FRISCO, Texas –Somehow, it's already time to take the next step in the offseason.
It's conference championship weekend, which means something entirely different for all but four NFL teams. Unless you're one of the chosen few who's playing in one of these games, it's time to gear up for the Senior Bowl.
That's what the Cowboys will be doing, as the NFL prepares to flood into Mobile, Ala., for a week of football practices and an all-star game with the best senior college prospects in the nation.
Anyone that has followed this team in recent years should be able to attest to the importance of the Senior Bowl. Then an offensive tackle from Notre Dame, Zack Martin made a national name for himself during these practices in 2014. Just two years ago, Dak Prescott was named the game's MVP – playing against the Cowboys' coaching staff.
Needless to say, these practices will be crucial in determining the NFL draft's pecking order in the coming months.
With that in mind, I wanted to take a look at some of the prospects and angles that I'll be considering next week in Mobile. This is what I want you to look for as we take this first big step:
- Count me as one of the many that is excited to see Oklahoma quarterback Baker Mayfield and Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen work in Mobile. Both Mayfield and Allen will be on the North squad, which is coached by the Denver Broncos -- who currently own the fourth overall selection the upcoming NFL draft. It's no secret that John Elway was not happy with the quarterback situation and might be looking to move on from Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch. Senior Bowl Director Phil Savage is a former NFL general manager and has had a policy of trying to fit these top-rated quarterbacks with clubs that are interested in drafting one. Two years ago, Savage put Carson Wentz with Jason Garrett when there were some questions about if the Cowboys would be looking for a replacement for Tony Romo. At the time, the Cowboys held the same selection as the Broncos have today
- My early "Pet Cat" in this draft is Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin. If you don't know the story, Griffin was born with a birth defect of a missing left hand. There are snaps where you do see the handicap affect the way that he plays, but it's not to the point where you have to totally discount him as a productive player. Griffin is a blur on tape. He is all over the field and if left unblocked is capable of making every play. Griffin has a real nose for the ball and I promise that will show up the week of practices and into the game. Really talented kid that could help as a nickel player and core special teamer.
- Depending what happens in the offseason, the Cowboys may be looking for a starting left guard in this year's draft. If the position is not addressed with UTEP guard Will Hernandez, keep an eye on Georgia offensive tackle Isiah Wynn as a possible guy. Wynn is projected to move inside and the Senior Bowl will likely showcase his potential at that spot. Wynn is very athletic when it comes to movement skills. He plays with initial quickness and balance. Wynn is one of the best position blockers that I've seen in the draft. He is a finisher that's rarely on the ground.
- If I had to select an athletic freak of this Senior Bowl, New Mexico State wide receiver Jaleel Scott would be my guy. Scott is going to measure right around 6-6, 215. His best games during his senior season were against Arizona State and Arkansas -- so the step up in competition should not bother him. I will be interested to see how he takes to pro coaching and quarterback play from the likes of Mayfield and Allen. I guarantee he will make one or two circus catches per practice that will have those in the crowd amazed. How he functions in 1-on-1 drills against press coverage is what scouts are looking forward to evaluating.
- I had a chance to sit down and study Oklahoma defensive end Ogbonnia Okoronkwo here recently and came away impressed. I believe he's going to have to play as an outside linebacker that you could use in nickel situations as a rusher. His explosive quickness off the ball and relentless effort is what teams are looking for. This is a guy with big-time pass rush technique that would rarely give the blocker the same look. I am hopeful that the Broncos staff will let him stand up and drop some, as well, to see if he can do it.
- I am going to give you a player that you might not have heard much about – but he is worth your time. Dubuque cornerback Michael Joseph is from a Division III program, but he is going to get an opportunity to compete with the big boys. This is just another example of Phil Savage giving a player a chance to showcase his talents. Joseph lined up at corner while in college but there were some snaps where he lined up as a safety -- which is where teams project him to play. His best trait was how the ball always ended up in his hands, whether it was through positioning or just luck. Joseph will not be used to the speed that he's about to face but it won't take him long to adapt.
- I really don't have a great feel for Stanford defensive tackle Harrison Phillips, even though I've studied him a bunch on tape. There are snaps where he is active, disruptive and a force. Then there are others where he is off balance, on the ground and nowhere near the ball. I am looking forward to seeing him practice against Michigan center Mason Cole and UCLA center Scott Quessenberry, who are two of the better offensive linemen in the draft, and see if he can be more consistent overall. Phillips is part of a group of outstanding one-techniques in this draft – along with Washington's Vita Vea and Alabama's Da'Ron Payne. I could be wrong, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Phillips go a lot higher in this draft than I would be willing to select him. He is a confusing player to me.
- Florida cornerback Duke Dawson will not be the tallest cornerback at the Senior Bowl, but I am willing to bet that he will be the most talked about. Dawson is fearless in the way he plays and that will show in these practices. He doesn't give receivers much space in routes and is outstanding in the way he carries them all over the field. Dawson's athletic ability and technique will make up for any shortcomings he has with his height.
- There was once a time where I thought that, if you were an offensive tackle and you didn't play with power, you couldn't play in this league. Guys like New England's Nate Solder and Green Bay's David Bakhtiari have proven me wrong. A guy that falls in that category is Pittsburgh offensive tackle Brian O'Neill. O'Neill goes about 305 pounds and is not the strongest guy, but it doesn't affect the way he plays. O'Neill is a technique player. It's rare that you see him on the ground or in a bad blocking position. His hands and feet work very well together, which means his movement skills are top shelf. When opponents try to take him wide or quickly back to the inside, he is able to adjust like Solder and Baktiari to keep the rusher off the quarterback. O'Neill will have opportunities to work against Okoronkwo during practice and UTSA's Marcus Davenport in the game. I would not be surprised if he was the top tackle on many draft boards.
- If we're talking about tight ends, South Dakota State's Dallas Goedert , Wisconsin's Troy Fumagalil and Penn State's Mike Gesicki will be the most talked about guys at the Senior Bowl. But the guy to keep an eye on is Indiana's Ian Thomas. Thomas is extremely athletic and plays well on the move. He is one of those players that, when you put him in space, he's going to be productive. He is more than just a get-in-the-way blocker. Thomas can seal his man off from the play to allow the back to cut behind him. He is an affective trap blocker that can get movement at the point of attack. He is more than comfortable staying in as a pass blocker and helping with protection. Thomas catches the ball well. He does a really nice job extending for it, and he makes adjusting catches. Good route runner that knows how to find space. A good week in Mobile could put him in position to be thought of ahead of these other tight ends.
- I really do like San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny, but I do worry about his ability to pass block. Penny has some complete running back traits when it comes to running and catching. These practices tend to expose backs that are poor blockers due to the 1-on-1 drills. Penny is going to have to find a way to show these scouts that his technique has improved, because there were snaps on film where he was a liability. Scouts are going to be watching, because this is his only real hang up.
- The question for Oklahoma State's wide receiver duo of Marcell Ateman and James Washington is how well are they going to function against press coverage? Ateman is the bigger of the two but not the fastest. Given a choice between them, I like Washington but that's no shot at Ateman. I need to see them escape and get into their routes. This is an area that you don't see them have to deal with in the Big 12. There is plenty of free access, which is why you see the production they have. These NFL defenses are not going to let them have those types of routes and how they handle the situation will determine where they're drafted.