With the football-loving world still buzzing with Sunday’s compelling (and controversial) NFL conference championship games, the attention will shift this week away from the excitement in Foxboro and Los Angeles and heartbreak in New Orleans and Kansas City to the sleepy gulf town of Mobile, Ala. for the annual Senior Bowl, the most prestigious amateur all-star game in modern sports and a mecca for scouts, media and top-rated prospects for the 2019 draft.
Like the draft, itself, coverage of the Senior Bowl has changed greatly since my first trip there, back in 2001 – when future All-Pros LaDainian Tomlinson, Chad Johnson, Reggie Wayne, Steve Hutchinson and Kris Jenkins provided those paying attention a glimpse into the future.
The perspective of having attended senior all-star games like that one for nearly 20 years is precisely what separates my own analysis (and that from NFLDraftScout.com, as a whole) from the competition.
As such, here in descending order is my 10 Bold Predictions of what will take place over the next few days at the Senior Bowl and how it will impact the 2019 NFL draft.
10. Duke QB Daniel Jones takes a big steps towards becoming the draft’s top QB
Former NFL general manager Scot McCloughan told our listeners on the Instinctive Scouting Podcast that he believes Jones will answer all questions about his arm strength this week in Mobile, just as the quarterback he helped the Cleveland Browns decide on – Baker Mayfield – did last year. Jones currently ranks second on NFLDraftScout.com’s (and my own) board to Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins and just ahead of Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray, neither of whom are participating this week.
9. Weigh-in winners will include Wyoming’s Carl Granderson, Washington’s Kaleb McGary
While the heavily-attended practices on Tuesday and Wednesday are the most critical element to boosting one’s stock at the Senior Bowl – even more than the game, itself – the weigh-ins provide prospects a wonderful chance at making a first impression. Many of the scouts and coaches attending the game will have not seen these players live before and measuring in well can create a buzz. Scouts out west know the twitchy long-limbed Granderson and prototypically built right tackle McGary well – and so will everyone else.
8. Defensive line talent dominates from the get-go
Stop me if you’ve heard this before but this year’s defensive line class is truly a remarkable collection of talent and that extends to the Senior Bowl. Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat and Boston College’s Zach Allen are legitimate first round prospects with Granderson, Iowa’s Anthony Nelson, Old Dominion’s Oshane Ximines capable of jumping into the mix with impressive performances this week.
7. Arizona State’s Renell Wren flies up the board
The apples to apples comparison all-star games provide is especially important for small-schoolers like D-II defensive end John Kaminsky (Charleston) and the “Aaron Donald of the FCS,” Khalen Saunders of Western Illinois. While film review shows that each are legitimately draftable commodities, experience tells me that each could struggle to quickly acclimate to the greater talent they’ll see in Mobile. If you’re looking for a true sleeper likelier to turn the heads of scouts during drills, keep Wren in mind. Physically imposing and possessing as quick a first step as any of this year’s interior defensive linemen, Wren will provide Nikon-at-night-like flashes this week.
6. DBs Nasir Adderley, Amani Oruwariye, Lonnie Johnson will prove buzz-worthy in drills
While the defensive line and quarterbacks will get most of the attention, Jim Nagy and his staff have assembled a very intriguing crop of defensive backs this year, as well. Teams looking for a long press corner will want to check out Kentucky’s Johnson and every club in the league will be watching Adderley and Oruwariye, two loose-hipped and highly athletic defenders with plus size and ball-skills.
5. SEC standouts Drew Lock, Jarrett Stidham prove best of so-called second tier QBs
As mentioned previously, Duke’s Jones is currently viewed as the best of the Senior Bowl’s quarterbacks but the pecking order behind him is much less settled. Expect that to change this week with Missouri’s Drew Lock and Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham “suddenly” proving more accurate now that they’ll be throwing to more reliable route-runners and pass-catchers. Washington State’s Gardner Minshew II and West Virginia's Will Grier are great stories and each possesses the accuracy and touch to also succeed here but they’ll need to get the ball out fast as they will not often see the clean pocket in Mobile they often experienced in their Air-Raid offenses at home.
4. Weak senior RB class boosted by NFLPA Collegiate Bowl call-up Wes Hills
After consecutive brilliant RB classes the past two seasons, the 2019 crop is as weak as we’ve seen in years, with juniors Josh Jacobs (Alabama) and Trayveon Williams (Texas A&M) the only backs to earn top 50 grades on my personal Big Board and none of the backs playing in this game expected to earn anything higher than mid-Day Three consideration. NFLDraftScout.com’s Ric Serritella attended the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl practices and reported that “no improved their draft stock more this week” than Hills, an opinion clearly shared by Nagy and his staff. At a confirmed 6-0, 213 pounds, Hills offers legitimate size to go along with speed, power and good hands out of the backfield. His perceived upside makes him the one to watch among this year’s Senior Bowl running backs.
3. NIU’s Sutton Smith is this year’s position switcher to watch
Quick as a hiccup, Smith was among the national leaders in both tackles for loss (26.5) and sacks (15) this season, earning a much-deserved invitation to the Senior Bowl. Officially listed by the Huskies at 6-1, 238 pounds, however, he will almost surely be asked to switch positions in the NFL – just as the former running back did when making the move strictly to defense when signing with NIU. Smith’s agility, awareness and high-revving motor could lead to success as a more traditional off-ball linebacker, making him one of this year’s must-see prospects.
2. Former top recruit Byron Cowart finally starts to live up to his hype
One of the few players who will have even more eyes (and ears) on him this week than Smith is Maryland’s Cowart, who is making his return to the state of Alabama after transferring from Auburn a little more than a year ago. Ranked by some recruiting experts as the No. 1 overall prospect in the country when he signed with Auburn four years ago, Cowart clearly failed to live up to expectations with his statistics at Maryland (38 tackles, five tackles for loss, two sacks two interceptions) this season hardly eye-popping, either. The raw power and size (he’s now a chiseled 290+ pounds) is still there, however, and Cowart has shown maturity and resiliency in re-building his reputation. A splashy week in Mobile and we could be talking about Cowart as a to 100 prospect all over again, much to the chagrin of a lot of Auburn fans.
1. Jones and Sweat will be drafted first from this game
Proving yet again the value of the game’s most important position, Duke’s quarterback Daniel Jones will be the first offensive player drafted from this game with Mississippi State edge rusher Montez Sweat my pick to be the first defender selected.