Tyjae Spears, Evan Hull Storm the Senior Bowl
NFL Draft - MOBILE, ALABAMA: When Tulane running back Tyjae Spears turned the corner and blasted up the right sideline near the end of the American squad Senior Bowl practice on Tuesday afternoon, he looked like a Lamborghini changing lanes at the light and leaving a highway full of station wagons in the dust.
"I did OK, but I feel like I can do better today," Spears said on Wednesday morning when asked to evaluate his first day of practice. "There's more in store for Day 2."
Spears was right: Wednesday brought more explosive, fastest-guy-on-the-field runs from the 5-foot-9, 204-pound back who rushed for 1,581 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2022, including 17-205-4 in the Cotton Bowl against USC. Spears also stood out in pass protection drills, where a running back demonstrates whether or not coaches will trust him enough to put him on the field as a rookie.
Spears may be the most impressive running back in Mobile this week, or maybe not.
For example, there's Northwestern's Evan Hull (5-foot-10, 214 pounds), whose jump cut (on film and in person) looks like a video game glitch and whose thighs look like suspension-bridge cables. Hull was one of Tuesday's big stars, clocking a top speed of 19.78 miles per hour (tops among running backs, according to the folks at Zebra Technologies who are measuring such things) and showing off that teleportational jump cut.
"That's one of the first moves I ever really developed as a running back," Hull said of his jump cut. "It's especially useful whenever there's penetration at the line and you need a quick, explosive, sudden move."
Hull practiced the jump cut in his family's backyard while getting ready for peewee football games as a child. "I had no cones or anything," he said. "I would just imagine people in front of me and imagine making them miss."
There's also Oklahoma's Eric Gray (5-foot-9, 210 pounds), with a juicy spin move and sudden acceleration into third gear. And let's not forget Roschon Johnson of Texas (6-foot-0, 225 pounds), who rocketed through holes in National practices as if trying to achieve terminal velocity to escape the shadow of college teammate Bijan Robinson.
Georgia's Kenny McIntosh (5-foot-11, 210 pounds), the best-known back here at Mobile, limped off the field on Tuesday after diving into the pile for a loose football. But McIntosh was back on the field on Wednesday, showing off the pure speed likely to make him a Day 2 pick. Chase Brown (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) of Illinois, who rushed for 1,643 yards and has some tasty game film, also delivered his share of Wednesday highlights. Appalachian State's Camerun Peoples (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) showed that he belongs in the conversation as well, showcasing a combination of darting quickness and receiving ability.
There's no tackling to the ground at Senior Bowl practices, making it easy to get foolishly giddy about "touchdowns" that might have been 1-yard losses if defenders could deliver more than a love tap. But trust someone who has been coming to the Senior Bowl for over a decade: this is one strong group of running backs, with traits that will convert into yards after contact and breakaway runs in the NFL.
Senior Bowl Director Jim Nagy agrees. He cited running back as the week's deepest position when he spoke to reporters on Tuesday.
"Running back's a tough position," Nagy said. "Everyone knows most of those good juniors bounce if they have the opportunity. But from top to bottom, we've got a pretty great list.
"I think there's multiple NFL starters in that group."
At the very least, this year's Senior Bowl rosters are full of NFL committee backs that fantasy gamers need to keep an eye on. There's likely to be a Day 3 draft run of rushers ready to take on an immediate role. In the right circumstances, Sanders, Hull, or one of the others could become fantasy sleepers.
Spears sounds ready for any NFL role. Or all of them. "I don't wanna be considered a third-down back," he said. "I wanna be considered a four-down back. I don't want to be taken out when it's fourth-and-2. I can get you 2 yards and keep the drive moving."
Hull, meanwhile, has a cerebral approach and a passion for football that borders upon the poetic. "What I love about the running back position is that you get to be free, and play free, because it's not directly written what's going to happen in that play. You can make something happen."
These running backs will definitely make something happen in 2023. And during Senior Bowl week, they did a fine job keeping things entertaining.
A Dearth of Quarterbacks
Every time a quarterback throws a pass here in Mobile, Jimmy Garoppolo makes another million dollars.
Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy admitted during his opening remarks that this year's class of quarterbacks competing in the game isn't as strong as previous groups.
"We're not going to have a first-round quarterback," he said. "This class is all in that fourth-/fifth-round group, which is just where Jalen Hurts was three short years ago … And Jalen jumped into the second that year. So I think there's going to be a guy or two who gets into Day 2."
So far, no one has made that jump. In fact, this year's Senior Bowl quarterbacks may need a jump to reach the fourth or fifth round.
BYU's Jalen Hall (6-foot-0, 211 pounds) entered this week's practices with some buzz: on film, Hall looks like a smooth operator and good decision-maker with some wheels. To be diplomatic, Hall no longer has much buzz.
TCU's Max Duggan (6-foot-1, 204 pounds) also had a chance to demonstrate that he was more than a Big-12 playground-style quarterback but has looked ordinary at best. Note the measurables for Hall and Duggan: they fall well short of ideal height and weight, which wouldn't be a big deal if they were balling out, but they are not.
Tyson Bagent (6-foot-2, 213 pounds) of Division-II Shepherd College at least demonstrated that he belongs in this group, with NFL-caliber velocity on his throws and no more mistakes than the others. Tennessee's Hendon Hooker (6-foot-3, 208 pounds) is still recovering from a November ACL tear and, frustratingly, was not even made available for the media at a podium interview. Louisville's Malik Cunningham (5-foot-11, 188 pounds, how are these seriously Senior Bowl quarterback measurements?) missed Tuesday's practice with an illness and spent Wednesday getting up to speed. Houston's Clayton Tune and Fresno State's Jake Haener are here, and no one can take that away from them.
So there are no plausible quarterback solutions in the draft besides Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, mega-project Anthony Richardson, and Trubisky Lite Will Levis. With an increasing number of teams on the market for a viable 2023 starter (the Buccaneers are now in the pool), Garoppolo will fetch a premium, and both Geno Smith and Daniel Jones will get offers if not franchised. Baker Mayfield suddenly looks much better as a reclamation project, Andy Dalton as a stopgap for yet another year, Gardnew Minshew or Taylor Heinicke as an affordable alternative to Armageddon.
Hooker, Hall, and one or two of the others may be drafted on Day 3. Game film suggests that they deserve the opportunity. But this Senior Bowl quarterback group doesn't even appear to contain any long-range backups, let alone stealth prospects. That's bad news for teams but great news for the NFL's bottom-quartile starters.
Senior Bowl Risers
You're conventional look at who has performed well in Mobile this week.
Michigan State's Jayden Reed (5-foot-10, 191 pounds) and Houston's Nathaniel "Tank" Dell have both looked great in both 1-on-1 drills (which favor shifty slot jitterbugs) and team drills.
Dell has truly excelled, but he measured in at 5-foot-8, 163 pounds, and has calves like pretzel sticks. I'd feel more comfortable about Dell as a Day 2 pick if he had 12 more pounds of meaningful muscle. But his production and tape look great, and I'm keeping a more open mind about twiggy receivers in the wake of DeVonta Smith's success.
Reed sinks into his cuts smoothly and catches the ball well. The Zebra Technology folks clocked him in at 20.03 miles per hour, the fastest time on the field on Tuesday and Wednesday.
Jonathan Mingo of Ole Miss (6-foot-1, 226 pounds) demonstrated an ability to work the whole field, make catches in traffic, and generally haul in anything thrown his way. BYU's Puka Nacua (6-foot-1, 206 pounds) took advantage of the less-than-stellar quarterback play by hoovering up lots and lots of scattered short passes. Nacua was a screens-and-bombs guy for the Cougars, so it was encouraging to see him add some bad-ball possession capabilities to his portfolio.
Purdue's Payne Durham (6-foot-5, 258 pounds) stood out in blocking drills and demonstrated an ability to catch the ball away from his body. Durham was one of this week's biggest winners: his blocking at Purdue was excellent, but it helps to stand out from the pack, and NFL teams will be looking for versatile in-line tight ends whose presence on the field doesn't tip their run/pass tendency.
Other than that, I didn't watch the tight ends much.
Dawand Jones (6-foot-8, 375 pounds, holy crap) destroyed everything in his path on Tuesday, then pulled out of Wednesday's activities with an undisclosed injury. Jones proved that he was more than just a movable mountain on Tuesday: he's nimble and he's nasty, capable of swatting aside quality speed rushers in 1-on-1 "pit" drills. Jones will probably be an early Day 2 draft pick.
BYU's Blake Freeland (6-foot-7, 312) quietly had lots of effective reps against a well-regarded group of edge rushers. Freeland can consistently get low against shorter, stockier defenders, but he also uses his length and wingspan to stymie pass-rushers trying to get around him.
North Dakota State's Cody Mauch (6-foot-5, 298 pounds) came to Mobile as a draftnik favorite, thanks in part to his long, red, King-of-the-Mountain-Dwarves hairstyle. Mauch is indeed a quick-footed bruiser as a guard/center, though he's a lunger who can lose his balance when he leans too far forward.
"Keeanu Benton wants to murder people," I wrote in my notes during Wednesday's practice. The 6-foot-3, 312-pound Wisconsin defender engaged in some feisty extracurriculars at the end of pit reps. He also recorded a "sack" in full-squad drills, displaying surprising lateral quickness.
Bowling Green's Karl Brooks is a 6-foot-3, 303-pound wrecking ball of an EDGE RUSHER. Check those measurables again. Brooks is fun to watch on film, where he sometimes collapses MAC offensive lines all by himself. Blockers such as Dawand Jones handled Brooks better, but the big takeaway is that he moves like an edge rusher at that size.
Louisville's Yaya Diaby (6-foot-3, 264 pounds) looked like a leverage monster with heavy hands and a brawler's attitude in pit drills. I had an "eh, he's fine" grade on Diaby heading into this week but will reevaluate.
Iowa State's Will McDonald is lean at 6-foot-3, 241 pounds, but he was blurry and frenetic in Wednesday's pit drills. McDonald is also a big anime fan, and he chatted with friend-of-Walkthrough J.P. Acosta and others about Hunter X Hunter and other series during Wednesday's interview segment.
Army's Andre Carter (6-foot-6, 252 pounds) is the biggest name here, and he handled himself well in drills without really standing out. Carter does not yet officially have his military deferment, and word on the street is that he is doing his best to get into football shape, as opposed to army shape, while working out (and studying and doing stuff like firing off artillery) at West Point.
Tulane's Dorian Williams (6-foot-2, 228 pounds) nearly sacked a coach during LB-vs.-RB blitz pickup drills. He essentially ran his blocker over and was still jamming on the brakes when he plowed into the coach (holding a padded shield) supervising the drill. Williams can move. So can 6-foot-2, 217-pound Sacramento State linebacker/safety tweener Marte Mapu, who displayed the open-field speed to be useful in a heavy nickel role.
They were awesome, though weak quarterback play probably pumped a little helium into their performances.
Kansas State's Julius Brents (6-foot-3, 202 pounds) stole the show on Tuesday with an interception and at least one near-pick. As the numbers suggest, he's built to match up against taller receivers, but he is no tentpole. "I didn't match up against the biggest receiver," Brents told me about his college role. "I matched up with the best receiver."
Stanford's Kyu Blu Kelly (6-foot-0, 193 pounds) was all over the field on Wednesday, matching Brents' effort with one splashy pick and one almost-pick.
Iowa's Riley Moss (6-foot-0, 192 pounds) may have had the best overall week of any cornerback, with rep after consistent rep of sticky coverage against all sorts of receivers. Oregon State's Rejzohn Wright (6-foot-2, 196 pounds) entered the week as a draftnik favorite and did not disappoint.
Wright, Moss, Kelly, and Brents consistently anticipated passes and beat receivers to the ball in 7-on-7 and team drills. It's worth noting that all-star playbooks are very limited, making it easier for defenders to guess routes. TCU linebacker Dee Winters even picked off college teammate Max Duggan at one point; familiarity breeds pass breakups. Still, it looks like NFL teams will be able to stock up on cornerback talent in the middle of Day 2 and early in Day 3.
NIL and COVID's Long Shadow
There are lots and lots of fifth-year seniors down here in Mobile, as well as the stray SIXTH-year senior like Washington State (by way of Nevada) linebacker (formerly wide receiver) Daiyan Henley, whom I may profile later in the draft process.
Many of these fifth-year seniors had janked-up 2020 seasons due to COVID and took advantage to the extra year of eligibility the NCAA offered. Many also benefitted from the transfer portal: after two years on the bench at one school, they searched for greener pastures and played an extra year at another school.
And then there is NIL. Jim Nagy said that the fact that some players can now earn (wink) endorsement dollars may actually benefit the Senior Bowl: kids who might have gone pro too early because of financial need (and ended up getting selected late on Day 3) can now earn, in Nagy's words, "enough to help mom and dad pay the bills" while staying in school for an extra year or two. Ideally, that will improve the lads' draft stock, allow more of them to earn degrees, AND provide additional Senior Bowl fodder.
From a draft analytics standpoint, over-aged prospects are bad news at just about every position: their performance ceilings are lower, and it's easy to get a false perception of a 23-year-old's true talents when he's competing against 19-year-olds. At the top of the draft boards, prospects who exploded in their second or third seasons remain the best prospects. But we may have to adjust our attitudes and methods in the years to come. The pandemic's impact on college careers will wane after this year, but NIL and the portal are here to stay, and more and more quality prospects are likely to choose to spend one more year in what are now almost officially the minor leagues in search of a championship, a degree, or yes, major-conference superstar NIL money, which is already reaching par with NFL benchwarmer money.
Walkthrough will be ramping up our draft coverage soon after the Super Bowl, and that's a Good News/Affordable News situation.
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Of course, not everything is going behind the paywall, and you will still find Walkthrough waiting for you with lots of draft, free-agency, and cap coverage (and Aaron Rodgers ridicule) all offseason long. And I'll have you covered from Arizona for the Super Bowl too.
OK, time to fly out of Mobile, spend a day or two with the family, then fly off to the Super Bowl. Wonder if those Philly-to-Phoenix flights will be rowdy? Oh, you bet they will.
10 comments, Last at 05 Feb 2023, 6:41am
#1 by mehllageman56 // Feb 02, 2023 - 4:06pm
Looking at the tape I don't know how anyone would draft Anthony Richardson ahead of Hendon Hooker. Yeah, he's injured now, but that injury won't hurt his accuracy or arm strength. The team that drafts him just won't get the chance to rush Hooker onto the field to ruin him.
Matt Waldman likes Richardson for some reason, so perhaps my instincts are wrong, as they often are. But I don't see it with him.
#5 by Tom Tulpa // Feb 03, 2023 - 11:58am
I follow the (poor) Gators, and someone needs to explain the Richardson hype to me. He came in a clinking, clanking mess who couldn't beat out the sitting Wing-T quarterback we had for the starting job, and he scarcely improved. He can't read a defense with a Geiger counter. He's a strong runner who maybe could be useful in a backfield, but not at QB. He doesn't have the basic passing skills needed to be a good running QB.
#6 by MaineRaider // Feb 03, 2023 - 12:04pm
Hooker seems to me like someone the draftniks overlook because he isn't as big as they'd like a QB to be, but he played well in basically the AAA affiliate of the NFL (the SEC) and looks good on video. I understand the red flags about age, injury, and supporting cast, but at some point the production itself has to matter. FWIW, I thought Jalen Hurts was underrated by the draftniks also.
#8 by mehllageman56 // Feb 03, 2023 - 7:17pm
At this point, Jalen has proven the draftniks (including me) wrong.
Just watched Hooker's tape against Ball State; he was high on a bunch of throws, worse than a lot of his other game tape. I liked his play against Alabama, but I should watch the Georgia footage again, I thought he had a rough time there.
If a team is worried about Hooker's supporting cast, then perhaps they shouldn't draft anyone from the Crimson Tide or the Georgia Bulldogs. Teams still need to check out his health though before drafting him.