Biggest NFL Draft Sleepers at the 2016 Senior Bowl
There are few true sleepers in the 2016 Senior Bowl, which hosts the best senior NFL draft prospects in the country. Many of the attendees have had remarkable college success, received major accolades and have already had their names brought up by NFL coaches and general managers. But there are certainly a few prospects who haven’t received enough attention during the season and the draft process.
These prospects range from small-school players hoping to prove they can measure up to their FBS counterparts to major college prospects who were overshadowed by the talent around them or forgotten after a poor season finish.
While the game itself offers some value to NFL scouts, the week of practices leading up to it truly indicates the rise and fall of prospects’ draft value. The following eight prospects have a great opportunity to quietly surprise during the week and finish their stay in Mobile, Alabama, among the “risers” heading into the rest of the 2016 draft process.
Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose State
Getting work at both running back and split-out receiver, Tyler Ervin was a do-it-all playmaker for the San Jose State Spartans, providing an impact similar to Christian McCaffrey's at Stanford in 2015, though with less production. With highly active feet as a runner on the interior and at the second level, he can switch between big and small movements with ease, allowing him to be explosive with the ball in his hands.
Ervin is able to stay small through traffic and provide lateral shiftiness in the open field to prevent clean tackles by defenders. He’ll be the most fun running back to watch in Mobile, even if his next-level role is as a primarily third-down running back. Though he'll likely struggle in pass-blocking drills, he’ll thrive as a pass-catcher and could be one of the better game-day runners in the Senior Bowl.
Paul McRoberts, WR, Southeast Missouri State
One of the top-rated small-school receivers in the 2016 class, Paul McRoberts won’t be outmatched athletically during practices. Despite hailing from a smaller school, McRoberts is a smooth athlete who gets upfield quickly after the catch. He’s also a plus vertical one-on-one receiver and an effective short-area pass-catcher who can get separation on quicker routes and pick up big chunks of yards after the catch.
He’ll have to answer level-of-competition concerns from top-tier cornerbacks, especially physicality-wise. He'll get the chance to show off route polish and development against the senior class’s best corners. But his smooth athleticism and finishing ability away from his frame should allow him to step into the Senior Bowl as one of the best receivers, especially once he gets in a rhythm with the quarterbacks.
He’ll have plenty to prove, but he has top-100 talent to back up the expectations.
Joe Haeg, OT, North Dakota State
As the left tackle for the FCS national champion team, Joe Haeg deserves ample credit for North Dakota State’s run and pass success. With quick, meaningful steps off the snap and a strong base, Haeg makes up for a lack of top-end athleticism with efficiency and reliability. He also does a great job of transitioning his lower-body power into explosiveness through his arms and into his initial punch.
Haeg also reengages well after first contact and works hard to maintain hand leverage inside, but he could be a bit more decisive in pass protection when meeting speed rushers. He may be better suited inside or at right tackle at the NFL level, and he’ll ideally get some work there during practices.
Teams may be interested to see if he can kick inside if he’s too slow afoot to play on the perimeter, but he'll get the benefit of the doubt to start practices after an impressive college career. He may not dominate in pass-protection drills, but he’s among the best power-run blockers in Mobile.
Connor McGovern, OG, Missouri
Playing with plus-power at the line of scrimmage, Connor McGovern truly dominated some of the SEC’s better interior rushers over the last two seasons. Able to handle bigger interior defensive linemen and stay balanced and fluid at the second level, McGovern might be a better prospect than current NFL standouts and former Missouri Tigers Mitch Morse and Justin Britt.
McGovern is a strong interior blocker who could offer NFL value at right tackle as well as guard. Ideally, he’ll get work at both spots, but look for his length and lower-body strength to control rushers on interior run drills all week long.
He'll face top interior rushers like Alabama's Jarran Reed, a massive nose tackle with surprising lateral ability, and Louisville's Sheldon Rankins, who wins with active hands and a variety of pass-rush moves.
After a strong showing in Mobile, I'd expect McGovern to shoot up draft boards at the NFL Scouting Combine with impressive explosiveness testing numbers.
Kyler Fackrell, LB, Utah State
Kyler Fackrell has a great combination of size (6’5″, 250 lbs) and speed and offers tremendous athleticism for a linebacker of his size. He has been asked to fill multiple roles for the Utah State defense over his four-year starting career, and he’s had NFL scouts intrigued since his sophomore season, per Wade Denniston of the Deseret News.
Athletic enough to play in coverage while also excelling as a pass-rusher or in aggressive run pursuit, Fackrell’s combination of length and explosive ability to change direction should have NFL scouts excited for his Senior Bowl week.
His plus motor, length and flexibility will all be tested against top interior blockers, and Fackrell has struggled against more refined interior blockers who can position their hands and stay low in their blocks. He’ll be side-by-side with fellow top-100 hopeful linebackers like Ohio State's Joshua Perry and Stanford's Blake Martinez during practices for the North squad.
Joe Schobert, LB, Wisconsin
Alongside Fackrell in the North team's linebacking corps, Joe Schobert of Wisconsin will look to follow the big East-West Shrine Game of his former teammate, Mike Caputo, with a strong week and Senior Bowl performance himself. Schobert has been an ideal college player, winning with assignment execution, positioning precision and high-level anticipation of the opposing team's play design.
Schobert played on the edge for the Wisconsin defense, but he had plenty of opportunities to work in space in both coverage and as an edge-setter. Reacting with quickness and plus-body positioning, Schobert makes up for his lack of perimeter explosiveness with sturdy balance and a willingness to embrace contact.
He’ll need to bulk up more over the next few months, as his instincts alone won’t land him an NFL starting spot. But his feel for the game and his perimeter versatility could allow him to quietly impress as a member of a great Senior Bowl linebacking crop.
Tavon Young, CB, Temple
Tavon Young’s poise against top talent and his ability to anticipate routes make him a truly special vertically protecting cornerback prospect. His finishing prowess at the catch point shows his ability to run and disrupt receivers' routes, and he is equally effective in terms of attacking the ball.
He's able to divert receivers' routes by accurately and subtly positioning his hands in their chest plates off the press or under the arm during the route, which is a skill few college corners possess.
Young’s physicality isn’t without concern, however, as he often had “either-or” penalty calls that went against him during his senior season. But few cornerbacks offer the ability to protect vertically along with such physicality across receivers’ routes, and Young’s skill set should treat him well against the host of vertical receivers on the North squad.
Most importantly, Young possesses the confidence to stay firm in both press and off-coverage in terms of his footwork, physicality and in-air skills, which benefit him against slightly undersized receivers. Don’t be surprised if he leaves Mobile as a consensus top-five cornerback in the 2016 class. He enters the week as the top defensive back in attendance in my eyes.
Sean Davis, S/CB, Maryland
Like Utah's Eric Rowe a year ago, Maryland’s Sean Davis had on-field success at both cornerback and safety throughout his college career. While Maryland's linebacking corps did its secondary no favors, Davis and the pass rush made the Terrapins defense somewhat formidable. His senior-year production (three picks and three passes defended) doesn't adequately demonstrate how impressive he was in 2015.
Playing with plus-control in his movements and displaying effective hand usage, Davis is best suited to play safety at the NFL level as opposed to cornerback because of some hip-fluidity concerns. Davis is at his best when attacking from off coverage on underneath or perimeter throws, and he can fill a hybrid safety role for an NFL team while offering enough upside to play in the nickel as well.
His versatility will help him during the week, and if he can show off his timing, route anticipation and finishing ability from the safety position in practice (especially in the seven-on-seven drills), don’t be surprised to see Davis’ name shooting up draft boards like Rowe's did last year.