Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Justin Herbert Shows He's a Clear Top QB Prospect

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 24, 2020

Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Justin Herbert Shows He's a Clear Top QB Prospect

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Thursday of Senior Bowl week is the last day that truly matters to NFL scouts and evaluators. Most have already left Mobile, Alabama, because their work is done. They'll watch the game once it's distributed to teams by the event's officials.

    "Obviously, we get them all on tape and watch them on tape, but you get to see them moving around," Denver Broncos general manager John Elway said, per Aric DiLalla of the team's official site. "It's a benefit."

    Throughout the week, organizations and their representatives poked, prodded, measured, questioned and evaluated the play of each of the prospects. It's the first real chance these players get to be in a professional setting being taught by NFL coaches.

    The final padded practice (shells) serves as the last opportunity to impress before the vast majority of personnel still in attendance leaves, though the actual competitiveness is toned down to a degree with the actual game two days away.

    "If you look at this game, there are a couple of first-rounders here," Elway said. "But for the most part, you're going to see there are a lot of good players here for the middle rounds."

    A year ago, the Broncos drafted quarterback Drew Lock and guard Dalton Risner after they played in the Senior Bowl. That worked out well.

    The final day of practice showed exactly who continued to improve throughout the week with the chance to become early contributors like those two Broncos.

Justin Herbert Solidifes Top Status

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    Some prospects just look different than everyone else on the field.

    Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert is one of those prospects. He walked onto the field(s) in Mobile and simply looked better than nearly anyone else. More importantly, he built upon the previous day's performance.

    "I thought Justin Herbert did a really good job," Cincinnati Bengals head coach Zac Taylor said on the ESPNU telecast after the final day of full practice. "He was really sharp."

    Sharp might be a bit of an understatement.

    Herbert's precision and velocity worked hand-in-hand. He threw multiple passes into tight windows with ease. A couple of receivers even dropped passes because they weren't ready for throws with that much smoke.

    A number of quarterbacks previously went to the Senior Bowl and established themselves as elite prospects. Philip Rivers is the best example. Carson Wentz, Baker Mayfield and Daniel Jones are more recent ones. Jones, in particular, jumped from a potential mid-to-late first-round option to a top-10 selection. His Senior Bowl performance mattered that much.

    "Watching them on tape is one thing, seeing them in the environment is definitely, I think, very important," New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman said of his decision to draft Jones, per Dan Salomone of the team's official site. "... I made up my mind that I was staying for the game and, frankly, [Jones] walked out there and I saw a professional quarterback after the three series that I watched. I saw a professional quarterback."

    Herbert is a little different than those mentioned because he was already considered a potential top-five or -six pick.

    But his willingness to show up, compete, improve every day, absorb the information and command the offense, especially in red-zone and two-minute drills, as well as his impressive natural physical tools, solidified his status with three quarterback-needy teams in the first six selections and more potential suitors within trading distance.

    All in all, Herbert entered the week as the Senior Bowl's top-rated prospect at any position and did nothing to hurt his status.

Javon Kinlaw, Michael Pittman Jr. Shut It Down

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    A pair of prospects who created significant buzz throughout the week pulled out of the Senior Bowl after strong initial performances.

    South Carolina defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw dominated the first two days of practice. His combination of size (6'5", 315 lbs), first-step quickness, impressive strength, easy one-on-one wins and overall ability to collapse the interior might have placed him in the top-10 conversation.

    "I have everything to prove," Kinlaw told reporters before the start of the practice week. "I treat myself like I'm that guy still at the bottom. I set my goals so high this season, and I feel like I didn't accomplish any of them. That's just how I am." 

    Unfortunately, the top defender in Mobile is "dealing with a little tendinitis in one of his knees," according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.

    The knee injury shouldn't be a problem since scouts got to see Kinlaw submit outstanding performances in a competitive setting. If it continues to linger into the combine, it will then become an issue.

    USC wide receiver Michael Pittman Jr. also didn't practice Thursday and won't play in Saturday's contest, according to the ESPNU telecast. A ligament strain in his foot ended his week, per Pelissero. But the big target showed earlier in the week how his size (6'4", 219 lbs) and physicality overwhelm defensive backs.

    Scouts won't hold injuries against players if they're dinged up because there's no reason to risk further injury during an all-star event. The best option is to step away, heal and prepare for the next step of the draft process.

Denzel Mims Leaps over Competition

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    The wide receivers consistently impressed throughout the week, especially on the North squad. Individuals among the group traded days, even reps, during which one shined and made onlookers pay attention to his overall performance.

    Ohio State's K.J. Hill, SMU's James Proche, Notre Dame's Chase Claypool and Pittman each had time to thrive Tuesday or Wednesday.

    Baylor's Denzel Mims rose to the occasion, literally and figuratively, on Thursday, mainly due to his work in red-zone drills.

    Like Claypool and Pittman, Mims is a bigger target. The 6'3", 206-pound receiver showed tremendous body control against smaller defensive backs. He became a human highlight reel once the Detroit Lions staff decided to work on fade routes in the end zone. Mims came down with multiple catches when he bodied off opposing corners.

    Earlier in the week, Mims showed he could get on top of cover corners as a vertical threat with outstanding ball-tracking skills and late hands as the ball came over his shoulder.

    "I feel like I put some good things on tape," Mims said in an interview Wednesday with NFL Network's Tom Pelissero. "I feel like I came out and competed at a high level. I try to be a leader at everything—blocking, special teams—and try to do everything right to impress everyone. I'm an all-around receiver."

    He certainly did.

    This year's wide receiver class is considered the best in recent memory. The overall quality from top to bottom means a prospect must find a way to set himself apart from his competition.

    Mims showed he was every bit as good as every other wide receiver in Mobile—and maybe better.

Yet Another Wide Receiver of Note

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    Seriously, the amount of talent found in this year's wide receiver class is ridiculous.

    Prior to the start of the 2019 campaign, Texas' Collin Johnson figured to be one of—if not the—top receiver prospects for the 2020 NFL draft. He looked like a surefire first-round pick after a junior campaign in which he caught 68 passes for 985 yards and seven touchdowns.

    The 6'6", 221-pound target didn't build on his previous success, though. In fact, he regressed with only 38 receptions for 559 yards and three touchdowns.

    The Senior Bowl became an opportunity to work his way back into the top tier of his position group, and he didn't disappoint.

    Thursday's red-zone drills showed how Johnson can be valuable. His size makes him an ideal target in tight spaces. Plus, he can get up and snatch the ball out of the air. His performances served as a natural progression for a player trying to reestablish himself as a top-end prospect.

    Mims may have stolen the show on the North side, but Johnson did his best with a stellar all-around performance.

    Big targets will always be given a chance on NFL rosters because of their catch radiuses and how much they help quarterbacks in difficult scenarios. Those receivers have to be more than big targets, though. They can't run sloppy routes or lumber their way down the field. Basically, those 6'3"-plus options must still be able to create separation like smaller targets.

    Johnson can do that and more. More importantly, he showed he can do it all week.

Center of Attention

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    Normally, offensive linemen don't receive enough attention. The Senior Bowl is different because of how practices are run.

    The one-on-one drills against defensive linemen are the must-see attractions of the entire week. Plenty of money can be made with an outstanding effort in the trenches during those periods. For example, Eric Fisher once worked his way toward the No. 1 overall pick thanks to the fluidity he displayed in Mobile.

    This year's crop features at least one first-round-caliber prospect in Houston's Josh Jones. He performed quite well all week, but he wasn't the best all-around line prospect during practices. LSU's Lloyd Cushenberry III earned that designation.

    "I feel like I have to prove that I'm a smart player," Cushenberry said, per the Advocate's Brooks Kubena. "I can pick up things fast, and I'm a physical player that's going to finish through the whistle, and I can do anything you need as an O-lineman."

    Four factors made Cushenberry's performance so impressive.

    First, he showed exceptional lateral agility. Second, he didn't lose many reps, if any at all, when he needed to set and anchor. Third, he was the only lineman to hold his own against Kinlaw over the previous two days. Fourth, the first-team All-SEC performer and national champion brought the same level of consistency every single day. 

    Cushenberry established himself as the top center in the class.

    Temple's Matt Hennessy didn't fall too far behind his southern counterpart. A technician with fantastic feet to consistently work laterally, he's likely the class' second-best center with strong performance after strong performance.

Late Call-Up Turns Heads

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    Someone had to try covering the talented wide receivers found in Mobile this week. Most of the North squad's defensive backs failed to do so.

    However, a late call-in performed better than expected.

    Every year, individuals suffer injuries or aggravate old ones and must pull out of the week's festivities. Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy is then forced to bring in others to fill out the roster. Agents and their representatives race to get them on the field and show what they can do.

    This week, Auburn cornerback Javaris Davis received one of those calls. He arrived in Mobile on Wednesday and performed better than expected Thursday. According to Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline, Davis posted a "terrific day" battling against the North's outstanding targets.

    "I was a little rusty the first couple of reps, but most of the day, I felt like I did a pretty good job," he said after Wednesday's practice, per's Creg Stephenson. "I was able to get caught up on the game plan that has been put in so far. It was just competing against the best of the best. That's what it's all about. Competing, and showing what I can do."

    Davis achieved his stated goal in short order.

    "You just want to get better every day, that's the most important thing," he said. "I just want to keep improving, not make the same mistakes the next day and stay consistent."

    Obviously, the three-year starter (and punt returner) at Auburn took advantage of his situation after not being able to compete in last week's Shrine Bowl due to lingering concussion symptoms.

From Small School to Top Tight End

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    Certain positions like wide receiver and offensive tackle are absolutely stacked among this year's draft class. Tight end isn't one of them.

    The group lacks a clear-cut top prospect, let alone a first-round talent. Thus, the door is wide open for any tight end prospect to walk through and claim top billing.

    Dayton's Adam Trautman may have done so in Mobile.

    Take a second and think about how lauded this year's wide receiver class is before reading the next quote.

    OK, good. Stay in that frame of mind.

    Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline relayed a comment made about the small-school tight end, "He looks better than the receivers."

    Dayton is an FCS program. As with any prospect from a non-pipeline school, level of competition always becomes a point of contention. But the 6'5", 251-pound converted quarterback caught 70 passes for 916 yards and 14 touchdowns as a senior.

    His production translated to the Senior Bowl practice field, particularly on Thursday. The North defense struggled to check the tight end, who caught multiple passes throughout each of the sessions. His overall growth and ability to get vertical make a case for him as the class' top tight end, even if he comes from a small school.

    "I want to take that asterisk away," he said, per Yahoo Sports' Eric Edholm. "I feel like there's an asterisk when they talk about the smaller programs and those players. There's a few of us [at the Senior Bowl], and I think we all come here believing we belong."

Senior Bowl's Growing Importance

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    Maybe the most important aspect of Senior Bowl week is the nightly interviews conducted by teams with the players.

    In many instances, it's the first time NFL personnel get to sit down and learn more about the person than the player. This process will continue through the combine and pro days, but it's an opportunity for an individual to make a good first impression.

    Those meetings became even more valuable this week when the NFL decided to change its setup for the combine as it moves to prime time this year.

    According to Pelissero, "NFL teams were informed recently they'll have 45 18-minute formal interviews at the combine, rather than 60 15-minute interviews. It's related to schedule changes that move drills to primetime."

    No such limits exist in Mobile. Every team meets with each player in attendance at some point during the week.

    Now, teams will be forced to prioritize who they want to interview in Indianapolis. Maybe they won't talk for a second time with a prospect who attended the Senior Bowl because the organization already established a good grasp of who they are as a person and player.

    Thus, the importance of the premier all-star event increases.