Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Najee Harris Practices Against Agent's Advice

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 28, 2021

Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Najee Harris Practices Against Agent's Advice

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    A stripped-down version of the Senior Bowl continued into Wednesdaywhich is the most important day of the entire week's festivities. 

    Despite fewer NFL personnel in attendance and a lack of fan presence, work is still being doing by those individuals aspiring to play at the professional level. Wednesday is the most physical day of practice in a controlled setting where evaluators get to see a level playing field for every individual through the day's drills. 

    The game itself is always competitive and certain talents rise to the occasion, but the importance of that specific day isn't nearly what fans think. General managers, scouts and decision-makers pour over the practice reps. They want to see how prospects perform when isolated and challenged.

    Everything matters regarding a player's evaluation. Everything. 

    "There was a player last year, and I won't say who, but was supposed to be drafted pretty highly," Carolina Panthers head coach Matt Rhule, who is leading this year's American Team, told reporters Tuesday. "And I got in the elevator with him at the combine, and I was like, by the end of that elevator ride, I was like, 'There's no way that guy will be a fit with us.'"

    Maybe the most important part of the Senior Bowl is how players improve through the week when they're around NFL coaching. A strong or weak initial performance Tuesday needs to be built upon the following practice. 

    Wednesday's standouts start with a Division III product, a running back transitioning to wide receiver and a complete linebacker prospect. Meanwhile, a high-profile ball-carrier made an interesting decision.

Early Interest in Alabama RB Najee Harris

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Alabama running back Najee Harris left the Crimson Tide as a two-time national champion and the program's all-time-leading rusher over the likes of Derrick Henry, Shaun Alexander and Mark Ingram Jr. But he's not one to rest on his laurels when an opportunity to compete presents itself, even if it comes two weeks after taking a collegiate field for the last time. 

    According to the Palm Beach Post's Joe Schad, Harris chose to participate during Senior Bowl week against the advice of his agent because the running back "couldn't be at the Senior Bowl and not compete." 

    Part of the reason scouts place so much emphasis on a prospect's Senior Bowl performance is the opportunity to compete against some of the best college football has to offer. Fearlessness of the moment says so much about how a young player internalizes potential adversity when facing the pressure cooker that is the NFL. 

    In Harris' case, he didn't have much to prove. He dominated at the collegiate level for a pipeline program. He's already a potential first-round pick. He didn't have to take part in individual sessions, but he did (though he did not take part in team sessions). But everyone around the league took notice of his approach. Two NFL franchises, in particular, may be more interested than others. 

    Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline reported the Miami Dolphins and Pittsburgh Steelers "have shown a lot of interest" in the 6'2", 230-pound ball-carrier. The Dolphins and Steelers own the 18th and 24th picks, respectively. 

    With a strong Senior Bowl week added to his resume, Harris could very well leave Mobile, Alabama, as the draft class' top running back prospect. Currently, either he or Clemson's Travis Etienne will likely be the first selected. But Harris' competitive nature could seriously influence one of those squad to tilt momentum in his favor.

UCLA's Demetric Felton Makes Position Switch

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Modern football is becoming a positionless game as it evolves. Due to roster limitations, injuries suffered throughout a season and style of play, the more a prospect can do, the harder he is to exclude from a roster. 

    So, potential position switches and the capability of playing multiple spots shouldn't go unnoticed. Some are more successful than others. 

    At UCLA, Demetric Felton started at wide receiver before converting to running back on a more permanent basis in 2019. In two seasons, the convert ran the ball 218 times for 999 yards. His greatest contributions still came in the passing game, though. Felton caught 77 passes over the last two seasons. 

    Obviously, NFL scouts prefer to see him at wide receiver. As the Draft Scout's Matt Miller noted during Wednesday's practice, Felton, who is listed as a running back on the Senior Bowl roster, moved to wide receiver. 

    The hybrid offensive weapon excelled when running routes. Felton easily created separation at the top of his stem, burnt defensive backs on double moves and showed excellent short-area quickness

    A year ago, Antonio Gibson made the opposite transition at the Senior Bowl, but the ability to be both a runner and receiver doesn't go unnoticed to scouts looking for instant offensive mismatches. Gibson worked himself into a third-round pick. Felton could find himself in Day 2 consideration after a strong week of practice at wide receiver. 

    One more quick note is necessary among those making a position switch.

    North Dakota State's Dillon Radunz saw action at left tackle and guard during Wednesday's practice, according to Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline. Some teams may view the potential Day 2 prospect as more of an interior blocker based on these reps, which might slightly deflate his overall value depending on a team's scheme fit. 

Matt Rhule Describes What He Sees in His QBs, Including Mac Jones

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    Danny Karnik/Associated Press

    Just over a year ago, Matt Rhule was a college coach helping his players get to the NFL. Now, he's an NFL coach helping those at the Senior Bowl get to the professional ranks. 

    As the head coach of the American Team, Rhule sits in a unique position, because his current squad, the Carolina Panthers, is a prime candidate to draft a quarterback with this year's eighth overall pick. He also happens to have the best quarterback in Mobile—Alabama's Mac Jones—on his roster. 

    When discussing what can be evaluated during a week of practice, Rhule told reporters

    "With the quarterbacks here [in Mobile] including Mac, I think you can see their ability depending on how you've decided to put in [with your playbook]. You can put in a simple game plan or a lot. We're always going to put a lot in. ... I think you find out their ability to learn, to recall. ... You have a chance to see how they handle stress. Managing anxiety and stress is a big part of that position. ... There's always something you can do better." 

    Jones isn't considered a top-10 prospect, but that didn't stop Daniel Jones from becoming one two years ago. The national championship-winning quarterback has excelled through two practices, and Rhule took notice. 

    "He's an alpha," the coach told Joe Person of the Panthers official site. "He's the first guy on the practice field. He’s the first guy on the run."

    The description feeds into what Rhule previously stated about the position: 

    "I think you want someone who is elitely intelligent and a tremendous leader. When I say intelligent, it's not the ability to gain information but process information. You want someone who is accurate with arm talent to make all of the throws. You also want someone who has a history of making plays in crucial situations."

    Jones may not be the most physically gifted prospect in the class, but he does seem to fit what his current all-star coach wants in the position. Maybe that pairing eventually extends beyond one week depending on what the Panthers decided to do with their initial draft pick. 

Division III Prospect Develops into Dominant Force

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Ali Marpet has made a significant contribution to the Super Bowl LV-bound Tampa Bay Buccaneers. 

    Six years ago, Marpet became the second-ever (and first since 1990) Division III prospect to attend the Senior Bowl. 

    "Honestly, just to be here is awesome, but I do want to show that I can dominate this level of competition," Marpet said at the time, per the Associated Press' John Zenor

    The offensive lineman did just that on his way to becoming a second-round pick by the Buccaneers. In doing so, he opened doors for other prospects at the lowest level of collegiate play.

    Last year, Saint John's Ben Bartch competed in Mobile before becoming a fourth-round pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars. This year, Wisconsin-Whitewater's Quinn Meinerz is opening eyes as one of the Senior Bowl's top performers through two days of practice. 

    To best describe Meinerz's style of play, one of Marpet's teammates needs to be invoked. The small-school interior blocker is burying defenders with a tenacity reminiscent of Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen. The standout pivot is a Division II product (Colorado State-Pueblo) himself. 

    Meinerz's dominant effort is impressive on two levels.

    First, he played guard at Wisconsin-Whitewater. He appears completely natural snapping the ball. In some instances, he's been better in this specific area than others who played the position prior to this week. Second, the Warhawks didn't play football in 2020. So Meinerz continues to excel despite a position switch and not being on the field for over a year. 

    Continuing his strong week could place Meinerz among the class' top three center prospects. 

Cincinnati's James Hudson III Boosts an Already Stacked OT Class

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    The Senior Bowl tends to make or break line prospects. The one-on-one pass-rushing drill is among the most anticipated events of the entire draft calendar. Anyone who shines on either side of the ball tends to see his draft status skyrocket. 

    This was never more true than eight years ago when a nimble Eric Fisher's smooth set eventually led to him being the No. 1 overall pick by the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    No one currently in Mobile should expect a similar rise. But Cincinnati's James Hudson III certainly has the movement skills to make himself one of the more sought-after prospects in the class. 

    Hudson, who transferred from Michigan to Cincinnati, took over the Bearcats' blindside duties during the program's Top 10 season after having his hardship waiver declined the previous year. 

    The 6'5", 302-pound tackle prospect slides well in his pass set and has the requisite athleticism to recover after initial contact. The early entrant does play over his toes a bit, but his balance is excellent—he won't be found on the ground too often. As an NFL offensive line coach improves his technique to complement his natural tools, Hudson can develop into a standout left tackle. 

    The 2020 class could feature as many as eight first-round offensive tackles. If an organization isn't able to land its preferred choice at that juncture or misses out if an early run at the position occurs, Hudson is a viable Day 2 alternative with tremendous upside. 

LB Jabril Cox Is Ideal Fit for Modern Game

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The upcoming Super Bowl meeting between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers provides two completely different approaches to the linebacker position. 

    The Chiefs don't value the position very highly, whereas the Buccaneers have one of the league's best defenders in Lavonte David and 2019 top-five pick Devin White playing along their second line of defense. 

    Both ways have proved to be successful. They do have a common thread, though. Both organizations emphasize range and playmaking ability at the position. 

    Sideline-to-sideline speed and a comfort level working in space are more important traits for linebackers today than playing between the tackles and excelling against the run. Thus, prospects who don't need to be taken off the field and can match up against tight ends and even some wide receivers are made for today's game. 

    LSU's Jabril Cox has been the best linebacker on the field through four total Senior Bowl practices. The 6'3", 233-pound defender showed the ability to carry receivers up the seam and shut down option or whip routes.  

    None of this should come as a surprise, as he's one of two linebackers with 100 or more snaps from the slot during the regular season, according to Optimum Scouting's Eric Galko

    Cox isn't in the same conversation as Penn State's Micah Parsons, Notre Dame's Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah or Tulsa's Zaven Collins since all three are potential first-round picks, but a patient team could very well land its own three-down linebacker on Day 2 with an investment in Cox. 

Injury Updates After First Day of Practice

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Inevitably, a few prospects suffer injuries during the week and are forced to miss practice and the actual Senior Bowl contest. 

    Three such instances came to the forefront after Tuesday's practice. 

    Washington defensive lineman Levi Onwuzurike will be hurt the worst by some missed time. Onwuzurike needed a big week after opting out of the 2020 campaign. According to Draft Scout's Matt Miller, the Tuesday standout tweaked a hip flexor. The defender plans to return to practice Thursday, though he and his representation could play it safe for the rest of the week.

    A return to the field would certainly help the defensive tackle put more snaps on tape for scouts to assess even if he's not 100 percent healthy. 

    Cornerback Rodarius Williams didn't participate during Wednesday's festivities, either, per NFL Network's Chase Goodbread. The reason behind his absence hasn't been revealed. Williams is already 24 years old—he'll turn 25 in September—and he started 48 consecutive games before an injury and eventual opt-out snapped the steak with two games left to play. 

    Georgia's Ben Cleveland left the field Tuesday with an apparent ankle injury. The hulking interior blocker didn't return to the practice field Wednesday, per The Athletic's Dane Brugler. Since he wasn't found on the sidelines, his absence probably indicates he's done for the week. 

    The 354-pound Cleveland is an overwhelming force at the point of attack. Due to his size and style of play, a decision to leave for the week is understandable. Scouts already have plenty of film of him burying his opponents during his senior season.