NFL Draft

Biggest risers from the 2022 college all-star events:

With the NFL having added an extra week of regular season football and everything else being pushed back even further, there was even less media attention for the first parts of the draft process. However, now that the Rams have been crowned as league champions, we enter the offseason and for everybody, who didn’t actually keep up with the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl, East-West Shrine game and Senior Bowl, I put together this list of prospects, who have boosted their stock over the course of those events.

So I watched all the practices and the games from those three weeks and picked out 15 names altogether, who I believe helped themselves the most with their performances. This group primarily includes Senior Bowl guys, who partially were called up from the NFLPA Bowl, since I actually watched every single rep of every single drill basically, while I didn’t have that kind of exclusive footage from the other two events.

Here’s the list I came up with:

 


 

Dameon Pierce 

 

RB Dameon Pierce, Florida

As a former top-ten running back recruit (in 2018), expectations were high for this young man at Florida. Yet, while he was involved from the start and his production did increase throughout his career, his highest amount of touches came last year at just 119, even though he did manage to turn those into 790 yards and 16 touchdowns. The efficiency was there, but neither during Gators’ prolific 2020 season offensively nor last year, when they primarily were a rushing offense, Pierce got the chance to turn into a star.

Weighing in at 220 pounds at his 5’9” frame, we expected power from this young man and we got a couple of flashes of his violent running style in the actual games, dropping the shoulder on defenders and ripping through contact, in order to keep going. However, with wrap-tackling throughout practices, this event usually favors more of those fleet-footed scat backs, who can make larger defenders look bad in space. And still, I thought Pierce showed excellent short-area quickness on inside runs, while gaining speed through those one-step cuts on zone schemes, before showing the willingness to finish in a physical fashion with the way he approached contact.

As a receiver, he did actually drop a couple of passes on wheel routes – once in one-on-one’s and in team drills each, where he seemed to have a bit of an issue timing when to extend those hands as he tracked the ball over his shoulder – but that ability to give linebackers a little shake and hit an extra gear, to pull away from them vertically, was on display. And he excelled on angle routes, crossing up those defenders and showing the burst to pull away from them, once the ball was in his hands. And I also thought he was pretty impressive getting in front of guys and holding his ground against charging linebackers in pass-protection. In particular on day two – as they did at the end of Lions practices – he stone-walled App State linebacker D’Marco Jackson a couple of times.

I was pretty shocked to realize Alabama’s Brian Robinson was voted American RB of the week over Pierce, but that was probably more due to the sheer visuals of the former just rocking Georgia LB Channing Tindal’s word at one point during during pass-pro drills and having that best-out-of-three at the end of that session, with everybody watching. Still, I would think no back shot up boards in Mobile quite like the often-underutilized Pierce, who had a complete all-around performance and projects a potential three-down option for most teams, I would think.

 

 

Kyle Philips

 

WR Kyle Philips, UCLA

After a redshirt year, this former four-star recruit set a freshman school record with 60 catches, and after an honorable mention All-Pac 12 selection in a shortened 2020 season, he put up career-highs last year, catching 59 balls for 739 yards and a Pac-12 leading ten touchdowns. Phillips also averaged 21.0 yards per punt return for the Bruins and reached the end-zone two additional times.

Despite a pretty productive career for one of the more well-recognized programs on the West Coast, Philips was looked at as a day-three prospect and did not receive a Senior Bowl invite. Instead, he made his way to Las Vegas and went on to look borderline uncoverable throughout four practice sessions. What was apparent from the start was his understanding for how to set up defenders as a route-runner, with the way he stemmed them initially and then varied his pacing, such as hitting sudden bursts, to make it hard to anticipate which directions he might take them. A lot of times he almost literally stepped on the toes of the DB, got them to freeze those, deceived with his body-language and then created separation out of his breaks.

Having primarily lined up inside for the Bruins during his collegiate career, getting off press-coverage was something Philips didn’t get to show a whole lot of, but he seemed to have no issues with it in Vegas. We saw him vary those release, whether it was just some rapid feet off the line and then a well-timed slap away of the defender’s hands, or shuffle-steps to force his man to lean the wrong way, again paired with active hands. He also displayed the long-speed to not allow that guy to re-enter the picture when going downfield, and then once the ball was in his hands, you saw guys lose ground on him, when trying to chase him down. Just to add that cherry on top, he added in some beautiful diving grabs in the end-zone during red-zone drills, displaying great concentration.

Philips ended up missing the actual game, but with the work he put on throughout practices, that’s not really big deal to me. He really turned some heads over the course of the week, thanks to his foot quickness and ability to release cleanly, even drawing comparisons to a local Raiders receiver, who is known for his savvy as a route-runner, in Hunter Renfrow. The former UCLA standout probably still projects best in the slot, but he can definitely play some Z and win down the field as well.

 

 

Christian Watson

 

WR Christian Watson, North Dakota State

Unlike the receiver we just talked about, physical traits weren’t really in question for this height-weight-speed prospect from the FCS, who once was barely recruited, but ended up clearly being the primary pass-catcher for the National champs in his two full seasons with the Bison. Taking their one showcase game they actually had in 2020 out of the equation, over that two-year stretch, Watson combined for 77 grabs worth 1532 yards and 13 touchdowns, along with 28 carries for 276 more yards and two extra TDs.

Coming in at 6’4”, 210 pounds and reportedly running the 40 in the high 4.4’s to low 4.5’s, for Watson the refinement at the position and how his game would translate against top-tier competition. Well, I think it’s safe to say that those questions have been answered. He had a couple of V-release slants against inside shades that would be impressive for sub-six foot receivers, but the difference with him is that he actually has the strength to fight through contact and gain the leverage needed for a ball to be fit into him. You never saw him tilt at all to give away his routes, it didn’t look like he needed a runway to build up his speed and he carried It through for fluid breaks.

Despite being able to “reduce” his size well, he also knew when to make use of his strength, using little chicken-wings to create some separation at the of his routes. He did so on an in-breaker day one and then a deep comeback on the second day in an advanced fashion. And then once the ball is in his, he knew how to approach it. He made an easy-looking grab on a back-shoulder fade against Ouachita Baptist’s Gregory Junior, putting a hand on his back and twisting around late. We also saw him go up and snatch balls out of the air on goal-line routes (mostly versus air) and he also showed good focus to haul in some off-target throws.

Watson only caught one pass in the actual game (at the end of the first quarter) , but you saw the natural power, to just toss a big corner in Sam Houston State’s Zyon McCollum to the ground and haul in the pass for 38 yards. That came after already being voted National WR of the week. I listened to Connor Rogers’ conversation with Trevor Sikkema on one of the PFF shows, where he said that if you put an Ohio State or Alabama helmet on Watson, he might be a top-50 pick – and I wouldn’t rule out that’s where he’ll end up coming off the board.

 

 

Dai'Jean Dixon

 

WR Dai’Jean Dixon, Nicholls State

Considering Dixon and former LSU and now-Titans receiver Racey McMath (who ran a 4.34 at his pro day last year) were often called twins, this kid was expected to get multiple Power-Five offers, but due to a sexual assault accusation, which was later recanted by the woman, he ended up at Nicholls State. There he was named a three-time All-Southland selection and broke multiple school records, such as most points scored (216) and most consecutive games with a reception (50), along with finishing top-four in catches (236), receiving yards (3802) and TDs (35).

As a fairly unknown commodity heading into this draft process, an opportunity to showcase his talents to evaluators was key for Dixon, and he got that chance at the NFLPA Bowl, where I’m sure people circled his name during practices and the game. Standing at 6’2”, 200 pounds, Dixon would be labelled an outside receiver, which is also where he did most of his damage in college, as the X-receiver for the most part, but in Pasadena he operated mostly out of the slot. During practice, he just had different juice coming out of his stance I thought, being able to put defenders on their heels initially. Yet, he won plenty on the short and intermediate levels, while the American team got him involved on some reverses and then as deception off that.

Throughout one-on-one sessions, he ran his routes with crisp breaks and showed confident hands, extending outside his frame and extending late on over-the-shoulder grabs. In the actual game, he hauled in a couple of balls, where he displayed outstanding ball-tracking, plus late adjustments, and some toughness through contact. He ended the day with six catches for 131 yards and a touchdown, on which he easily won on a slant route versus soft press and held onto the ball, despite nearly getting his head knocked off by the safety. Along with that, he showed some savvy to force pass interference once, by making his man have to go through him at one catch point.

Before anything else, NFL scouts will have to check on those red flags with Dixon personally, going back to his high school, and sit down with to discuss any remaining concerns. Once again, having played in the FCS will lead to questions about the level of competition, but he perform about as well as he could at the NFLPA Bowl and last year his team also scheduled Louisiana and Memphis from the AAC – and he went off for 21 catches for 305 yards and two touchdowns combined.

 

 

Trey McBride

 

TE Trey McBride, Colorado State

This young man has been ne of the most productive tight-ends in college football over the last three years and often times the primary option for the Rams offense. Over 16 games between 2019 and ’20, he caught 67 passes for 890 yards and eight touchdowns, before having the most productive season of any college TE as a senior, when he hauled in 90 balls for 1121 yards (even if he only reached the end-zone once) leading to first-team All-American honors.

McBride came in an inch shorter than expected (just 1/8 above 6’3”) and one pound short of the 250-mark. While having a couple of extra inches of height might be beneficial in terms of reaching out for the ball and getting his hands to a spot a defender can’t reach, with that squatty build might open up some work at fullback or H. His physicality was on display as a blocker, widening the C-gap on the front-side and kicking out the end-man away from the action. You also saw him collapse the backside and open up a lane for the ball-carrier to cut it all the way back a couple of times at practice. Even in pass-pro, he had a couple really impressive reps against all the edge/rush backer talent down in Mobile, being able to stay in front of them.

He showed off his willingness to get physical when lowering the pads after the catch, but also as a route-runner, leaning into contact and using subtle push-offs to create some separation. And the mobility in his hips was not only apparent when rolling them through blocks, but also to sit down and change directions on whip/return routes a couple of times. His two most impressive catches probably came against the top safety down at the Senior Bowl in Baylor’s Jalen Pitre, who he literally threw off himself to gain inside access and catch the ball at full extension despite the DB swiping at him, and then of course he hauled in an awesome contested catch on day two of team drills, where Kenny Pickett kind of just threw it up there and McBride grabbed it off the defender’s helmet. I love the way he freezes the ball with his eyes once it gets there and he seems pretty unbothered by defenders trying to reach around and rip the ball out of his hands.

With that level of production and having won the Mackey award for the best tight-end in the country, there wasn’t as much to gain as for some of these FCS prospects for example, and I went into the week with him as my TE1, but unlike some other guys with this opportunity at different positions, he clearly established himself as that guy at the top. He was voted National TE of the week and capped things off with an easy touchdown on leak route into the flats off a split zone fake in the game.

 

 

Matt Waletzko

 

OT Matt Waletzko, North Dakota

Going back to a lesser-known commodity in draft circles, Waletzko was just a two-star recruit 2018, who ended up starting 28 career games at left tackle at North Dakota (not state). He was a team captain for the Athletics and a first-team All-MVFC selection in 2021, even though a shoulder injury forced him to miss their final game.

Let’s be real here – it was a bad week of practice for the offensive tackle group down in Mobile. Whether it was the athletic upside guys like Central Michigan’s Bernard Raimann or the other small-school names, they got their asses kicked for the most part by a highly group of edge defenders. So for Waletzko to be the one, who stood out the most to me is pretty impressive. He displayed great balance and patience with keeping shoulders square during one-on-one’s, while finishing appropriately, by landing on top of guys who went to the ground, watching them stumble themselves or at times also helping them down there, by sort of pushing them down when they tried to dip underneath him. I just really loved the fact he never seemed to overreact to moves, kept his feet moving and just how easy he made it look against some of the top edge rushers in the country, despite the jump in competition.

He had a couple of outstanding reps against Minnesota’s Boye Mafe on Wednesday, forcing him to overrun the arc and landing with his chest on the defender’s back once each. However, we did see the speedy edge rusher get around him on day three, as Waletzko can get a little too aggressive with active forcing his opponents to take a wider angle or just not knocking them off track, instead of sticking with his kick-slide and more so guiding them on their path. In the run game, Waletzko showed the ability to get his shoulders turned to the sideline and open up a lane inside of him, as well as staying under good control when climbing up to linebackers and then running his feet through contact, despite standing tall at 6’7″. Along with that, he got a chance to put his mobility on display in the actual game, when the National team got him out on the nickel in the screen game.

When you get guys from small programs – especially ones that went 5-6 last season in the FCS – it’s usually about showing a competitive spirit and improving throughout the week. I thought Waletzko looked like he belonged from day one and only got better. He did receive a combine invite and should test fairly well, but after what I saw from him, I’m already trying to get my hands on some North Dakota tape.

 

 

Cole Strange

 

IOL Cole Strange, UT-Chattanooga

A former two-star recruit all the way back in 2016, despite spending six(!) years on campus, Strange still won’t turn 24 until the end of July. Throughout his career at Chattanooga, he started 44 of 49 career games, with all but three of those at left guard – along with some action at left tackle and center, out of necessity – and he was finally named a first-team All-Southern Conference selection this past season.

So while his profile wouldn’t necessarily suggest somebody we usually see down in Mobile, Strange quickly proved that he belonged. He has a coupe of really good first day reps Oklahoma’s Perrion Winfrey, who was otherwise kicking ass all week long. He did get caught lunging by the former Sooner later on and completely whiffed on that one, but he had caught my attention. Being on the lighter side at 305 pounds, Strange had to opt for a more aggressive approach off the snap against some of those Power-Five monsters, but he found great success by landing those hands inside the chest of defensive tackles, playing with good flexion in his ankles and knees, which he maintained while slowing stepping backwards, and then he had excellent grip on rushers, while holding where nobody can see it, to not let guys get away from him.

Strange had a couple of tremendous reps on day three, holding his ground against UConn’s 350-pounder Travis Jones. The difference in pure strength was visible a couple in run-blocking drills massive D-tackles, but you really like the lateral agility he brings to the table. He did awesome work getting out in front in the screen game and putting hands on people in wide-open space. And his competitiveness was on display when he called out Houston’s Logan Hall for a third straight rep, after shocking him off the snap and not giving him anywhere to go, even though he did whiff on his jump-set off the snap. However, I just love the fact you have this sort of no-name guy for most people yelling at a projected top-50 pick.

I’m still not sure if I want Strange isolated against big nose tackles for 50+ plays every game, but I think he could be an excellent fit in one of those Shanahan-based wide rushing schemes, along with the ability to control those A-gaps on passing downs and take the steam out of guys at contact. With the way he moved, I think his name should continue to rise at the combine, but I would be interested to see how much weight he can add to firm up that base, because he looked more like a tight-end plus compared to the rest of the big boys down in Mobile.

 

 

Jermaine Johnson

 

EDGE Jermaine Johnson II, Florida State

Back in 2019, this was the number one overall JUCO recruit, yet Johnson only saw time as a rotational player for that loaded Georgia defense and decided to transfer to Florida State ahead of this past season, where he turned those flashes he had show (four sacks and five TFLs) in seven games of 2020, into every-week dominance, as he was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to 17.5 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, a couple of PBUs and forced fumbles each and a scoop-and-score.

So unlike some of the under-the-radar invites we saw Jim Nagy’s group hit, Johnson’s talent was already highly regarded coming into Senior Bowl week, but he put on one of the most dominant displays I’ve seen since Aaron Donald probably. In one-on-one pass-rush drills, you saw him win repeatedly converting speed to power, forcing tackles to open up their hips and then going through their chest. He also showed off a nasty spin move (even though he stumbled a little bit) against Louisiana offensive tackle Max Mitchell on Tuesday. He was even more impressive on day two however, when he flattened poor Mitchell on the very first rep of one-on-one’s and later roasted Tulsa’s Chris Paul at tackle with an instant win on an up-and-under, perfectly paired with a swim maneuver.

Johnson came down to Mobile to whoop ass for two straight days, basically winning every single rep in those direct matchups in decisive fashion and in a variety of ways, where his combination of length, power, speed and technique was just too much for opponents. His ability to dig into that arsenal of moves and consistently win with his primary approach was highly impressive to watch. And after beating up everybody for those two practice sessions, I’m sure his agent called him to come back home, because there was nothing else he could have proved. I haven’t heard a thing about why he otherwise wouldn’t have participated Thursday or in the actual game.

Standing at 6’4”, 260 pounds, with a condor-like 83-inch wingspan and likely jumping out of the gym a couple of weeks from now at the combine, considering the explosiveness he’s shown out of his stance, it’s not like Johnson elevated himself by a couple of rounds with his performance down in Mobile, but he’s gone from a fringe-first rounder to a fixture in every mock draft. And we see this every year, where a team falls in love with a high-upside guy like this and he ends up going in the top-20.

 

 

DeAngelo Malone

 

EDGE DeAngelo Malone, Western Kentucky

Just a two-star recruit in 2017, Malone became a starter as a sophomore for the Hilltoppers and never looked back. He was a first-team All-Conference USA selection each of the last three years, recording a total of 48.5 tackles for loss and 25 sacks over that stretch, while adding in four fumbles forced and passes knocked down this past season. That also earned him the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year award in 2019 and ’21.

Right off the bat, Malone’s combination of speed and bend around the corner makes him a major threat. He had a beautiful up-and-under move against Southern Utah’s Braxton Jones on day one, showing that ability to punish tackles for oversetting to the outside. However, what blew me away, considering he weighed in at just 235 pounds for his 6’3” was the incredible power he could build up. He routinely put guys on skates who had a good 70-80 pounds on him, as they got too tall or onto their heels. In particular on day three, he blasted through the shoulder of his old friend Braxton Jones for an easy (would-be) sack in one-on-one’s.

Malone also showed that he doesn’t shy away at all from banging into blockers trying to kick him out on the backside. His strength was so much more impressive than I expected, throwing a couple of tight-ends out of club and often times squeezing the C-gap into nothingness away from the play direction. On top of that, I loved the attitude and chippiness he brought to the table, at one point pushing an offensive linemen past the whistle into the back of one of the coaches, who acted as the quarterback in one-on-one’s. He wrapped up the week, by getting the first sack of the actual game (on the second National drive), running right through Iowa State tight-end Charlie Kolar and putting him flat on his back, as he was trying to secure Malone off play-action.

A lot of times when you see a Non-Power Five program have a great season, based on a quarterback season, like we did with Bailey Zappe for WKU, it opens up the path for some teammates to come along for the ride, being invited to these pre-draft events. However, Malone was really the star of the show for the Hilltoppers and even American edge rushers altogether, despite the presence of Jermaine Johnson through the first two days. Considering how dominant he looked at just 235 pounds, NFL teams should feel pretty good about him adding a little bit to his frame and being an every-down player.

 

 

Eric Johnson

 

IDL Eric Johnson, Missouri State

Let’s go back to the good old FCS now, which seems to be the major theme of this list, with somebody who’s had a pretty eventful pre-draft process already. Johnson played in a school-record 55 consecutive games as a five-year starter and was recognized as an All-MVFC second-team selection the past two seasons. He finished his career with 131 total stops, including, 19.5 of those for loss and 6.5 sacks.

Johnson’s journey started at the NFLPA Bowl, where he seemed to kind of shocked offensive linemen with his quickness off the snap throughout practice sessions, suddenly dipping the shoulder and getting around guys in one-on-one’s on several occasions. People down in Mobile took notice and he was invited to the Senior Bowl, where I thought Johnson’s physicality really stood out for the time he was there, moving big men backwards in the run game and creating push up the pocket, while maintaining those initially quicks to establish those half-man relationships and maximize his force.

To finish his showing in the NFLPA Bowl on a high note, he got a sack on third-and-long in the second quarter of the actual game, where he was the set-up man on a T-E twist, but still was able to put the left tackle on his ass, before swallowing the quarterback. Then he flew straight over to Mobile and immediately got a sack in team drills day one. On the second day he hit a great outside spin move against Kentucky’s Darian Kinnard, that you just wouldn’t expect a 300-pounder to be able to execute in that fashion. Along with that, he was able to own his space at the point of attack in run defense throughout six total practices and a couple of games.

At 6’4”, with an 82 ½-inch wingspan and ten-plus inch hands, Johnson has that 4i/5-technique body type and looked like he belonged there with those FBS standouts. The one invite he didn’t receive was to the combine – which is absolutely crazy – and I would have liked to see him move around, but with the way he has gone from Missouri State – which actually didn’t lose a game by more than one possession in all of 2021, including a TD-affair against Oklahoma State in the season-opener – to NFLPA Bowl and then Senior Bowl, while stepping up every leve along the wayl, I feel very good about his capability of being a quality contributor in the NFL.

 

 

Perrion Winfrey

 

IDL Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma

Isn’t it funny that the two biggest standouts for the most dominant position group (the D-line) at the Senior Bowl this year were both once number one JUCO recruits? I already discussed Jermaine Johnson wrecking shop whilst he was there, but Winfrey might have been the one guy to top him. Coming to Oklahoma (despite an offer from Alabama), Winfrey became a key cog for the Sooners right away, but drastically increased his numbers this past season, when he recorded 11 TFLs and 5.5 sacks, while earning second-team All-Big 12 recognition at the end of both seasons in Norman.

The two things that always stood out to me when seeing Winfrey at OU was his interesting body composition at a rather slim 6’4”, 300 pounds, with that massive 85 ½-inch wing span and the fact he flashed more than he dominates at this point of his career, largely relying on his physical gifts. Well, he put it all together down in Mobile. Right from the start, he ran flat-out ran through a couple of small-school offensive linemen on day one with an overpowering bull-rush, to go along with his agility off the snap. Something I hadn’t really seen with the Sooners – I though he did a great job of instantly getting to his secondary move and effectively landing hand maneuvers, if he didn’t win right off the snap.

His urgency, lateral agility and penetration were all outstanding, which also him a problem to deal with in team drills. With that quick-twitch, he displayed the ability to be a game-wrecker, just crashing through gaps and creating chaos routinely. He recorded a couple of huge TFLs and a would-be sack on day two of 11-on-11’s and at one point even ripped the ball out of the hands of a running back and jumped on top of it himself. Maybe more than anything, he was my favorite player to watch through the week, because of the energy and swagger he brought the table, constantly pumping up teammates and flat-out having a great time. Finishing the week with finally getting a sack in the third quarter of the game doesn’t hurt either.

Winfrey’s ascent at this stage of the process is kind of reminiscent of what we saw from another former Oklahoma D-tackle in now-Cowboy Neville Gallimore, as both spent a lot of time in the A-gaps and were asked to slant, which isn’t necessarily where they get a chance to shine, compared to this practice environment, where guys get singled out and he was able to be highly disruptive. He inexplicably wasn’t voted the National team’s DT of the week, in favor of UConn’s Travis Jones, who physically overwhelmed blockers as well, but I thought in terms of the way he practiced and lifted everybody else up, Winfrey could have been named MVP of the entire week.

 

 

Ali Fayad

 

LB Ali Fayad, Western Michigan

Just outside the top-3000 overall recruits in 2017, Fayad played in all 12 and started three games as a true freshman, before became a fixture in the Bronco defense from that point on. Over the last four years (42 games), he racked up 139 tackles, 47.5 of those for loss, 26 sacks and eight fumbles forced, including career-bests this past season (17.5 TFLs and 12 sacks). For his efforts, he was named second- and then first-team All-MAC these past two seasons respectively.

I had no idea who this guy was before East-West Shrine week, but Fayad’s explosion of the snap and effort as a pass-rusher were highly impressive. Whether it was converting into power and going through guys or having to come up with secondary moves on the fly – he made his presence felt. He showcased very loose hips and good ankle mobility, to turn a tighter arc and get low, to go underneath tackles on ghost moves. His go-to however is a very well-coordinated spin, where he uses the icepick-arm to clear the blocker’s hips. He won on a sweet iteration of that move and then actually came back with a fake-spin later during Shrine Bowl one-on-one’s.

There’s no doubt that Fayad looks a bit on the smaller side at 6’2”, 250 pounds, and his 32-inch arms don’t equalize that, but he played much bigger than his size would indicate in terms of holding his ground in the run game and adding some power as a rusher. On the front-side of run plays, he is highly active with his hands, to pull off blockers off him once the ball-carrier approaches, and he showed good pursuit from the backside. He also had a pick just go off his hands, staying home on the backside of a zone run to take away a throw into the flats and then slightly falling off, to take away the receiver behind him, as the QB tried to play levels on the bootleg.

Fayad put a lot of work into dropping in coverage as a junior and if that’s the size he will play at, he might have to play off the ball to some degree, if he wants to the field on early downs at the next level. I’m not 100 percent sure where the league sees his most logical fit, but he showed in Vegas that he can play. Having seen some of that awareness in zone coverage, setting a physical edge and then of course having that ability to win in multiple ways as a pass-rusher, I think he can turn into a quality 3-4 outside backer, after possibly starting as more of a rotational player or specialist as a rookie.

 

 

Troy Andersen

 

LB Troy Andersen, Montana State

This is probably the most interesting career of the bunch. As the Big Sky Freshman of the Year, starting games at both running back and linebacker, Andersen was a key figure for the Bobcats right away and was even more in the spotlight when he became the program’s only first-team all-conference quarterback, which he repeated in 2019 – only this time on defense. As a senior he finally became a unanimous All-American and FCS Defensive Player of the Year, thanks to 147 tackles, 14 of those for loss, seven PBUs, a couple of sacks and picks each.

The NFL is always looking for athletic linebackers that can play in space and we seem to get at least one of those guys, who begins his rise in scouting circles with a strong showing in Mobile. Andersen was that guy, who despite being put in unfavorable position, having to defend a 53-yard wide field man-to-man basically, flashed on multiple occasions. In particular, he had a few great reps in one-on-one’s in the red-zone of day three, sticking with backs, who had a two-way go on him, and once breaking up a goal-line fade by Wisconsin tight-end Jake Ferguson, where he initially allowed some separation, but got back into the picture and swiped through the extended hands,.He already did something similar the day prior, ripping the ball out of Colorado State’s Trey McBride on a corner route.

I also really liked what I saw from him moving back- and forward in coverage, to toggle between patterns and set the tackle for minimal yardage, when the ball was front in front of him. And when he sees the quarterback take off, he gets downhill in a HURRY. He did so when shutting down scramble from Nevada’s Carson Strong on day three in the red-zone for just a couple of yards, when it looked like he had a nice lane in front of him initially. In the run game, I like his ability to shuffle along from the backside and be ready for cutbacks, plus then he can open up and really run, which make him a nice projection for WILL backer. With his play speed and those slightly above 32-inch arms, I like what he presents in terms of maneuvering around blocks and pursuing the ball. He even showed some pass-rush upside against tight-ends, who will have a tough time blocking him, as he once beat Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar cleanly around the edge on a nice chop-rip maneuver.

Evaluators around the league could fall in love with Andersen’s reactive athleticism overall, which is also something coaches will be excited to work with, even though because he did play a lot of positions and roles, he will have to refine himself at one spot. Oklahoma’s Brian Asomoah was voted LB of the week for the National team, as an undersized run-and-chase backer, but I’m most intrigued by what I saw from Andersen.

 

 

Jaylen Watson

 

CB Jaylen Watson, Washington State

This former top-100 JUCO recruit established himself as a starter for Wazzu in a COVID-shortened 2020 campaign and put together a nice senior season, intercepting two passes, breaking up another three and recovering four(!) fumbles. Yet, I wasn’t too familiar with him before Jim Nagy and his group invited him to the Senior Bowl, probably because the Cougars haven’t been as interesting in the Pac-12 since head coach Mike Leach moved on to Mississippi State.

After seeing Watson come out in prototype boundary corner measurements at 6’1”½ , 200 pounds, the first thing that really stood out about him on the field was how fluid an athlete and how snappy his hips were, in order to recover after initially opening up the wrong way. He did so beautifully on an in-breaker by North Dakota WR Christian Watson, which I described a little bit earlier, where he was there for the outside release, but then nearly flipped 180 degree in one step and kind of pinned the inside arm against the receiver, before swiping upwards, to get the ball out. He also had a very impressive rep against Ole Miss’ Braylen Sanders later on a fade route, kind of arm-barring the receiver to stay basically hip-to-hip, tracking the ball with his eyes and seeing it land a couple of yards beyond the two, because there was no window to throw it into for the quarterback.

What I appreciated most about watching Watson however was that ability to decipher who was lined up across from him and the different ways he approached them. On day two for example he went up against Cincinnati’s big wideout Alex Pierce for example, who ran a dig route on him, and after trying to get the inside release off a jab-step to the outside, Watson nearly mugged the receiver as he tried to straighten up, so he could maintain that contact through the break. I’m not 100 percent sure he would have gotten away with that in an NFL game, but there was no flag thrown for it during practice. And yet, his most impressive rep probably came when those squared off the second time on Wednesday, when Pierce took a wide release and ran a stutter fade, which was well-done, because most corners would have taken the approach as a sign for a hard break back towards the QB, but Watson put a hand on Pierce’s back, felt him re-accelerate and got back in phase, before ripping perfectly through the receiver’s reach.

Pierce’s former Bearcat teammate Coby Bryant was voted National CB of the week and it could have also easily been Penn State’s Tariq Castro-Fields, who had an excellent showing himself, but I don’t think anybody had a better week of coverage all-around than this young man out of Wazzu – and I’m ready to really dive into his tape now. In a loaded corner class, a good showing at the combine might ultimately get him sneaking inside the top-100.

 

 

Jalen Pitre

 

SAF Jalen Pitre, Baylor

And finally, let’s talk about one of my favorite safety prospects, who started his career as a three-star linebacker and moved backwards from position-perspective in 2020. Over his 23 games there, he put up ridiculous production for a member of the secondary (by description), with 135 total tackles, 29.5(!) of those for loss, six sacks, seven PBUs, four INTs and forced fumbles each, which made him a first-team All-American and the Big-12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2021.

Having that linebacker background, despite being only 5’10” ½, 195 pounds, Pitre’s largely known for his physicality. And while a lot of his great tape was him charging downhill and blasting guys, you saw him be able to truly cover man-to-man effectively throughout his week in Mobile. He spent a large portion of practices with the corner-group during one-on-one’s, where he engaged and maintained contact with receivers throughout the pattern, while doing a nice job of swiping through their reach at the end. While he obviously wasn’t quite as sticky in coverage as some of the natural corners there, which is understanding considering he spent more time in the box than outside the numbers at Baylor, he more than held his own against the receivers, while his lack of height never seemed to be much of an issue when matched up against tight-ends.

As far as team periods go, that ability to quickly diagnose plays and get to the ball was on full display. He routinely flashed with charging down the alley to support against the run, without compromising coverage for it. In zone, he did a nice job mid-pointing patterns and not giving quarterbacks clear reads. My two favorite plays in 11-on-11’s came on day three, first undercutting a deep crosser off a bootleg and breaking up the pass and later on he denied the tight-end slipping out on the backside of a split zone fake initially, before slightly fell off, to also take away the route behind him, before Pitt QB Kenny Pickett was chased out to the sideline by Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders for basically no gain. Pitre just kind of showed off his all-around skill-set, never seemingly getting caught on the wrong foot.

While he was one of the top two safeties in Mobile coming into the week (along with Oregon’s Verone McKinley), this guy really stood out among that entire group down in Mobile and I think other than Notre Dame’s Kyle Hamilton, who is kind of in a class of his own due to his ridiculous athletic profile, and one of my absolute favorites in Penn State’s Jaquan Brisker, I believe Pitre could be right in the thick of things for SAF3, if he tests well. Getting voted National DS of the week by his opponents was the first checkmark.

 

 

 

Others:

 

QB Malik Willis, Liberty

QB Chase Garbers, California

RB Ty Chandler, North Carolina

RB Rachaad White, Arizona State

RB Vavae Malepeai, USC

WR Calvin Austin III, Memphis

WR Mychael Cooper, Navy

TE Greg Dulcich, UCLA

TE Armani Rogers, Ohio

OT Abraham Lucas, Washington State

OT/IOL Zach Tom, Wake Forest

IOL Zion Johnson & Alec Lindstrom, Boston College

EDGE Sam Williams, Ole Miss

EDGE Boye Mafe, Minnesota

EDGE Ali Fayad, Western Michigan

IDL Devonte Wyatt, Georgia

IDL Matthew Butler, Tennessee

IDL Travis Jones, UConn

LB Carson Wells, Colorado

LB Chad Muma, Wyoming

CB Bryce Watts, UMass

CB Tariq Castro-Fields, Penn State

SAF Quentin Lake, UCLA

SAF Markquese Bell, Florida A&M

 

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