2018 NFL Draft Prospects Who Will Dominate the Senior Bowl
Everything about making it to the NFL, and rising up draft boards in the process, sounds completely terrifying, starting with the Senior Bowl.
At its most basic level, the Senior Bowl is a week-long showcase where the most experienced college players in the country compete against each other in practice, culminating in a game on Jan. 27. Dig a little deeper, and we see the first chance for the most impressive talents in the draft pool to separate themselves.
Some of those talents will be obvious, like Heisman-winning quarterback Baker Mayfield, though it'll still be fascinating to keep tabs on the beginning of his draft process and how far he can push himself into the first round. He'll face competition at his position from Josh Allen, and the quarterbacks will be throwing to a wide receiver group that lacks a marquee name, though James Washington and Michael Gallup have the tools to impress talent evaluators fast.
Separation is the primary goal in a week when strong showings against top competition will stand out during the most important college all-star game. As draft season begins, let's take a deeper look at some names that should command attention down in Mobile, Alabama.
Note: Quarterback Mason Rudolph, wide receiver Anthony Miller and defensive tackle Maurice Hurst, three highly touted seniors, won't be participating in the Senior Bowl and therefore weren't included. Rudolph is sitting out due to a left foot sprain, while Miller and Hurst were scratched due to undisclosed reasons.
Baker Mayfield, Quarterback
The most obvious stud of Senior Bowl week is the guy already carrying around the highest individual honor in college football.
Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield was the 2017 Heisman Trophy award winner after a scorching senior season. It was a year when he finished second in the nation with 4,627 passing yards while averaging 11.5 yards per attempt with a completion percentage of 70.5.
Even more incredibly, over his final two college seasons, the 22-year-old threw 83 touchdown passes with only 14 interceptions. Mayfield also offers enticing athleticism and ran for 311 yards in 2017 with five touchdowns on the ground.
The entire Mayfield package is appealing, and the thirst for solutions at the most important position in football could push him up the draft board, especially if he shines as expected against the nation's top seniors. The only real concern is attached to something Mayfield can't control: his height.
Mayfield is 6'1" and 220 pounds, which is on the shorter end for an NFL quarterback. Plenty of high-end passers have soared past height concerns, most prominently the Seahawks' Russell Wilson (5'11") and the Saints' Drew Brees (6'0").
NFL teams believe Mayfield is much closer to Wilson and Brees than he is to Johnny Manziel on the other end of the smaller-quarterback scale, according to Eric Galko of Sporting News. Which is why, as Galko also noted, nearly every team with a top-14 pick will be interested.
Josh Allen, Quarterback
Josh Allen has a football catapult attached to his body. The 6'5", 233-pound quarterback out of Wyoming has the physical tools to both light up the Senior Bowl and make scouts' wildest projections with regard to his ceiling not seem so far-fetched.
The hurdle for Allen during the predraft process, however, isn't so much the Senior Bowl. No, it's the great unknown and questions about how he'll fare at a much higher level of competition. Can he handle the speed of NFL defensive backs who slam passing windows shut quickly and do it while making good decisions?
The Senior Bowl will provide a bit of clarity on that front. But probably not nearly enough for a quarterback whose final collegiate season ended with some concerning inaccuracy. Allen completed only 56.2 percent of his pass attempts over three seasons and 27 games for the Cowboys. He also threw a troubling 15 interceptions in 2016.
As Eric Galko of Sporting News noted, Allen's completion percentage puts him in some pretty cringe-worthy company. Infamous draft flops like Jake Locker, Christian Hackenberg, Joey Harrington and Tom Savage also had a completion percentage below 57 on 600-plus throws.
Nonetheless, Allen has become a polarizing prospect. It doesn't take much tape watching to start drooling over his physical tools and forget all about those pesky production concerns. That's what played a role in ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr. slotting Allen in at No. 1 overall to the Cleveland Browns in his early mock draft.
The ideal landing spot for Allen is somewhere later in the first round with a team like the Pittsburgh Steelers or Los Angeles Chargers in search of an eventual successor to their aging, veteran quarterback. That way, those impressive athletic gifts Allen has (which also include 767 rushing yards for Wyoming) can develop with patience over at least one full year before he needs to make an NFL start.
James Washington, Wide Receiver
James Washington was on the other end of many, many passes from Mason Rudolph. So many that he led the nation with 1,549 receiving yards in 2017, which earned him the Biletnikoff Award given annually to the nation's best receiver.
His brilliance at Oklahoma State went beyond 2017. Washington posted three straight seasons with 1,000-plus yards through the air, and during that stretch he also scored 33 times.
He's a constant source of downfield lightning who averaged 20.9 yards per reception in 2017, and his speed will be on constant display throughout the predraft process. That starts with the Senior Bowl, where Washington will look to solidify his first-round status.
He shouldn't have much problem with that after piling up the seventh-most receiving yards in college football history.
Ogbonnia Okoronkwo, Defensive End
Wherever Ogbonnia Okoronkwo lands in the draft, it'll take at least a full season for the writers covering him to spell his named correctly on the first try without looking it up.
The defensive end is a top contender for the leading spot on all the best name listicles you'll read prior to the draft. He should also already be pushing his way toward the top of the edge-rusher rankings, and the campaign to climb higher begins at the Senior Bowl against the nation's top offensive tackles.
Okoronkwo recorded 17 sacks over his final two seasons at Oklahoma along with 146 tackles. In 2016, his first season seeing regular playing time, the 6'1", 240-pound outside linebacker finished with 59 quarterback pressures, per PFF, which was tops in the Big 12 among players who remained in school in 2017. Then in 2017, he ended his collegiate career strong with 17 tackles for a loss.
The Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year kept rising throughout his final season with the Sooners. Prior to the season, he was considered likely to go undrafted, according to Draft Analyst's Tony Pauline. But then by midseason, that changed to a mid-round projection.
"He stacks well against the run, sells out to make plays behind the line of scrimmage and has held his own in coverage," Pauline wrote while also noting that Okoronkwo is likely to post a 40-yard-dash time in the mid-4.7s.
His combination of size and speed will be appealing at the next level, and there's never a lack of interest in pass-rushers who have both of those qualities in abundance.
Marcus Davenport, Defensive End
Let's start out with the obvious here: Marcus Davenport is a massive human.
The 6'7", 255-pound defensive end became the first player from the UTSA Road Runners selected to play in the Senior Bowl, a well-earned honor after he piled up 8.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss in 2017.
NFL executives tend to do a whole lot of involuntary salivating when they see a towering pass-rusher who also stands up strong against the run. Davenport did that during his time at UTSA, as his four-year run included 122 tackles since 2016.
He's widely viewed as the second-best pass-rusher heading into draft season behind only NC State's Bradley Chubb. MMQB's Albert Breer placed Davenport at the end of the first round in his most recent mock draft. But then several scouts told him the physically gifted pass-rusher wouldn't make it out of the top 15.
The buzz following Davenport could quickly grow from a half-hearted roar to a jet-engine-like disturbance soon.
Michael Gallup, Wide Receiver
Michael Gallup checks off the usual boxes for a wide receiver who ranked among the top five in receptions (100) and yards (1,413) during the 2017 season.
At 6'1" and 200 pounds, he has enough size to win physical battles for jump balls and pairs that with ample speed to separate deep. What sets him apart, though, is what he does after the catch and his willingness to not just absorb contact but also embrace it.
Gallup was the top-graded receiver by Pro Football Focus in 2017 and achieved that with his ability to either avoid contact after the catch or, more often, just power throughout it. He finished tied for fourth in the nation among FBS wide receivers with 20 missed tackles forced.
Kameron Kelly, Cornerback
The most intriguing sources of dominance at the Senior Bowl are the surprising ones and the risers who keep rising. That's why Kameron Kelly is a name to know now, and a name you'll likely be saying and reading a lot in the near future.
Kelly is a classic example of a player whose college career was humming along just fine, and then a change kicked him into another gear. That change came when San Diego State moved him from safety to cornerback for his senior season.
He responded by morphing into the kind of hybrid and versatile defensive back NFL teams crave now.
Kelly has the size (6'2", 200 lbs) to match up well with the many large and physical receivers at the top of NFL depth charts. He knows how to use that size, too, evidenced by finishing 2017 with three interceptions, seven passes defensed and two forced fumbles.
He can be utilized on the outside or as a nickel corner while being trusted to defend against the run, or even as a pass-rusher when necessary. Kameron also ended his collegiate career with five tackles for loss in 2017 and two sacks.
Pauline reported that Kameron has run the 40-yard dash in 4.52 seconds, giving him the requisite speed to compete as an NFL cornerback. Pauline also noted that with a strong Senior Bowl showing, it's possible Kameron could catapult himself into Day 2 of the draft.
Royce Freeman, Running Back
Even if he lights up the Senior Bowl and scouting combine, Royce Freeman might still be on the board until late in Day 2 of the draft. If that happens, it'll be a product of the conservative approach around the NFL regarding college spread offenses.
There could be concern about how Freeman will adjust at the next level after seeing lots of space and few crowded boxes because of the Oregon Ducks' offensive structure. Which means one of the most versatile running backs in the draft might be available at a steep discount.
Feeman has punishing size at 6'0" and 238 pounds, and used it to bulldoze his way to 5,621 rushing yards over four years. That's an Oregon Ducks record and the seventh-highest career total in FBS history.
But Freeman doesn't just rely on brute force alone. He's a multidimensional running back who can be deployed on all three downs. The 21-year-old also piled up 814 receiving yards for the Ducks, with a single-season high of 348 yards in 2015.
He combines power with a sprinkle of finesse and is ready to absorb a heavy workload at the next level.