Former NFL player and scout Bucky Brooks knows the ins and outs of this league, providing keen insight in his notebook. This week's edition is completely dedicated to one of the most important events of the pre-draft process ...
MOBILE, Ala. -- The Senior Bowl is viewed as the premier college all-star game due to the exceptional collection of talent on display in Mobile, Alabama. NFL coaches, general managers and scouts pay close attention to how prospects perform in an environment that pits elites vs. elites in every drill. Considering how much stock evaluators put into this week, I'd like to highlight this week's standouts -- and explore how their play here could impact their draft stock going forward. Here are my thoughts:
Who could be the next Daniel Jones?
The 2019 Senior Bowl helped Daniel Jones emerge as a surprise top-10 pick a year ago. This time around, the event could help Oregon's Justin Herbert and Utah State's Jordan Love crack the top 15 on draft night, despite the question marks around their respective games following so-so final seasons. Herbert has been the most consistent quarterback in attendance during the practice week, exhibiting all of the prototypical traits scouts covet in QB1s. Checking in at 6-foot-6 and 227 pounds with 10-inch hands, Herbert is a natural thrower with surprising movement skills and athleticism. The former Duck is an easy mover inside and outside of the pocket, and he flashes enough running ability to handle some of the zone-read and bootleg concepts that more NFL teams are featuring prominently in the playbook nowadays. Throwing the ball, Herbert has impressed scouts with his arm strength and overall arm talent, as he has routinely delivered strikes to his receivers on the perimeter. Herbert has shown good anticipation and timing on rhythm throws while also showcasing consistent ball placement throughout the week.
Love has been a steady climber throughout the week, with his performance improving daily. The 6-foot-3, 223-pound gunslinger has demanded the full attention of evaluators with his unique combination of blue-chip arm talent and enticing athleticism. Love can deliver spectacular throws from various arm angles and platforms, which has led some scouts to tout him as a potential Patrick Mahomes-like playmaker at the next level. While that is a lofty comparison, I can certainly see why evaluators are intrigued by his talent and potential after watching him drop some dimes in seven-on-seven and team drills. Although Love has been a little inconsistent with his ball placement and touch, he possesses enough natural talent to make you believe his game can be improved with detailed coaching at the next level. An imaginative coordinator could build an offense around his skill set that would allow Love to enjoy immediate success as a young starter, like some of his so-called "raw" predecessors, including Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen and Lamar Jackson. Considering Love's eye-catching flashes throughout the practice week, the Utah State product could go sooner than expected in April.
Javon Kinlaw put on a show
If NFL scouts conducted a draft with only the 2020 Senior Bowl participants, Kinlaw would be the consensus No. 1 pick. The 6-5, 315-pound defensive lineman has been a one-man wrecking crew in drills, displaying an exceptional combination of strength, power and athleticism while pummeling blockers in one-on-one and team exercises. Kinlaw not only flashes his brute strength with jiujitsu-like hand skills, but he is explosive off the ball and his first-step quickness is problematic when he's given the freedom to play as a one-gap penetrator at the line of scrimmage. Although Kinlaw lined up primarily over the center or guard at South Carolina, he displayed enough athleticism to play as a 5-technique aligned opposite an offensive tackle in a 3-4 front. If I'm a team in need of an interior defender with a game that's similar to Pro Bowler Chris Jones, the conversation begins and ends with Kinlaw. Although the former Gamecock will not be participating in the game on Saturday -- he's sitting out with tendinitis in one of his knees, likely for precautionary reasons -- Kinlaw cemented himself as a first-round pick in Mobile.
The book on highly impressive WR Van Jefferson
The past few Senior Bowls have delivered some instant-impact pass catchers to the NFL. Guys like Deebo Samuel, Terry McLaurin and Cooper Kupp dazzled in Mobile, came off the board in Day 2 of the draft and quickly emerged as blue-chip-caliber playmakers for their respective squads. The next underrated Senior Bowl wideout to watch: Florida's Van Jefferson. The 6-1, 197-pounder is the most polished receiver in this group, and he dominated defensive backs with his crafty route-running skills all week. Jefferson's combination of patience, balance, body control and slick releases keeps defenders on their heels, and his explosive stop-start quickness leads to consistent separation at the top of the route. With Jefferson also displaying strong hands and exceptional ball skills, it is easy to envision him fitting into a system that places a premium on route running on the perimeter. Moreover, Jefferson's package of skills could enable him to become a rookie starter for a team looking for a consistent WR2 opposite an established lead receiver.
Two big-time tight end prospects from small schools
Super Bowl LIV will feature the two best tight ends in the game today, with Travis Kelce and George Kittle lining up for the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers, respectively. Studying the position at the Senior Bowl, you might want to keep your eyes on a pair of small-school guys: Florida Atlantic's Harrison Bryant and Dayton's Adam Trautman.
Bryant, the John Mackey Award winner, was the most impressive route runner on the roster. He moves around like a jumbo-sized receiver, exhibiting outstanding balance, body control, agility and quickness while blowing past defenders on vertical and intermediate routes. Bryant's subtle acceleration and burst catch defenders off guard, as he routinely wins on post routes and corners down the field. As a big-bodied pass catcher (6-4, 242 pounds) with strong hands and ball skills, he has the potential to emerge as a reliable chain mover in an offense that features the tight end prominently in third-down and red-zone packages. As a blocker, Bryant is a sticky position blocker with the desire and temperament to be effective as a flex or H-back on the edges.
Trautman could finish the pre-draft process ranked as the most complete tight end in the class, based on his combination of playmaking skills and blocking ability as an edge player. The 6-foot-5, 251-pounder is a well-rounded player with the combination of skills (hands, ball skills, athleticism, strength and blocking ability) to be a traditional tight end, which is a rare commodity in 2020. He has the capacity to move defenders off the ball on the edges, while also displaying enough athleticism and quickness to get to the second level. Trautman's scrappiness will serve him well as an in-line TE in the NFL. As a pass catcher, the former Dayton star is a fluid mover with superb route-running skills and sticky hands. He shows an uncanny knack for creating separation and also dazzled scouts with his ability to come down with 50-50 balls in traffic. Considering how a number of quarterbacks prefer targeting the tight end at intermediate and short range, Trautman's emergence as a standout in Mobile could lead to a substantial rise up the charts.
Will OT Josh Jones get a major Senior Bowl bounce?
Last year, Alabama State OT Tytus Howard worked his way into the first round, thanks in no small part to a strong performance at the Senior Bowl. I don't know if Josh Jones will crack the Round 1 barrier, but the Houston offensive tackle has certainly climbed the charts with a solid performance on the turf at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The 6-5, 311-pound edge blocker looked like a natural blind-side protector in drills. Jones plays with balance and shows outstanding body control, deftly kick-sliding and mirroring pass rushers off the edge. He shows a strong stab and punch when he engages, and his ability to work his hands and feet in unison gives him a chance to stalemate hard-charging pass rushers off the edge.
As a run blocker, Jones displays enough athleticism, agility and body control to be effective in a zone-based scheme that requires offensive linemen to wall off linebackers on the second level. He also capably cuts off defensive ends on runs away from him, while showing enough strength and power to move defenders off the ball on the edge. Although he isn't a dominant people mover on the edge, he is effective and that's good enough to make him a solid fit in a variety of systems, particularly one that features the zone scheme.
When comparing Jones to some of the underclassman OTs in the draft, I believe his experience and consistency could set him apart. He played in a pass-centric offense at Houston that provided him with the opportunity to get as many reps as possible kick-sliding and handling swift rushers off the edge. Jones finished his collegiate career with 1,200-plus pass-blocking reps in three seasons, which is why he is so consistent and poised facing pass rushers on this big evaluation stage. With Jones winning the overwhelming majority of those reps, the NFL scouting community might want to revisit their fall grades on the Houston star.
Two late risers on defense
Prior to this week, UCLA's Darnay Holmes was a lightly regarded prospect due to his inconsistent play and injury history, but the former sought-after recruit has changed the narrative with an excellent week of practice. After watching him dazzle in drills, I believe the 5-10, 192-pound defender could be the best slot corner in the draft. Holmes' footwork, athleticism, competitiveness and instincts make him an ideal nickel back in most schemes, particularly with defensive coordinators searching for cover corners with the capacity to match up with the Julian Edelman/Cole Beasley types in the slot.
Keep an eye on North Carolina's Jason Strowbridge as a potential late riser in the process following his performance in Mobile. The 6-4, 267-pound defensive end created quite the buzz in scouting circles with his play throughout the week. Evaluators raved about his quickness, athleticism and versatility, as he routinely blew past edge blockers in drills. Strowbridge's first-step quickness and burst stood out when evaluating his college tape, and his array of moves (speed rush, bull rush and spin move) could make him a disruptive force in a scheme that puts him in a position to play on the move. With the UNC standout also having experience at defensive tackle, he could see his value rise as a potential chess piece for a team employing a "NASCAR" scheme (four speed rushers on the field at the same time) in nickel situations.