Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Wide Receivers Continue to Shine

Gary Davenport@@IDPSharksNFL AnalystJanuary 22, 2020

Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Wide Receivers Continue to Shine

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    We've yet to put a bow on the 2019 season with Super Bowl LIV, but the 2020 season is already underway—at least after a fashion.

    With scouts, coaches and dozens of the nation's best collegiate seniors in Mobile, Alabama, for the 2020 Senior Bowl, draft season is underway in earnest. For some players, it's an opportunity to solidify their status as first-round picks. For others, it's a chance to make an impression that will hopefully send them hurtling up draft boards. And for others still (especially players from smaller schools), it's a chance just to get on the draft radar at all.

    Wednesday marked the second day of practices at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, with Matt Patricia and the staff of the Detroit Lions running the North team and Zac Taylor and the staff of the Cincinnati Bengals helming the South.

    As is usually the case with the Senior Bowl, quarterbacks like Oregon's Justin Herbert and Utah State's Jordan Love have hogged a lot of the headlines. We'll get to them in a bit.

    But over the last two days, the biggest story in Mobile has been all the wide receivers who have stood out—including a couple who aren't exactly household names.

    That's where we'll kick off Wednesday's Senior Bowl Daily Notebook.

USC's Michael Pittman Jr. Turning Heads

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    The 2020 draft class is loaded at the wide receiver position. It's not hard to imagine half a dozen (or more) wideouts being taken among the first 32 picks.

    The class isn't just top-heavy—it's also deep. A number of Day 2 prospects have the potential to be difference-makers in the pros. Ohio State's K.J. Hill has already emerged as an early star in Mobile, but it looks like Hill has company now.

    Michael Pittman Jr. of USC was wildly productive for the Trojans in 2019, hauling in over 100 passes and topping 1,200 receiving yards with 11 touchdowns. While Pittman doesn't have blazing speed, ESPN's Todd McShay said in December (via Chris Trevino of 247Sports) that he thought the 6'4", 220-pounder has what it takes to succeed in the pros.

    "All he does is work on the jugs machine every single day. He's big. He's 6-foot-4. He's 220 pounds. He just looks the part of the wide receiver that you are looking for in the NFL. Doesn't have great speed, but what he does so well is separate late and create yards after the catch because he's so strong and he's so focused as a player. He has 95 catches this year for USC. They've had a lot of problems offensively, I get it but Pittman, to me, is one of the best five wide receivers in this upcoming NFL Draft."

    Pittman might not be able to work his way into the top five at the position before April, but as USC Athletics tweeted, he has been showing off that ability to separate in practices at the Senior Bowl.

    Putting on a show in front of scouts at the Senior Bowl can be quite the boost for a young receiver. Just ask San Francisco's Deebo Samuel, who was a second-round pick in 2019 after his star turn in Mobile.

    And given that there are clubs like the Indianapolis Colts, Green Bay Packers and Baltimore Ravens who could stand to add a big-bodied pass-catcher in Round 2, Pittman could be headed toward a similar trajectory.

Van Jefferson on the Rise

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    Mario Houben/Associated Press

    In a ridiculously deep class at wide receiver, Florida's Van Jefferson isn't especially impressive at first glance. At 6'1" and 197 pounds, Jefferson isn't the biggest wide receiver at the Senior Bowl. He isn't the fastest, either. In four collegiate seasons split between Ole Miss and Florida, Jefferson never topped 700 receiving yards.

    However, as Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm reported, Jefferson has been making an effort to show in Mobile that his collegiate production doesn't do his talents justice.

    "The son of former NFL receiver and current New York Jets wideouts coach Shawn Jefferson looked polished and fast, even if Jefferson likely won’t be among the best 40-yard dash runners at the position when we get to the NFL Scouting Combine," he wrote. "What matters more is how fast a player plays, and Jefferson checks that box. He ran clean routes and made several smooth grabs on Tuesday and reads like a prospect who will be a better pro than his college production would suggest."

    Jefferson's pedigree doesn't hurt (it's a safe bet that the Jets at least had an eye on the youngster heading into this week). But it's infinitely more important that Jefferson continues to show quickness, crispness in route running and soft hands. The latter was on display Wednesday, when Jefferson made the best grab of the South team's practice session.

    Given the depth of this year's wideout crop, it's not a reach to say that there will be at least one Day 2 or Day 3 pick at the position who will become a quality starter in the NFL in relatively short order.

    If the last two days are any indication, Jefferson may just be that player. And with teams like the aforementioned Jets (who have Robby Anderson set to hit free agency), Cincinnati Bengals and Denver Broncos all in need of wideout help, Jefferson could be well on his way to working himself into the draft's second night.

Justin Herbert Watch

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    It's not surprising that LSU's Joe Burrow chose to pass on participating in the 2020 Senior Bowl. At this point, about the only thing the 2019 Heisman Trophy winner and presumptive No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft can do is hurt his stock. It's not getting any better than this.

    The question then becomes who the No. 2 signal-caller is behind Burrow. And of the quarterbacks in Mobile, the leading candidate to challenge for that No. 2 spot is Oregon's Justin Herbert.

    At this time a year ago, Herbert was very much in the mix to be the first quarterback drafted. But after a somewhat lackluster 2019 season, Herbert has something to prove to scouts in the weeks and months leading up to the draft.

    As James Crepea wrote for the Oregonian, per NFL Next Gen Stats Herbert's first practice of the week was an impressive display of his arm talent.

    "Herbert’s maximum rotation rate is higher than any of the quarterbacks to take part in the last two Senior Bowls, which included Baker Mayfield, Josh Allen, Drew Lock, Daniel Jones and Gardner Minshew II," Crepea said. "With such a high volume of throws (91), Herbert had a high volume of short routes, which kept his average throwing distance to 16.3 yards and his maximum of 50.8 yards was fourth. His throws averaged 10.4 feet at their peak and had the lowest maximum peak (36 feet), which indicates Herbert was throwing lower line drives, slants and shorter routes."

    Wednesday's practice session was more of the same. Herbert wasn't flawless throwing the ball, but after two days, it's no stretch to say that Herbert is easily the best pure passer at this year's Senior Bowl.

    Whether Herbert is the second or third quarterback taken likely depends as much on the medicals of Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa as anything Herbert will do between now and the end of April.

    But he hasn't done anything to hurt his chances so far this week. 

The Jordan Love Rebound Tour

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    Branddon Wade/Associated Press

    Entering the 2019 season, Utah State quarterback Jordan Love had a chance to solidify his status as a first-round pick after passing for over 3,500 yards with 32 scores and just six picks in 2018. After struggling mightily in 2019, Love heads into this draft season needing to rehab his lagging stock.

    As Ryan Wilson reported for CBS Sports, Love admitted in Mobile that his 20-touchdown, 17-interception campaign wasn't exactly his best work.

    "You gotta push the ball downfield to make those big throws, but also be smart with it," Love said. "I've learned a lot. Every interception, for me, that's a learning moment. Obviously, I had [17] learning moments last season. It's something you can go back and watch film on and learn from."

    Some of Love's struggles a year ago can be blamed on all the turnover in Logan—there was a new coaching staff, changes to the offensive line and some new receivers. But there's no denying that Love has work to do before April to convince NFL teams that he's more the standout from 2018 than the player who struggled with turnovers last season.

    According to Tony Pauline of the Pro Football Network, the 6'3", 223-pounder has done just that.

    "Considering the disappointing season turned in by Love in 2019, showing up at the Senior Bowl was a gamble – a gamble that has thus far paid off. On the first day of practice, Love showcased the physical skills necessary to lead a team at the NFL level and displayed proper decision making as well as pinpoint accuracy. His ability to drop the ball into tight spots was only surpassed by the speed in which he was able to deliver those passes."

    With a skill set that has drawn comparisons to Patrick Mahomes', Love has a tremendous amount of physical upside.

    If he can keep this up into the scouting combine and beyond, he could be a Round 1 pick. 

Kinlaw Continues to Impress

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    Every year at the Senior Bowl, one or two players dominate. They stand head and shoulders above the rest and spend the week taking care of business on the practice field, bolstering their draft stock in the process.

    Ask New York Giants quarterback Daniel Jones, who was the game's MVP in 2019 and wound up the sixth overall pick in the draft.

    The stock of South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw didn't need a ton of bolstering. If you pop in tape of the 6'5", 315-pound tackle wreaking havoc against Georgia last season, it's not hard to see why he's not getting out of the first round.

    It looks like just getting picked on Day 1 isn't good enough for Kinlaw. If his performance on the practice field is any indication, he wants to go in the top 15—maybe even the top 10.

    There hasn't been a more impressive defensive lineman on the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium. He's been equal parts explosive and powerful, demonstrating both excellent athleticism and sound technique.

    "Kinlaw might be the best defensive player at the Senior Bowl, and he was out to prove that during Tuesday's South Team practice," Tim Twentyman of the Detroit Lions website wrote. "His power jumps out at 6'5" and 315 pounds, but he's also got the get-off, footwork and quickness of a player much smaller than he is. He was a beast in pass-rushing drills vs. the offensive linemen. He's an impressive player to watch all week."

    After a workout on Wednesday that was every bit as impressive (if not more—he's making O-linemen look foolish with regularity), it's hard to argue with that assessment.

Jason Strowbridge Losing Weight and Gaining Admirers

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    Karl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    North Carolina defensive end Jason Strowbridge has done nothing but make news since arriving in Mobile for the Senior Bowl.

    Strowbridge, who amassed 44 tackles, six tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks last year for the Tar Heels while playing at about 285 pounds, weighed in at the Senior Bowl at just 267 pounds. After playing mainly 3- and 5-technique in Chapel Hill, Strowbridge appears (at that weight) slated for a role on the edge in the NFL.

    As Eric Edholm of Yahoo Sports wrote, a slimmed-down Strowbridge was one of the North team's stars on the first day of practice.

    "After watching Strowbridge in practice," he said, "we suspect he'll find ways to win no matter where he lines up. He had a disruptive practice, especially in the one-on-one drills, where he shined. Just ask Wake Forest's Justin Herron, who was put on his backside by Strowbridge on a dominant rep."

    Strowbridge's second day on the field didn't start off quite as well—after an early rep Wednesday, Strowbridge was pulled aside for some one-on-one coaching about hand placement from North coach Matt Patricia that would have been quite informative were it not so choked with expletives that ESPN had to bleep most of it.

    Language, Matt.

    To his credit, Strowbridge rebounded in a big way, consistently getting pressure and batting down a couple of passes.

    In many ways, Strowbridge is indicative of so many of the young players in attendance at the Senior Bowl. This is a huge week for him—how he fares in practices and Saturday's game could mean the difference between being drafted in Round 3 or not at all.

Josh Jones Making Waves on the OL

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Certain positions in the NFL carry a premium every season. Offensive tackle is right at the top of that list. The innumerable coaches and scouts are no doubt carefully scrutinizing this year's crop at the position. For every team that badly needs a starter on the end of the offensive line, there's another that wants to add depth up front.

    Josh Jones of Houston is hardly a household name after toiling for a 4-8 Cougars team in 2019. But the 6'5", 311-pounder fits into the former category. Jones has everything scouts look for physically in a tackle, whether it's a big frame or length to stave of pass-rushers. Jones is a top-five tackle on Matt Miller's big board here at Bleacher Report and has a real chance at being a Day 1 selection if he puts together a solid draft season.

    Jones appears to be doing just that in the early going, flashing plus athleticism and good footwork on the practice field Wednesday.

    As Joe Schad wrote for the Palm Beach Post, Jones said he thinks he has the mental approach and pass-blocking chops to make an early impact in the NFL.

    "I just got the job done," Jones said. "This year I let up four pressures and a half sack. I'm dominant at it. I take pride in it. If I give up a pressure, even close to a sack, I'm kicking myself in the butt. It's just a source of pride. ... It's the mindset. Everybody can line up and play offensive line. But it's about your mindset. It's a battle every single play. You have to be on your P's and Q's every single time. You can't slip up, You have to be dominant."

    Cue NFL teams nodding and smiling.

Darius Anderson "Jetting" Up Draft Boards

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    After watching Raheem Mostert carve up the Green Bay Packers in last week's NFC title game, NFL teams are surely looking for the next diamond in the rough at running back. Mostert is an extreme case—a UDFA who was cut by approximately all the teams before coming into his own in San Francisco. But in recent years, there have been plenty of Day 2 or even Day 3 running back picks who have gone on to be productive professionals.

    Stars like Jonathan Taylor of Wisconsin and Ohio State's J.K. Dobbins aren't in Mobile, but that affords an opportunity for the nation's other top runners to show scouts what they've got.

    TCU's Darius Anderson is taking advantage of that opportunity.

    Anderson, whose speed earned the nickname of "The Jet," wasn't particularly impressive statistically in 2019—the 5'10", 195-pounder had just 951 yards from scrimmage and six touchdowns in 2019 for the Horned Frogs.

    But as Carmen Vitali wrote for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers website, Anderson's speed and explosiveness has stood out on the practice field.

    "He showed off his quickness in the North's first practice," Vitali said. "He had a great run where he cut to the outside and scurried up the sideline that had a lot of scouts in the crowd taking notice."

    Those same scouts were surely scribbling furiously in notebooks Wednesday when Anderson's burst and straight-line speed again stood out among the North's running backs.

    Anderson still has plenty to prove regarding his pass protection and potential to be more than a complementary back in the NFL.

    But he's trending in the right direction.

Small-School Standout

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    There isn't a group of players for whom the Senior Bowl is more important than the small-school stars. When you've spent your entire college career playing on national TV every week, people know who you are.

    When the only time you're televised is in "paycheck" beatdowns on the road against college football's elite, it's another story.

    The highest-profile game for Georgia Southern in 2019 was a 55-3 throttling at the hands of LSU in August. That contest may have been forgettable, but Eagles cornerback Kindle Vildor has made good use of Mobile as an opportunity to remind NFL scouts that he can play.

    Per ESPN's Todd McShay, Vildor was the surprise star in the secondary on the first day of practices Tuesday.

    "Vildor was sticky in man-to-man coverage on Tuesday and tracks the vertical ball very well," he said. "Not many people knew him coming in, but he stands to make a name for himself this week. He had a big interception downfield and then another on a tipped ball."

    Vildor didn't have two more interceptions Wednesday (that slacker), but he continued to be strong in man coverage and showed good wheels on downfield routes.

    This is much more the beginning of the journey for Vildor than the end—testing at next month's combine will also be critical for the 5'10" 185-pounder and small-school players like him.

    But the goal for Vildor this week in Alabama was to get noticed—to get scouts to go digging for tape of Georgia Southern's games last year.

    He accomplished that goal.

REALLY Small-School Standout

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    Compared to offensive lineman Ben Bartch, Vildor went to a big-time school. While Vildor was playing at Georgia Southern (enrollment 26,400), the 6'5", 308-pound Bartch was playing at Saint John's—a Division III school in Collegeville, Minnesota, with an enrollment of about 1,700.

    Now that's a small school.

    However, as Dane Brugler reported for The Athletic, making the jump from Division III to playing against some of the best college football players in America hasn't been too big for Bartch.

    "During practice, he did a nice job getting out of his stance to cut off speed, relying on his length (33 inches) to knock down and counter what rushers threw at him. There were times when Alabama’s Terrell Lewis got past him, but a few hiccups were expected, especially when he allows his base to narrow. However, he displays natural awareness for the position, with the nasty temperament to match. If he keeps it up throughout the week, Bartch could follow in the footsteps of former Division III standout Ali Marpet and rocket up draft boards."

    Wednesday's practice session was a carbon copy. Bartch was bested on some reps, but he won as many as he lost. Given the massive jump in caliber of opposition he's facing this week, that in and of itself is pretty impressive.

    Bartch still has a ton to prove between now and April, and after playing tackle in college he's probably slated for a move inside. Making it all the way into the second round (where Marpet was drafted in 2015 by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers) is an awfully tall ask.

    But there isn't a team in the NFL that couldn't use a tough, versatile offensive lineman.

    And that's just what Bartch appears to be.