4 Things to Learn From the 2016 Senior Bowl
I’ll be honest: all I knew about Mobile, Alabama, before this past week was that it was near the Gulf of Mexico, the Mobile BayBears minor-league baseball team played there, and it was the home of the Reeses’ Senior Bowl -- the top all-star game for fourth-year college football players.
For all I knew before coming down here, it could’ve been the Lost City of Atlantis, but with really nice iron latticework and killer barbecue.
This past week covering the Senior Bowl was an eye-opening experience for many reasons, the least of which was certainly not getting to actually watch days of practice and interview these budding National Football League players. The environment was so conducive to learning information and really knowing what makes these players tick that I had to share my impressions of the Senior Bowl, from the perspective of a first-year media member in Mobile.
Along with this, I'll write up a series of articles on undervalued fantasy players from the Senior Bowl for each position. But, first, you should understand exactly what the Mobile experience is like.
So, with barbecue sauce in my veins and football in my heart, here are four things I took away from the 2016 Senior Bowl.
1. There Were at Least Five First-Round Draft Picks in Mobile
When you collect the best fourth-year college players in the country and have them compete against each other, it becomes much easier to compare talent across conferences and levels. This week of practices, with the best of the best on an even playing field, have really boosted or solidified premium prospect status. Depending on whose scouting reports you read, there are upwards of five first-round talents who competed in Mobile, possibly more. I personally read and trust Dan Kadar of SB Nation, and his most recent mock draft shows seven Senior Bowl invitees going on Day 1.
One of the best examples of this is my favorite player in the class: Eastern Kentucky University defensive end Noah Spence wowed in Senior Bowl practices. He played hard and consistently beat anyone the coaches threw at him during the week. In fact, during practice, he had a string of three back-to-back players during full team drills where -- if they had full contact clearance -- he would have leveled North Carolina State quarterback Jacoby Brissett. Instead, he stripped the ball on one or two of those plays.
In the Senior Bowl, he posted two solo tackles, one of which was a sack, and -- while he didn’t show it in the box score -- he was a disruptive force that kicked open the door for other pass-rushers in the game. In his final year at EKU, Spence collected 22.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, 63 tackles (31 solo), 15 quarterback hurries, and 3 forced fumbles. He would be an excellent fit for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or New York Giants.
2. The Senior Quarterback Class Is Really Weak
It’s no surprise to anyone that North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz is currently under strong consideration for the Cleveland Browns’ pick at second overall in the 2016 NFL Draft -- a team with a bottom-third passing offense according to our schedule-adjusted numbers in 2015 -- but perhaps we need to slow the roll on his immediate impact. Wentz had a solid Senior Bowl week in terms of performance during the drills, but it was clear that he is not a polished passing product. His talent is very evident, but his arm action was unrepeatable and he’ll need to clean up his footwork.
This was on display in Saturday’s game, as he completed 6 of 10 passes for 50 yards -- the third-lowest yards per attempt average among the four Senior Bowl quarterbacks who attempted at least 10 passes in the game. He also regressed somewhat in his senior season at NDSU, posting a 62.5 percent completion percentage and 7.9 yards per attempt a year after his 63.7 percent completion and 8.7 yards per attempt in his junior year. The Browns don’t have the luxury of sitting on a quarterback for a year and letting him develop.
What’s perhaps more shocking is how poor the rest of the field looked as well. Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskell was perhaps the next-best passer in the week’s drills, and he was having issues with pass placement all over the field. USC’s Cody Kessler didn’t have the arm strength to hit short outs in practice. Arkansas’s Brandon Allen tucked the ball three consecutive times and ran it in 1-on-1 receiving drills. It’s no small wonder than Cal’s Jared Goff and Memphis’s Paxton Lynch are such highly valued commodities in 2016.
3. Hype Trains Get Very Real, Very Quickly
Another rumbling that has come out of Mobile is the roaring hype train that is the draft stock of Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller. Miller was formerly the Buckeyes’ starting quarterback going into the 2014 season, and then succumbed to a torn labrum in his throwing shoulder that had the potential to derail his NFL career. Instead of struggling through it, Miller and the team agreed on a switch to wide receiver for the 2015 season. All the 6'2'', 215-pound speedster did after that was rack up 340 receiving yards and 3 receiving touchdowns on 25 catches (13.6 yards per reception), and tally 261 rushing yards and one ground score on 43 carries (6.1 Yards Per Carry).
He carried that over into the week of Senior Bowl, where his lateral agility and vertical speed torched cornerbacks in drills who had been playing their position for years -- he’s played receiver for just over seven months. He ran deep out routes, double moves, quick slants, and go routes with ease -- demonstrating his athleticism and intelligence -- and really just needs to refine his footwork and catching. That rawness was on display in the Senior Bowl, as he was targeted six times, catching just two of those passes for a total of 8 yards receiving.
He has incredible upside and, after coming into the Senior Bowl week projected in the third or fourth round of the NFL Draft, he’s almost a lock to go in the second round come May.
4. Defense Is King in the 2016 NFL Draft
Part of this is about the dearth of offensive skill position talent in this year’s class, but the defensive prospects that showed up to Ladd-Peebles Stadium showed out as well. Louisville defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins drastically increased his draft stock, as he was nearly unstoppable in practices, whether he was facing single or double blocks. Defensive tackles Jarran Reed of Alabama (four tackle, 0.5 tackles for a loss) and D.J. Reader of Clemson (two tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss) were just as disruptive, and showed why the SEC is recognized for their defense.
The defensive backs, too, did a number. Boise State safety Darian Thompson had two pass breakups in the game, to go with five total tackles, backing up his stats from the regular season that gave him the second-lowest Passer Rating among Senior Bowl safeties and the highest Incompletion Forced Rate (per Pro Football Focus). Temple cornerback Tavon Young was a big riser, in addition, as he posted four total tackles and a pass breakup in the game, and was lights-out in coverage across the week.
Individual defensive player (IDP) fantasy leagues are going to get a huge increase in talent from the 2016 NFL Draft.