Senior Bowl Notebook: Cooper Kupp Emerges as a Not-so-Deep Sleeper

Mike Tanier@@miketanierNFL National Lead WriterJanuary 26, 2017

EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 05: Wide receiver Cooper Kupp #10 of the Eastern Washington Eagles stiff arms cornerback Ugo Amadi #14 of the Oregon Ducks on the way to  touchdown during the second quarter of the game against the Oregon Ducks at Autzen Stadium on September 5, 2015 in Eugene, Oregon.  (Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images)
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

MOBILE, Ala. — Cooper Kupp could be the poster child for the Senior Bowl experience.

He arrived in Mobile with small-program statistics so unbelievable that they look like they were compiled against middle schoolers in a vacant lot. Kupp caught 428 passes for 6,464 yards and 73 touchdowns in four years at Eastern Washington.

Seriously, at what level of competition do receivers average over 100 catches and 1,500 yards per year for four years: the video game seven-on-seven drill on toddler difficulty level?

Scouts knew that Kupp dominated a relatively solid level of FCS competition at the Big Sky conference. But the Senior Bowl provided an opportunity that every small-program superstar needs, a chance for Kupp to prove he is big, athletic, technically sound and mature enough to be more than a late-round project at the NFL level.

Mission accomplished.

Kupp has been one of the breakout stars of Senior Bowl week. He has made several difficult, contested downfield catches. He has a great release off the line of scrimmage and sets up defenders in the open field with quick, subtle moves at the top of his route.

Kupp is big enough at 6'2" and 215 pounds. He's fast enough, particularly in his first steps off the line. And Kupp, who elected to stay at Eastern Washington for his senior season so he could pursue an FCS National Championship and graduate alongside his wife, is clearly mature enough for the NFL.

"When I step on the field, I have an earnest belief that I'm the best whose stepped on the field," Kupp said. "I also believe there is so much more that I need to improve on, that I am not good enough yet. ... I'm never going to be stagnant or OK with any part of my game."

Kupp has drawn comparisons to everyone from Brian Hartline to Chris Hogan to Jordy Nelson. By now, astute readers will be able to guess his ethnicity! But when Kupp studies NFL receivers, he draws from a much broader range of superstars and future Hall of Famers.

EUGENE, OR - SEPTEMBER 05:  Wide receiver Cooper Kupp #10 of the Eastern Washington Eagles can't quite hold on to the ball as safety Juwaan Williams #17 of the Oregon Ducks closes in during the fourth quarter of the game at Autzen Stadium on September 5,
Steve Dykes/Getty Images

"I don't think I draw a direct comparison to anybody in the NFL," Kupp said. "But there are three guys that I think I can draw stuff from and incorporate into my game. Those three are Larry Fitzgerald, Antonio Brown and A.J. Green.

"A.J. Green has the ball skills and the route running. As big as he is, he's able to control his body to make the catches that he does. Antonio Brown uses his quickness and his leverage, even without being the biggest guy, to be able to create separation just through movement. Larry Fitzgerald may not be the fastest guy at this point in his career, but he is still able to use his body and can understand coverage. He knows exactly how he's going to win, he's got his plan down and he's still able to separate."

Kupp doesn't just study film. He uses his economics major to dabble in analytics. "It's econometrics," he explained. "It's just studying the measurement of efficiency and trying to predict and project productivity over time."

So what do the analytics say about a receiver who caught 78 touchdowns at the FCS level?

"I throw myself into the model, just to see what happens," Kupp joked. "It's good stuff."

Kupp's performance and personality are reminiscent of Eagles receiver Jordan Matthews. Eagles fans may groan at that comparison, because Matthews has been a disappointment as a go-to receiver. But Matthews has been miscast in his pro career and stagnated in the Eagles' system. Under different circumstances, Kupp could develop into a productive starter with some big-play capability.

Not bad for a guy who was just a small-school wonder with pinball stats and a funny name to many of us four days ago.

   

Receivers Step Up

Josh Reynolds makes a catch in front of Florida State defensive back Marquez White.
Josh Reynolds makes a catch in front of Florida State defensive back Marquez White.Butch Dill/Associated Press

Kupp was not the only wide receiver to make a name for himself this week.

• Josh Reynolds (Texas A&M) dropped a few passes at the start of the week. He then settled in and demonstrated an excellent combination of size, suddenness and agility.

 Chad Williams (Grambling) looks a lot like Mohamed Sanu. He catches everything in sight, glides in front of defenders on posts and in-routes and looks like he is having fun out there…at least until a defender gets grabby and the sparks start flying.

 Taywan Taylor (Western Kentucky) entered the week with a lot of buzz. He then measured at a 5'11", 198 pounds, disappointing some observers who were expecting to see a 6'2", 220-pound monster with wheels. Taylor hasn't made many gasp-inducing catches, but his speed and smoothness are evident every time he runs a route. He's also a well-built athlete who looks bigger than his measurements, which means he could play bigger than his measurements.

 Travin Dural (LSU) looked sluggish and tentative early in the week, as if he was still figuring out the scene. Dural improved as the days went on, showing both speed and the ability to go low or reach away from his body for bad throws. Dural also responded to coaching well and looked like a guy who loves practice by the end of the week.

 Zay Jones (East Carolina) catches the ball well away from his body. So does Jalen Robinette (Air Force), who arrived late this week due to an academy commitment but also put his 11-inch meat-hook hands on display at the Shrine Game.

   

Size Somewhat Matters

Kareem Hunt of Toledo started the week as the Incredible Shrinking Running Back prospect.

Hunt was listed on promotional materials at 6'1", 225 pounds. But college PR departments were providing "fake news" about heights and weights long before it became trendy. Hunt measured officially at 5'10½" inches and 208 pounds. 

Toledo's Kareem Hunt proved to be smaller than advertised but also a lot more versatile a running back than many NFL observers expected.
Toledo's Kareem Hunt proved to be smaller than advertised but also a lot more versatile a running back than many NFL observers expected.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

Luckily, the smaller-than-advertised Hunt was also quicker-than-advertised. Hunt has looked like the prototypical all-purpose back this week, displaying a burst to the hole and cutback ability, good hands on short routes and the savvy to deliver a thud during pass-protection drills.

So Hunt isn't a bruising power back. Weighing a little less makes him much more.

"I'm a balanced back," Hunt said. "I can do a lot of different things. I have unique, different moves for every situation. And I take pride in catching every single ball, no matter where it is."

But what about the weight loss? And the, er, height loss?

"I was about 213 or 215 during the season," he explained. "I probably dropped a little bit of water weight."

Hunt is one of many mid-tier, multipurpose rushers in an incredibly deep running back class headlined by stars like Florida State's Dalvin Cook and LSU's Leonard Fournette. The Senior Bowl provided Hunt an opportunity to stand out from the crowd by demonstrating versatility and unexpected quickness.

"We're training for a Combine," he said. "You've got to be a little bit quicker in everything."

Stars of The Lineman Pit

 Carlos Watkins has been rock solid in the way all Clemson defensive tackles are rock solid.

 Troy offensive tackle Antonio Garcia earned a lot of attention at the Shrine Game and continued to impress this week. Garcia is big, laterally quick and a brawler in one-on-one drills. He had some fun tangles with Groot-like Villanova defensive end Tanoh Kpassagnon, with Garcia's forearm getting wrapped around Kpassagnon's neck on one occasion.

 UCLA tackle Conor McDermott improved as the week went on. He has the agility to mirror pass rush moves, and with an 82-inch wingspan it takes an Uber driver five minutes to get around him. McDermott stymied Texas A&M's Daeshon Hall, who has also had an excellent week, several times during one-on-one drills.

Zach Banner showed showed good mobility in Senior Bowl practices.
Zach Banner showed showed good mobility in Senior Bowl practices.Harry How/Getty Images

 Entering the week, I expected 6'8⅜", 361-pound USC lineman Zach Banner to be an immobile tub of cake frosting. But Banner moves well for a forklift-sized human, competes hard and can engulf defenders and smother them to the ground. He could develop into a Marcus Cannon-type.

 Pass rusher Tarell Basham of Ohio made an impressive play or two in every drill this week. He showed a nifty spin move and other inside moves during one-on-one drills and was disruptive off the edge in full-squad drills. Basham also joined Cooper Kupp, Antonio Pipkin, Jeremy Sprinkle, Corn Elder (a Miami cornerback, not a wizened hermit whose magic protects the village's harvest) and others on this year's Senior Bowl All-Name Team.

   

Grumble of The Week

There have been vocal complaints all week about Hue Jackson's practice philosophy for the South team.

Jackson runs a lot of individual drills at half speed, making it hard to gauge the power and athleticism of the players running through cones and pads. He has run the squad through some unusual drills; most coaches with only one week to prepare for a game would skip the interception return drills. One-on-one sessions were short and not particularly crisp during the first two days of practice.

For the record, Jackson could have the fellas play Pingpong for two hours and it would still be more impressive than Gus Bradley's all-installation-and-special-teams practices in 2015 and 2016.

Jackson's staff is taking more of a teaching approach than an evaluative approach. That's probably better for the players but worse for the hundreds of visiting scouts and executives. As for the media, we'll complain about a free rib dinner if you give us a chance.

Phil Savage and the Senior Bowl organizers may want to tweak the way coaching staffs are selected, or at least articulate to the staffs more clearly what the goals of the event are.

Hue Jackson's practice style has annoyed some NFL scouts trying to assess players in Mobile this week.
Hue Jackson's practice style has annoyed some NFL scouts trying to assess players in Mobile this week.Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

But no matter how many scouts attend, one of the most important goals of the event is to put on an all-star game for thousands of college football fans that pour into Mobile this weekend. This is not a scouting combine, and coaches are going to work with the players in the way they see fit.

   

A Farewell to Mobile

The paradox of the Senior Bowl is that few NFL types actually attend the Senior Bowl. It's all about the practice week, and Thursday marked the last day of padded practiceslast call for most of the scouts and all of the draftniks.

Downtown Mobile appeared to be deteriorating in recent years. The city always looked a little like a mostly-abandoned post-apocalyptic New Orleans, beautiful in a Gothic, haunted way. But it felt like every Senior Bowl week brought another abandoned storefront, a more ghostly atmosphere on the Dauphin Street strip and a larger, more desperate phalanx of panhandlers.

Mobile, Alabama has proved to be a charming host city for the Senior Bowl.
Mobile, Alabama has proved to be a charming host city for the Senior Bowl.Melissa R. Nelson/Associated Press

I'm happy to report that Downtown Mobile has spruced itself up this year. The Dauphin Street eateries are hipper and livelier. The historic theaters have first-run movies and popular performers on their restored marquees. There are new statues and landscape features in the parks, new businesses in storefronts and little urban gardens in what used to be vacant lots.

None of which has anything to do with how Josh Dobbs looked or who the Browns will draft. But the rich, mighty NFL descends on this downtown every year, bringing hundreds of us media types with it to fill the hotels and restaurants. It's nice to think that our trickle of commerce is helping a charming, historic city get back on its feet.

Sometimes, it's healthy to stop obsessing about some lineman's footwork and take a good look at the real world around us.

   

Mike Tanier covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeTanier. 

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