Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Alabama WR DeVonta Smith Skirts Weighty Question
The importance of the 2021 Senior Bowl grew exponentially with the NFL's decision not to conduct the combine in its usual manner this season.
Instead, scouting will fall almost entirely on how an individual performed during the season and all-star events. Some will argue that's the way it should be. After all, these are football players we're discussing. But more goes into a complete evaluation.
NFL Network's Tom Pelissero relayed an internal NFL memo in which the league dictated a ban on private workouts, facility visits, dinners and predraft film sessions with prospects.
Teams will go into the draft itself half-blind because they won't have nearly the amount of information they tend to accumulate during their usual preparation, which makes the Senior Bowl critical because scouts get to interview prospects and see how they react to NFL coaching. The event's executive director, Jim Nagy, understands how much this year's version means to everyone:
"I will say this—we were not going to move forward with this year's game if we didn't know we could do it safely for the players and the NFL personnel coming to town. But once we came up with a plan that we could execute and pull it off safely, it's been full speed ahead. … It's going to be absolutely huge for these players that are here, as well as the NFL teams who have not had any face-to-face interaction with them in the past year. This might be the only chance they have for that before the draft in April."
With that in mind, the American and National teams, led by the Carolina Panthers and Miami Dolphins coaching staffs, respectively, took the practice field for the first time Tuesday in Mobile, Alabama.
Multiple significant storylines emerged from the onset of the week with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, DeVonta Smith, raising some eyebrows.
DeVonta Smith Declines to Be Weighed, Opts to Wait Until Alabama Pro Day
NFL draft comparisons for incoming prospects are often unfair because they set certain expectations by placing an established veteran or all-time great alongside an unproven young man trying to realize his dream. Still, comps can be important based on how they're framed.
In the case of Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, one name—Hall of Fame inductee Marvin Harrison—often arises based on skill set and stature. The latter reason is extremely important. Harrison posted massive numbers year after year despite being a 6'0", 185-pound target.
Smith is even more slight than the receiver to whom he's most often compared, and it's clear he's trying to impress teams by adding bulk before Alabama's Pro Day. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, who won't practice or play this week due to a finger injury suffered during the National Championship Game, declined to be weighed or measured for height in Mobile, according to NFL Network's Chase Goodbread.
The Crimson Tide's official site listed Smith at 6'1" and 175 pounds. Anyone who's spent any time around a football team knows those numbers tend to be fudged a little. Did he really tip the scales at 175 during one of the best seasons ever seen at the collegiate level?
No one denies Smith's production and overall dominance. On a team loaded with future professional talent, the senior entrant led the Crimson Tide in receiving yardage each of the last two seasons. He blew every receiver in the nation away with 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2020.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Smith is a first-round talent. But how high is too high to draft him? And that's where questions about his slight frame come to the forefront.
Physically, Smith is clearly not in the same class as Julio Jones or A.J. Green. In fact, Peter Warrick, Ted Ginn Jr., Tavon Austin and John Ross III are the only sub-200-pound wide receivers drafted in the top 10 since 2000. Of the four, Warrick was the only top-five selection. It's not an inspiring group.
Some team at the top of this year's draft must reconcile Smith's excellent play and translatable traits with the fact he's not built like a true No. 1 target.
Western Michigan WR D'Wayne Eskridge Emerges as Small-School Standout
Today's passing games are built around identifying matchups, creating separation and producing chunk plays.
The Kansas City Chiefs aren't an offensive juggernaut simply because Patrick Mahomes lines up behind center. Tyreek Hill is impossible to cover. Travis Kelce is more of a wide receiver than a tight end at times. The additional speed of Mecole Hardman and Sammy Watkins stresses opposing defenses even more.
A defense tries everything in its power to prevent a big play until it finally breaks.
As a result, dynamic receivers are more valuable than ever no matter where they played at the collegiate level.
Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge emerged as a star during the National Team's first practice, per ESPN's Field Yates. Cornerbacks from bigger programs will struggle to contain the 5'9", 188-pound target all week because he couples excellent short-area quickness with long speed. That makes him nearly impossible to handle if he beats the jam with almost guaranteed separation at the top of his stem.
Even at the professional level, certain athletes have a different gear. According to the Broncos' official site, Eskridge previously ran a laser-timed 4.33-second 40-yard dash.
The senior led Western Michigan with 784 receiving yards, finished fourth in the nation with an average of 130.7 receiving yards per game and doubled as a standout kicker returner.
With two more strong practices this week, Eskridge should easily cement himself as a top-50 prospect.
Alabama's Alex Leatherwood Stays on Blindside
The reigning Outland Trophy winner, Alabama's Alex Leatherwood won before he ever took the field for a single Senior Bowl practice.
The possibility of the collegiate left tackle moving to guard persists. After all, he started at right guard as a sophomore before bumping to the blindside for 26 consecutive starts.
Initially, the official Senior Bowl roster listed the Alabama product as a guard or center before executive director Jim Nagy tweeted Leatherwood would play left tackle during the week.
During Tuesday's measurements, he registered an impressive 34 3/8-inch arm length.
With the requisite length needed at the position plus the opportunity to prove himself at his natural spot, Leatherwood's draft stock could maintain a higher value if he holds up against athletic pass-rushers throughout the week.
His initial practice with the American Team had its ups and downs.
The primary reason behind a possible transition to the interior originates from less-than-ideal lower-body flexibility. Leatherwood's long arms can offset a lack of fluidity in his footwork, but he must be able to adjust and consistently ward off edge-rushers. He struggled a little Tuesday.
Still, the fact Leatherwood is expected to remain at left tackle all week will allow him to provide critical reps at a premium position.
Washington's Levi Onwuzurike with Welcome Return Performance
This year's Senior Bowl week is more important for some than others.
Technically, that's true every year, but other years don't include ongoing pandemics and numerous players across college football opting out of the season. Some played partial seasons. Others didn't play a single snap.
Washington defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike is the most notable of the latter in Mobile.
He has a chance to be the top defensive tackle on some team boards, but he must show he's not suffering from any rust and is in proper football shape during his week of practice.
At Washington, Onwuzurike mastered taking on and countering blocks. At 290 pounds, he's much stronger at the point of attack than his size would indicate and often dealt with multiple blockers.
The Senior Bowl showcases a defensive lineman's one-on-one capabilities, particularly during the much-discussed and heavily dissected individual drills.
As ESPN's Turron Davenport noted, Onwuzurike won multiple reps during pass-rush drills and got into the backfield to blow up running plays throughout the National Team's inside period.
Not bad for a guy who hasn't played since Dec. 21, 2019.
Excellent Edge Presence
Neither North Dame's Daelin Hayes nor Miami's Quincy Roche produced to expected levels this past season. The duo combined for 7.5 sacks during their final seasons on campus.
The Senior Bowl allows both to put their natural traits on display and let scouts see who they can be with proper usage and professional coaching.
According to Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline, Hayes looked "like a man amongst boys" as a dominant performer throughout the National Team's practice.
Roche, meanwhile, flashed during the American Team's time on the field.
Both showed excellent first-step quickness and the ability to turn the corner against quality blockers.
For Roche, how he wins is extremely important. At 6'4" and 261 pounds, Hayes is built like a traditional down defender, whereas Roche is a hybrid player. The 6'3", 243-pound Temple transfer is extremely fluid, but he won't be able to hold up at the point of attack against NFL blockers.
Still, he understands his limitations and how he needs to be utilized at the next level.
"Whatever a team would want me to play, whether it's a 4-3 defensive end, a 3-4 outside linebacker or whatever the case may be, I think I have showed I can play both roles in my collegiate career," Roche said on the College Sports on SiriusXM Radio show (h/t Inside the U's Christopher Stock). "I wouldn't mind playing either role at the professional level."
Whatever the case, the ability to harass opposing quarterbacks will get an individual on the field. Hayes and Roche appear more than capable of supplying that pressure.
Top QB Prospect Opts out of Senior Bowl Week
Each of the last three years, a Senior Bowl quarterback has showcased his talent during the week in Mobile and become a high pick in the NFL draft.
In 2018, Baker Mayfield went on to be the No. 1 overall pick. A year later, the New York Giants chose Daniel Jones with the sixth overall choice. Justin Herbert showed what he was capable of 12 months ago before hearing his name called with the sixth selection and possibly being named the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year.
A top-10 quarterback probably isn't among this year's group. Two specific options should still have NFL teams intrigued, though one of them won't be participating. According to The Athletic's Dane Brugler, Florida's Kyle Trask is dealing with an ankle injury that won't allow him to compete.
Trask had an opportunity to establish himself as a potential first-round pick after a breakthrough performance in 2020 with 4,283 passing yards and a nation-leading 43 touchdown passes. Questions persist about his immobility and poor deep passing, and it's hard to envision him rising above Day 2 as anything more than the sixth-best quarterback in the class without him showing what he can do during a competitive week in front of NFL scouts.
Some may brush off the importance of these few days without understanding that the Senior Bowl allows quarterbacks to shine as leaders on the field when they're brought together with a bunch of players they don't know. Young signal-callers are asked to digest and communicate an NFL playbook in short order, and they must perform once they get on the field.
Trask's missed opportunity places more eyes on Alabama's Mac Jones, who seems firmly planted as the class' fifth-best quarterback. A good week could propel him higher in the first round.