MOBILE, Ala. – I felt a much different vibe this year while I was scurrying around Ladd-Peebles Stadium during Senior Bowl practices. It just felt strange and unfamiliar.
There's a few obvious reasons for that. This time last year, the Cowboys had been out of the running in the NFL playoffs for roughly six weeks. We'd had plenty of time to examine the draft field, and we were consumed with the need to find the Cowboys a new quarterback.
Remember the frenzy that surrounded Carson Wentz at last year's game? Not to mention the curiosity that surrounded lesser-known names like Cody Kessler, Jacoby Brissett and that guy named Dak Prescott.
This year, it's almost like we're not even talking about the same team. The Cowboys went bonkers in the draft, and their new franchise quarterback and running back are off in Orlando playing dodgeball in the Pro Bowl. Seven total players are at the Pro Bowl, along with the coaching staff -- which is, uh, coaching something. So they tell me.
On top of that, we're still only a week or two removed from a playoff loss. This team came excruciatingly close to the Super Bowl with a young core of talent. When you consider those facts, it's hard to get too worked up about a college all-star game.
The Cowboys and their personnel department will disagree with me, given that this is their livelihood. But I personally just don't feel the same sense of urgency when I know this team is set up to contend for the foreseeable future. The Cowboys don't need to solve a terrifying problem, like their quarterback situation – they just need to add a handful of quality players to what they already have.
And you know what? Even if it's not as interesting this year, the Senior Bowl is a great place to find those types of guys. We'll expand our scope as the offseason goes and we start to look at underclassmen, but that's honestly the beauty of the Senior Bowl.
Most the elite underclassmen will be long gone by the time the Cowboys draft at No. 28, and at the tail end of every round in this draft. But there are a lot of guys who could help them playing in this game – and a lot of them should be right in the Cowboys' draft range.
Here are a few who stood out, and how I think they make sense:
O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama –I think it's probably fair to say that we've beaten Howard's name into the ground over the last week or so, but he really is impressive. He moves amazingly well for a guy who checked in at 6-5, 249 pounds. He's got good hands and can block. No disrespect to Jason Witten, but I am beyond intrigued to see what Dak Prescott could do with a freakish red zone mismatch, ala Jimmy Graham, playing tight end. You could obviously point out that Witten has outlasted plenty of other young guys competing for his job, but the torch has to be passed at some point. Unfortunately, the only problem is that Howard has been so impressive, I get the feeling he won't hang around until pick No. 28. He might be long gone.
Jordan Willis, DE, Kansas State –Willis might be the most accomplished pass rusher in this game, with 20 sacks over his final two seasons in college. He doesn't look quite as impressive as a big guy like Daeshon Hall, but he comes in at a solid 6-3, 255 pounds and he plays like a beast. Every time I watched him, he was screaming around the left side – where he does most of his work – and making life difficult for somebody. Despite his smaller build he seems to be a willing tackler, with 52 tackles and 17.5 tackles for loss last year. I don't think he figures to be a Day 1 pick, so much as a second or third-round guy. Given that the Cowboys pick later in the order, that sounds perfect to me.
Rasul Douglas, CB, West Virginia –This is cliché, but I'm a sucker for a big cornerback. Douglas is huge, measuring out at 6-2, 204 pounds on Tuesday. Despite that, he showed some serious athleticism in practices. On Thursday, he caught up to East Carolina receiver Zay Jones on a deep route and launched himself for a leaping pass breakup on a play where he looked beaten. It was reminiscent of Mo Claiborne's leaping breakup of A.J. Green in Week 5 against Cincinnati. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this dude finished his final college season with 70 tackles and a fantastic eight interceptions. It's early, but this is an absurdly deep cornerback class, and it doesn't sound crazy to think Douglas could be there in the second or third round.
Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington – 6-1, 198 –This dude was easily the most fun person to watch at these Senior Bowl practices. It's understandable if you've never heard of him, coming out of the FCS level of college football – but the dude is a beast. He basically rewrote the record books at the wide receiver position, scoring 73 touchdowns in four seasons. Go look at his stats and get back to me. Anyway, there has been no drop-off going against tougher competition. Kupp schooled everyone I saw him go against, whether it was Michigan standout Jourdan Lewis or 2015 Thorpe Award winner Desmond King. He can play outside or in the slot, he runs great routes, and you can tell he knows how to get open. He's not a burner, which is probably what you'd prefer in a No. 2 receiver – but he's great at every other aspect of the position. If he was still there late in the second round, I'd be sorely tempted to make it happen.
Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo – 5-10, 208 –You're rolling your eyes at me. "Why would the Cowboys draft a runner," you ask me indignantly. "They just drafted Zeke at No. 4 overall and he's an All-Pro!" That's true, but I'd counter argue with this: 1. Depth is a good thing, and 2. Stuff happens – especially at that position. Darren McFadden and Lance Dunbar are free agents, and Alfred Morris was disappointing in his first season here. I don't think it'd be a bad idea to pick a young running back in the second half of the draft and have a fantastic insurance policy for Elliott. That's basically what the Cowboys did with Darius Jackson – except this time around they'd actually hang on to him. Hunt impressed me on quite a few occasions this week. He's deceptively fast, and he runs even bigger than his weight suggests. He looked like a willing blocker, and he's got good hands. He added 41 catches for 400 receiving yards to his 1,475-yard rushing total last season. Obviously, I don't think the Cowboys need to spend a premium pick on a running back. But in a class this deep, Hunt might last as late as the fourth or fifth round. I'd be totally fine with that.
Marquez White, CB, Florida State –I like this guy's feistiness. He's not the biggest corner in Mobile this week, but he'll go toe-to-toe with anyone. He seems to have a real knack for getting physical with guys, and he more than once showed an ability to get up and get after the ball. I noticed him the most in the one-on-one portions of practice, where he bullied receivers repeatedly. It's hard to know what will happen to the Cowboys' free agent corners, but one of the best aspects of Brandon Carr's game is his size and physicality. White could offer something similar in the back half of the draft.
Obi Melifonwu, S, Connecticut –If you read Bryan Broaddus' practice recaps (and you should), you've probably read about this guy. He's been turning heads all week because of his ridiculous size – 6-4, 219 pounds. But the really crazy part is that his unusual size doesn't seem to hinder him in coverage. I doubt he's the second coming of Ed Reed, but he looked fluid and confident in his movements all week. His size is naturally going to earn him comparisons to enforcers like Kam Chancellor, but it's exciting to think that he's not a liability in coverage, either. Sitting here in Mobile, in late January, I'm hoping he'd be available to the Cowboys in the second or third round. Unfortunately, if his stock continues to rise, that might not be likely.