Every Senior Bowl player you need to know: Offense
Steve Palazzolo runs through PFF's notes on the country's top offensive draft prospects.
Every Senior Bowl player you need to know: Offense
In what has become the premier event in-between championship weekend and the Super Bowl, Senior Bowl week is upon us and it’s a great look into the future of the NFL. While one week of practice and a few game reps does not make or break a prospect’s future, the opportunity to validate thousands of college snaps with the entire NFL watching closely is invaluable.
With PFF working hand-in-hand with the Senior Bowl, it’s also a great chance to get an in-person look at prospects we’ve graded on those thousands of snaps. Our evaluation process is always ongoing (be sure to check out our live blog once practices begin), and while the larger sample size from the film room is most important, Senior Bowl week is just another part of the process.
The draft class is not top-heavy at quarterback, but there are a number of mid-round options and many of them will be on display in Mobile. The hype surrounding North Dakota State’s Carson Wentz is real, and he has the physical tools to wow the league this week to solidify his first-round projections. While we don’t have all of his data, a first-look grading of his seven games from this year showed more good than bad, and certainly displayed his great size, arm, and athleticism. The one takeaway from watching is that he has the downfield throwing ability to win a game for his team, but also the questionable decision making to lose one.
Beyond Wentz, Arkansas QB Brandon Allen had a strong finish to the season including two monster games against the Mississippi schools (Ole Miss and Mississippi State). He finished at No. 12 overall among quarterbacks and No. 3 since Week 8, so he has a chance to impress with his quick release and accuracy. Two former Florida quarterbacks, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett, will be on display as Driskel looks to prove that in impressive senior year was a sign of development rather than competition level playing for Louisiana Tech while Brissett has impressed more with his legs than with his arm the last two seasons.
Allen’s competition for top quarterback in the SEC was Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott who made strides as a passer this season, but like Brissett, is trying to prove that he’s more than just a short-yardage run threat. Finally Alabama’s Jake Coker and Stanford’s Kevin Hogan also resemble their peers as they improved in their senior season, especially Hogan. That’s the story of the class as this group of signal callers looks to prove that they can continue their development on the way to the NFL.
It’s difficult for running backs to turn heads during practice, so they have to make the most of their game opportunities. The one running back that looks poised to impress is Louisiana Tech’s Kenneth Dixon, whose receiving ability should even make a mark during practices. He’s electric in space, able to make defenders miss (elusive rating of 99.2 ranks second in draft class) while making plays as a receiver out of the backfield and out of the slot.
The rest of the running backs are similar as there’s more scat back than every-down bruiser among this year’s invites.
There will be a few wide receivers vying for first-round consideration, namely Rutgers’ Leontee Carroo and Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard. Carroo was outstanding this season, grading at +17.0 on only 360 snaps after a +20.0 effort last year. His downfield acceleration should get some hype this week and he has only two drops on 157 targets the last two years. Shepard topped our grading this season, doing most of his damage out of the slot with excellent route running. Size may be the knock that keeps Shepard out of the first round, but his shiftiness and downfield tracking ability make him better-rounded than many will admit.
The other intriguing early-round types include Michigan State’s Aaron Burbridge who broke out this season to a +22.1 grade and Georgia’s Malcolm Mitchell (+15.7). Burbridge was one of the nation’s most efficient downfield threats, catching 64.0 percent of his targets. Mitchell has flown under the radar, but he was productive despite uneven quarterback play. He reminds of Robert Woods with perhaps a little more speed and downfield ball skills.
Among the other options, Baylor’s Jay Lee and UCLA’s Jordan Payton have a chance to impress, though in different ways. Lee has size and speed, but coming out of Baylor’s high-octane system, he’s run only a handful of routes. Payton may not wow with his athleticism, but he was UCLA’s go-to guy and incredibly productive at +27.3 overall.
While inline blocking at the tight end position is not flashy, South Carolina’s Jerrell Adams is one of the best in the draft class. He held his own against defensive ends all season, the only question being if it was true development or an anomaly after a nondescript 2014. He wasn’t used often in the passing game, but managed to average 15.0 yards per reception while forcing 10 missed tackles, tied for fifth among the nation’s tight ends. With more volume and a better quarterback situation, Adams may have more hype heading into the week.
Tying him with 10 missed tackles forced of his own is Western Kentucky’s Tyler Higbee who is one of the better receiving options in the class. He gives underneath defenders trouble with his speed and he looks like more of a move tight end that can create matchup issues for the defense.
Perhaps the most interesting position at the Senior Bowl, a number of offensive tackles have a chance to make a move up draft boards. Without going into a diatribe about the overvaluing of left tackles once again, the fact is, a smooth kick step and 34.5-inch arm length is more likely to inspire a first-round grade than quality of on-field play. And that’s where we have issue with this class, and last year’s for that matter, as we’ve yet to see dominant offensive tackle play in two years of grading. As for this class, they all come with various strengths and weaknesses.
Washington State’s Joe Dahl has already gotten the business about his scrawny arms, but he can mirror pass rushers at left tackle and posted our top pass protection grade each of the last two seasons. Washington State’s scheme certainly helps, he’s quite susceptible to the bull rush, and he’s limited as a run blocker, but that’s a near-identical profile to Green Bay left tackle David Bakhtiari who has done more good than bad as a pass blocker in his three seasons. A move to guard due to arm length issues would exacerbate Dahl’s weaknesses and lose his strength which is handling outside speed rushers.
Texas Tech’s Le’Raven Clark may be best-suited to tick the proper boxes to impress scouts, but he’s been a better run blocker than pass blocker the last two years and he struggled mightily against the speed of LSU true freshman, Arden Key, in their bowl game.
The two intriguing names that did show all-around production are Kansas State’s Cody Whitehair and Baylor’s Spencer Drango. They topped our grades this year, though Baylor’s scheme helped Drango a bit. Both players are getting a look at both guard and tackle, with Drango perhaps a better fit for a man blocking/power scheme while Whitehair is a smooth mover likely better fit for a zone scheme. Whitehair, in particular, deserves a chance to hang at tackle where he can mirror, anchor, and quickly climb to the second level, a big reason for his +8.4 pass block grade and +32.9 run block grade this season.
Another name to watch is Indiana’s Jason Spriggs who reportedly will look good during the offseason portion of the draft process and graded well at +17.3 overall this season.
When looking at the offensive tackle class as a whole, few players stand out. The only two that made it into our last first-round mock draft were both juniors in Ole Miss’ Laremy Tunsil and Michigan State’s Jack Conklin. Tunsil still a little more projection than production while Conklin put together two strong years in our system, particularly in the run game. Beyond that, the NFL would like to see some of the Senior Bowlers to elevate themselves into first round picks, but that it may be a stretch to take any of them in the first, though NFL trends will likely move them up boards due to perceived positional value.
Interior Offensive Linemen
Looking for power blocking guards? This is the group for you, especially at the top. Stanford’s Joshua Garnett had the third-best run blocking grade in the nation at +32.6 as he was a perfect fit for Stanford’s power blocking scheme. Arkansas guard Sebastian Tretola is similar, though he has two years of strong run blocking efforts in the SEC to back him up (+20.3 in 2014, +20.7 in 2015). Like Garnett, Tretola can move defenders as drive blocker or on the move as a puller, making them both similar fits from a scheme standpoint. Throw in some inconsistency for both players as pass blockers, and their draft prospects will be linked closely throughout the process.
Another guard, cut from a different mold, is Arizona State’s Christian Westerman who is better as a pass blocker than he is in the run game and closer to a tackle prospect than either Tretola or Garnett. His +7.9 pass block grade tied for 17th in the nation and he’s a better fit for a zone blocking scheme.
As for the centers, Iowa’s Austin Blythe stands out after posting a +40.0 overall grade to lead the nation. He looks scheme-diverse in the run game though he was just ok in pass protection at +1.7 (16 pressures on the season).