is 195 pounds means the NFL will seem him as a contributor more than a future starter unless Benjamin can add 15 pounds of muscle to his frame and not sacrifice acceleration and speed.
Benjamin displayed his peripheral vision, quickness, and skillful decision-making between the tackles this week. His lack of size showed up when facing pass rushers in one-on-one drills. Benjamin moved his feet well but any small leverage advantage exploited Benjamin’s size disadvantage.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn: An undisclosed injury after Day 1 curtailed Vaughn’s opportunity to showcase his wares for teams. His one day of practice reinforced his skills as a between-the-tackles decision-maker and showed off his body control as a receiver against tight coverage. Unfortunately, I had Vaughn listed as a 5’11”, 215-pound runner. When he stepped on the scale in Mobile, Vaughn was 20 pounds lighter. Based on what I’ve seen on tape thus far, Vaughn played like a bigger back with questionable elusiveness as a potential starter when he’s actually a small back with questionable starter-caliber elusiveness who performs big for the SEC but that power and balance may not translate to the NFL. I left this week with more questions than answers.
Lamical Perine: Of the backs that participated in Mobile this week, Perine is the most game-ready as a pass protector. He held up well against power rushers and moved his feet well enough to help out along the edge. He’s a solid receiver and a powerful enough back to work through contact in the open field and drag wrappers at the line of scrimmage.
I have only scratched the surface of Perine’s tape, but he doesn’t strike me as a dynamic athlete within the scope of NFL running back prospects. At worst, he’s a competent player who will make a roster and eventually contribute as a reserve. At best, he has the size and skills of a regular contributor. The upper end of this range will be determined by Perine’s acceleration and vision between the tackles.
Antonio Gibson: If you give Gibson a crease that’s easily exploitable during the earliest phases of his decision-making, Gibson looks like a future starter. If Gibson has to consistently press the line to widen a crease or find a cutback, his patience isn’t as strong as it could be.
Despite being a better athlete than a technician at the position, Gibson might have more upside than his former teammate Tony Pollard. He’s bigger, stronger, runs with determination, and he’s a better route runner and pass catcher.
Ask Gibson to take on A- or B-gap blitzes and he’ll perform well. Challenge Gibson with edge rushers or force him to slide to the perimeter and he’ll have difficulties–especially if there’s space for an opponent to redirect.
Overall, Gibson was the most intriguing running back prospect on the field this week because of the size-speed-strength triangle of his athletic ability and his baseline ability to read blocks. Put him in a gap scheme or use him off-tackle and Gibson could deliver big plays early in his career and there’s room for growth for him to become a well-rounded runner.
Austin Mack: He and K.J. Hill represented Ohio State well this week. Mack earns good separation off of the line of scrimmage with his initial burst and he works back to the football. I was impressed with his ability to use his hands and feet at the line of scrimmage to turn defenders to his advantage.
He still has instances of losing his balance at breaks and transition points after the catch. I’ve seen this happen during multiple games and it showed up during one of his practices. It raised questions for me after seeing a small sample of his tape and now that it happened a couple of times during practice, I’ll have to take a deeper dive.
Focus drops were an issue this week and indicative of smaller details that seemed inconsistent with Mack’s game. He’s a talented player who lacks a sharp command of his process from beginning to end. If he can tighten up those loose strings, he’ll become a sharp player. If not, they’re the types of threads that can unravel the stitching of the entire suit.
Think of it this way: Mack has the skills to impress during training camp, deliver during the preseason, and when the buzz is strongest, he begins making little mistakes that lead to enough “almost, but not enough” plays that the staff becomes impatient with Mack and Mack either builds on these “almost but not enough” to break through the ceiling on his game or it costs him his confidence.
Jauan Jennings: The shocker of the week for me was Jennings tipping the scales at 206 pounds after watching a player whose blocking, ball carrying, and physicality at the catch point reminded me of options like Brandon Marshall and Anquan Boldin. This revelation didn’t stop Jennings from playing physically during practice. He didn’t dominate at the catch-point but he showed the wherewithal and comfort in tight spaces to generate second-chance opportunities on the football.
Jennings forced defenders to play handsy-grabby coverage on him more than any receiver I saw this week. Even if he didn’t win these matchups consistently, it’s a notable positive about his game despite the shocking weigh-in result. Perhaps I have to tailor back my comparison for Jennings to that of Jarvis Landry or Hines Ward are around 205 pounds. Ward held up well in an even more physical era of football.
Jennings—whose speed, acceleration, and change of direction are likely “good enough” but not early-round great—may fit this range of comparison more than Boldin or Marshall. It will depend on how much muscle he can add to his frame. This is not my area of expertise. All I can say is that Jennings was muscular but in a wiry way that may not promote additional bulk.
Collin Johnson: Unlikley a blazer, Johnson shows enough quickness and precision with isolated routes in the underneath game that he can set up defenders with these routes to earn separation on deep routes. He has the size and strength to power past smaller cornerbacks, which makes me think he can be an asset for the Honey-Hole shots between Cover 2, dig routes, and vertical routes that break at 20-35 yards.
Think of Johnson as a player in the spectrum of possession-plus options like Big Mike Williams of the Lions-Seahawks, Dwayne Bowe, Mike Williams of the Chargers, and Roy Williams.
Van Jefferson: Anyone who watched Jefferson at Florida knows he’s a top technician as a route runner. Less apparent is his ability to win the ball in traffic and make adjustments to the football. He showed enough this week as a pass-catcher that it reinforced some of the isolated exposures I saw of his on tape that were promising.
Jefferson’s testing at the Combine and how physical he can become against NFL defenders will determine the height of his potential for the NFL. At best, he displays the physicality, speed, quickness, and change of direction speed of a long-time starter. At worst, he’s a technician who does his best work against off-man and zone coverage and only sees time in multiple-receiver sets.
Devin Duvernay: He wins with speed and physicality and we saw the speed during practices. The physicality is apparent on tape. The technique to defeat press coverage was absent this week as was the consistency at the catch point against physical coverage.
There were moments as a route runner with his footwork against off-coverage. Duvernay likely impresses at the Combine and there may be a team that falls for him as a second- or third-day prospect who they think can deliver in specific sets like Deebo Samuel.
Kalija Lipscomb: He’s a smart player who will fight for the ball and earn separation early in a route with his quickness but he’s not physical, he lacks the speed to pull away from opponents in the deep game, and I still need some convincing from his tape that offers potential as a highly productive NFL slot receiver. I see a slot player fighting for a reserve spot.
Harrison Bryant: The move tight end from Florida Atlantic reinforced that he’s a smooth receiver with some growth potential as an intermediate option. He must improve against physical coverage but there are signs of skill to develop in this arena.
The most exciting part of his Senior Bowl week came as a pass protector. Bryant showed lateral quickness and potential to develop into a better blocker than he currently is. Many writers seek players who dominate practices as “winners” for the week. However, I think Bryant won this week because of showing what he could become.
Stephen Sullivan: With Thad Moss ahead of Sullivan at LSU and Foster Moreau starting for the Tigers in 2017-18, Sullivan didn’t see much of the field. His performance in Mobile is a great example of a when a player’s work can result in significant and justifiable movement of his draft stock.
I’m not telling you Sullivan has vaulted from UDFA material to Day 1 status, but his route running, blocking, and hands were all good enough to earn him a draftable grade—and lead me to believe he has potential to see significant playing time in the NFL one day. He was arguably the most impressive tight end on the field this week.
Josiah Deguara: While Sullivan was the most explosive tight end of the lot, Deguara wasn’t far behind. However, Deguara wasn’t as consistent as a pass-catcher or blocker. Deguara performed well against edge rushers but struggled against speed-to-power reps. I still like his tape but the inconsistency is an issue and the difference between what his value could have been and what it is now (likely mid-to-late rounds, at best).
Jared Pinkney: The best things about Pinkney are that he’s smooth, strong, reliable, and technically-sound as a blocker, route-runner, and pass-catcher. These were all apparent from the film.
What really showed up this week in Mobile wasn’t positive—Pinkney looks sluggish compared to the other options in this class. He could not sustain separation on linebackers and safeties on routes covering more than 15 yards from the line of scrimmage. I have serious doubts he’ll threaten seams in the NFL when facing man coverage.
If Pinkney finds his way onto an offense that uses alignments to force zone, he could be a high-volume producer within 15 yards of the line. If the offense wants a run-blocker in tight confines who can work the shallow zones off play-action, he can be that guy, too. Otherwise, he’s did not look like a dynamic all-around threat.
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