(mandatory photo credit: Vasha Hunt - USA Today Sports)
Written by: Joseph Yun
The premier offseason event for NFL draft prospects starts next week full of practices, interviews, and the like for the many future professional hopefuls. Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy and the brilliant staff at the Senior Bowl put on a great event. This year’s coaching staffs are the Jets (National) and Lions (American). Who are some of the top offensive prospects on each side and who could rise from the ranks of sleepers into household names? Who will be the next wave of young offensive stars in Mobile to make their way into the league like Michael Carter, Justin Herbert, Jalen Hurts, and Deebo Samuel?
1. Malik Willis Liberty
- Of the six passers in Mobile, Willis is probably the most intriguing of the lot. It will be interesting to see how he measures out as he is listed at 6’0 215. He fared well in 2020 but was a bit middling during the heavier 2021 schedule against bigger opponents. The former Auburn transfer has all the physical tools to be a starter in the league. He will need a good week to cement his high-round stock. With a great week, Willis could become a first-round selection. He is definitely in the running for QB1 entering the week.
2. Bailey Zappe Western Kentucky
- Zappe is the latest small school prospect that rose up the boards with an outstanding season for the Hilltoppers. He was part of the offensive revolution imported from Houston Baptist in 2021. He has the intangible makeup but certainly not the physical tools like arm talent. Projects as a long-term career backup in the league. He could be a smart investment for some team in the fifth or sixth round as a Kellen Moore type.
3. Sam Howell North Carolina
- Howell definitely needs a bounceback draft process as he had a down year in 2021 due to offensive line issues and a lack of assets after the much-heralded class left in 2020. He profiles much similar to Baker Mayfield physically and stylistically. The question is, will 2020 Howell show up in Mobile or the 2021 version that saw him suffer a downgrade in everything? If the former, he has a great chance to solidify a second-round status or rise into the first round.
1. Dameon Pierce Florida
- Pierce has a chance to break out in Mobile as a little-known and vastly underused running back from the Gators program which struggled mightily at times. Versatility is the name of his game as he proved to be a dynamic receiver out of the backfield. He’s an athlete in the mold of the Michael Carter type. Somehow went underutilized until he was a senior where he posted career highs in both running and receiving yards + touchdowns. It wouldn’t surprise anyone if he stands out in a loaded backfield during the duration in Mobile.
2. James Cook Georgia
- Cook was the star of the national title run for the Dogs as he finally broke loose as the star attraction as a senior. He came alive as the games were of higher stakes, busting loose in the national title game to ice it. The younger brother of NFL star Dalvin Cook is an athlete. He has untapped potential as he was never the lead back at Georgia so the tires will be fresh. Can he continue the run of form in Mobile on his way to the league like his older brother?
3. ZaQuandre White South Carolina
- It has been quite the journey for Mr. White as he has transferred to junior college from Florida State then transferred to South Carolina. He has moved between linebacker and running back throughout his career but settled at running back with the Gamecocks. White had his best season as a senior, totaling 779 yards and four touchdowns. His calling card to the league will be his versatility on special teams before making it in as a third-down back if all goes well. The Senior Bowl scouts potentially hit on a solid invitation here.
1. Calvin Austin III Memphis
- The dynamic weapon from Memphis has a chance to stand out in Mobile like Andy Isabella once did at a similar size. Austin is simply put, electrifying as both an inside and outside receiver. He has breathtaking speed and put it to good use as a track star for the Tigers. Special teams ace as well. There are questions about his frame holding up at a listed spritely 5’8 162 but plenty of diminutive stars have made their way into the big leagues. Watch for him to have a big week, provided the quarterback play does its job.
2. Reggie Roberson, Jr SMU
- RR 2.0 transferred in from West Virginia and broke out as a sophomore before being dormant until his senior season. The medical will be scrutinized for sure as his sophomore and junior seasons were significantly impacted by injury. He needs a huge week to flip some narratives from that time period. Right now, he’s projected to be a sixth-round selection with some intrigue.
3. Velus Jones, Jr Tennessee / USC
- Jones has been through the wringer in his career, suffering through the misguided Clay Helton regime in LA before adjusting to the more open Josh Heupel offense at Tennessee. He’s primarily a slot weapon with the ball in his hands. Broke out in Knoxville as both a receiver and return ace. He could be another find by the Senior Bowl staff making the trip down South. Plenty of experience, that’s for sure. He needs a good week to pop off the screen.
1. Isaiah Likely Coastal Carolina
2. Grant Calcaterra SMU / Oklahoma
3. Greg Dulcich UCLA
- The American tight ends definitely trend more towards the receiving skill set than the blocking ones. Isaiah Likely was a potent weapon for the Chanticleers as they looked to post a second consecutive electric campaign that fell short due to injuries. He’s near the top of most tight end-centric boards as a result. The CC product could be in the third to fifth-round range if things go right in the process. Calcaterra has been on a journey through the college ranks as he started at Oklahoma, had a short stay at Auburn before ultimately settling in at SMU in 2021. The biggest worry about him is his medical history regarding concussions. Who knows how long he’ll be able to play due to those concerns. When he’s right, he’s one of the best-receiving weapons in the game. Dulcich is an athlete and should shine a little bit at the Combine. However, his production given UCLA’s offensive deficiencies at times merits further consideration as a top-five prospect at the position. He could be a decent TE2 for some team down the road with TE1 potential if things go right. Travis Kelce isn’t but he can be a souped-up version of Devin Funchess.
1. Jamaree Salyer Georgia
- Salyer was a two-year starter at Georgia for one of the best lines in all of college football. He’s more than likely moving inside to guard but has experience at left tackle so the versatility will be his calling card. He offers serviceable athleticism at tackle but has great athleticism inside. Isaiah Wilson, he isn’t. He could make a roster as a swing guard/tackle with starter ability on the interior. Should be in line for a huge week.
2. Darian Kinnard Kentucky
- Dude is just massive at a listed 6’5 345. He played a ton at tackle for the suddenly explosive Wildcats offense and excelled there. Most draft services have him performing better at guard but he has the tools to stay at tackle if the need arises. Expect him to have a good week and get drafted in the Day 2 range.
3. Max Mitchell Louisiana-Lafayette
- Mitchell is a tackle prospect from the ascendant Ragin Cajuns program. He’s a listed 6’6 300 so a little bit of weight could be added if necessary. It’s not like he’s a small school prospect who only excelled against lesser foes, either. He has posted solid grades against bigger competition as well so the week shouldn’t be too big for him. Expect him to rise through the process.
4. Cade Mays Tennessee / Georgia
- The former five-star recruit transferred to Tennessee where his family is considered royalty after starting out at SEC East rival Georgia. Versatility is a plus to his game as he has played multiple spots on the line. Road grading type of lineman with the attitude to match it. He will need to reshape his body a little as there’s a bit of bad weight hindering his athleticism. The weigh-in portion will be critical for him to alter some perceptions.
5. Ed Ingram LSU
- A veteran of the LSU program who was there seemingly forever. Another swing guard/tackle prospect who can stick at tackle in the big leagues. It will be interesting to see where he primarily lines up during the week.
6. Spencer Burford UTSA
- If you’re sensing a theme with this OL group, it’s the versatility. Burford is yet another tackle who could swing inside with experience on the interior on his resume. He could be the surprise standout from a small school that goes higher than expected like a Spencer Brown last draft. Can he join the litany of small school linemen who made a name for themselves in Mobile?
1. Desmond Ridder Cincinnati
- To say that Ridder needs an impressive week to reverse some bad trends is an understatement. Ridder is a big physical, toolsy kind of passer. He has underperformed against the bigger competition like Georgia (but that is a world-class defense in Athens) so there is that stigma. The running game is a huge part of his development. Entering 2021, he had some hype as a first-round prospect but is looking more like a third-round prospect at this juncture.
2. Carson Strong Nevada
- If only Strong’s medicals were clean, he would be a lock for the first round. Strong has all the prerequisite physical tools like arm strength and some pocket manipulation ability. Prior to a knee injury, he wasn’t Lamar Jackson but he wasn’t Drew Bledsoe either. He has a compelling case for QB1. Has the ability to make any throw in the book and then some. The biggest question is the knee issue going forward affecting his mobility.
3. Kenny Pickett Pittsburgh
- A whirlwind 2021 that saw him rise up the boards in a big way, garnering some Heisman love piloting a fun Pitt offense (even more fun than the landlord Steelers offense, that’s for sure). Pickett is who he is at this point and is a marginal athlete with small hands. Inventor of the season’s most criticized fake slide run for a touchdown. He has all the mental makeup but the physical tools just aren’t there. He needs a great week to prove all the doubters wrong. There is some first-round hype on him. Compared to his two National team compadres, the lack of physical skill set will be glaring.
1. Rachaad White Arizona State
- White transferred into Tempe during the 2020 pandemic year and subsequently led the Sun Devils in rushing that season. He proved to be a weapon out of the backfield, notching 43 receptions for 456 yards and one touchdown. He also led ASU in rushing stats in 2021 and became a 1,000-yard rusher as a result. The Sun Devil product will need a great week to shine in a loaded class but has the dual-threat potential to do so. He projects as a Day 3 selection entering Mobile.
2. Hassan Haskins Michigan
- Haskins broke out as a senior, rushing for 1,327 yards and a whopping 20 touchdowns, including a 168 yards jaunt in the romp against Ohio State. He formed a great tandem with Blake Corum. He’s the more physical of the two backs. As it stands, he projects as a late Day 3 selection who could make the back end of a roster with some luck due to the depth of the class. With a positive week, he can make some money into the early Day 3 range.
3. Tyler Badie Missouri
- Badie was always a legitimate asset for the Tigers offense during some tough times but in 2021, he busted out in a major way. He totaled 1,942 yards (1,612 rushing + 330 receiving) and 18 touchdowns. An electrifying weapon in the form of a similar player like Kenjon Barner or Demetric Felton. It wouldn’t be surprising if he broke out as Felton did in Mobile.
4. Jerome Ford Cincinnati
- Ford transferred in from Alabama after being a reserve on the Tide. He more than showed the nation that he was a capable athlete while at Cincinnati. The Bearcats rusher finally got his shot at being the man in 2021 after being the primary backup to Michael Warren in 2020. He produced 1,319 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2021, leading Cincy to a playoff berth. He’s a bigger back so it will be interesting to see how he does during the drills. Grades as a third to fourth-round prospect as of right now.
1. Jahan Dotson Penn State
- Dotson was the primary target at Penn State for the multitude of quarterbacks that went through Happy Valley. He’s an athlete that can work some magic with the ball in his hands. The former Penn State product is deceptively fast and is well versed in route-running ability. He could be in contention as the best receiver talent entering the week and will probably leave the week the same. DeDe Westbrook 2.0? We shall see but he is a legitimate second-round selection at this point. Stock has remained steady throughout 2021.
2. Alec Pierce Cincinnati
- Pierce is the best all-around receiver on the National team and it isn’t close. He has the speed and elite route running ability to go with it. The primary weapon for college and Senior Bowl teammate Desmond Ridder. He could run away with the MVP honors for the event; the talent is evident. Broke out as a senior after a junior season marred by the pandemic. The former Bearcats receiver has some Marquez Callaway in his game. He’s a great X receiver with his body size.
3. Khalil Shakir Boise State
- Given the issues that plagued the Broncos, Shakir’s career gains a new perspective. He’s versatile as both an inside and outside guy. The merry-go-round reps at quarterback in Mobile should suit him well as he’s used to it. Shakir isn’t the greatest athlete but he’s decent at it so separation ability will be looked at.
4. Braylon Sanders Ole Miss
- After a somewhat inconsistent career at Ole Miss, Sanders really broke out in the NFLPA festivities and earned a callup to the big game this week. Watch for him to continue the good run of form in Mobile.
1. Charlie Kolar Iowa State
2. Trey McBride Colorado State
3. Cole Turner Nevada
4. Jeremy Ruckert Ohio State
5. Jake Ferguson Wisconsin
- The creme de la creme of the tight end class is on the National team. McBride is the darling of many analysts this past season. He shined for a really bad Rams team that fired Steve Addazio. TM is projected to be a second-round selection entering the week. Kolar is a big dude that can offer a little something in the blocking game as well as being a threat in the passing game. CK was a top-five tight-end prospect entering the season and exited as such. Turner was one of the primary targets for fellow National and Nevada teammate Carson Strong. He’s steadily risen through the ranks and could be in contention for TE2 honors among a host of others. He blossomed in 2021 and could be a possible third-round selection. Ruckert wasn’t the primary weapon for C.J. Stroud (not with all the receiver talent on hand) but he caught the ball when asked to. He’s in that second tier of tight-end prospects slated to go Day 3 at the earliest. Ferguson is the quintessential Wisconsin tight end, i.e. he won’t wow you but is reliable. Developed as a blocker and probably is the best at that in the game. Still, he had some moments as a receiver throughout his career. He can be a TE2 type that could get drafted on the third day and be relied on for years.
1. Zion Johnson Boston College
- Johnson was a starter for the BC line for three years. He’s one of the best lineman prospects in the country, regardless of position. The star of the talent-laden Eagles line for sure. He has experience at both guard and tackle so the versatility is a plus. Expect him to have a monster week. He’ll be drafted well before Day 3 it appears. Projects as a long-term starter at guard. He profiles similarly to Nate Davis.
2. Daniel Faalele Minnesota
- The most unique prospect in the class, that’s for sure. Faalele is a mountain (quite literally at 6’8 380 listed). He’s been the subject of curiosity due to his size but is a legitimate tackle prospect with some work left to do. Obviously, the height will be of some issue in leverage situations. While not an exact physical match (this is rare territory we’re talking about), he profiles similarly to Cyrus Kouandijo of Alabama fame.
3. Abraham Lucas Washington State
- Lucas was the second-best tackle prospect in the Pac-12 this past season behind UCLA’s Sean Rhyan. The Cougars had a wild ride in 2021 that saw some of their coaches leave via a state government vaccine mandate and somehow still made a bowl game. Apple Cup winners in between all of that. Abe was a right tackle in college much like Tristan Wirfs was (not comparing the two talents, obviously) but he can play left in a pinch. He profiles (physically) most similarly to Cam Robinson of the Jaguars.
4. Cole Strange UT-Chattanooga
- The small school name on a lot of scout’s tongues is expected to shine in Mobile. Positional versatility is a huge plus. It will be interesting to see if he lives up to the hype and delivers against a pretty good DL group. Billy Turner vibes here? Regardless, it will be fun to track his progression.