The gathering in Mobile, Alabama of over 100 future NFL hopefuls and huge numbers of key personnel from all 32 franchises can mean only one thing – Senior Bowl Week. One of the most critical steps on the pre-draft calendar, and often the first time that the decision makers in April will see these prospects live in person. The East-West Shrine game last week saw several players greatly help themselves, but this group in a lot of cases are the ones they were attempting to close the gap on, the top seniors in the country. As with every one of these All-Star gatherings, the practices more so than the game are primarily where these prospects can increase their position on draft boards, and a few names in particularly have stood out while some haven’t quite grasped the opportunity. I’ve highlighted a few who did just that for me.
Helped their stock
Sheldon Rankins, DL, Louisville
Unfortunately, Rankins won’t be able to play in Saturday’s game to close out Senior Bowl week due to a sprained knee that has forced him to withdraw. While that’s a shame, there’s no question of his stock going up though as a result of some truly dominant practices prior to the injury. Rankins has played across the line during his Cardinals career, both outside and inside, but measuring in at an imposing 304 lbs on his 6ft 1 & 5/8 frame, he is going to be a physical force wherever he lines up as a pro. What really stood out from Rankins in the practices was his speed in a number of different areas at that size, which really shone through during one on one drills between the offensive and defensive lines. His initial reactions off the snap out of his stance instantly gave him the advantage on most reps, forcing his opposing lineman to be immediately in recovery mode to try and re-establish his protection. Good luck with that though, as Rankins always followed up his exceptional quickness at his size with lightning fast and violent hands to rip through contact. That combination of upper body technique with explosion on that powerful body is a devastating combo, and made him virtually unblockable throughout each practice session. The defensive line is one of the best and deepest groups in this entire draft class, and to stand out above some other prospects with first round grades surely now puts Rankins up among them in that conversation as well. I admit to still having some questions on it translating on film, with some quiet performances during the season, but this was still an eye-opener and a good boost to Rankins’ draft status.
Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State
Making the conversion from quarterback to wide receiver has gone rather well for Miller! He was always going to make the transition for the NFL eventually regardless, but got a head start in his final college season due to a shoulder injury and the emergence of J.T. Barrett and Cardale Jones in his absence. While he was extremely quite at times in 2015, when he flashed, he looked a complete natural. His hands are fantastic, he adjusts his body well to the ball in the air, and perhaps most surprisingly of all is how polished and precise his route running is already. If he can be this good after one season, the potential upside could be massive. Miller is unquestionably one of the top athletes in this entire draft class irrespective of position, but this was a great opportunity to make a real impression on all the NFL personnel in attendance in Mobile. He’s certainly done that during the practices, in particularly on Tuesday. During the one on one drills versus the defensive backs, Miller showed off the explosion off the line followed by sharp breaks in his routes and ability to gain separation. Several of his moves completely flat-footed the covering corner that drew plenty sounds of approval from the watching scouts. Miller also impressed after practice in his interviews, really driving home the point about his desire to be a diverse offensive weapon to be used in as many varied ways as a team will let him, not just on the offense but on all special teams units including as a kick returner. He may not have played the position long, but he looks the part, and I’d be shocked if he made it out of the second round now.
Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
Few had more to potentially gain this week in Mobile than North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz. The Bison QB has led the last two successful FCS title runs of the five in a row that the school has incredibly won, and entered the week already as one of the hottest names in the draft right now. After missing much of the season with a wrist injury, Wentz’s task to prove himself might have been two-fold, but he emphatically proved that he was fully healthy again by stepping in to the FCS National Title game versus #1 ranked Jacksonville State to lead his team to victory with a great performance. The question was whether he can step up and prove himself against some of the top senior talent in the country. Wentz has scouts excited with his ideal physical measurables, at 6ft 5, 230 lbs and such a strong arm that can make any NFL throw, as well as surprising mobility to create with his legs at his build. He’s ticked a lot of boxes during the practices this week, and has clearly stood out as the best quarterback in attendance at the Senior Bowl. His live arm matched up with what was expected, with some really impressive throws on point to the sidelines in particular. He has interviewed extremely well, including a televised chat with Mayock and the rest of the NFL Network commentary team, coming across as a really level headed, mature and high character person. Being under the microscope and handling that pressure has not phased him one bit. Even some of his flaws on tape looked better than expected, most notably with his footwork which is an obvious weakness when watching his Bison games but looked much more co-ordinated here. We’ll see if it continues to hold up under pressure during the game, but still another positive takeaway. I had Wentz, Goff and Lynch (the two leading underclassmen QBs) very evenly graded, with the thinking that a good week from Wentz against better opposition might warrant a move above the others, and he could indeed head up those quarterback rankings now.
Jihad Ward, DL, Illinois
One of the definite big winners this week, Ward is another defensive lineman who has really made his present felt with consistently outstanding practices all week right from the off. A junior college transfer to the Illini two years ago, he flashed some encouraging ability his first season in the Big-10 in 2014. His senior year though was less impressive, and if anything his stock had been in decline after not being able to build on his previous year, with just the 3.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks. Ward’s week started by measuring in at 6ft 5, 296 lbs, and while that size suggests a best fit inside, he’s really made his mark at right defensive end during the practice sessions, winning more often than not from that spot. He lined up outside a lot in 2015 for Illinois too, before shifting inside on 3rd down passing situations. The signs here are good that he can continue to do similar at the next level too. There’s no doubt that his play over these last few days have earned him a higher pick in the draft than he was looked at being beforehand, but he’s someone that will require scouts to go back and delve deeper into his film to see why he wasn’t able to be more effective in live game situations more consistently.
CB Harlan Miller, Southeastern Louisiana
Braxton wasn’t the only Miller to stand out. Harlan, a small school prospect, came in to the Senior Bowl already with a bit of buzz about him. A ball hawk with 11 career interceptions, he’s a tall corner with speed, who has added value as a punt returner. It would not have been a surprise to see Miller be a little tentative being exposed one-on-one versus the likes of Malcolm Mitchell and Sterling Shepard, at least initially, but he instead attacked them aggressively with success. Those drills tend to favour the receivers more so than the defensive backs, but Miller won on plenty reps and showed off his quick feet and reactions to stay in position to break up the ball. One thing that stood out as a negative from his game film was a tendency to shy away from contact frequently, not willing to get stuck in at the end of plays. It was good therefore to see him be much more physical here. Hopefully, it wasn’t just for the sake of this week and he continues that way going forward. He may be tall and quick, but is a slightly built at just 182 lbs. Still, he looks set to be the next Lions cornerback to be drafted into the NFL, following on from Falcons’ 2nd round pick Robert Alford in 2013.
Not helped themselves
Kevin Hogan, QB, Stanford
The Cardinal quarterback has achieved a lot over his career including leaving the school as the all-time winningest QB in history. His competitiveness and toughness are a big part of his appeal. Those traits aren’t really given an opportunity to shine through in this setting though, and instead Hogan has been very pedestrian during practices. It’s quite clear that he just doesn’t have the arm to match with most of his peers, notably lacking much zip on his throws. Hogan has an ideal build for the NFL at 6ft 3, 217 lbs, but is very limited in a lot of areas. That’s not to say that he can’t play at the next level by any means, and he can match anyone for resilience, determination and will to win. He’s a later round guy who will bring a lot of big game experience and high football IQ to the table.
Eric Striker, EDGE, Oklahoma
The Sooner edge rusher is coming off another productive year as a senior, with 19 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks and 11 QB pressures. However, the question with Striker has always been where he can play in the NFL. He’s had a nice college career, and has excellent quickness in his game, but is just so under-sized for a pass rusher at 5ft 11, 228 lbs. Attempts to try him in space have not gone well during the Senior Bowl practices, getting lost on multiple occasions. Scouts are going to leave this week with exactly the same questions that they had on him entering the week.