Senior Bowl Daily Notebook: Florida WR Kadarius Toney Is a Star-in-the-Making
Certain words come out of the mouth of every coach, scout and decision-maker once Senior Bowl week begins. They want to see the incoming players compete. They want them to improve throughout the week. They want to see how they absorb a professional playbook.
Prospects in Mobile, Alabama, for the Senior Bowl had one more day of practice to prove themselves before the NFL scouts and front-office personnel in attendance depart.
The actual game is part of the evaluation, of course. But game-day performances aren't viewed in the same manner as practice reps that place players in scenarios teams want to see.
"We're still building a roster," Carolina defensive coordinator Phil Snow told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer. "It's important at every position that we evaluate properly for this draft and the following draft. ... We talked about it, said, 'Hey, let's go do this thing.'"
Snow's frame of reference extends beyond the defensive side of the ball. Everyone is looking for versatile prospects capable of doing more than what's typically asked of their position.
The Panthers and Miami Dolphins gain firsthand knowledge of the players as their coaches for the week. But those not on the field get to see how every aspiring pro reacts to the situations in which they're placed.
"This week, for the vast majority of these [decision-makers], this will be the first time laying their eyeballs on players," an anonymous general manager told Breer.
Thursday is the last full practice before Friday's walk-through session. Who came to play with their future on the line? Florida wide receiver Kadarius Toney, UCF safety Richie Grant and Alabama quarterback Mac Jones established themselves as top stars during the practice week.
Florida's Kadarius Toney Upgrades to Uncoverable Status
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, DeVonta Smith, entered Senior Bowl week as the biggest name and highest-rated prospect in Mobile. A hand injury he suffered during the National Championship Game prevented the Alabama product from participating in the practices, though.
Without Smith on the field, Kadarius Toney established himself as the top wide receiver and arguably the best prospect at the 2021 event.
An argument can be made that Alabama's Mac Jones (more on him later) will be the first participant to come off the draft board in April. However, Jones' positional value doesn't necessarily trump Toney's overall worth in the draft class. By that, it's easy to envision a scenario in which a team reaches for the quarterback before a top-five wide receiver comes off the board.
Recent trends show top rookie targets almost never come from the top of the class.
Over the last five drafts, the following threats weren't the first receivers off the board: the New Orleans Saints' Michael Thomas, Pittsburgh Steelers' JuJu Smith-Schuster, Atlanta Falcons' Calvin Ridley, Seattle Seahawks' DK Metcalf and Minnesota Vikings' Justin Jefferson. Each heard his name called in the latter portion of the first round or later.
Toney will likely fall somewhere behind Smith, LSU's Ja'Marr Chase and Alabama's Jaylen Waddle during the process, but it doesn't take away from the fact that no cornerback can cover him in Mobile.
For three straight practices, the 5'11", 198-pound pass-catcher ran circles around defenders. His quickness off the line of scrimmage with explosive footwork makes him nearly impossible to jam. His speed and selling of routes force defensive backs to bail out of their backpedal before they should, which creates significant underneath separation. His size doesn't limit his ability to catch the ball outside of his frame with ease, either.
A few drops during the week can't besmirch the fact that Toney spent all week creating significant separation and dusting those in coverage.
Potential WR Targets for Baltimore Ravens
Transparency isn't typical from NFL front offices. Usually, general managers treat their draft preferences like they're guarding the nuclear codes.
The Baltimore Ravens decided to do things a little differently this year. General manager Eric DeCosta took to social media and acknowledged what everyone outside the organization already knew.
"I hear that we may need some wide receivers," DeCosta said.
The front office executive identified four specific prospects in Mobile as players of interest:
- Kadarius Toney, Florida: "Intriguing prospect with really good size and really good speed. Catches the ball very well."
- Tylan Wallace, Oklahoma State (pictured): "Another guy with home run potential. Consistent playmaker."
- Sage Surratt, Wake Forest: "Bigger guy. Good hands. Crafty route-runner. Very good inside receiving threat who can make plays down the field."
- D'Wayne Eskridge, Western Michigan: "A sleeper. ... Very, very explosive guy. Has averaged over 20 yards per catch throughout his career. Can return punts and kicks and is a home-run-potential type of guy."
DeCosta didn't really reveal much considering these prospects have been arguably the best performers at their position throughout the week so far. However, where each of those potential prospects could land varies.
With the 27th overall pick, only Toney will likely be in play. Wallace, Surratt and Eskridge are more-than-likely Day 2 options.
Whether the Ravens actually land any of these wide receivers is inconsequential. Baltimore's front office knows it needs help at the position, which is the biggest takeaway from DeCosta's surprising social media appearance.
Early Standouts Don't Practice
The best way to make a positive impression on scouts is by stacking good practices on top of each other.
Uneven performances against standout competition tend to be worrisome. But incremental growth on a daily basis portends how a prospect can perform when placed in a professional atmosphere.
That's impossible to accomplish when injuries occur. Just like any other week of competitive football, players find themselves on the sideline due to numerous maladies.
In this particular case, a handful of standouts from the first two practices weren't available for Thursday's sessions.
The Athletic's Dane Brugler reported that Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge, Oklahoma State's Tylan Wallace, Wake Forest's Sage Surratt and North Carolina linebacker Chazz Surratt didn't participate during the National Team's practice. Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson had his right knee wrapped during the latter portion of the day.
As noted earlier, the three wide receivers mentioned (Eskridge, Wallace and Sage Surratt) had caught the eye of teams with their play. Eskridge, in particular, had been one of the best players for either squad through the first two days. Their inability to continue their performance through a third day is disappointing, though their absence shouldn't affect their draft status—as long as they're just dinged.
Wilson's situation is a little different in that he never lived up to future-first-rounder expectations in his final season and dealt with injuries throughout the campaign. Eventually, he required season-ending hand surgery.
While the two issues aren't one and the same, NFL teams will question if he'll be able to play through the rigors of a professional campaign. The defensive tackle class is already razor-thin. Wilson not showing he can manage through a week of practice doesn't help.
Mac Jones' Week May Be Complete
Alabama's Mac Jones did exactly what he was supposed to do during Senior Bowl week: He showed up, performed like the best quarterback at the event and solidified his status as a top-five quarterback prospect in April's draft.
"The fact that he's here, I think, speaks a lot about who he is," Carolina Panthers and American Team head coach Matt Rhule told reporters Thursday. "You get a chance to see his intelligence. He makes really quick decisions. He processes information quickly, highly intelligent. He's an alpha. He's the first guy on the practice field. He's the first guy in the runnings.
"He's got a lot of really, really, really strong traits."
It won't come as a surprise when scouts award him the best quarterback during the practice week—which the event does annually for all positions.
Unfortunately, the Heisman Trophy finalist might not play in Saturday's game after tweaking an ankle during Thursday's practice.
The Boston Globe's Jim McBride noted he came up gimpy after escaping the pocket and scrambling during a team session. Jones told reporters there's "a chance" he won't play Saturday depending on how he feels after treatment.
The Davey O'Brien Award winner doesn't need to play since he already showed what he can do during the week as both a passer and leader on the field. At the same time, a strong performance in the actual game certainly wouldn't hurt his status as he tries to elevate his draft stock.
Jones' health is of the utmost importance, of course. He doesn't need to risk further injury. But if he can play and continues to do well, he could very well become a top-20 pick.
Richie Grant Shines as Top Defensive Star
A lesser-known name emerged over the last three days as the best defender on the Hancock Whitney Stadium turf.
Wake Forest's Carlos Basham Jr., Florida State's Marvin Wilson and North Carolina's Chazz Surratt are certainly more recognizable names after entering the 2020 campaign as highly regarded prospects.
But UCF safety Richie Grant continually stole the show.
Usually, safety prospects fit into one of two categories when they're evaluated. Either they are better playing the deep third as a free safety by excelling when covering ground in the passing game, or they're deemed box safeties who are much better near the line of scrimmage and thrive with the ball in front of them.
Grant is a complete prospect with the capabilities of fulfilling multiple roles.
In one-on-one coverage drills, the defensive back showed his stick-to-itiveness, especially against the tight ends he blanketed. On Thursday, he covered the slot and showed excellent ball skills. Eventually, he grabbed a pair of interceptions during team drills.
First, the safety read the quarterback's eyes and played over the top for an easy pick. He then played a little corner where his route recognition came to the forefront when he undercut an intended red-zone target and snagged another interception.
While ball skills are more coveted than ever, Grant is also physical and competes on every rep.
The safety class isn't exactly deep. TCU's Trevon Moehrig is the top prospect at the position almost by default. However, Grant's excellent performance throughout the week just might place him in the conversation.
Baron Browning's Intriguting Potential
The Ohio State Buckeyes linebackers weren't good during the 2020 campaign. The Alabama Crimson Tide exploited the unit during the CFP National Championship Game.
Anytime a specific group struggles as the Buckeyes' did, one has to question whether it's due to a lack of ability or poor utilization. In this particular case, issues stemmed from both.
For Baron Browning, he never had an opportunity to do what he does best on a consistent basis, which is getting after opposing quarterbacks.
The Senior Bowl is the perfect atmosphere for a physically gifted prospect like Browning to shine, especially as an edge defender. Throughout the week, the linebacker was physical at the point of attack and showed his natural bend and athleticism getting past blockers.
Tight ends certainly couldn't handle Browning in pass protection. The 6'3", 241-pound defender blew past offensive tackles as well.
Teams won't want to use the third-team All-Big Ten performer as a traditional linebacker. He struggles with recognition and playing in space. However, he can be an excellent sub-package defender from the onset of his career when asked to play downhill and get after opposing quarterbacks.
Potential always plays a significant part in a prospect's evaluation. Scouts never quite saw the best of Browning during his collegiate career. The Senior Bowl showed additional glimpses. His status will depend on his future team's plan on how to utilize his skill set.
Outland Trophy Winner Continues to Improve
Alabama offensive tackle Alex Leatherwood is an excellent example of a prospect not letting his early struggles bleed into the following day's practice.
As stated Tuesday, the reigning Outland Trophy winner experienced his share of ups and downs against athletic edge-rushers. But he's gotten better each day and really got coaches excited Thursday.
According to NFL Network's Chase Goodbread, Leatherwood "drew praise from coaches for better hand usage."
Questions won't go away about the 6'5", 312-pound blocker's ability to play tackle because he's not the most fluid offensive lineman. He has some stiffness in his hips. As such, some teams will still have him graded as an interior prospect. That's OK.
Leatherwood set out to prove he's a left tackle this week. He has the requisite length (34⅜-inch arms) to play the position, two seasons of playing at the highest level and incremental improvement during Senior Bowl week to state his case.
All the two-time first-team All-SEC performer needs is one team to fall him love with him as a tackle prospect and draft him during the first round. At that point, it won't matter who thought he should be moved to guard.
The fact that he's gotten better in difficult one-on-one situations shows he's open to coaching, capable of making adjustments when facing adversity and should be able to hold up against NFL pass-rushers when asked to cover a quarterback's blind side.
Intriguing QB Prospect Takes Field Before Senior Bowl Practice
Outside of Alabama's Mac Jones, the Senior Bowl quarterbacks haven't impressed. Maybe the most intriguing prospect to take the field this week isn't actually on the American or National Team rosters.
Stanford's Davis Mills worked out in front of scouts prior to Tuesday's practice, per NFL Draft Bible's Ric Serritella.
The NFL placed the onus of the predraft process on college programs this year. With the scouting combine canceled, each program's pro day will serve as the primary conduit for information gathering among the NFL community.
Not all programs are prioritizing those events, though. Originally, Pro Football Network's Tony Pauline reported Stanford planned to cancel its pro day. Serritella confirmed that it's been moved to March.
With the uncertainly, Mills chose to take advantage of an opportunity presented at the Senior Bowl, albeit in an unofficial capacity. It certainly helped.
A West Coast scout told Pauline that Mills "is the hidden gem at the quarterback position in this year's draft" and expects the former Cardinal signal-caller to "continually climb draft boards as teams come to know him."
Due to extenuating circumstances—injuries to previous Stanford starter K.J. Costello in 2019 and canceled games this past fall—Mills played in 13 games over the last two seasons. He completed 66 percent of his passes for 3,464 yards with an 18-to-8 touchdown-to-interception ratio during those contests.
Mills was a 5-star recruit coming out of high school. His collegiate career might not have gone quite as expected, but his potential as a pocket passer is apparent. Once teams get past the top five or six quarterback prospects—Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance, Alabama's Mac Jones and Florida's Kyle Trask—Mills presents as much potential as anyone in the class.