The 2022/23 NFL season is officially in the books, with the Chiefs beating out the Eagles in the tremendous back-and-forth of Super Bowl LVII. So now it’s time to progress to offseason content, with free agency and a length pre-draft process.
Some people may have already missed some of that, as we had a full week between the East-West Shrine and Senior Bowl events. We have three/four days of practice and a game each to break down, to see which young prospects have already stood out and helped themselves in terms of showcasing their talents to NFL scouts.
I watched every practice period and the games, to recap everything we saw in Las Vegas and Mobile respectively, and settled on ten players on each side of the ball, which I wanted to point out as early “risers” in this process. Plus, I added a few other names, who I thought helped themselves, at the end.
Here they are:
Quarterback – Jake Haener, Fresno State
While Haener was originally a three-star recruit for Washington, he only threw 13 total passes for the Huskies, due to presence of eventual fourth-round pick Jacob Eason, before transferring to Fresno State. Across three seasons there, he completed 68.2 of his passes for just over 9000 yards and 67 touchdowns, compared to 17 interceptions. And in a quarterback class with a lot of uncertainty after the top-four I would say, I think this young man showed that he should be in the discussion for the next names up.
I thought throughout Senior Bowl – especially from day two on – Haener was easily the most consistent quarterback of the week. His second day may have been the most impressive, as he was right on point with multiple deep passes during one-on-ones, showed the ability to work through progressions in seven-on-sevens and was very accurate throwing on the move. He continued to stand above the rest on day three, with a tremendous red-zone session, putting the ball perfectly away from trailing defenders for his receivers to make a play on vertical routes, and getting the ball out just as the back-foot hit off play-action and pinning it to chest of guys crossing the field. One ball in particular stood out, when he put it high and slightly behind Purdue tight-end Payne Durham on a wheel route out of a tight stack, away from the trailing defender, for a touchdown during red-zone drills of day three – although the TE deserves credit as well for holding onto the ball through a big hit.
Obviously Haener ended up being named the Senior Bowl MVP for his performance in the game Saturday, where he went 12-of-19 for 139 yards and a touchdown, including a 44-yard score to Michael Wilson, making him work back and high-point the ball on a post route off play-action, to cap the day. However, for me it was his command of the offense and how well he acclimated himself with new guys around him, that he didn’t have a whole lot of time to build chemistry with eyes. His eyes didn’t drop with bodies around him in the pocket and once he left that space, you saw Haener pointing at guys and making them adjust their routes on the fly on multiple occasions.
Running back – Tyjae Spears, Tulane
Unless you’re a casual college football fan, who doesn’t pay much attention to the Non-Power Five Conference, you probably at least saw Spears flash across your screen a couple of times this past season. He just cracked 1000 scrimmage yards in 2021 already, before being the driving force Tulane’s Cinderella 12-2 season last year, when he exploded for over 1800 total yards and 21 TDs, making him the AAC Offensive Player of the Year.
Spears was the biggest winners of measurements probably, weighing in at 202 pounds, despite having the reputation of a change-of-pace/scat back by some who scout off physical dimensions. However, for people watching the tape, this guy breaks way more tackles than you’d expect, and in a setting that favors guys with great explosive traits, this kid was able to on a show. When given a runway, you saw that explosion through the hole and ability to clear the second level in a hurry. He had one that stood out the first day and would’ve been off to the races on several occasions on one-cut schemes the second practice.
More importantly, he showed the ability to effortlessly make cuts that allow him to get around the edge when defenders didn’t take care of their contain assignments, and how he used those cat-like quicks in tight areas way on full display. On day two, he made a crazy 90-degree cut to the outside once during the inside run portion, where he somehow was able to keep his balance and it almost looked like a player on Madden, where the replay would make you think “this wouldn’t happen in real life”. Later on, he caught a swing route for massive yardage during seven-on-seven’s and had a homerun call, where he wasn’t touched, slicing around blockers and making the safety miss, the first time he touched the ball during full team period.
Still, Spears will have to play a major role on passing downs to maximize his skill-set, and even though it didn’t count because the coaches said triple-breaks weren’t allowed, he kind of went viral with a clip from the competition period that kicked off day three. He ran this pivot route vs. Pitt LB SirBocea Dennis Dennis, where he went on an out initially, before sticking his outside foot in the ground to pirouette back inside, whilst ducking underneath the defender basically – his quicks and ankle flexibility looked unreal there. And important to see for scouts – he got run over by Jackson State LB Aubrey Miller Jr. once during pass-pro drills of day two, but on the second one he stood his ground and was able to get enough of him, to guide him off track. NFL executives voted him the overall Player of the Week.
Running back – Jordan Mims, Fresno State
Now combining the running back position and the school I started with in Fresno State, there’s another former Bulldog who turned some heads in Las Vegas. Despite sharing the backfield with Ronnie Rivers in 2021, Mims racked up over 1000 yards and ten touchdowns from scrimmage. Last season he came just two yards shy of 1500 total and was one score away from doubling his TDs from the season prior, earning himself first-team All-Mountain West accolades.
While his receiving production dipped a little bit this past year, it didn’t take long for Mims to showcase that he can still be a valuable asset in that area of the game. His suddenness and ability to manipulate linebackers with his eyes, to create separation as a route-runner, came up regularly. He looked comfortable when flexed out wide, once running a great curl route, where he really dropped those hips, attacked back towards the quarterback and snatched the ball over his head, away from his frame. And after the catch during full plays, he consistently looked to make the first man miss. In blitz pick-up day, Mims stepped up and brought his punch, before guiding linebackers off track. Considering he had already impressed as a pass-catcher, he stood his ground much better than I expected. He almost got a little overaggressive in his approach at times I thought, but I liked his attitude in that regard and he simply didn’t lose many reps.
In team drills, Mims’ burst to the corner stood out on multiple occasions. That included some nice moments pressing a crease and then bouncing around traffic before getting back downhill. You saw him cut down his stride length, kind of hide behind blockers and force linebackers to commit. And the show didn’t stop in the actual game, being involved as a receiver in the flats and creating easy yardage, displaying his burst through the line and delivering the longest run of the day (30 yards) early on, where he cut a zone run all the way back and broke the ankles of a DB on like a cross-over move, to get out to the sideline. That’s after already having been voted the East RB of the Week.
Wide receiver – Demario Douglas, Liberty
Just a two-star recruit in 2019, Douglas increased his production every single year with the Flames, going for 1100 yards and seven touchdowns on 84 touches this past season, which earned him first-team All-Independent accolades. Liberty’s season saw a disappointing finish, losing their final four games after an 8-1 start, but their top receiver excelled throughout the year and nearly had as many yards through the air as the next four players combined.
The first line I wrote about Douglas, when I started watching the practice was: “This guy is explosive for sure”. When he sticks his foot in the ground after hesitating off the line, he can leave people behind in the dust, and in particular he showed that on some out routes, where he got two or three yards on them on multiple occasions, at the moment he caught the ball. On the first day, you see him make some dramatic cuts and separate from defensive backs as he re-accelerated out of those. You saw DBs starting to just sit back on him from the second day one, because they’d rather gave up a completion underneath than get burnt over the top. Yet if they did try to put hands on him, Douglas threw a little chicken-wing once on a deep out route and created enough of a window for the ball to arrive.
Douglas made a great over-the-shoulder grab to the outside on a slot fade route in one-on-one’s of day two, quickly bringing it in and not allowing the raking hands of the corner to knock it loose. The moment of the period however was the former Flames standout completely shaking another poor guy and making him trip over his own feet, as he pushed upfield before bending it to the post later. He also had a great grab high-pointing a ball thrown behind him on a deep crosser during team portion, and you saw Douglas’ speed show up big-time on a reverse during the team portion of the first practice, beating everybody to the opposite sideline. With a potential first-rounder in Boston College’s Zay Flowers only taking part in one practice, the receiver group for the West side was lacking some star power, but Douglas more than just filled that void, and was voted the WR of the Week for that side.
Wide receiver – Michael Wilson, Stanford
This guy was certainly a forgotten name by the general draft media, as a former four-star recruit, who put up nearly 700 yards and five touchdowns as a true sophomore. He only played in 14 combined games over the past three seasons (64-864-5) due to multiple injuries that knocked him out for the year, but ultimately got to show his skills again big-time during Senior Bowl week.
There were reports early in the week that Wilson trains with former Pro Bowl WR T.J. Houshmandzadeh and it was on displays with his route-running. Right off the bat, he showed that he’s a name to track all week, when he cooked his former Stanford teammate Kyu Blu Kelly off the line on a slant route during the first one-on-one session. Wilson continued to make guys look foolish off the line, with slow-playing the get-off and his body language, to get corners leaning the wrong way. On several occasions, he was made the job for the quarterback, as he got a couple of steps on his man with diamond releases on slant routes. Day three he also ran a beautiful curl route against USC’s Mekhi Blackmon, where he had like a walk-up approach before threating vertically with that burst down the sideline and then sticking his foot in the ground to come back to the QB.
Along with the way he was able to play with guys off the ball, he also showed the ability to reduce his size and not have any delay breaking out to the sideline, after threatening vertically. Further down the field, I really liked how he would tilt and lean into defenders, before breaking guys off and shaking them off. And he showed great focus when guys were able to re-enter the catch window due to imperfect throws, yet Wilson pinned the ball against his chest right away. He did so once on a post route versus Iowa’s Riley Moss, where the had to slow down for the throw. When the ball was lofted over his head a couple of times, Wilson showed that he does have that extra gear when the ball is in the air, to run underneath it. He once got past Maryland’s Jakorian Bennett on an awesome stutter-go, where he really turned his body and snapped his head around for a split-second, before taking off, and then couldn’t quite hold onto the ball in the end-zone, as he was just able to get his fingertips on it. And then of course he ended the week with an exclamation mark, when he caught a 44-yard touchdown late in the game on Saturday, on an intentionally underthrown post route off play-action, where Jake Haener allowed him to work back and high-point the ball.
Tight-end – Daniel Barker, Michigan State
These all-star events are always a great opportunity for players, who were underutilized in college, to prove they can take on a more extensive role at the next level, and that’s true for tight-end in particular. Barker’s production over the last four years (three with Illinois and one with the MSU) was very consistent, but never really up to where you want to see it, catching between 18 and 21 passes for 200 to 300 yards in each of them.
Day one, this guy kind of looked different to the rest of the TE group, as he had a few very impressive routes versus the safeties in one-on-one’s. His ability to attack their blind spots of those guys, stay disciplined with not tilting in his stem, and get a step on them with his burst out of the break was on display on corner and out routes in particularly early on. Yet, he continued to excel on day two, where I thought he manipulated guys with his eyes, some hesitation and body language, before sticking his foot in the ground and getting away from them. Just watching the release drills, I thought Barker looked more like a receiver at times against true square press, throwing out a split release and blowing by DBs untouched basically.
During team drills, he showcased the speed to quickly clear the second level on seam/streak routes and then got his head around right away, where those Shrine quarterbacks passed on multiple opportunities to feed him the ball, I thought. When tangled up with DBs further down the field, Barker packed a pretty strong rip, to fight through the reach of defenders trying to grab him. And then off that ability to push vertically, he features a quick turn to the outside on hitches and hooks, to make the safety flying down on him miss. You typically saw him pluck the ball out of the air and rip it into his frame, especially when going over the middle. Finally, while Barker probably isn’t a major asset in pass-pro, he did enough versus the linebackers to guide them off track usually during those drills.
Tight-end – Luke Musgrave, Oregon State
Now, on nearly the complete opposite side of the country, we watched a much more highly-touted college tight-end more than live up to his status in Mobile. Musgrave did crack the 300-yard mark in 2021, although he only he reached the end-zone once on 22 grabs. His redshirt junior campaign was cut short one-and-a-half weeks in, but he was able to haul in 11 passes for 169 and a TD up to that point. And the scouts liked enough what they saw, to make him confident to declare for the draft.
When you say in an interview day one that you felt you were like 60% right now, in your first time on the field since September and you look the way you did, you’re going to make some headlines. We saw Musgrave glide across the field more like a big wide receiver and he was used further down the field quite a bit. When he was allowed to run down the post and take linebackers vertical, he was leaving them behind in the dust typically. On several occasions, he would lean into defenders with outside leverage, then step into their space and head-fake towards their leverage, in order to create separation bending it to the post. Day three on early competition one-on-ones, Musgrave did so going up against LSU’s Jay Ward on a seam/skinny post route, where he hit an effective double-hand swipe to work around the press attempt and then got a couple of steps on the DB.
However, he’d also present himself underneath on some hook and stick routes, where he used his frame to protect the ball and wrapped it up tightly in traffic. Musgrave also ran some beautiful corner routes throughout the week, where he adjusted the angle of the break accordingly, depending on the coverage and once caught one of the safeties badly, trying to undercut the out-break. The former Beaver made some impressive-looking catches through the first two days, really swallowing the ball with those large paws – extending, plucking and also quickly pulling the ball into his frame. And while he may not have stood out in that fashion as a run-blocker, the balance and effort were a plus to note, and I think he made an impression on some people, when he talked about how he started to find joy in that area of the game, as the OSU coaches got him to buy into it. Musgrave also cracked 20 mph on the GPS-tracker, making him the 16th-fastest player at the entire event despite being 255 pounds – the next-closest guy who was faster, weighed 24 pounds less.
Offensive tackle – Jaelyn Duncan, Maryland
I had a tough time settling on a tackle here, because the great competition those guys at East-West Shrine week faced, made it tough for guys to really put some quality reps on tape, and looking at the Senior Bowl, Ohio State’s Dawand Jones looked awesome day one, but decided to shut it down after that. I did mention a couple of other names I was thinking about here, but ultimately the Maryland tackle was my choice. A former four-star recruit, Duncan initially took a redshirt before taking over the starting gig on the blindside year two and starting all but three of his final 42 games.
Athleticism was never really a question for me evaluating Duncan, but just watching him go up against the best competition in the country, he reminded me of the type of movement skills he brings to the table. Routinely, he would show off the foot quickness to cut off the angle for edge rushers and force them on a wider loop, as he guided them past the quarterback. His smooth lateral movement and loose hips when he did have to turn with guys were equally impressive on the left and right – where he never lined up at Maryland.
With that being said, Duncan’s ability to deal with power as a pass-protector on top of it, was what really convinced me. He consistently kept his elbows in tight and was able anchor against bull-rush attempts. He had some great moment against Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey in particular, once stoning in him during full team plays on day two, which popped off the screen. And then on day three, he was able to handle Foskey’s long-arm on back-to-back reps during one-on-ones, where he probably forced the edge rusher to go for it again a second time by the way he Duncan was able to square that guy up. For a guy whose calling card was that athletic skill-set in protection, I thought the former Terp did a nice job of rolling his hips through contact and driving his feet, in order to create movement in the run game on top of that.
Interior O-line – Atonio Mafi, UCLA
I had a really tough time deciding on which interior O-lineman I wanted to talk about here, because there were three names that stood above the rest during East-West Shrine week – Penn State’s Juice Scruggs, N.C. State’s Chandler Zavala and the guy I settled on in Mafi. He actually started his career on the defensive line with the Bruins, before transitioning back to offense and finally starting all 13 games at left guard last season, earning second-team All-Pac-12 accolades by league coaches.
We had a lot of powerful interior D-linemen in Vegas, who tried to test Mafi during one-on-one’s, and they all failed basically. Throughout the week, the former UCLA guard kept his hands in tight and was able to stymie those guys from a strong group on the other side, trying to go through him. When opposing rushers tried to lift him up on rip move and get underneath him, Mafi rode those guys up the field, away from the quarterback. Day three he completely stone-walled Boise State’s big D-tackle Scott Matlock on a bull-rush attempt, along with not allowing Penn State’s P.J. Mustipher to get to the outside edge on him, trying to swipe away the hands. Even when it looked momentarily like he got his weighted shifted the wrong way against somebody else on a hesitation move to the outside, he was able to ride that guy past the QB.
I don’t think he truly lost a single rep during one-on-ones either of the first two days and maybe one on day three. Yet, on top of his individual efforts, he also proved his value as a run-blocker during team drills. Mafi provided a solid bump on the angular block of combos, to open up lanes right up the gut. The second day on the first snap of inside run installs, he did a great job of caving in P.J. Mustipher slanting across his face as a three-technique, and two plays later he and the left tackle drove that guy right into the lap of the linebacker behind it, allowing Minnesota running back Mohamed Ibrahim to cut behind them for an untouched TD. For a guy who weighed in at just under 340 pounds, I thought Mafi’s ability to beat linebackers to the spot when climbing up and his burst as a puller really popped as well. For that, he was named the West IOL of the Week.
Interior O-line – John Michael Schmitz, Minnesota
It’s not like Schmitz really needed to prove a whole during Senior Bowl, as he was already regarded as one of the top interior offensive linemen in this class coming in. However, with that showcase, he fortified himself as OC1 and a first-rounder most likely. Schmitz would have most likely been a top-100 pick last year already, with 19 starter at the pivot and being a second-team All-Big Ten performer. Yet, he improved to first-team all-conference and played as well as any center in the country this past season.
Everything this guy does is solid. His ability to frame rushers and control reps with vice grip hands made him nearly impossible to get by during one-on-one pass-protection drills. He completely shut down Alabama’s D.J. Dale and Oklahoma’s Will Redmond on a couple of occasions, trying to power through him in pass-pro, on day two, where they couldn’t find any counter on the second of back-to-back tries against him. The only rep I can remember him losing theoretically was probably once against South Carolina’s Zacch Pickens on day three, who sold out for just getting upfield to one side and made the dummy quarterback move, but he didn’t actually get a hand on that trainer. And when the defense was running some two-on-two games to close that session, Schmitz perfectly timed up his upward strike to shut down the Alabama IDL Byron Young once looping around towards the center.
During team drills, Schmitz’s ability to execute more diverse assignments than that zone-heavy rushing attack he was part of Minnesota, was on display. He did utilize his upper-body strength to torque shade-nose tackles and allow the back to press the front-side on numerous occasions on outside zone, but he also created good vertical movement on combos and climbed off those under good control. The most fun for me were a couple of highly impressive moments full 11-on-11 plays, where he set the key block out in front of Tulane’s explosive RB Ty’Jae Spears and Okahoma’s Eric Gray respectively, who both ripped off chunk plays each, and Schmitz sent one of the biggest standouts across those first two days in Sacramento State LB Marte Mapu flying a couple of yards on one of them.
Edge defender – Will McDonald IV, Iowa State
I really couldn’t settle on an edge defender from East-West Shrine week. I mentioned a couple of those names at the end and there were a few others I considered. Yet, at the Senior Bowl, I would say that was more of an underwhelming group, looking at names like Auburn’s Derick Hall, Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey and Army’s Andre Carter. So I thought it was appropriate to bring up a name, which many considered part of that tier, but probably elevated his stock above those guys. McDonald was a very productive player for the Cyclones these last three years, combining for 33.5 tackles for loss, 27 sacks, eight forced fumbles and seven passes batted down at the line.
The question coming into the week was McDonald’s size, with more of a lanky build at 6’3” ½ and 241 pounds. Yet, I didn’t feel like he was lacking that strength in run defense, being first to attack with his hands and anchoring against angular blocks routinely. I mean he stood his ground against Tennessee’s Darnell Wright a couple of times, who weighed in at 342 pounds – basically exactly 100 more than McDonald. So while some of his tape would suggest he may have issues setting a physical edge, we now have evidence that as a true base D-end/outside linebacker, he can take care at the point of attack. Now, with that being said, what he did as a pass-rusher obviously was what turned the heads of scouts.
Watching him run the hoop drill, you saw that ankle mobility and bend to circle around, which directly translates to rushing the passer. He had a couple of reps during the week, where he cleanly defeated the hands of the tackle with a double-hand swipe or chop-rip and even if that guy was able to still get a hand on him, he would stay on that arc, once even doing so on all fours basically. Off that, he then put a wicked spin move on Tennessee’s right tackle on the second of back-to-back reps one-on-one, after threating the corner and then stepping into the blocker’s space, in order to make him commit on the latter. And that ability to take the inside door opening up as guys had to overset to the outside came into play on day three as well, when he beat Florida’s on a rapid up-and-under. Later during red-zone team period, you saw McDonald’s closing burst when Shepherd QB Tyson Bagent left the pocket the other way and the D-end would’ve run him down like a lion hunting an antelope, if not for pulling up late, to avoid pushing him in the back.
Interior D-line – Dante Stills, West Virginia
This has been one of “my guys” for like three years. I first started taking note of Stills, when I was watching his brother Darius play alongside him on the WVU defensive line – who I liked quite a bit as well – and have been waiting on Dante to go pro since then. Across these past four seasons, he has racked up 47.5 tackles for loss, 21.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, going from second-team All-Big 12 in the first two to first-team all-conference the latter two years.
After lining up at 4i- and 5-technique a lot for the Mountaineers due to his combination of size and length, Stills almost exclusively played three-technique throughout East-West Shrine week and let me tell – this guy was unblockable! Early on day one he had a pass-rush rep, where he cleanly beat the Oregon guard across his face with a swim move, where it wasn’t even a contest. His ability to win up the gap with a quick club-rip combo, stay on track through contact as he was cornering his rushes and then win cross-face when guys started oversetting him, was crazy to watch. That’s along with having the power at nearly 290 pounds to ride blockers into the depth of the pocket, if they decide to give him ground.
Yet, Stills might’ve been even more impressive in the run game. Routinely he would win his gap and own his space, while locking out with one arm, to shut down one-on-ones prematurely. There was a sequence day two, where he just threw the Grand Valley guard Quinton Barrow, trying to reach-block him, to the turf, as he caught the blocker pulling the back-leg through, trying to bring his base around. And then on the re-do, he back-doored that guy, which I’m not sure is how they’re supposed to drill it, but the cat-like quicks where impressive nevertheless. Stills showed his disruptive skills in team run drills as well, crashing through the shoulder of zone blockers and flashing from the backside, along with arm-over and back-dooring a couple of times to force quick cutbacks as well. He didn’t really allow combos to form, knocking away the help-hand of the man trying to peel off and not wasting time with the guy trying to bring his hips around. I feel pretty certain that Stills led everybody in tackles for loss each of the first two days. Teammates recognized him as the IDL of the Week on the East side. In the actual game, he swum over and created a TFL on his first series, before getting another one on the last defensive play for the East.
Interior D-line – Keeanu Benton, Wisconsin
Unlike the edge group down in Mobile, which lacked names that could really set themselves apart, other than Iowa State’s Will McDonald, I thought there were multiple guys on the interior, who deserve to be mentioned. Nevertheless, none of those did impress quite like Wisconsin’s Keeanu Benton. Last year he inexplicably dropped from second- to third-team All-Big Ten, despite reaching career-highs in tackles (36), TFLs (10) and sacks (4.5), along with two more passes batted down.
Since I hadn’t really studied Benton’s tape since the offseason, where I thought based on 2021, he was a solid, worker-bee type shade nose tackle, I was shocked to see this guy flash as much as he did throughout Senior Bowl week. Day one, he showed off his power and ability to pull linemen off himself right away during pass-rush drills. That’s along with guys oversetting to the outside and Benton blowing through the interior in a hurry with the tight arm-over to clear the blocker’s reach. Day two he might’ve been even more impressive. He killed the Troy center Jake Andrews on consecutive reps, beating him instantly on a club-swim combo and then getting grabbed on the latter, where it looked like he had the O-lineman’s shoulders turned and would’ve been able to get across his face, if not for the tug. When setting up cross-face and club-rip moves generally, you saw Benton torque his upper body more than sufficiently, and when he ripped through, it looked more like he was starting a cold chainsaw, with the way he yanked that arm up.
In run defense, Benton routinely brought the fight, going from stacking at full extension, to swatting away the hands, placing himself in the gap and pulling guys off himself. He did so during one-on-one’s as well as full-team portions of practice. His wrestling background was on display, winning with quickness, leverage and violent hands. Benton’s official stat log in the actual game will only read one tackle, but he did have a couple of QB hits, once beating TCU’s Steve Avila trying to slide in front of him and putting that guy’s teammate Max Duggan on his backside. That’s along with how disruptive he was all week in team drills and his effort chasing away from the play.
Linebacker – Jeremy Banks, Tennessee
A name I was vaguely familiar with, but hadn’t studied yet is this fifth-year senior from Tennessee. Banks would’ve probably been higher on my watch list based on his 2021 stats, when he recorded 128 total tackles, 11.5 of those for loss, 5.5 sacks, an interception and four PBUs. However, this past season the majority of those numbers were more than cut in half and based on consensus boards, he’s on the fringe of even being drafted – if he has a solid combine, he may be moving closer to an early day three prospect.
And what really made me perk up was watching this young man in coverage. During one-on-ones with the running backs, Banks displayed some impressive burst when driving on option routes, where they could break either way. He would regularly just squat on guys and still affect the catch point once he exploded forward as they made their cut. Banks was one of like two guys that could actually pick up and run with Fresno State back Jordan Mims in team drills as well. He did a nice job identifying dig routes and deep crossers coming in behind him during seven-on-sevens and full team drills. Plus, you saw him redirect in a hurry after floating one way initially and then having to race down on the back catching a checkdown. He had a very impressive snap in coverage day two against a tight-end I already highlighted in Michigan State’s Daniel Barker, turning with him down the seam and getting a paw between that guy’s hands, to bat the ball up for the safety behind him to pluck for the interception.
In team run drills, I thought Banks showed great lateral agility to trail runners from the backside and flatten behind blockers when he saw an opening, as well as pair quick hands and jumping sideways to get to the other side of linemen looking to pin him away from the action. And on the play-side, he was very quick to fill before somebody could combo off to him. When did have to deal with guys climbing up, Banks pulling those off himself, to get hands on the ball-carrier was something that happened on multiple occasions. And a couple of times he blew through the outside shoulder of the fullback before that guy could even get to the line of scrimmage, to create disruption in the backfield. Banks also had a few nice moments in the game, side-stepping blockers and once putting a huge hit on UCLA back Kaz Allen in the hole. During protection drills, you saw the former Vol LB charge full-force into running backs in blitz pick-up a few times, plus then he was slippery once he used his hands, to slither around them.
Linebacker – Marte Mapu, Sacramento State
While I was familiar with Banks as a prospect, I had no idea who this other linebacker from Sacramento State was. Yet, with the way he was wrecking plays during Senior Bowl practices, he made me take note. Mapu was a versatile piece for the Hornet defense, splitting time between safety, outside linebacker and nickelback. In 2022, he was named the Big Sky Defensive Player of the Year, for putting up 76 tackles, 6.5 of those for loss, two passes intercepted and six more broken up.
After showing out at NFLPA Bowl week, Mapu got the call up from Jim Nagy and my god, he made most of that opportunity. I thought he looked pretty impressive from the first moment he stepped onto the field. You saw him rapidly fill on the front-side of run plays and even from the backside, you saw the short-area burst to shoot through a crease and run things down, where nobody was able to get in front of him in time. Mapu had a couple of big-time run stuffs during the inside run portion of day two, once blowing through the shoulder of the guard on a zone run and meeting the back for a TFL, and then another time on an iso-run, absolutely blasting the fullback before that guy could even reach the line of scrimmage, allowing the rest of the defense converge on the ball.
On top of that, Mapu also made a couple of impressive plays in coverage as part of team-drills, once on play-action, where he didn’t fall for it and drifted underneath a dig route, getting a hand on the ball intended to be lofted over his head, to break it up, and later raking the ball out of the tight-end’s hands on a stick route. That’s along with running down Houston standout WR striding out after a solid play, where he was still fired up and punched the ball out, with nobody else in the screen – not that it actually counted, but it shows his level of effort. And he had a couple of nice wins pass-pro drills, once side-stepping Oklahoma RB Eric Gray, combined with the arm-over, to get around him cleanly. Mapu was clocked over 19 MPH multiple times during the week and his speed will be a major buy-in for NFL teams, considering his tremendous special teams background. Unfortunately he wasn’t able to perform in the game on Saturday, but I promise you, basically all scouts will have added his name to their watch list and there will probably be a few more now heading to the Sac State pro day, since he didn’t receive a combine invite.
Cornerback – Lance Boykin, Coastal Carolina
A position group with several noteworthy names between the East-West Shrine and Senior Bowl was cornerback. I couldn’t help myself but talk about three games here, with a couple of them from Vegas, and Boykin is kicking things off. Once just a two-star recruit, this guy began his career at Old Dominion, before making a name for himself with the Chanticleers, where he recorded five interceptions, 12 PBUs and two sacks across his two seasons there.
Looking at this collection of receivers for the East team, there were plenty of challenges against pretty big names from Power-Five conferences, such as Arkansas’ Jadon Haselwood, Wake Forest’s A.T. Perry and a Fresno State guy, who had an excellent week himself, in Jalen Cropper. However, I thought this kid from Coastal Carolina more than held his own against all those guys. Boykin showcased impressive hip mobility all week, flipping around by 180 degrees after opening up with vertical stems a couple of times. And he didn’t allow guys to detach vertically from him either. Yet, on the front-end of those reps, he was able to land some forceful one-handed stabs in press, to throw off receivers that way, while having to mirror more delayed releases. They were doing some release drills on day three, where he simply blanketed multiple guys attempting to get to the edges of his frame, once making one of the tight-ends basically give up and just stop.
Boykin played sticky coverage throughout day three and put together a really strong showing, and he might’ve even been better during the last practice session, not surrendering a single completion and showing several impressive moments of anticipating routes and having guys try to go through him. His very last rep of the entire week, where they were just going one-on-one a final time, Boykin made defending a curl route by Georgia’s Kearis Jackson look easy, wrapping around and knocking the ball down. I would say there was maybe a small acclimation period during the first practice, but I’d say from day two on, he was arguably the top CB of the entire event. And he didn’t give receivers much breathing room during the actual game either.
Cornerback – Tyrique Stevenson, Miami
Now switching over to a more heralded corner from the Senior Bowl, I think Tyrique Stevenson reminded some people why he once was a top-50 overall recruit in 2019 for Georgia, and why he should be in the discussion for being an early day-two pick. Across his two seasons with Miami, Stevenson picked off three passes and broke up another 11, but a third-team All-ACC mention last year were the highest honors he received.
I could have easily gone with Stanford’s Kyu Blu Kelly, who other than in his matchups against former teammate Michael Wilson at receiver – who I talked about earlier – had about as good a week as anybody at that position, and even South Carolina’s Darius Rush, who did have a couple of day three gaffs but was outstanding at anticipating and breaking on routes other than that. Yet, I landed with Stevenson, because I could really only come up with two “losses” for him. Princeton WR Andrei Iosivas once got him to bite on a stick-nod day one, but once on that rep, you saw the corner’s make-up speed shine, to still be able to swipe at the ball just as it arrived there (even though the catch was made). And then he did allow a touchdown once during one-on-one’s against South Alabama’s Jalen Wayne, where he kind of gambled on a break and the hometown WR was able to haul in the pass over the top, but he also ran perfectly with him, turned and got both hands on the ball for another near-pick when those went at it another time.
Basically every other rep for Stevenson, it was shut-down time. He was very effective at landing those jams with the inside arm, yet not allowing his receiver to get even with him on a vertical, continuing to work against opponents trying to arm-bar him. He was able to impede the progress of those guys across him regularly, but didn’t allow them to “cheat” against him later on in reps. Stevenson also excelled when falling off in zone and letting his length disrupt the catch point, when quarterbacks tried to fit in balls over his head for those cover-two hole shots. On day two, he stayed right at the hip of a fourth down shot down the field and leaped for a 50-50 ball, which he nearly pulled in himself. He appeared to have hurt his calf, but thankfully was okay. And what I give him tons of credit for was after missing day three – when he could’ve easily shut it down – he decided to still play in the game, and he did so well.
Cornerback – Nic Jones, Ball State
The third name of this corner trio is a lesser-known again, in part because he’s the only Ball State player among the 619 prospects listed on nflmockdraftdatabase.com’s consensus board right now, and the fact he only had one-and-a-half seasons as a starter. Nevertheless, Jones was able to intercept three passes and break up another 15 across those 17 games, and really made a name for himself with his performance throughout East-West Shrine week. I could have easily gone with Kei’Trel Clark from Louisville or Terell Smith from Minnesota here, but in terms of who helped himself the most, I think Jones is the guy many scouts now decided to put their eyes on his tape for the first time.
Jones had some very impressive reps the first two days of staying right in phase with receivers and none that really stood out in a negative way. He did allow more completions on the second day, but the ability to swivel his hips around and not be caught out of position a whole lot was still a plus to note for me. And he never allowed guys to get even with him when assigned with deep zone responsibility. Day three was certainly his worst showing, gambling on a couple of routes it felt like, but he did get a pick during team portion undercutting the throw, where App State QB Chase Brice tried to fit the ball in late to a curl route on the outside by Florida WR Justin Shorter.
You saw an athletic confidence, to not prematurely drive on routes, but let his closing burst do the trick when he saw the receiver commit his hips. Jones wasn’t afraid to sit a little bit versus outside releases, before opening his hips and running with guys down the sideline, because he trusted his top-gear to be up-to-par, which he was proved right about. Even when he flipped the wrong way initially or had to due to the release by the guy across from him, you saw some impressive speed-turns to get back into phase. And when assigned with deep zone responsibilities, he made sure to stay over the top in team drills consistently. Jones continued to show up in the actual game, getting in the hip-pocket of his man and disrupting the catch, including a pick in the fourth quarter, where the quarterback tried to fit in a deep crosser late and Jones was right underneath it.
Safety – Sydney Brown, Illinois
In terms who I enjoyed watching the most among all players at either event, Brown’s name is right up there at the top of the list. Somewhat in the shadow of his twin brother Chase, who rushed for over 1600 yards this past season at Illinois, Sydney has been building a pretty resume himself. Across 52 career games – of which he started all but one – he racked up 320 combined tackles, ten of those for loss, ten interceptions (two of those returned for touchdowns), 16 pass break-ups, four forced fumbles and a scoop-and-score.
Day one, Brown seemed very much in control of man-coverage reps versus the tight-ends from off-alignment, being able to read the hips and jump on breaks in time. After that he got levelled up and was covering receivers one-on-one quite a bit, where the success continued. He continuously was able to stay in phase throughout routes and once he saw guys slow their feet, he drove on stuff in a hurry, wrapping around on a curl route by Stanford’s Elijah Higgins, and perfectly running with Cincinnati’s Tre Tucker on a fade into the end-zone, where he got both hands on the ball for a near pick, with each of those coming on day two. And on the third day, he was on Stanford’s Michael Wilson – arguably the biggest standout of the entire week – who ran a hitch-and-go or hitch-to-wheel and didn’t get fooled at all, turning and running with him.
Earlier in that practice period, he already made a tremendous interception during one-on-one’s in the red-zone, where he undercut Clemson tight-end Davis Allen on an out route. And he continued to excel in team period, whether he was playing off-man or quarter, with the ability to click-and-close and disrupt the catch point, once knocking the ball loose on a backside glance off an RPO. Something that I wanted to note is how he consistently raked exactly through the ball I the midst of the paws of the target, without initiating premature contact, that would draw flags. Brown consistently played with good leverage and activity in run defense, while showing great instincts and closing burst once when he saw a bootleg by Louisville’s QB Malik Cunningham and outraced that guy to the flats. That high-level football IQ also showed up in the actual game, when he created a seven-yard loss on a running back screen in the fourth quarter.
Safety – A.J. Finley, Ole Miss
Not just the cornerbacks, but really the entire defensive back group in Las Vegas had multiple standouts, which I listed a few at the bottom here. However, I ultimately settled on one guy, who is actually right in that range of Ball State CB Nic Jones – who I mentioned just now – but I believe will continue to rise in this pre-draft process, among a safety group with a lot of varying opinions. Across the past three seasons as a starter, Finley combined for 228 tackles, 6.5 of those for loss, eight interceptions, 13 PBUs, two fumbles forced and recovered each.
Measuring in at 6’2”, 202 pounds, Finley profiles as a matchup piece against tight-ends at the next level and that’s the area he excelled in all week I thought. He chose a very hands-on when given the opportunity and was able to smoothly slide his feet in front of those bigger bodies, When Finley was in soft press, I thought he showed great patience to not fall for head-fakes and try to lean with guys, but just wait for them to commit on the release, in order to attach to their hip-pocket. Going up against Central Michigan TE Joel Wilson on day three. He did ultimately give up a catch to Wilson on his final one-on-one of the whole week, but I actually came away more impressed with his eye-popping recovery burst after being leveraged outside and giving the TE free across on a drag / crossing route. Just once I really saw somebody run away from him – Houston FB/EDGE Derek Parish, of all guys there – because he completely gambled on the break.
Finley also had several nice moments in team drills, doing a nice job of fighting over a mesh concept on day three once. His best one however probably came in the second practice – an outstanding interception, when he was lined up in the slot and was responsible for the flats, where he mid-pointed a flare/flat and deep out route and then flipped open, to jump in front of the deeper route and pick off the pass. Plus, he had another one to end practice, which was more so gifted to him, on a great play by the linebacker knocking it to him, who he broke up a streak route to the tight-end. When used as a deep middle safety – in practice and a for stretches of the game – Finley did a nice job of playing everything top-down but not giving room just to be safe, rather than being ready to limit plays for little yards after catch. And people took note, as he was voted DS of the Week for the East.
RBs – Eric Gray (Oklahoma), Evan Hull (Northwestern) & Xazavian Valladay (Arizona State)
WRs – Jayden Reed (Michigan State), Nathaniel “Tank” Dell (Houston), A.T. Perry (Wake Forest) & Jalen Cropper (Fresno State)
TEs – Davis Allen (Clemson) & Payne Durham (Purdue)
OTs – Darnell Wright (Tennessee) & Matthew Bergeron (Syracuse)
IOL – Chandler Zavala (N.C. State) & Juice Scruggs (Penn State)
EDGEs – K.J. Henry (Clemson), B.J. Thompson (Stephen F. Austin) & Caleb Murphy (Ferris State)
IDL – Adetomiwa Adebawore (Northwestern), Karl Brooks (Bowling Green) & Ikenna Enechukwu (Rice)
LBs – Aubrey Miller Jr. (Jackson State), Daiyan Henley (Washington State) & Ivan Pace Jr. (Cincinnati) &
CBs – Darius Rush (South Carolina), Kyu Blu Kelly (Stanford), Kei’Trel Clark (Louisville) & Terell Smith (Minnesota)
SAFs – Jammie Robinson (Florida State), Art Green (Houston), Christian Young (Arizona) & Trey Dean III (Florida)