The 2022 Senior Bowl practices begin on Tuesday in Mobile, Ala., otherwise known as the unofficial start of NFL draft season.
The staffs of the Detroit Lions (American Team) and New York Jets (National Team) will lead more than 100 senior prospects for the 2022 NFL draft, plus a few qualified underclassmen, through three days of practices, one-on-one drills and preparation for the Feb. 5 Senior Bowl game, which will be aired on NFL Network.
The game matters, but the practices are where prospects can really make money and boost their draft stocks. Most scouts ship out of town on Wednesday or Thursday, so the prospects’ early-week on-field work will be, in some cases, their final view of those players operating in competitive team settings prior to those players’ evaluations being written.
Here are 10 players — actually 13, but we’ll explain below — who we think have the most at stake during Senior Bowl week, starting with Tuesday’s opening practices.
Liberty QB Malik Willis
NFL decision-makers whose teams are home for the playoffs might have asked themselves the question, while watching the epic Patrick Mahomes-Josh Allen showdown, “Does my team have a quarterback who can do what they’re doing?”
More than likely, the answer is no. Gambling on traits, especially at quarterback, is an annual tradition that goes back several decades. But it might be an approach that’s never applied more than it does now in the Mahomes-Allen era. It will be interesting to see if that effect can improve Willis’ draft standing come April.
Willis oozes traits. He has a terrific, live arm that can spray the ball all over the field. He’s a forceful runner, mixing power in his stocky frame with enough juice and wiggle to make defenders miss. Yet from a development standpoint, Willis is in a similar place to where Allen was coming out of Wyoming as an unrefined prospect.
It’s unfair (and inaccurate) to directly compare Willis to Allen; there are myriad differences in their games. But it’s fair to say that teams wanting a dynamic playmaker at the position have to be fascinated by Willis’ arm strength and athleticism while acknowledging that his accuracy, decision-making and propensity to hold onto the ball too long are not yet where they need to be.
There’s no question that Willis is the biggest wild-card QB prospect in the 2022 class. Where he ends up remains anyone’s guess, but we can’t rule out Round 1. All it takes is one team willing to invest in his tools for a shot to pay off in something special eventually.
Nevada QB Carson Strong
If there’s a quarterback from this year’s middling group who can crash Round 1 unexpectedly, it might be Strong. He’s not received the same hype and spotlight that other Senior Bowl quarterbacks have, including Kenny Pickett, Sam Howell, Desmond Ridder and Willis.
But Strong has two high-end qualities that could open eyes during the week of practices and the game itself: NFL-grade arm talent and the ability to process at the line. We’re intrigued to see if those qualities stand out against all-star rosters of defensive talent.
Strong can absolutely shoot the ball all over the field — and he knows it. He possesses supreme confidence to fire the ball into tight windows and trusts his receivers to make plays. Strong also was tasked with a lot of pre-snap responsibility at the line at Nevada (setting protections, making calls and checks, audibles, etc.), so we think he’ll be comfortable running plays he’s learning on the fly.
He’s also not what you might call mobile by today’s QB standards. But Strong’s subtle movement within the pocket is pretty solid. He can reset his feet and generally has clean mechanics.
We expect him to shine in practices. The biggest question after that likely would be answered at the NFL scouting combine during medical evaluations. Strong has a chronic knee injury that has kept a lid on his upside and might draw some red flags from teams’ medical staffs, depending on what they find.
Georgia RB-WR James Cook
Dalvin’s little brother has some ideal skills to fit the modern NFL. He’s able to line up in the backfield but also split out as a slot receiver. In fact, we expect him to work at both spots in practices while working with the Detroit Lions’ staff, something Senior Bowl director Jim Nagy has hinted at.
Cook shared carries in college with Zamir White and Kenny McIntosh the past two seasons, not to mention current Lions RB D’Andre Swift earlier in his career. But Cook was consistently productive despite limited touches, averaging more than six yards per carry every season and averaging nearly 11 yards per catch over his career.
He’s a multi-tool threat whose 67-yard run in the national championship game — the longest run that Alabama allowed all season, by 30 yards — helped flip the game in favor of the Bulldogs late in the third quarter.
North Dakota State WR Christian Watson
Trey Lance’s deep threat in 2019 arrives in Mobile as maybe the most fascinating skill-position player who can make a name for himself this week. He’s a legit 6-foot-4 and 205 pounds with mid-4.4 speed, 10-inch hands and 32-inch arms. And the Bison used him in several ways: quick-hitters, deep shots, end-arounds (he averaged 8.0 yards on 49 career rushes) and on kickoffs (two career TD returns).
Watson reminds us a bit of a Marquez Valdes-Scantling type of prospect who could be a big-play artist in a play-action offense that wants to attack all parts of the field. Watching Watson operate against a good crop of Senior Bowl cornerbacks in one-on-one drills and team drills will be revealing of his potential.
Minnesota OT Daniel Faalele
There might be no Senior Bowl player with as much to gain or lose as Faalele. The 6-foot-8, 379-pound Faalele (yes, you read those numbers right) passes every eye test imaginable, not to mention his 86-inch wingspan, 35-inch arms and 11 1/8-inch hands.
But size isn’t always all it’s cracked up to be. There’s really only one current NFL offensive tackle who boasts similar dimensions: the Patriots’ Trent Brown. Interestingly, Brown had some struggles when he was at the 2015 Senior Bowl and slipped to the late seventh round, although he’s been an effective player when healthy for the Patriots.
Faalele has only been playing football since 2016. He’s developed tremendously as a player over the past four seasons with the Gophers and has traits you simply can’t teach. Faalele moves extremely well for such a massive man, and he’s dropped weight since topping the 400-pound mark early at Minnesota.
But can he hang in one-on-one pass-rush drills that often favor the defenders? Can he handle edge speed effectively? These will be crucial questions this coming week. It’s possible Faalele can make a push for Round 1 with exceptional pre-draft work; if he struggles to impress, an early Day 3 landing spot wouldn’t be shocking.
Northern Iowa OT Trevor Penning
Penning almost certainly will be UNI’s highest draft pick ever, surpassing former Browns DT James Jones, who was the 57th pick in 1991. In fact, we think Penning has a chance to be a top-20 overall pick with a strong performance in Mobile.
About the only potential worry with him is his level of competition. But we’ve seen smaller-school prospects prove they belong at the Senior Bowl in recent years — 2021 Broncos third-rounder Quinn Meinerz, 2020 fourth-rounder Ben Bartch and Penning’s former teammate, 2021 third-round OT Spencer Brown.
So it would be no shock at all to see the 6-7, 329-pound Penning, who boasts nearly 35-inch arms, to follow suit. He’ll face off against a respectable group of defensive linemen and pass rushers in the National Team practices.
Cincinnati EDGE Myjai Sanders
Sanders had a strong senior season for the Bearcats despite seeing his sack frequency dip from the prior two years. But there’s a good reason for this. He was asked to play out of position for the betterment of his team, often lining up as a 5-technique (outside shoulder of offensive tackle) or a 4i (aligned over the OT’s inside shoulder).
That’s a tough ask for a 6-5, 250-pound edge rusher who weighed in the 220s as recently as last spring. But he handled the duty well and moved effectively with the added weight. Now, with Sanders expected to do more work as a stand-up rusher in one-on-one drills during this week of practice, we could really see his lightning-quick get-off and closing burst stand out.
From that standpoint, he’s a similar evaluation to 2020 Steelers third-rounder Alex Highsmith, who played inside out of need in college at Charlotte but who has seen his true potential blossom in more of an edge role with Pittsburgh.
Florida State EDGE Jermaine Johnson II
Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat arrived at the 2019 Senior Bowl as a possible first-round pick. He went out and dominated the first day of practice, then bowed out of the rest of the week with an injury. It was enough to assure a top-32 landing spot, going 26th overall to Washington.
We believe Johnson enters this year’s event with a similar opportunity. After transferring from a loaded Georgia team where his snaps were limited, the 6-5, 255-pound Johnson, who with an 83-inch wingspan boasts similar dimensions to Sweat, became a star for the Seminoles.
His tape this past season included dominant performances against the strong offensive line of Boston College, against Clemson and in some one-on-one battles with a possible top-five pick, Ikem Ekwonu of North Carolina State.
If Johnson can bring that juice to Mobile, he might only need a few big practices to get the Round 1 chatter cranked up, even though we of course hope he sticks around all week. Johnson has outstanding length, a violent temperament and eye-opening movement skills. It’s all there for him to make noise this week.
Four Georgia defenders
It might sound a bit odd to suggest that the four Bulldogs defenders scheduled to be at the Senior Bowl — LBs Quay Walker and Channing Tindall, DL Devonte Wyatt and CB Derion Kendrick — might need a boost to their stocks after winning a national title with a historically great defense.
But there’s a sense in the scouting community of wanting to break up these talents individually and see how they perform in an unfamiliar environment, especially in one-on-one drills. Did they benefit from playing on an incredibly deep unit? No doubt. But their individual talents must be respected as well.
Tindall never started a game in Athens but was tied for third on the team in tackles last season and is a big hitter who plays with a nasty edge. Walker moves extremely well, has textbook size and has vastly improved in coverage from past years.
Wyatt is a toolsy big man who looks like a Ravens or Patriots chess piece up front. Kendrick has all the chops to shine in the on-field workouts and dominate, and he can solidify a Day 2 spot with strong interviews to help answer some off-field concerns.
UTSA CB Tariq Woolen
If you’ve followed our work this fall, you know we’ve been fascinated by the raw upside of Woolen, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound corner with 33-inch arms who switched from wide receiver a few years ago. There are times his rawness shows, and he won’t enter the NFL as instant coffee.
But Woolen’s potential screams on tape, and in time his length, ball skills and hitting ability could make him a fascinating defender and a matchup piece. His matchups against the American Team receivers (including two of our favorites, South Alabama’s Jalen Tolbert and Tennessee’s Velus Jones Jr.) will tell us a lot about how ready Woolen might be.