The path to the 2017 NFL Draft has begun. Now that we've passed the Senior Bowl, draft season will turn things up a notch. While the game itself is a great way to showcase one's skills (ask East Carolina's Zay Jones), it's the practices in the run up to the actual contest that are the focus of most of the scouts and NFL executives in attendance. If NFL teams are paying attention, then it's probably smart for astute fantasy players to take notice as well. Along those lines, here are six players who helped their draft stock last week in Mobile with some (very) early idea on whether they could potentially be impact fantasy option in 2017.
Matthew Dayes, RB, North Carolina State
Overview: Dayes was a do-it-all player for the Wolfpack, working effectively as both a runner and a receiver during his tenure in Raleigh. In his final season, Dayes was the primary runner but also finished fourth on the team with 32 receptions (the second time in three seasons that he recorded more than 30 catches). He might not be great in any one particular area, but has proven to be pretty good at a number of things.
Practice reports: Running backs didn't get a ton of mention during the week, but Dayes was one of the guys who earned plaudits from observers. He entered the week as a potential mid-round draft pick but may have moved up a few boards with a solid week of practice.
Senior Bowl statistics: 7 rush, 66 yards, TD
Early projection: Dayes will need to post big numbers at the combine if he wants to move up to being an early Day 2 or late Day 1 guy. More realistically, he'll be a committee back early in his career. If Dayes can earn a consistent role, he'll be an intriguing dynasty prospect.
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
Overview: As yet another example of the embarrassment of riches that exists in the Alabama football program, the ultra-talented O.J. Howard was just the team's third-leading receiver -- and arguably its fifth-best offensive option -- in 2016. In an era where so many teams are seeking a "Move" tight end, Nick Saban had one stashed away in Tuscaloosa. Howard did show up big in the Tide's biggest games, tallying nine catches for 314 yards and three touchdowns in Alabama's last two national championship appearances (accounting for 18.2 percent of his career receiving yards).
Practice reports: No one did more to solidify his draft standing during the week than Howard. The prevailing idea heading to Mobile was that he was the top tight end in this year's class. Nothing that he put on tape this week disproved that notion. In fact, the only real question was "why didn't Alabama use him more?"
Senior Bowl statistics: 4 rec, 39 yards
Early projection: Say it with me ... rookie tight ends rarely make an impact in fantasy. However, that changed slightly last season with Hunter Henry and even Austin Hooper making splash plays. Howard looks like he could be the next in that line and should draw interest in all formats.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington
Overview: Kupp entered the week as something of a sleeper prospect because of his decision to play at a small school. Nonetheless, he had some of his biggest games against top level competition which should erase any doubts that he can succeed against NFL-level talent. There are still questions to be answered. After spending most of his college career as a big (6-foot-2) slot receiver, can he potentially transition to the outside? How will he fare versus press coverage after seeing free releases continually from opposing defenses? Those questions might not be fully answered until he takes snaps in an NFL training camp.
Practice reports: Kupp was the belle of the Senior Bowl ball during the week's practices. If you've been following the reports from Mobile on Twitter, it was nearly impossible not to see all manners of glowing reports on Kupp's work.
Oh my Cooper Kupp. The Eastern Washington WR has been great this week pic.twitter.com/vWvOnm6Sj8â Joe Buscaglia (@JoeBuscaglia) January 26, 2017
EWU WR Cooper Kupp really helping himself at @seniorbowl. If he runs well at combine, possible he sneaks into Round 1.â Gil Brandt (@Gil_Brandt) January 25, 2017
Senior Bowl statistics: 2 rec, 14 yards, 1 rush, 0 yards
Early projection: Anyone seeking deep fantasy sleepers should be on alert for Kupp's work at the combine. If he can land on a team with a good quarterback, he could have some late-round intrigue in plenty of re-draft leagues and should certainly garner serious consideration in dynasty formats.
Nathan Peterman, QB, Pittsburgh
Overview: On tape, Peterman looks pretty average in just about every way possible. Then again the same could be said of the Pitt passing game in 2017. The Panthers ranked 76th (out of 128 FBS teams) with 221.7 passing yards per game. Some of that is laid at the feet of a pass-catching group that didn't have any player catch more than 36 passes in 2016. A name that came up multiple times during Peterman's evaluations this week was Kirk Cousins. In some ways it makes sense. Peterman doesn't really pop on tape, but he rarely does things to hurt the offense (27 TD, two INT in 2016). He also helmed one of college football's highest-scoring offenses, ranking 10th with 40.9 points per game. Maybe he is Kirk Cousins, after all.
Practice reports: The consensus coming out of Mobile was that the quarterbacks underwhelmed. But Peterman was consistently heralded as the best of the bunch. With guys like DeShone Kizer, Deshaun Watson and Mitch Trubisky not in attendance, Peterman used the opportunity to gain more attention for himself.
From the North practice, Nathan Peterman is the best QB out there. Hands down.â Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 25, 2017
Nathan Peterman/QB/Pitt once again North's best signal-caller. Leads receivers into YAC and puts ball where only WR can get #SeniorBowlâ Draft Analyst (@DraftAnalyst1) January 25, 2017
Senior Bowl statistics: 16/23, 153 yards, TD
Early projection: As is the case with all of the quarterbacks who came to Mobile, Peterman isn't quite ready for an NFL starting gig. But a solid combine could boost his NFL Draft stock higher into the second day (or possibly the first) and give him a shot to compete for reps. But for the moment, it's hard to see any immediate fantasy impact here.
Taywan Taylor, WR, Western Kentucky
Overview: Which of Taywan Taylor's eye-popping numbers from his senior season would you like to talk about first? His 98 catches were tied for fifth-most nationally. His 1,730 receiving yards were third-most while his 17 receiving scores were tied for third-most. No matter how you slice it, Taylor was an explosive playmaker during his stay at Western Kentucky.
Practice reports: Taylor's ability to get open as a deep threat was a big part of the reason Western Kentucky was the highest-scoring team in the nation. That route-running ability was on display last week, something that not even a few drops could dampen.
Taywan Taylor/WR/Western Kentucky continuing strong week with smooth, sharp routes and nice catches in constested situations #SeniorBowlâ Draft Analyst (@DraftAnalyst1) January 26, 2017
Senior Bowl statistics:< 1 rec, 14 yards/p>
Early projection: Taylor's size is going to relegate him to a slot receiver's duties at the next level but he has shown that he has the skillset to be a success in that role. Some scouts might knock him for some of his drops (which is understandable), but there is the potential for Taylor to find a gig. It's hard to envision that he'll have any re-draft value and might only be a late-round dynasty pick.
Trent Taylor, WR, Louisiana Tech
Overview: The first (and probably second and third) thing you'll read and hear about Taylor has to do with his size. At 5-foot-8 and 177 pounds, Taylor isn't going to draw comparisons to Mike Evans, but his numbers at Louisiana Tech were impossible to ignore. In his final season in Ruston, Taylor snagged 136 passes for 1,803 yards and 12 touchdowns working primarily as a slot receiver.
Practice reports: When you watch Taylor on tape, he proved very difficult to cover out of the slot. That translated to Senior Bowl practices when his suddenness in routes made him a matchup nightmare for just about everyone he faced.
#LATech WR Trent Taylor is such a polished route runner...it's a shame he's 5'7". Running as clean (if not cleaner routes) than Kuppâ Cole Thompson (@ColeThompson32) January 25, 2017
Senior Bowl statistics: 1 rec, 20 yards
Early projection: There's pretty much no chance that Taylor can aspire to be anything other than a slot receiver in the NFL. And that's not even a role that you can reasonably expect him to grab right away. He could excel in the right system, but in the short term, he'll likely have to make his mark on special teams as a returner. It's hard to imagine any real fantasy value in 2017.