With a dramatically different NFL Scouting Combine due to COVID-19 precautions, the Reese's Senior Bowl now sticks out as perhaps the biggest pre-draft event of the year. More than 100 of the nation's top seniors are practicing with NFL coaching staffs this week before playing on Saturday afternoon in a showcase event.
Since there may not be many other chances to meet face-to-face with coaches and front office staff, a larger-than-normal contingent of players has arrived in Mobile, Alabama. Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith is among the many players who will be at but not participate at the event, including Alabama teammate Najee Harris and Florida quarterback Kyle Trask — although the latter may have to do with an ankle injury.
This event also will be the first chance in more than a year for scouts to see several top prospects who opted out of the 2020 college football season, such as Georgia (never played for Bulldogs after transferring from Wake Forest) quarterback Jamie Newman, and wide receivers Nico Collins (Michigan) and Sage Surratt (Wake Forest).
The NFL hopefuls will be split into two teams and coached by the Panthers and Dolphins staffs. That could add an interesting twist, as the Panthers are selecting eighth and could be targeting a quarterback, while the Dolphins have the third and 18th selections.
There are currently four players on the rosters projected to be first-round picks in Athlon's latest mock draft, although fans may have a hard time learning more about them. Smith and Harris are sitting the game out, while Alex Leatherwood is an offensive tackle, so Florida wideout Kadarius Toney will be the biggest name to watch in that respect.
Still, there are plenty of intriguing names to track at practice and follow during Saturday's game. Many of whom could play their way into Day 1 or Day 2 status. Here's who to keep an eye on.
2021 Reese's Senior Bowl
When:Saturday, Jan. 30 at 1:30 p.m. ET
Where: Ladd-Peebles Stadium (Mobile, Ala.)
TV: NFL Network
Things/Players to Watch
Can any quarterbacks break into the top tier?
None of the projected top four quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance) are participating — none are seniors, after all — but essentially every other top QB practice will be in attendance this weekend. Most notable is Alabama's Mac Jones, who broke all kinds of records, even if they came behind the nation's best offensive line and with the nation's best receivers. While he only has average arm strength, seeing him against elite DBs will be a key test.
Also on Jones' American Team is a pair of passers who entered the 2020 season with Heisman buzz. Jamie Newman has the arm strength and running ability to be a game-changer but needs to show more accuracy and is a bit raw. Texas A&M's Kellen Mond is much of the same story and could prove himself more on deep passes.
The National Team doesn't have any standouts, but it's not out of the question for one of three productive college passers to rise up boards. Texas' Sam Ehlinger has the size and athleticism but stands to improve on moving through his progressions. Arkansas' Feleipe Franks has the kind of build you can dream on but has gotten sloppy with his mechanics, while Notre Dame's Ian Book is accurate and good on the move despite his size.
Which offensive players are worth watching?
Even with DeVonta Smith and Najee Harris not playing, there are plenty of offensive weapons. Most of the running backs to watch are on the National Team, whose backfield includes North Carolina's Michael Carter, Virginia Tech's Khalil Herbert, Oklahoma's Rhamondre Stevenson, and UCLA's Demetric Felton. Carter is the most complete back of this group, Herbert and Stevenson have excellent one-cut potential, and Felton is perhaps the best pass-catching back in the class. Mississippi State's Kylin Hill stands out for his ability to break tackles on the American Team.
Kadarius Toney will be the top wideout to watch. He creates easy separation with his compact frame and should thrive in the slot. Nico Collins and Sage Surratt are big targets who use their physicality to get up and make plays, although the latter is a more fluid athlete. Clemson's Amari Rodgers is dangerous after the catch, but it would be nice to see him show off a more complete route tree. Oklahoma State's Tylan Wallace is a big-play threat even without elite size, and just staying healthy could boost his stock.
The tight end room is a bit thin, especially without the top prospects, but Boston College's Hunter Long will be the name to watch. He's more of an oversized receiver than a quality blocker at this point, so that will be something to keep an eye on. Ole Miss' Kenny Yeboah is a converted receiver and red-zone threat who needs to refine his skills more. Bowling Green's Quintin Morris and Virginia's Tony Poljan both have a ways to go as a blocker, but the former is a downfield threat and the latter has H-back potential.
Will any defensive players stick out?
The defensive line is full of ACC stars, as Wake Forest's Carlos Basham Jr. and Pittsburgh's duo of Rashad Weaver and Patrick Jones II stand out at defensive end. Basham and Jones are powerful with high motors, while Weaver is more of a technician. Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson had a disappointing senior season after once looking like a first-rounder but could rise up draft boards again with more consistency. Washington defensive tackle Levi Onwuzurike is excellent at getting upfield despite being undersized, and USC's Marlon Tuipoulotu has shown an ability to cover multiple gaps.
At inside linebacker, North Carolina's Chazz Surratt (Sage Surratt's brother) and Ohio State's Baron Browning are both raw but have the physical tools to become stars. LSU's Jabril Cox is excellent in coverage after moving up to the FBS level from FCS dynasty North Dakota State but needs more seasoning against the run. On the outside, UAB's Jordan Smith and Oregon State's Hamilcar Rashed Jr. are the top pass rushers, and West Virginia's Tony Fields II is undersized but uses his athleticism well to cover backs and smaller receivers.
The secondary isn't as deep as other positions, but Oklahoma State's Rodarious Williams sticks out for his size and coverage skills and has four years of experience. UCF's Aaron Robinson is the other corner to watch; he has excellent size, has been effective in run defense, and has been rising up some draft boards. Florida State safety Hamsah Hasirildeen has a lot to gain after missing most of 2020 due to a knee injury, while UCF's Richie Grant has flashed first-round potential thanks to an ability to create plenty of turnovers.