Top NFL Draft Takeaways from the 2021 Senior Bowl

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJanuary 31, 2021

Top NFL Draft Takeaways from the 2021 Senior Bowl

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    The 2021 Senior Bowl went off without a hitch Saturday, with the National Team defeating the American Team 27-24 at Hancock Whitney Stadium in Mobile, Alabama. 

    Normally, that sentence might come off as mundane and uninspired. But in this case, the fact that the event and its accompanying week of festivities happened at all is a miracle unto itself after the COVID-19 pandemic caused the cancellation of numerous college football games (and in some cases, entire seasons) and the yearly NFL Scouting Combine. 

    The importance of this year's Senior Bowl to draft evaluation can't be overstated. So many mitigating factors made this the most important week of some of the participants' liveswhether they didn't play this season or because they won't have an opportunity to prove themselves elsewhere. 

    Everyone knew exactly what was on the line during practices and the game. 

    "I have an FCS and a Division III guy, who didn't get to play this year," agent Ron Slavin told Sports Illustrated's Albert Breer, referring to Illinois State safety Christian Uphoff and Wisconsin-Whitewater offensive lineman Quinn Meinerz.

    "This is their Super Bowl. And then Carson Green from Texas A&M, they played a full season, he's beat up from an SEC season, but I said, 'Look, with no combine happening, going to the Senior Bowl is your best chance.' These guys have one more look at you, especially during the one-on-ones and the O-line stuff, that matters."

    And it did matter, particularly for those small-school prospects who showed out during the process. 

    Meinerz and Uphoff made themselves household names for those who watched coverage. Other high-profile prospects, like Alabama quarterback Mac Jones and North Carolina running back Michael Carter, secured their status as early-round possibilities. A few surprises, such as Texas A&M quarterback Kellen Mond and Tulane defensive end Cameron Sample, jumped to the forefront as well. 

    NFL general managers and scouts are going to refer back to this week often as they prepare for the draft—and likely use it as a rationalization why their respective team should or shouldn't select a particular prospect. 

Mac Jones Shows He's a Top QB Prospect

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    Alabama's Mac Jones didn't participate in the actual Senior Bowl game, but it didn't matter. He did more than enough during practice to establish himself as the clear-cut top quarterback in Mobile. He leaves the week as a surefire first-round pick, with a chance of being the fourth or fifth signal-caller drafted in 2021.

    Although, Jones would argue he had nothing to prove after a record-setting campaign with the Crimson Tide. The 22-year-old led major college football with a 77.4 completion percentage (which set an FBS record) and 4,500 passing yards.

    "I don't think I need to prove anything," Jones told reporters during the week. "The tape is the tape and I did what I did."

    The quarterback opted not to participate in the game after tweaking an ankle during Thursday's practice.

    While nothing Jones said is wrong, evaluators needed to see how he'd respond when not playing in the perfect cockpit with the most talented surrounding cast in college football. What they saw is a quarterback who continually completed passes in rhythm and on target. More importantly, the Heisman Trophy finalist showed he's a natural leader when placed in a professional atmosphere.

    "He's an alpha," Carolina Panthers and American Team head coach Matt Rhule told reporters. "He's the first guy on the practice field. He's the first guy in the runnings."

    One of the biggest selling points for scouts is seeing how individuals interact with new teammates in an uncertain situation. Leaders naturally emerge, and Jones appears to be one.

    Did the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award winner supplant other top quarterbacks in the class? Most likely not. But he showed more than enough to warrant consideration as early as the top half of the first round, especially in a year when so many teams are searching for a young starting-caliber quarterback.

Quarterbacks Trending in Opposite Directions

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    Preseason draft projections can be misleading. What was seen during a previous season could be an indicator of future success, or it could lead scouts in the wrong direction. 

    For quarterback Jamie Newman, he looked like an early-round possibility after a promising 2019 performance with the Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Newman chose to transfer to Georgia for the '20 campaign but opted out before the season began. 

    Five months ago, the prevailing thought was that Newman could work himself into first-round consideration with a big year as a Bulldog. Instead, he created more questions, which he didn't necessarily answer in Mobile. 

    To be crystal clear, Newman needed to explain why he left Georgia after committing to the program when interviewed by NFL team scouts, as he did with reporters earlier this week. An understanding of the decision-making process could certainly help in his evaluations—unsurprisingly, Newman wore a Wake Forest helmet all week. 

    The interview process was only half of the equation, though. Newman had to show he could be a consistent passer and display the potential many thought he possessed coming into this season. In that regard, he didn't pass inspection. 

    While Newman certainly presents the requisite arm talent and velocity to intrigue decision-makers, he's clearly a developmental prospect with poor pocket presence. In fact, the quarterback took five sacks during the Senior Bowl. To be fair, the offensive line didn't hold up well, but Newman could have showed better recognition and mobility to avoid pressure and find throwing lanes. 

    The one-time early-round projection is more like a Day 3 option at this juncture. 

    On the flip side, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond (pictured) entered Senior Bowl week as an erratic passer with flashes of brilliance, and scouts continued to see the potential in his passing traits. Mond experienced his share of ups and downs during the practice week, but he performed well during the game by making multiple tight-window throws with a pair of touchdown tosses. 

    As a result, Mond won this year's Senior Bowl MVP award. 

    "It's a huge sign of everything that I've worked for," the former Aggie said during a postgame interview on the NFL Network telecast. 

    The top five quarterbacks are set with Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields, BYU's Zach Wilson, North Dakota State's Trey Lance and Alabama's Mac Jones. From there, the possibilities are wide open in a league that could see unprecedented turnover at the game's most important position. 

    Newman and Mond are intriguing, but they're definitely tracking in opposite directions.

Small-School Standouts

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    The Senior Bowl always means a little more for those who didn't attend a pipeline program or a Power Five school. Those prospects who didn't get recruited to the same degree (if at all) have something to prove once they take the practice field during Senior Bowl week. 

    Usually, questions about their performance relative to the level of competition persist even during a normal year. They still do, but the added obstacle of very little to no playing time during an unprecedented season created an even higher level of difficulty for those outside the realm of major college football. 

    Multiple small-school prospects came to Mobile and conquered the process. 

    North Dakota State offensive lineman Dillon Radunz (pictured) secured his status as the top non-FBS prospect in this year's draft due to a stellar performance in which he showed the ability to play both left tackle and guard. In doing so, the 6'6", 308-pound blocker won the award for Overall Practice Player of the Week, as voted on by his peers, despite playing in only one game this past season.  

    "To stay in shape, I pushed my conditioning and my body to get stronger and more durable, so that way when I do go into a regular season I'll be stronger and more durable than I was before," Radunz told Gavino Borquez of USA Today's Chargers Wire. "I went to California and started training with Joe Staley and his weight trainer. I was able to gain a lot of strength and a lot of football IQ, on and off the field from Joe and how the league operates."

    Radunz might have been the best player on the field, but he wasn't the most popular. 

    Wisconsin-Whitewater's Quinn Meinerz drew everyone's attention with his crop-top jersey and gritty demeanor. The Division III guard transitioned seamlessly to center during the practice week and skyrocketed from a potential Day 3 selection to one of the top pivots in the entire class. 

    If Meinerz's play and on-field intensity weren't enough to sell scouts on his potential, his toughness certainly will be. The 6'3", 320-pound interior lineman broke his hand during the practice week but finished strong.

    "It's 100 percent cliche," Meinerz’s agent, Ron Slavin, told Yahoo's Eric Edholm, "but it's completely true: He's all about football. He's been training and practicing for this moment, and he's absolutely making the most of it. He's not letting [the broken hand] slow him down at all."

    Meinerz won the award for the National Team's offensive line practice player of the week, while Grambling State's David Moore Jr. was his American Team counterpart. The latter is a powerhouse, 350-pound interior people-mover. Once Moore locked onto a defender, the rep was over. 

    Defensively, Illinois State safety Christian Uphoff, who also captured a practice player of the week nod, came into the event as another big (6'2", 213 lbs) and physical defensive back, yet he showed the capability to turn and mirror in coverage against quality wide receiver prospects. 

    One of those wide receivers was South Dakota State's Cade Johnson, who had an outstanding week. A projected slot receiver, Johnson was slippery in and out of his routes, which caused problems for defensive backs. 

Amari Rodgers Punctuates Outstanding Week by WRs with Strong Game Effort

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    An oft-overlooked aspect of football trending more heavily toward the passing game is the amount of wide receiver talent found during every single draft. 

    College football now produces deep and exciting receiver classes on a yearly basis, with a bevy of prospects presenting differing skill sets. 

    If a team is looking for an X receiver, one will be available. If an organization wants to wait a little longer and dip into the slot receiver pool, plenty can be found. All week long, the wide receivers dazzled, with more than a few turning heads. 

    Early in the week, the buzz around reigning Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith built after he decided to attend, though he couldn't practice due to a finger injury suffered during the CFB National Championship Game. 

    Western Michigan's D'Wayne Eskridge and Florida's Kadarius Toney emerged as impossible-to-cover targets throughout weekday sessions. Both saw their draft stocks skyrocket and didn't need a game performance to help their respective cases. 

    Clemson's Amari Rodgers went about his business and put together the strongest day-by-day performance of any wide receiver in attendance. He punctuated the week with arguably the best play of the actual Senior Bowl game and a few other catches thrown in for good measure. With the American Team working from the 15-yard line, the slot receiver took an outside release, bent the route back inside and made an outstanding touchdown catch despite a safety playing over the top with a clean shot at the receiver. 

    Rodgers is an exemplary slot receiver due to his toughness, quickness, route running and reliability. 

    Arizona State's Frank Darby, South Carolina's Shi Smith, Tennessee's Josh Palmer and Oklahoma State's Tylan Wallace (before his injury) all impressed. 

    If your favorite team needs a wide receiver, instant contributors will be found throughout the upcoming draft. 

Michael Carter Emerges as a Top-3 Running Back Prospect

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    Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

    North Carolina's Michael Carter put together an outstanding season with 1,245 rushing yards and 8.0 yards per attempt. In some ways, the All-ACC performer was overlooked. 

    Carter shared a backfield with Javonte Williams, who also ran for 1,140 yards and an impressive 19 touchdowns. From a national perspective, Alabama's Najee Harris and Clemson's Travis Etienne certainly drew the most attention for their play. 

    Yet Carter continued to impress with his vision, elusiveness and natural running ability. All of these things translated throughout the week as the best running back in Mobile. 

    "He's a hardworking kid," Miami Dolphins and National Team head coach Brian Flores told reporters of Carter. "He's smart. He's tough. He was productive all week. He had a very nice career for UNC. He's a good back."

    It's important to note the Dolphins are a team in need of running back help and just got firsthand knowledge of who Carter is as a player and person. 

    At this juncture, where Carter fits in the overall class is important since the running back position isn't valued as highly as others. 

    Harris and possibly Etienne are potential first-round picks. Neither should expect to hear their names called before the Dolphins are on the board with the third and the 18th overall selections. However, Miami and others could wait and see what's available later in the process. 

    For example, Miami owns the 36th overall pick, which may be the perfect spot for Carter. The NFL's three best running backs—the Tennessee Titans' Derrick Henry, Cleveland Browns' Nick Chubb and Minnesota Vikings' Dalvin Cook—all landed in the second round. 

    Carter, who garnered 10 touches Saturday for 75 total yards, including a powerful 12-yard rushing touchdown, could very well be the best value pick among all of the incoming running backs. 

Washington's Keith Taylor Leads a Sizable CB Class

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    Matthew Hinton/Associated Press

    The cornerback position is slowly changing to account for today's prolific passing attack. Since the game is set up in the offense's favor, investments in long, physical and athletic cornerbacks to shrink passing windows serve as a countermove by many franchises. 

    A quick glimpse at the Senior Bowl roster shows how the position looks different today than it once did: 

    • Ifeatu Melifonwu, Syracuse: 6'3", 212 pounds
    • Benjamin St-Juste, Minnesota, 6'3", 200 pounds
    • Keith Taylor, Washington: 6'2", 191 pounds
    • Mark Webb, Georgia: 6'1", 210 pounds

    Prospects with that much size and length used to be safeties. Richard Sherman's success in the Seattle Seahawks' famed Cover 3 scheme began to change how the game was played for those in the defensive backfield. 

    If a corner can be physical at the line of scrimmage and reroute targets or sit back in zone, survey the field in front of him and make plays on the ball, the unit could be just as effective as others with shutdown cover corners. 

    What's amazing with some of those already mentioned is that they performed well despite being continually placed in a situation that's advantageous to the offense. 

    Taylor, in particular, excelled. Everyone saw a big corner with the ability to open his hips and run with receivers. More importantly, he often got his head around to make the play off the ball instead of using his size to try to overwhelm targets. Therein lies the difference. It's easy to find big corners who can bully receivers, yet they struggle when asked to actually mirror in coverage. The combination of size, length and athleticism is becoming more prevalent as the years pass, and Taylor is an excellent example. 

    There's always room for smaller, quicker corners who shadow receivers, of course. The Buffalo Bills' Tre'Davious White and Green Bay Packers' Jaire Alexander are excellent examples. At the same time, prospects like those mentioned are changing the way the game is played.