NFL Draft News & Analysis

Senior Bowl notes: Rookie QBs, Patriots next offensive coordinator and more

Mobile, AL, USA; American quarterback Malik Willis of Liberty (7) throws during American practice for the 2022 Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Ask 20 scouts at the Senior Bowl to rank the six quarterbacks practicing in front of 32 NFL teams this week, and you’d probably receive 20 different answers.

That’s what one executive told PFF on Thursday following the final Senior Bowl practice of the week before Saturday afternoon’s all-star game. The consensus seems to be that this is not a great year to need a young quarterback, though there are many teams who could use one.

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Nevada’s Carson Strong has injury concerns; Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe lacks zip; Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett didn’t have his hands measured, practiced with gloves and struggled throwing through a rainy Wednesday practice; Liberty’s Malik Willis has the best tools but lacks accuracy; and Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder and UNC’s Sam Howell didn’t exactly stand out from the crowd this week. (It’s worth noting that the last time I was at the Senior Bowl was in 2012 — I was busy covering AFC Championship Games while covering the New England Patriots in the meantime — when the quarterbacks were Russell Wilson, Kirk Cousins, Nick Foles, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Lindley and Kellen Moore. There were no true standouts that year, either, which goes to show that QBs can still have success without a stellar week in Mobile.)

“The quarterback who had the best week was Matt Corral,” another executive quipped in Mobile. Corral, an Ole Miss product, isn’t at the Senior Bowl.

It’s still extremely early in the process, but it was notable to see Pittsburgh Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin and general manager Kevin Colbert, who need a quarterback after Ben Roethlisberger retired this offseason, eyeing practice closely. It might all wind up being a smokescreen, but buzz around the event is that the Steelers like Willis.

The Liberty QB has impressed in interviews, according to a source. He measured in at 6-feet, 220 pounds and has the best combination of arm strength and athleticism. Willis struggled a bit Tuesday but threw well in the rain on Wednesday. His best practice came indoors on Thursday. Willis is not a finished product, however, and would need some fine tuning wherever he lands.

More notes from the week of the Senior Bowl:

• The New England Patriots would prefer to hire an experienced play-caller from outside the organization to replace former offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who left to become head coach of the Las Vegas Raiders. The most obvious pick is Alabama offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien, who called offensive plays for the Patriots from 2009-2011 as QB coach and offensive coordinator, but New England has to go through a hiring process to satisfy the Rooney Rule. The Patriots must interview at least one minority candidate from outside the organization. Alabama head coach Nick Saban hinted this week in a news conference that O’Brien would be sticking with the Crimson Tide.

“Bill’s done a great job for us here, and Bill’s had a very successful career. I don’t think Bill’s trying to leave,” Nick Saban said. “I think he likes it at Alabama, and we have an opportunity with some pretty good players at the quarterback position and other positions to maybe continue to grow and develop here offensively. I think he’s looking forward to that challenge.”

O’Brien is a name that has been mentioned to PFF as a potential candidate for New England’s offensive coordinator position. NFL Media’s Ian Rapoport said on WEEI on Thursday morning that there’s “mutual interest” between O’Brien and the Patriots.

There’s not an obvious internal candidate for the position on the Patriots’ staff, though tight ends coach Nick Caley has the most experience. 

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• The biggest story of the week is the lawsuit former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores filed against the NFL, Dolphins, New York Giants and Denver Broncos, alleging racial discrimination in hiring processes. While it’s not universal, Flores has support throughout the NFL in coaching and scouting circles, and there was a lack of surprise at what he had brought to light in his lawsuit.

“This has been going on forever,” one source said.

Flores is a finalist for the Houston Texans’ head coaching opening along with former NFL QB Josh McCown and Philadelphia Eagles defensive coordinator Jonathan Gannon, per veteran NFL reporter Josina Anderson. Flores worked with Texans general manager Nick Caserio from 2004-2018 in New England.

• Patriots safety Devin McCourty, a free agent this offseason, wants to continue playing in 2022, according to a source. The 34-year-old started 17 games in 2021. His twin brother, defensive back Jason McCourty, hasn’t made a decision about his future. Patriots linebacker Dont’a Hightower is also open to returning in the right situation.

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• It wouldn’t be surprising if free-agent tight end Mycole Pruitt returned to the Tennessee Titans this offseason. Free-agent offensive lineman Ted Karras could garner interest from the Patriots and Raiders after McDaniels joined Las Vegas as offensive coordinator.

• Teams still without head coaches, like the Texans, Jacksonville Jaguars, Miami Dolphins and New Orleans Saints, are in a bit of limbo right now as they continue the scouting process less than three months shy of the 2022 NFL Draft. Teams who have recently hired general managers and head coaches are relieved to be able to get the process moving on what type of players they should be looking for.

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• I’m not as qualified to judge player performances in practice as our PFF analysts, but Memphis wide receiver Calvin Austin III was a consistent standout. “He’s quick as shit,” said one executive.

Florida State defensive end Jermaine Johnson was also noted as a clear standout by one scout.

The Senior Bowl takes place on Saturday, Feb. 5. PFF will be at the Super Bowl next week and will continue the pre-draft grind at the NFL Scouting Combine in late February and early March.

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