2023 Senior Bowl preview: Burning questions for NFL scouts hitting Mobile
Published: Jan 30, 2023 at 12:34 PM
Practices for the 2023 Reese’s Senior Bowl begin Tuesday, as talent evaluators from across the NFL will be in Mobile, Alabama, to break down more than 100 prospects for the 2023 NFL Draft.
Through interviews, meetings, three days of practice (Tuesday through Thursday at 12:30 p.m. ET on NFL+) and Saturday’s all-star game (2:30 p.m. ET on NFL Network), prospects have a chance to impress coaches and scouts alike. There’s a lot on the line — prospects can move up or down the draft board, sometimes by a full round or more, depending on how they perform among the best of the best senior (and some junior-eligible) prospects.
The event helps unofficially kick off draft season, and we’ll be there to bring you the week’s highlights. I spoke with three NFL scouts and asked them what they believe are the biggest draft-related questions heading into the Senior Bowl.
1) Which quarterback will emerge as the best in Mobile?
Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker is on the Senior Bowl roster but won’t be able to practice while he rehabs his season-ending ACL tear, leaving Tyson Bagent (Shepherd), Malik Cunningham (Louisville), Max Duggan (TCU), Jake Haener (Fresno State), Jaren Hall (BYU) and Clayton Tune (Houston) as this year’s quarterback crop.
“Is there one you’d bang the table for? I don’t know,” one NFC scout told me. “I don’t think you have a clear-cut starter projection right now, but that could change.”
Hall has some similarities to Russell Wilson, with his shorter, stockier build and deep-ball ability. The BYU product isn’t quite the innovator or scrambler that Wilson was coming out of Wisconsin, but he will be among the most highly touted passers in attendance. Haener lacks elite physical traits, but is highly confident and earned a reputation as a gritty comeback artist in 2021. He would have received a Senior Bowl invite a year ago had he moved on to the next level then.
One scout I spoke with believes Hall has the best chance to emerge from the group, but he also worries about the QB’s age (he’ll be a 25-year-old rookie) and upside. Another said Haener is most intriguing: “I could see him pushing a more talented passer for a job eventually. He’s got that clutch gene.”
Duggan has given himself a chance to be a Day 3 pick with his Heisman Trophy-finalist season, but how will he bounce back after the National Championship Game flop? Duggan needs to become a more consistent passer, but could be a better version of the Cardinals’ Trace McSorley.
Tune is a streaky but clutch passer who put up big numbers the past two seasons and has some toughness. Bagent, the son of a competitive arm wrestler, is your mystery-man prospect for the week. He holds the NCAA record for career passing touchdowns.
“Our area guy there has kind of signed off on (Bagent),” the NFC scout said, “so there’s a little intrigue there.”
2) Oregon State TE Luke Musgrave: Round 1 sleeper?
If there’s a potential surprise first-round candidate in Mobile, it might be Musgrave, whose father was a quarterback at Oregon and whose uncle is Bill Musgrave, former offensive coordinator for the Panthers, Jaguars, Vikings, Raiders and Broncos.
Luke Musgrave absolutely looks the part at 6-foot-5 1/2 and 255 pounds, with an expansive wingspan and a massive pair of hands. Scouts also believe Musgrave is primed for a big workout this spring, sharing similar traits to the Eagles’ Dallas Goedert.
Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy has even teased the idea of Musgrave touching the 4.4s in the 40-yard dash, which certainly won’t derail the hype train.
Musgrave only played the first two games for the Beavers this past season, due to a knee injury, and only started for one season prior. In Mobile, Musgrave can kick-start his draft stock with a week’s worth of quality practices. Scouts will want to make sure he’s in football shape and ready to go, and there remain questions about his strength — both as a blocker and after the catch. But he’s a natural hands catcher with springy athleticism and good body control to adjust to difficult throws.
Is Round 1 a reach? Possibly. But there are some in the scouting community who believe Musgrave won’t get out of the top 50 overall picks, pending his medical evaluation. There will be competition, however, in what looks like one of the stronger tight end classes in some time.
There only have been four tight ends drafted in the first round since 2018. The 2017 NFL Draft is the last time three landed in Round 1. The 2023 class has four potential first-round tight ends, depending on how things shake out: Notre Dame’s Michael Mayer, Georgia’s Darnell Washington, Utah’s Dalton Kincaid and Musgrave.
A big Senior Bowl week might start the process of getting Musgrave into the top 31 picks.
3) Is it a down year at wide receiver?
This year’s Senior Bowl crop of wide receivers offers a snapshot of the WR class as a whole. On the surface, the talent pool doesn’t appear to match up to recent draft offerings.
“We’ve been pretty spoiled, honestly,” an AFC scouting director said. “Past few years have been a wealth of talent there, just one (class) after another. Every year, it felt like that was the strongest or one of the strongest positions. This year, [it’s not at] the same level. Some good ones, but not a great group overall.”
Among the buzziest names coming into the week are SMU’s Rashee Rice, Virginia’s Dontayvion Wicks, Ole Miss’ Jonathan Mingo, Nebraska’s Trey Palmer and Princeton’s Andrei Iosivas.
Rice might be one of the five best prospects in Mobile, steadily progressing over three years with the Mustangs before breaking out in a big way this past season. He has a good combination of size and speed, and great contested-ball skills. Rice should be a Day 2 pick, at worst.
The remaining Senior Bowl receivers profile mainly as Day 2 or Day 3 prospects. There are some really fast options (such as Cincinnati’s Tre Tucker, Houston’s Nathaniel “Tank” Dell, TCU’s Derius Davis and Palmer) and some bigger-bodied talents, including Mingo, Iowa State’s Xavier Hutchinson and Stanford WR/TE Elijah Higgins.
Two sleepers we’ll be monitoring closely: Wicks and Iosivas.
Wicks entered the season as a dark-horse top-50 prospect, flashing impressive skills in a 1,203-yard, nine-TD season in 2021. But with the Cavaliers’ strange struggles offensively last season, Wicks’ production plummeted (30/430/2 receiving in eight games) and his drops rose. A big week in Mobile could revive his status a bit.
Iosivas was a three-time Ivy League champion in the heptathlon (2019, 2020, 2022), running the fastest-ever 60-meter time (6.71) in the event at the 2022 NCAA Indoor Championships. The wideout also led the Ivy League in receptions (66), receiving yards (943) and TD catches (seven) last season. He might be this year’s Christian Watson, who entered Senior Bowl week a year ago with some Day 3 grades but ended up the 34th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft following a strong week in Mobile.
4) Which running backs can improve their stocks the most?
For years, running back was among the leanest positions in Mobile, with so many underclassmen declaring early at the position.
Nagy has called this year’s crop the best RB group he’s had in five years running the Senior Bowl. One scout I spoke with agreed with the sentiment.
“There’s no [Harris], no Round 1 guy, but there might be three or four difference makers,” an AFC scouting director said, mentioning Georgia’s Kenny McIntosh, Oklahoma’s Eric Gray and Texas’ Roschon Johnson. Those are among the players with the most to potentially gain during the week.
Georgia has had Day 1 or 2 picks at running back in three of the past five years, and McIntosh could make it four in six. He’s neither big nor blazingly fast, but has a complete, three-down game, meaning he could flourish in more of a featured role than the split duty he was tasked with at UGA.
Seeing running backs from the same school be drafted in the same class isn’t that unusual, and two Texas backs — Johnson and Bijan Robinson — should be the latest pair to do so. Robinson could be a first-rounder, but don’t be surprised if Johnson goes no later than Round 3. He has receiving ability, a thick build, surprising burst and a special-teams mentality.
Gray and Tulane’s Tyjae Spears figure to have a lot to gain, too. After a down 2021 season, Gray used his terrific vision and jump-cut ability to break out again for the Sooners in 2022. A strong week could vault him into the Day 2 discussion.
Spears is a fascinating prospect who ripped off eight straight 100-yard rushing games to close out Tulane’s dream 2022 season, including the stunning Cotton Bowl win over USC in which he ran for 205 yards and four scores.
5) Which prospects should we be keeping an eye on in one-on-one drills?
One of the annual highlights of Senior Bowl week is watching the offensive and defensive linemen battle in one-on-one pass-rush drills. It’s fun watching the receivers and corners compete against each other, too, but it feels like there’s more to glean from the big uglies battling in the trenches.
Now, this aspect of the week doesn’t tell the whole story about a prospect. Terence Steele struggled badly in one-on-ones three years ago and went undrafted, but now has started 40 games in three years for the Cowboys. On the flip side, Perrion Winfrey dominated at last year’s Senior Bowl from start to finish but still slipped to Round 4. Regardless, it’s still fun to watch these drills.
I asked NFL scouts for the offensive and defensive linemen (including some linebackers with pass-rush backgrounds or skills) whom they wanted to see most in these drills and received some interesting answers:
Keeanu Benton, DT, Wisconsin: He earned some Round 1 grades entering the season and features a big, powerful upper body as an interior rusher, most likely from the nose. “He’ll have two or three big wins where the crowd goes, ‘Ooooh,’ ” a scout predicted. “He’s tossed a few guys off the snap and he’s quicker than you think.”
Andre Carter II, edge, Army: Now that a potential obstacle to his pursuit of an NFL career has been cleared, Carter figures to be the highest drafted player from Army since the 1940s, having burst onto the scouting scene with a 15.5-sack breakout in 2021. That said, the AFC scouting director remains ambivalent. “Just not strong enough,” he said. “Two- or three-year development guy, I think. Good athleticism and length and all that, but the pass-rush stuff is limited. There’s not enough power in his game. The better [offensive linemen] will use that against him.”
Ali Gaye, edge, LSU: A southeast area scout who has been through Baton Rouge multiple times mentioned Gaye, who had seven sacks in 27 college games, as a player who needed a big week. “Looks the part, beautiful frame, but just not enough on tape for me,” the scout said. “They liked him there, but I need to see him dominate more.”
Dawand Jones, OT, Ohio State: The biggest blocker in Mobile (6-foot-8, 375 pounds) has a great chance to elevate among a good but not great group of OT prospects. “Those big guys tend to either dominate or be dominated in those (drills),” a scout said. Jones was vastly improved as a pass blocker this past season, using his basketball background and mass to stymie most rushers.
Cody Mauch, OL, North Dakota State: The one-on-one drills could help determine if his future home lies at guard or tackle. “He’s got short arms, so that’ll be the test,” a scout said. “He just hasn’t seen this type of talent, maybe outside his own team, so you want to see that matchup.”
Will McDonald IV, edge, Iowa State: McDonald was one of the most productive pass rushers in college football the past three seasons, totaling 35 tackles for loss and 27 sacks for the Cyclones during that span. But he weighed in at 241 pounds, which is light for a pass rusher. “He’s just not big, but he’s relentless,” said the AFC director.
O’Cyrus Torrence, OG, Florida: The Louisiana transfer followed Billy Napier to the Gators and raised his game in the SEC, to the point where he could end up in the top 50 picks. The southeast area scout likes Torrence as a ready-made run blocker for a gap-blocking scheme. But the scout noted he’s “a lunger and a bit stiff, so the quicker guys inside can beat him in those drills.”