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Pro Day Takeaways

With no NFL Combine taking place this year, the Pro Day workouts being held on college campuses across America in recent days have taken on added importance.

And while getting over-excited about guys running around with their shirts off and throwing without pads and helmets can be a dangerous thing, there is no doubt that some star players really helped their cause ahead of the NFL Draft which takes place in Cleveland April 29 to May 1.

Here are some of my key takeaways following the Pro Day circuits…

Don't believe all the hype!

Let's get my moany old man, get off my lawn complaint out of the way early. While they make incredible social media clips, don't get too hyped up about the roll to the left, fadeaway 60-yard bombs thrown by the likes of BYU's Zach Wilson and Ohio State's Justin Fields.

We all get excited about these types of throws because they look so unusual and they rely on some impressive arm strength. They also build on the narrative that right-handed quarterbacks are more comfortable rolling to their right and throwing. So, we think pulling off something that goes against the grain is truly stunning.

The reality is that the majority of quarterbacks find that to be an easier throw, rolling to the left, squaring up the shoulders and then throwing downfield. If you don't believe me, let's go to an expert who has a horse in the race, so to speak.

Renowned quarterback coach Quincy Avery, who has been preparing North Dakota State's Trey Lance for the draft, said as much on social media as he wrote: "One takeaway from Pro Day season. No one's gonna run to their throwing arm side, fade away and throw a ball. Because it's easier to throw on the run to the left than the right. I'm about to have some 11th graders do this today. It's easier to throw far running this way!"

Believe this hype!

Having just told you not to buy the hype, I'm now about to go fully overboard regarding the spectacular Pro Day workout of Zach Wilson out of Brigham Young University.

Wilson put together a highlights package when it came to his throws and he showcased the movement required in today's NFL. More than half his throws came on the move, painting himself as the perfect modern-day passer.

But here is where I'm firing up the hype train a little too much, by my own admission. When I watched the ball come out with such velocity and fly through the air at such speed it was hard to track it at times, Wilson reminded me of one very famous quarterback indeed… Brett Favre!

I don't see Wilson falling past the New York Jets with the second pick.

Jones on the rise

There was a time not all that long ago when Alabama's national championship-winning quarterback Mac Jones was being considered a mid-round selection and somebody who was definitely positioned behind the likes of Ohio State's Justin Fields.

But Jones' stock has risen dramatically and it does seem he is in play for the San Francisco 49ers with the third overall pick. He missed on some throws during his two workouts but most of them were on deep attempts and he missed long, which is better than coming up short and getting picked off.

Jones, who threw 41 touchdown passes and just four interceptions in the 2020 season, is viewed as a pocket passer but he made a point of ripping some off-platform throws and on-the-move passes during his Pro Day, showing he can be more versatile and valuable to a team at the pro level.

Other Alabama players helped their cause

It's not all about the quarterbacks when it comes to these Pro Days. These get-togethers can sometimes be an opportunity for general managers, coaches and scouts to get to know the players personally. And that is doubly important this year with no interviews being conducted in person at the cancelled NFL Combine.

Alabama running back Najee Harris rushed for 1,466 yards and scored 30 touchdowns in 2020 but he helped his draft stock without even stepping on the field in Birmingham. Harris was due to fly from Dallas to Alabama to cheer on his teammates as he recovered from injury. But his flight was cancelled due to lightning and Harris was out of flight options. Undeterred, he drove nine hours through the night to be with his teammates the next day. That is the kind of character NFL locker rooms cry out for.

Patrick Surtain II – son of former Miami Dolphins Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Surtain – helped his first-round cause with a strong on-field workout and incredible measurables. He looks like a true number one corner.

Running for fun

Some of the 40-yard dash times during this Pro Day season have been stunning. Players seem to be more prepared than ever for the drills they are performing in front of NFL scouts. Now, that doesn't mean everything in pure football terms because you still have to go back and watch the game film.

But we are entering a different world, for sure. When I first started covering the NFL, teams would get excited about a wide receiver running the 40-yard sprint in 4.4 seconds. We would write article upon article hailing a particular receiver as having "sprinter's speed."

Now, that is the time being run by some of these quarterbacks with Ohio State's Fields clocking in at 4.4 seconds. I have a hard time picturing the likes of Dan Marino, Joe Montana and Troy Aikman coming anywhere close to that kind of time. In no way does it mean Fields will reach the heady heights of the three legends I have just mentioned, but it is a sign of the growing athleticism of players entering the league.

The mismatch nightmare

There is so much to like about Kyle Pitts, who is sure to be a top 10 pick coming out of the University of Florida. But what is he? He gets listed as a tight end but moves and plays more like a big-bodied, Calvin Johnson-type wide receiver.

Pitts is an example of the NFL's move towards position-less players. Hybrid tight ends and receivers, covered by guys who cannot be described as a linebacker or a safety… someone like Carolina's Jeremy Chinn, who shone so brightly in 2020.

At 6-foot-6 and 245 pounds with an 83-inch wingspan, Pitts is going to win his share of jump balls and be able to cope with reeling in the football with a defender on his back. But he also ran the 40-yard sprint in 4.44 seconds, displayed quick feet and the game film shows he is equally comfortable on the end of the line, in the slot or out wide. He is not a tight end. He is not a wide receiver. He looks like an uncoverable weapon.

International Player Pathway prospects show their worth

The Florida Gators Pro Day also allowed the 11 athletes currently competing for spots on the NFL's International Player Pathway program to showcase their talents.

While the successful participants will be allocated season-long practice squad spots on NFL teams, they can throw themselves into the NFL Draft picture with a strong Pro Day workout. German receiver and tight end Moritz Boehringer was a sixth-round draft choice of the Minnesota Vikings in 2016, while Australian tackle Jordan Mailata was taken in round seven of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Philadelphia Eagles.

So, who will follow in the footsteps of successful Player Pathway graduates such as Mailata, Buffalo Bills defensive end Efe Obada and New England Patriots fullback Jakob Johnson?

Japanese running back Taku Lee had "a terrific day" according to five-time NFL Executive of the Year, Scott Pioli. And 6-foot-6 former basketball player Sammis Reyes, working to become a tight end out of Chile, also turned heads and earned several special mentions on NFL Network.