The Reese's Senior Bowl has always been viewed as an important part of the evaluation process with the top prospects heading to Mobile to participate in an all-star game that serves as a week-long audition in front of NFL coaches and scouts.
The meetings, practices, and workouts enable evaluators to assess a prospect's potential in an ultra-competitive environment. Given some time to make a few calls and evaluate the practice tape, here are my thoughts on the top performers and storylines from Day 1:
Is Mac Jones really a No.1?
The Alabama starter has come out of nowhere to enter the discussion as a possible first-round selection but he still has some work to do to cement his status as a Day 1 lock. Jones must show evaluators that he can thrive outside of a perfect environment in which he is surrounded by five-star talents on the perimeter while being protected by a five-man quintet that created an impenetrable fortress at the line of scrimmage. Although some would argue Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and others have benefitted from similar circumstances, Jones' lack of elite arm talent and athleticism makes it imperative to determine whether his success is sustainable outside of Alabama. He must shine as a passer in seven-on-seven and team drills to squash some of the questions regarding his game. In addition, Jones needs to deliver a few "wow" throws showcasing his touch, timing, and anticipation to convince evaluators that he can thrive without an overpowering arm. If he can show decision-makers that he has the capacity to throw strikes without an MLB fastball, the redshirt-junior could cement his status as a Top 32 player.
Rest or rust?
The COVID-19 pandemic prompted a number of prospects to sit out the regular season due to health and safety concerns. With the Senior Bowl featuring a handful of opt-outs, evaluators are paying close attention to determine if those prospects improved or regressed during their sabbaticals. Players like Washington DT Levi Onwuzurike, Wake Forest WR Sage Surratt, Oregon Thomas Graham, Michigan WR Nico Collins, and CB Ambry Thomas needed to shake off the rust and showcase their talents in individual and team drills. Onwuzurike, in particular, displays the combination of size, strength, and quickness to dominate the game from inside as a hand-to-hand combat specialist like Mr. Myagi. The Washington product dominated one-on-one and team drills on Day 1 while exhibiting all of the traits scouts and coaches covet in a high-end defensive tackle.
With Collins and Thomas also flashing refined skills in drills, it appears the time off has given the opt-outs more time to master some of the nuances of their respective positions.
The DeVonta Smith dilemma
The Heisman Trophy winner will go down as an all-time great as a collegian but that won't stop scouts from questioning his potential at the next level. Smith is a slender playmaker with a thin frame that makes scouts pause before submitted the kind of grades that normally reflects a dominant player's talent and potential. Despite putting up over 3,000 receiving yards and 37 touchdowns over the past two seasons, including a 1,856-yard campaign with 23 scores in 2020, Smith's size is a huge concern. Although he is listed at 6-foot-1, 175 pounds, he looks noticeably thinner and his refusal to weigh in or get measured at the Senior Bowl only leads to more concerns about his ability to thrive in a big man's game. Sure, he ripped through the SEC with ease but it's rare for a skinny pass-catcher to excel in the league. Perhaps he's the next Marvin Harrison or a poor man's DeSean Jackson but the success stories are few and far between for thin pass catchers on the perimeter. With Smith expected to run a forty time in the high 4.4 or low 4.5-second range, he could lack the explosiveness to offset his scrawny frame.
For scouts, the thought of considering Smith as a potential top 5 pick comes down to his size-speed ratio and whether he is able to overcome any deficiencies with his skill. Although it is not impossible for a skinny receiver to succeed in this league, we haven't seen a slim first-round pass-catcher do it to a high degree since Harrison entered the league over 20 years ago. Can Smith defy the odds? That's what scouts will debate over the next few months with the size-speed ratio factored into the argument.
UCLA's impressive hybrid
If you're looking for the next hybrid playmaker with the potential to take the league by storm, you should keep an eye on UCLA's Demetric Felton. The 5-foot-10, 200-pounder led the Pac-12 with a 111.1 rush yards per game average as a running back following a junior campaign in which he set a school record with 55 receptions as a backfield standout. At the Senior Bowl, however, he is lining up as a wide receiver and showcasing impressive skills as a route runner. Felton has the speed, quickness, and burst to create separation from defenders in press coverage while also displaying route-running ability and hands to thrive as a playmaker in the passing game. He was impossible to defend in one-on-one drills and his dominance on the perimeter reminds some scouts of Deebo Samuel's impressive work in Mobile.
The "Boogie" monster is real
The first day of practice routinely favors the defense with aggressiveness rewarded in one-on-one and team drills. Wake Forest DE Carlos "Boogie" Basham controlled the action at the line of scrimmage with his impressive combination of size, strength, and explosiveness. The 6-foot-5, 275-pounder displays cat-like quickness getting off the ball but he combines it outstanding strength, power, and hand skills. Basham quickly sheds blockers at the line of scrimmage with two-hand swipes, arm overs, and push-pull maneuvers that reflect his polish as a technician. In addition, he plays with a high-revving motor that enables him to wear down blockers over the course of a 60-minute game. Although Basham's Day 1 dominance should be kept in perspective due to the shorts and shells nature of the practice, it is easy to see why scouts are touting the Wake Forest stand out as a fast riser after watching his work.