Senior Bowl Recap: Joshua Kelley, Van Jefferson, Justin Herbert the top prospects to watch for Fantasy

MOBILE, Ala. — The Senior Bowl is the best collegiate all-star game out there. Every year you'll find draft prospects who turn into NFL draft picks and eventually blossom into Fantasy contributors. NFL coaches and scouts convene to see the players work out in practice for three days before taking to the field for the game itself. Last year's week of practices helped guys like Terry McLaurin, Deebo Samuel, Tony Pollard, Gardner Minshew and Daniel Jones become fast risers in the NFL draft.

This year's crop of rookies is really good. The best — Joe Burrow, Jerry Jeudy, CeeDee Lamb and J.K. Dobbins — weren't at the Senior Bowl because they didn't have to "prove" anything. But the guys right behind them at their respective positions were represented, and they put on a show.

Here's an overview:

  • Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was the headliner. No one else was close.
  • Running backs weren't great. Expect to see a bunch of these guys in platoon situations.
  • Wide receivers were great — it's a super-stocked position. 
  • Tight ends were unheralded but impressive. There are some sleepers. 

Senior Bowl practices on Tuesday and Wednesday kicked off my quest to find the next great players, then the game on Sunday gave the players one more chance to show what they can do. I spent time in the press box watching and taking notes but found videos on social media of the players who impressed me the most.

Quarterbacks

Ranking the position: 

  1. Justin Herbert, Oregon
  2. Jordan Love, Utah State
  3. Jalen Hurts, Oklahoma
  4. Anthony Gordon, Washington St.
  5. Steven Montez, Colorado
  6. Shea Patterson, Michigan

Other than a handful of off-target throws throughout his practices (and one in the game), Herbert was very good. He put a lot of passes right on his targets including plenty that went downfield for 15-plus yards. For a kid who started taking snaps under center two weeks ago, Herbert looked just fine dropping back and firing downfield. Mechanically and fundamentally, Herbert is polished with a strong arm.

The Senior Bowl week didn't put Herbert in a position where he had to lead a comeback or play under serious pass-rush pressure. When under those conditions in college, he didn't always deliver. I haven't drilled down too much into his games yet, but those were the times I saw him get scattershot with the football. That is something that could concern NFL teams. Herbert should be a regular NFL starter by the middle of 2020 and might be useful in Fantasy as a bye-week replacement depending on where he winds up and who he plays.

Love may have locked up a top-60 selection with his Senior Bowl, showing off his arm strength and accuracy over a couple of practices. On Tuesday alone he made several perfect in-the-bucket throws down the sideline but also showed some touch, including this long out-route throw to the numbers.

He really didn't do a whole lot in the game, but that might be because he didn't have to following the solid week of practice. He attempted just six passes, completing four for 26 yards. The North squad ran the ball well, eliminating the need to throw a ton. Love went through a lot in his senior season including a new coach and changes to the Utah State offense, but he proved this week he's a candidate to start in the NFL. Perhaps he'll be a fringe Fantasy starter someday.

Hurts improved as the week went on, throwing more comfortably by his second practice. Only rarely did he run a zone-read type of play and was focused on showing off what he could do as a thrower. His longest completion in the game was a 19-yard bailout throw on 3rd & 14, but he otherwise had trouble navigating behind a bad O-line and also threw a bad interception. He's going to get slapped with the "project" label during the draft process but a team interested in merging its offense with what's going on in the college ranks will consider Hurts. For now he's worth stashing in long-term keeper leagues.

Running backs

Ranking the position: 

  1. Joshua Kelley, UCLA
  2. Darius Anderson, TCU
  3. Eno Benjamin, Arizona St.
  4. Antonio Gibson, Memphis
  5. Lamical Perine, Florida
  6. JaMycal Hasty, Baylor

(did not play: Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt)

Go ahead, call me a flip-flopper. I deserve it. I came to Mobile excited to see Hasty and nervous about Kelley's chances of being a capable running back, and by the end of the week they changed my mind. And it's not like I don't like Hasty (obviously I like Kelley). Truth is that every running back was solid, but none carried enough traits to be a three-down back in the NFL. 

If one came close, it was Kelley. Maybe it was the offense he was in or the O-line he played behind with the Bruins that caused me to be skeptical at first. In Mobile, he showed off acceleration and good vision on several carries while also displaying patience on some other runs. He seems mature for the position. This example of his speed might make you want to draft him with a late-round Fantasy pick no matter when he gets drafted: 

And then in the game he ran for over 100 yards, flashing vision and cuts to be a hero in zone-blocking schemes. He was also physical, which some of the other backs didn't flash quite enough (or if they did, they weren't as successful). Kelley also had the best size combination among his peers at 5-foot-10 1/2 and 214 pounds. Only one other back, Antonio Gibson of Memphis, weighed more.

The rest of the backs had larger flaws. Anderson was wide open on his 75-yard touchdown catch-and-run but was decidedly slow on the play. He plays physically and has some wiggle, but concerns about his size (195 pounds) could force him into a backup role. Benjamin has elusiveness and speed but profiles as a third-down back, while Gibson and Perine can also serve that gig but don't have the speed to match. Hasty does have speed -- he might be among the fastest running backs in the draft -- but he's also a little light, plus he fumbled in the game. Vaughn had a good practice Tuesday but got nicked up and didn't go on the field again. 

All of the Senior Bowl running backs have good traits, but none seem to have a very good chance to be a future first-round Fantasy pick. That being said, all of them probably have a very good chance to be complementary running backs who could end up being useful at some point in their careers for Fantasy.

Wide receivers

Ranking my top-10 at the position: 

  1. Van Jefferson, Florida
  2. Jauan Jennings, Tennessee
  3. K.J. Hill, Ohio State
  4. Michael Pittman Jr., USC
  5. Denzel Mims, Baylor
  6. Chase Claypool, Notre Dame
  7. Austin Mack, Ohio State
  8. Quartney Davis, Texas A&M
  9. Antonio Gandy-Golden, Liberty
  10. Collin Johnson, Texas

Jefferson was the most NFL-ready receiver at the Senior Bowl. He stood out from his first practice with silky smooth route-running and the ability to change his speed to help him get open — and man, did he get open a bunch.

Don't let it bother you that he didn't do too much in the game (two receptions, 11 yards). He opened plenty of eyes during the week and should continue doing so in the lead-up to the draft. Assuming his Combine numbers are good but not great, Jefferson could be in line to start as a slot receiver and then grow into a potential No. 1 wideout who lines up everywhere for an NFL team. 

The 6-foot-3 Jennings played as physically and violently in practice as we saw in games, moving people as a blocker. But he also was such a smooth route runner given his size, accelerating quickly and using double-moves to get open. He felt like the most complete receiver on the roster who was 6-foot-2 or taller. Here's my favorite catch from the week:

I was asked on CBS Sports HQ to name a team he'd thrive on, and I picked the Packers. Jennings looks like a guy who can win in single coverage and make clutch receptions with a defender hanging around him. We saw something close to that on his touchdown catch from Hurts. He also has proven to be a good route runner who can line up anywhere, including the backfield. He's also a dangerous blocker. I am a little worried about his concentration (he had a ball go through his hands in the game and was out of bounds on another catch he tried making), but coaching could fix that. If he went to a team like Green Bay and was that team's only receiver addition from the offseason, he'd garner some final-pick attention in seasonal leagues. 

Hill, like Jefferson, was a devastating route-runner, using quick feet to ditch defenders and make grabs. He also picked up a catch on a hotly contested pass and also brought in a ridiculous one-handed reception on the third day of practice.

Hill had one catch for 1 yard in the game. Big deal. I would say that the difference between him and Jefferson is that Jefferson is a little bit taller and has a better pedigree. Hill is slot-ready but I'm not sure he can be more than that at the pro level. Still, he could eventually reel in 60 receptions per year. It wouldn't surprise me if he had a starting role by October.

As for Pittman, Mims, Claypool and Johnson, they're all huge jump-ball receivers. They're all going to run fast for their size and all have a chance to carve out a role with whichever teams draft them in 2020. Claypool is particularly interesting because he practically looks like a tight end when he's in pads. Johnson is practically 6-foot-6, the tallest receiver at the Senior Bowl, and he moves well. Mims' stock shot way up with a week's worth of good practices, and Pittman is a well-rounded athlete with a football pedigree. 

Tight ends

Ranking the position: 

  1. Stephen Sullivan, LSU
  2. Adam Trautman, Dayton
  3. Harrison Bryant, FAU
  4. Brycen Hopkins, Purdue
  5. Jared Pinkney, Vanderbilt
  6. Josiah Deguara, Cincinnati
  7. Charlie Taumoepeau, Portland St. 
  8. Sean McKeon, Michigan

In terms of all-around play, no tight end was better than Sullivan during the week. He dominated 1-on-1 drills with good lateral agility and speed, not to mention using his 6-foot-5 frame and 85-inch wingspan to snag passes away from smaller defenders. He also was pretty perfect as a blocker, something that can help him get on the field quickly. Everything here is juicy, but I loved that second catch he made:

He just might have enough versatility to be an asset as soon as this season, though most teams (and Fantasy managers) will gravitate to his receiving skills. Maybe, just maybe, he has a shot to help out Fantasy squads in 2020, though 2021 is more likely.

Trautman and Bryant are both small-school prospects who didn't shrivel up against Power 5 competition. Trautman is not only a beastly blocker (sometimes he took on two defenders!) but he's a burgeoning receiving weapon as well. He moves well for a man his size and was juking dudes in 1-on-1 drills. His straight-line speed might end up surprising us at the combine. Bryant admitted he needed to work on his blocking but there's no question about what he can deliver as a receiver. He's cut-on-dime quick coming out of his breaks and looks like a chain-moving tight end. I'm not sure if either of these guys will ascend to a level of Kelce-Kittle-Ertz, but they'll have opportunities for sure.

Senior Fantasy Writer

Dave Richard has spent nearly his entire career covering the National Football League. Beginning with NFL.com at the boom of the Internet, Richard was that site's first Fantasy Football writer before transitioning... Full Bio

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