With the NFL season now in the books, we have officially entered the pre-draft process. While the combine and pro days are still ahead, the evaluation period has already started with the three major all-star games for upcoming NFL prospects – the East-West Shrine game, NFPA Bowl and the Senior Bowl of course. I re-watched all the practices and now I can tell you who stood out to me the most.
With that being said, this list is about who has boosted their draft stock the most so far, instead of simply telling you who the best players were. South Carolina defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw for example looked like the baddest dude on the field down in Mobile, but he only practiced two days and didn’t show anything we hadn’t seen, which validated more what most people already thought of him, instead of really taking him to a different level. Other guys might not have been on some teams’ draft board at all because of where they come from, but now scouts will look more into them because of what they showcased against a different level of competition.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
And as I get to my first player, I already want to note that there are other guys who have improved their eventual draft pick more through this early stage of the process, but no quatrterback has impressed scouts more so far than the clear headliner among the actual participants. Obviously Herbert has all the physical gifts, measuring in at 6’6”, 227 pounds with a huge arm and excellent athleticism for the position, but that’s not what impressed me most. I thought for a young man, who I have always thought needs to do a better job anticipating throws and not waiting for receivers to actually come open, he did very well in that regard with receivers he had never thrown to. Of course he also made some nice throws rolling either way and he can drive the ball to the opposite hash as well as anybody in this draft class. Herbert fired some absolute piss-missiles during the two-minutes drill on day three, which left the audience gushing. If not for Utah State’s Jordan Love putting together a really good week himself, the Oregon QB would have been heads and shoulders above the rest. Herbert has likely secured a spot in the top ten of the draft.
Joshua Kelley, RB, UCLA
My favorite running back to watch during the pre-draft process so far has been this former Bruin. I already knew about Kelley’s explosveness once he got into the open, but among some of the best college players in the country, he made a lot of them look slow with the way he burned their angles. Every time he touchded the ball it felt like fireworks were about to go off because of the incredible acceleration. Kelley displayed excellent vision for backside cutbacks on zone run plays and he was also pretty shifty before putting on the jets when sorting through traffic on the interior. While he wasn’t asked to contribute too much in the passing game at UCLA, according to his former head coach Chip Kelly, it was largely because they wanted to give their workhorse a break on third downs. In Mobile he looked great coming out of the backfield, routinely putting a little English on his routes and making linebackers look bad in one-on-ones. Kelley did a little a double-jab to get away from Ohio State’s Malik Harrison and he also made Cal’s Evan Weaver fall down trying to catch up once.
James Robinson, RB, Illinois State
While I obviously understand that small-school kids like this guy don’t always get Senior Bowl invites, with the accomplishments, stats and highlights he has produced, it would have been the right call. Robinson is a two-time Walter Payton award finalist in the FCS, who put together over 1900 yards and 23 touchdowns in 2019. During East-West Shrine week, he sliced through the defense constantly. With his low center of gravity and elusive moves, Robinson was really tough to bring down and his speed stood out as well, after it enabled him to rip off several 40+ yard-runs at Illinois State. He also won on a bunch of routes in one-on-ones against the linebacker, where he had some shake and caught the ball with ease. That was important for him after recording just 16 grabs last season and some size-related problems in pass pro, where he has too much of a wind-up with his arms picking up blitzers. In the actual game he had a 46-yard screen pass in the on third-and-long, where it already looked like he would end up short of the marker, and he came back in the fourth quarter with a 61-yard TD run.
Raymond Calais, RB, Louisiana Lafayette
Moving on to my standout running back from the NFLPA Bowl. Calais’ knack for the big play was apparent for Louisiana Lafayette, where he went for 1860 rushing yards on 7.8 yards a carry and scored 15 touchdown during his collegiate career, but it seemed to be at a different level watching him go to work in Pasadena. As a one-cut and go type runner perfectly suited for a zone-based scheme, his pure speed is elite of course, but at 5’9”, 185 pounds it is the physicality he runs the ball with that really impresses me. Calais showed off that instant acceleration and blazing speed on a 101-yard return touchdown in the actual game. However, the one play to me that stood out however came later in the third quarter when he caught a ball over the middle and made a guy miss, but as if he was shot out of a cannon he almost slipped through a crease to go the distance once again. Rarely do you see a featured back coming out of this game and even last year in college this kid wasn’t the leading rusher for the Ragin Cajuns, but he could develop into a nice splash player on special teams and a change-of-pace back.
Van Jefferson, WR, Florida
The 2020 Senior Bowl was absolutely loaded with talent at the wide receiver position, but nobody won more of his battles than this kid. Van Jefferson impressed everybody with his sudden moves as a route-runner and the separation he could create that way. He had some perfect reps coming clean out of breaks and working back towards the ball. The former Gator elevates and attacks the ball once it’s in the air and he plucks it out of there instead of letting it get back into his body. I thought he also did a nice job adjusting to balls that were slightly off target and consistently found a way to way to put himself in-between the pass and the defender, before quickly securing the ball. While he put a little too much extra into some of his routes, when the stem was against the DBs leverage, he was very efficient with it overall. Not only did Jefferson dominate pretty much everybody during one-on-ones, but he also made plays all over the field during skelly and team drills, even if he didn’t have a huge game.
Binjimen Victor & K.J. Hill, WRs, Ohio State
This is our first pairing of teammates, even if they had to take a different path with Victor going to the East-West Shrine game and Hill getting the invite to the Senior Bowl. What they had in common was that they both put together highlight reel plays in practice. Victor ran some pretty slick routes during one-on-ones with the DBs in St. Petersburg. Once he put the San Diego State corner on skates, when he gave him a quick burst to the outside to fake the go-route and then broke it off back to the curl. On another one against Minnesota’s Chris Williamson, he basically shoved the defender off as that guy was trying to play stack-technique and then made a phenomenal high-point grab on the comeback route. This young man is a nightmare to cover on pivot routes and other stuff with multiple breaks, because he can also simply speed-release and run right by defenders.
Hill put together a bunch of very impressive reps in one-on-ones himself in Mobile, where he left defenders behind in the dust, got in and out of his breaks with ease and caught pretty much everything coming his way. He is technically sound route-runner, who attacks leverages and uses his hands very well to create separation. While I want to add that on some of those Youtube-worthy routes there is no way he will have that time to set it up in the pros, he should have answered some of those questions about playing on the outside and against press, after lining up almost exclusively in the slot for the Buckeyes. Hill also made an absolutely ridiculous one-handed grab on a crossing route with the ball behind him without even breaking stride during team drills.
Ja’Marcus Bradley, WR, Louisiana Lafayette
Two skill players from the Ragin Cajuns on a list for draft risers? You read this correctly. Bradley was the most dynamic target for ULL in 2019, being used in the screen game as well as downfield option. During East-West Shrine week he proved that he is a complete receiver with the way he ruled his matchups against the DBs. I really like the way he attacks back towards the quarterback on curl routes, as well as how he high-points the ball and turns his body to come down with some tough grabs. I thought Bradley just looked smooth as a route-runner, making corners disappear from the picture when cutting on deep in-breaking routes or completely leaving guys behind in the dust on post-corners. The six-foot, 200 pound receiver also held onto some balls that came out late and he had a defender draped all over him by then. In the actual game Bradley caught two balls for 27 yards, including the first touchdown of the day.
Adam Trautman, TE, Dayton
Trautman really dominated the FCS competition and was named an All-American last year, after catching 70 balls for over 900 yards and 14 touchdowns. Naturally when a guy like this comes to one of the all-star games you want to see how they fit in with all those Power-Five kids, but the Dayton tight-end actually was one of the top players in practice overall right away. Trautman showed off impressive speed and body control, winning several one-on-one battles. He also made a couple of tough catches at his feet and extending his body for it when the ball was off target, while adding in a few where he had a defender draped all over him. Even more impressive to me however was the way he fared as a blocker. He seemed technically sound at shielding guys on the back-side of plays as well as securing the edge on stretch runs, when he was used in-line. Trautman firmly put himself in the conversation for one of the highest selected tight-end in April in what isn’t a great class altogether.
Charlie Woerner & Eli Wolf, TEs, Georgia
In the same way the two Ohio State receivers made noise at different events these two Bulldog tight-ends boosted their draft stock, only they represented their former school at the NFLPA Bowl and East-West Shrine game respectively. Woerner actually started all 14 games for Georgia last season, but as part of a run-centric offense that didn’t feature the tight-end position too much in the passing game, he caught just nine passes all year long. However, in Pasadena he displayed good athleticism and hands during practices, moving well in space and catching pretty much everything thrown his way.
Wolf on the other hand began his collegiate career at Tennessee, but decided to transfer in order to get more chances as a receiver. Ironically enough he caught just five passes in 2018 and 12 last season, when he wasn’t even listed as the starter. With that being said, he impressed all week long by creating easy separation out of his breaks in St. Petersburg, especially on out-routes, due the way he snaps his hips and around. While he dropped a few passes, he also a couple of outstanding grabs. With both of these guys not seeing the ball come their way a lot in college, they fittingly made major contributions in their games right away, each catching three passes for 50 and 49 yards respectively. NFL scouts should look more into them and what kept them from getting more opportunities.
Josh Jones, OT, Houston
Somebody I thought had a rough start to Senior Bowl week, but really got people buzzing as things progressed was this big Houston offensive tackle. Jones certainly didn’t start the week the way he would have liked to, as Michigan State’s Kenny Willekes got him on an up-and-under on his first rep of one-on-ones against the D-line and he had some more problems with weight distribution. However, as he settled in more, Jones’ fundamentals came to shine – flat back, good knee-bend and a tight punch – and his length became a problem on several occasions against those smaller bodies. He completely shut down consecutive rushes by North Carolina’s Jason Strowbridge on day three and actually buried one of the better rushers of the week under himself once. He also rode Wisconsin’s hybrid linebacker Zack Baun down the line quite a bit during team drills. I still believe Jones needs to work on landing punches as a pass-protector instead of catching rushers at times, but his physical gifts and the way he improved throughout the week could easily make somebody invest in him with a first-round pick.
Ben Bartch, IOL, Saint John’s
We have had some prospects now that will be picked in the middle to late rounds, as well as a couple of possible first-rounders, but when it comes to who has boosted their draft stock the most it has to be a Division III kid that wasn’t on a lot of peoples’ radars until just recently. It is incredible how quickly this kid adjusted to a much higher level of competition, going up against some of the best players in the country when he barely faced any players with D1 scholarships throughout his collegiate career. Bartch got caught lunging early on in practice, but he also showed good balance to recover. For the most part he looked very patient and displayed the athletic capability to make up for a mis-step. In the run game he didn’t shy away from contact whatsoever and overall he finished plays the right way. Bartch might have helped himself more than anybody else in Mobile, simply because he put his name on the map and validated what scouts could see from his tape against a completely different level of competition.
Darryl Williams, C, Mississippi State
While they had a very strong collection of defensive linemen at East-West Shrine week and some other guys on the offensive side of the ball received praise for switching positions along the O-line, the Mississippi State center to me was definitely the most notable guy from that group. As a pass-protector, Williams seemed to have vice grip on his hands when grabbing a hold of defenders, either stonewalling some of them or even if they got a good start, he found a way to get them back under control. He even put Arkanas’ McTelvin Agim on his butt once, after that guy completely wrecked all the others out there. Williams also got after in the run game quite a bit and was a big reason for the tremendous success the East had on the ground in the actual game. This is a pretty good center class at the top, but Williams is a kid I will have my eyes on if he tests fairly well.
Marlon Davidson, EDGE, Auburn
Davidson is another one of those guys who couldn’t finish the week in Mobile, but made such an impact that he deserves a spot on the list. The 280-pound defensive end had a dominant day one of practice with quick swipes and the long arm to win pretty much all of his one-on-one matchups. He also loves to make offensive linemen stop their feet with some hesitation steps off the snap and then either go around or mostly through them. He absolutely bullied a couple of tackles who tried to sit back on him and he just took them for a ride. Davidson had one of my favorite pass-rush reps of the week, where he tried to stab inside, but then spun back out as the offensive lineman leaned too far that way, showing the ability to quickly counter off his initial move. At his size, he also does a great job setting the edge against the run. As I mentioned already, unfortunately Davidson missed the last day of practice and the actual game, but he did enough for me to bump him up my rankings.
Joshua Uche & Mike Danna, EDGE, Michigan
And my final duo of former teammates comes from the Wolverines. Once again, one of them (Uche) got to go to Mobile, while the other one (Danna) went to East-West Shrine practices. Danna is coming off a rather disappointing 2019 season, recording just three sacks after being a first-team All-MAC selection at Central Michigan and leading all returning FBS players in total pressures, before deciding to transfer. When he got the opportunity to show out at East-West Shrine practices, he did. Danna has heavy hands that he doesn’t just use against the run, but he also loves the push-pull move, where he does a great job grabbing cloth and pulling blockers to the side on his way to the quarterback. If an offensive lineman presents his chest, the former Wolverine won’t hesitate to attack it and drive that guy backwards either. In the actual game, Danna was borderline unblockable once again, flashing continually with quick disruption and pressure around the QB.
Uche on the other hand led the Wolverines with 10.5 sacks last season. He measured in at 6’2”, 250 pounds in Mobile and therefore was asked to perform in linebacker drills as well. Despite not doing so throughout his collegiate career, he hung with backs and tight-ends in coverage drills standing up, really improving his value thanks to the versatility he showcased. He continually set a hard edge during inside run drills and beat up RBs in blitz pick-up. However, Uche also continued to flash getting around the corner against offensive tackles. He does a nice job reading the depth of the OT’s kick-slide and then countering back inside, but he is best at giving a little hesitation and then dipping underneath the opposing tackle.
Jason Strowbridge, EDGE, North Carolina
Looking at a true hand-in-the-dirt defensive linemen who performed for a full week, Strowbridge was the guy down in Mobile who continued to show up. His get-off and quickness off the ball really stood out – and it didn’t take long for him to make an impact. The former Tarheel put Wake Wake Forest tackle Justin Herron flat on his ass during his first rep of one-on-ones with the old Reggie White hump move. He got several other guys with the quick arm-over move and was the only one I saw get an instant win over Washington center Nick Harris. Strowbridge does a nice job overall at stringing his hands and feet together to defeat blocks, although I think he needs to be more ready for a secondary move and not raise his pads if he gets caught off balance, like Houston’s Josh Jones did twice on day three. I’m excited to watch more of his tape as a 4-3 defensive end or possibly 3-tech if he just bulks up a little more.
McTelvin Agim, IDL, Arkansas
If there was one player who stood above the rest in any of the pre-draft events so far it would be this guy for me. Agim is a former five-star prospect and top-20 recruit for the Razorbacks, but he never lived up to that billing, as part of a program that went 8-28 over the last three years. While he did put up some pretty strong numbers over his four years in college (31 TFLs, 14.5 sacks and six forced fumbles), it took until practice time in St. Petersburg for me to see the level he is capable of playing at. Agim was pretty much unblockable throughout practices, throwing a devastating initial club to get blockers off balance and collecting several instant wins with quick swim-moves. If you allow this guy to get to one shoulder and rip through, you can only hope that he can be pushed beyond the arc. The lasting picture I have of the former Arkansas D-tackle from East-West Shrine week is him getting a step past his blockers and that guy trying for dear life to somehow hold onto him.
Raequan Williams, IDL, Michigan State
If it wasn’t for Agim just wrecking shop down in St. Petersburg, Williams would have been the guy everybody was talking about. He just bulldozed a couple of guys back into the quarterback’s lap during one-on-ones and then has this quick spin that is almost unfair for a D-tackle. In addition to that he has a pretty strong club-swim counter to cross the blocker’s face. Williams showcased the quickness and short-area burst to be on the inside shoulder of the blocker on zone run plays and still back-door that guy to flatten to the running back, while also having the base strength to hold his ground at the point of attack. If there is one thing that I saw from him during team period and that also was apparent watching him film then it’s when he is on the backside of run-plays and has somebody down-block on him with a puller coming behind that block, Williams is content with holding his ground instead of fighting through and follow towards the ball-carrier. But other than that, nobody wanted to see him line up against them.
Zack Baun, LB, Wisconsin
At six-foot, 240 pounds with little room to add to his frame, Baun is often labelled a tweener. For the Badgers he almost exclusively lined up on the edge, which is where he also made his biggest impression rushing the passer. His burst around tackles and sweet spin move to counter off it won him several matchups during one-on-ones with the O-line. However, NFL coaches also wanted to see him play off the ball and I thought he looked very well equipped for it. Baun made a few nice plays in coverage and simply showed the ability to make plays sideline-to-sideline standing up. Some people might find it tough to find a perfect fit for him, since you also saw him struggle to hold his ground in the run game versus Houston tackle Josh Jones, but he has done everything well and is just a football player. It will continue to be an interesting evaluation where Baun will line up at the next level, but my guess is an off-the-ball linebacker who can operate in space and then come down to rush the passer on third downs.
Troy Pride Jr., CB, Notre Dame
I will give you one name at the cornerback position for each the North and South squad. Pride was pretty obvious with a few pulls of the jersey early one, but overall I thought he had an outstanding week. The former Fighting Irish was one of the few to actually beat USC’s Michael Pittman to the spot on day one of one-on-ones and he perfectly undercut a comeback route by Texas A&M’s Quartney Davis for a pick. Unfortunately his lack of size at around 190 pounds was apparent during blocking drills against those big wideout, but I don’t want that to take away from a great performance. Pride provided sticky coverage throughout the week and showed a lot of competitiveness. He also doesn’t seem to be afraid of getting beat deep, which allows him to sit on some breaks and attack the receiver out of them. At the same time I don’t think he got burnt over the top once either.
Darnay Holmes, CB, UCLA
For as good as this receiver class was down in Mobile, maybe the most impressive skill-position player to me was this kid. Holmes showed out throughout the three days of practice with his combination of speed and physicality to stay in phase with the receiver or close any space between the two quickly. He was all over a bunch of routes, even if he got a little too handsy on a few of them. That includes a couple of reps against Florida receiver Van Jefferson, who ran circles against pretty much everybody else. The former Bruin also showed great catch-up speed when he did lose off the line occasionally. For as well as he did in man-coverage, one of my favorite plays from Holmes came in team drills, where he was responsible for the flats, but once he saw the quarterback try to go over his head, he sunk back and separated Texas’ Devin Duvernay from the ball with a nice hit. With several corners struggling in all the all-star games, Holmes really moved his name up some rankings.
Jalen Elliott, S, Notre Dame
For a safety group that was largely disappointing at the Senior Bowl, outside of two small-school standouts in Kyle Dugger and Jeremy Chinn, this young man clearly set himself apart from the rest. He had three great days of one-on-ones against the tight-ends and even some wideouts. Elliott had several textbook reps against Purdue’s Brycen Hopkins, who is universally regarded as a top-three prospect at the position, and Dayton’s Adam Trautman, who I already outlined earlier as one of the biggest winners down in Mobile. The six-foot, 205 pound safety also nearly picked off another pass on a corner route to the Michigan tight-end. What I think he really does a really nice job at is reaching around the body of pass-catchers and knocking the ball down. For a guy who was known as a big hitter as a member of the Fighting Irish, if Elliott runs well at the combine, he will be very intriguing as a tight-end eraser with plenty of experience in zone.
Other guys who have helped themselves:
Jordan Love, QB, Utah State
James Morgan, QB, Florida International
Reggie Corbin, RB, Illinois
Denzel Mims, WR, Baylor
Michael Pittman, WR, USC
Collin Johnson, WR, Texas
Mason Kinsey, WR, Berry College
Stephen Sullivan, TE, LSU
Harrison Bryant, TE, Florida Atlantic
Jack Driscoll, OT, Auburn
Nick Harris, C, Washington
Lloyd Cushenberry III, C, LSU
Bradley Anae, EDGE, Utah
Terrell Lewis, EDGE, Alabama
Bryce Huff, EDGE Memphis
Kendall Coleman, EDGE, Syracuse
Javon Kinlaw, IDL, South Carolina
Khalil Davis, IDL, Nebraska
Robert Windsor, IDL, Penn State
Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State
Casey Toohill, LB, Stanford
Cole Christiansen, LB, Army
Kindle Vildor, CB, Georgia Southern
Dane Jackson, CB, Pittsburgh
Kobe Williams, CB, Arizona State
Michael Ojemudia, CB, Iowa
Khaleke Hudson, S, Michigan
Jace Whittaker, S, Arizona
Kyle Dugger, S, Lenoir Rhyne
Tyler Bass, K, Georgia Southern
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