News & Analysis

10 prospects for the 2017 NFL draft who helped themselves at the Senior Bowl

during the first half of the Reese's Senior Bowl at the Ladd-Peebles Stadium on January 28, 2017 in Mobile, Alabama.

Senior Bowl week is the last chance to see many of the draft’s top prospects playing in pads before the offseason portion of draft season takes over. For many players, it’s an important week to prove their worth against better competition, while other players simply have to maintain the hype they’ve earned through multiple years of strong play on the field.

Every situation is unique, but the one constant is that evaluators take everything into consideration from the weigh-in, to practices, to interviews, to game action. With Senior Bowl week behind us, these players helped themselves the most at the week-long event:

1. Zay Jones, WR, East Carolina

With 46 more targets than the next closest receiver this season, Jones has had plenty of opportunities to impress, but he still took advantage of his week in Mobile. He’s shown incredible hands over the last three years, dropping only 17 of his 343 catchable opportunities, and those strong hands were on display in practice and in the Senior Bowl game itself as Jones consistently made catches in traffic. He was more than just a possession receiver, as showed the ability to win at the line of scrimmage and separate quickly off the ball, while finishing plays down the field with impressive body control. Jones had an excellent week in Mobile and he’s made a move up the board in a wide-open wide receiver class.

2. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama

It didn’t matter that Howard had multiple “concentration” drops during practice, as he won the week once everyone saw his size and then watched his ability to stretch the seam of the defense and create big plays. Howard didn’t get the targets at Alabama that his skill set likely deserved, but he showed sure hands (only six drops on 106 catchable targets over three years) and he averaged 7.6 yards after the catch per reception on his 100 catches. Howard posted the nation’s top grade as a run-blocker, and combined with his ability to create big plays in the pass game, he’s the best all-around tight end in this class and potentially a top-15 pick.

3. Cooper Kupp, WR, Eastern Washington

Another receiver stating his case, Kupp had to answer questions about competition level and he did that and more during the week of practice. Kupp took advantage of every opportunity against FBS teams the last three years, including scoring six combined touchdowns against Washington State and Oregon, but watching him go up against top cornerbacks like Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis was necessary to affirm his skills. He is a smooth route runner, working efficiently in and out of his breaks while showing the subtleness needed to create late separation down the field. Kupp made a number of catches in the middle of the field at practice and sprinkled in a few big plays, showing that he belongs with the best receivers in the class.

4. Obi Melifonwu, S, UConn

At 6-foot-4, 219 pounds, Melifonwu passes the eye test immediately, but he backed up his look with a strong week on the field. Melifonwu combines the ability to work downhill in the running game with strong tackling (only 26 missed tackles on 287 attempts last three years), but perhaps most impressive was when he walked his 6-foot-4 frame out to cornerback for one-on-one drills against wide receivers. He held his own in that environment, only adding to his value in a deep safety class. Melifonwu has high expectations for his combine workout and his hype train may pick up even more steam after a week in Indianapolis, but for now, he’s moving in the right direction.

5. Nathan Peterman, QB, Pittsburgh

It was not a great week for the quarterbacks, but Peterman was the one name mentioned by evaluators from start to finish. He capped a solid week of practice with a good showing in the game, as he completed 16-of-23 passes with three of his incompletions coming on throwaways or drops. While the other quarterbacks struggled to complete passes, Peterman scanned the field, found the open man, and moved the chains while showing just enough arm strength and accuracy to complete passes outside the numbers. It’s not always easy for quarterbacks to stand out in an all-star week, as they have to consume a new playbook while throwing to unfamiliar receivers, but Peterman did more than enough to keep his stock moving in the right direction.

6. Jordan Willis, Edge, Kansas State

The top-graded edge defender in the nation in 2016, Willis saved his best work for game day, as he picked up two sacks and four hurries on 22 rushes, including two forced fumbles. All season, Willis showed good burst off the line combined with strong hand usage, leading to a ridiculous 80 total pressures on the year. The week of practice was less dynamic, but he did show well as a run defender in team drills and his strong finish in the game capped a week in which his hype took a big step forward around the NFL.

7. Tanoh Kpassagnon, Edge, Villanova

After drawing whispers during the weigh-in after measuring at nearly six-foot-seven, 280 pounds, Kpassagnon showed well with a strong week of practice before capping it with a four-hurry game on his 18 rushes. The size and length will draw the intrigue of scouts, but he showed he could put his frame to good use, which was most important. Kpassagnon has only a handful of games to evaluate against FBS teams, but he picked up four pressures against UConn in Week 1 of 2015 before showing well against Pittsburgh early in 2016. Kpassagnon still has to polish up parts of his game – he wasn’t great against the run during team drills – but his potential is evident, and his work in the game was among the best of any defensive lineman.

8. Alex Anzalone, LB, Florida

After a career in which Anzalone saw the field for only 605 snaps, the week of practice was crucial in order to show off what he’s capable of. He turned heads with a heard-hitting style, making a number of plays in the running game while staying with running backs in coverage out of the backfield. At Florida, Anzalone flashed this potential throughout 2016 after a disappointing, injury-riddled career, and a week in Mobile may be just enough for evaluators to give him a longer look during the draft process.

9. Kareem Hunt, RB, Toledo

It’s never easy for a running back to stand out during the week of practice, given that almost all drills avoid tackling, but Hunt had his flashes, including a beautiful open-field move to beat Jourdan Lewis to the edge on a swing pass. Still, he had to wait until the game to show his real skills, and he didn’t disappoint, forcing five missed tackles on 15 carries and picking up 87 of his 115 yards after contact. The word that continues to come to mind for Hunt is “balance,” as he has an amazing ability to stay on his feet while shrugging tacklers aside, a big reason he led the nation with 100 missed tackles forced on runs and receptions during the 2016 season. Hunt stated a strong case to be considered the top senior running back, while moving his name up the ranks of the entire class due to his strong showing at practice and in the game.

10. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee

Injuries derailed a strong start to the season for Sutton in 2016, but he had a fine showing while lining up at multiple positions throughout the week of practice. Coming into the season, Sutton had a lot to prove after he was excellent in 2014, but not nearly as sharp in 2015, and he was moving in the right direction before getting banged up early in the year. The week of practice showed his skills, as his change-of-direction was evident on the “best rep of the week” per PFF analyst Bobby Slowik (Sutton stayed on top of a slant-and-go with excellent body control), and the coaching staff had him taking reps outside at cornerback, in the slot, and even at safety. Sutton finished with one of the better coverage grades in the game, capping a strong week that put him back on the radar in a deep cornerback class.

Cris Collinsworth

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