The Senior Bowl is the unofficial start to NFL Draft season when most of America is introduced to some of the top talent in the incoming rookie class two months before they're selected.
Believe it or not, because of the rigors of the regular season and, for some, the playoffs, it's also the event in which many head coaches get their first impressions of draft prospects and that could mean something significant. For example, New York Giants general manager Dave Gettleman talked about falling in "full bloom love" with quarterback prospect Daniel Jones at last year's Senior Bowl. Weeks later, Gettleman shocked the world by selecting Jones at No. 6 overall in the 2019 NFL Draft.
The week leading up to the exhibition game on Saturday, Jan. 25 is just as important -- if not more important -- than the game itself, and, below, I've answered the questions you might be asking yourself right now.
Who are the top prospects participating?
Javon Kinlaw, DL, South Carolina
Kinlaw is primed to go in the first round and probably the top half of it. While he doesn't have gaudy, traditional statistics to point to -- just 10 sacks and 16 tackles for loss over his last two season at South Carolina -- his film is overflowing with backfield disruption against the run and pass. He has high-level burst off the snap and long arms that routinely stun offensive linemen due to their power. It would not surprise me whatsoever if the week of practices concludes in Mobile and all the talk is about how Kinlaw was the most impactful defensive player.
Terrell Lewis, EDGE, Alabama
Lewis has vines for arms and is a fine athlete at 6-foot-5 and 250-ish pounds. His frame actually could add around 10 more pounds to it without him losing any suddenness, a scary thought for offensive linemen. Lewis dealt with injuries early in his career at Alabama but was mostly healthy in 2019 and had six sacks and 11.5 tackles for loss in 10 games. Because he knows how to deploy his arms to fend off blockers with an array of pass-rushing moves, Lewis should hear his name called inside Round 1.
Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
Herbert checks all the boxes from a physical perspective of playing the quarterback spot. And he was a full-time starter at Oregon for three seasons. His tape does feature some odd misses and stretches of ineffective play but is also loaded with impeccable, high-degree-of-difficulty strikes at the intermediate level and down the field. He's patient in the pocket too. Despite the few dud games in his career that have been damaging to his stock, his solid-to-phenomenal games should lead to Herbert going in the top half of the first round.
Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
While not a towering outside cornerback, Fulton can play on the perimeter, and his stickiness in coverage is at the same level as consensus top cornerback Jeff Okudah from Ohio State. The LSU star has the feet, hips, and explosion to stay in phase (keeping up in coverage) with any type of receiver on a route with any amount of intricacy. And as we saw in 2019 when he tallied 13 pass breakups, he's aware when the ball is arriving and knows what to do. It'll be surprising if Fulton isn't the second cornerback off the board.
Ashtyn Davis, S, California
Davis is a veteran striker on the back end for Cal, who flashes high-end deep middle range -- a rare trait that gets safeties picked high -- and a linebacker's demeanor during his run-stopping efforts. Davis had seven interceptions and nine pass breakups over the past three seasons for Cal. At 6-1 and a chiseled 200 pounds with effortless, dynamic athleticism, Davis is bound to be the second safety off the board after Grant Delpit from LSU.
What's at stake for the QBs?
There are two groups of quarterbacks at this year's Senior Bowl. I'll put Justin Herbert and Jordan Love together, the passers with high-end traits, streaks of inconsistency, but a strong likelihood to land in the first round (Herbert more so than Love).
Then, there are the Day 2 or Day 3 prospects -- Jalen Hurts from Oklahoma, Anthony Gordon from Washington State, Colorado's Steven Montez, and Michigan's Shea Patterson -- who won't enter the week with a lot of expectations which means there's a gigantic opportunity in front of them to gain positive traction during the pre-draft process.
Actually, I wrote a more in-depth piece on this very question recently. There'll be.
Which prospects have the most to gain?
Herbert could undoubtedly do wonders for his stock with a steady week of practice and a game without blatant misses or moments of uncertainty inside the pocket. Beyond him, quarterback Jalen Hurts has the most to gain at the position. The former Alabama and most recently Oklahoma star has a running back frame and improved as a passer with Lincoln Riley this season but is still not at a level that screams NFL starter because he's not quick through his reads and likes to prematurely run from inside the pocket.
At running back, Ke'Shawn Vaughn, a thunderous but nimble back from Vanderbilt, could bolster his stock after a down senior year that followed an electric junior campaign in 2018 when he averaged 7.9 yards per rush with 12 touchdowns.
As usual, the small-school guys have much to gain. Which leads me to my next question and answer.
Who are some small-school sleepers to monitor?
Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR, Liberty
Liberty recently moved up to the FBS level, but the strongest competition it faced in 2019 was a date with the Virginia Cavaliers, and the Flames lost 55-27. However, in that game, Gandy-Golden went for six grabs, 60 yards, and a score. At 6-4 and 220 pounds with subtle smoothness to create separation, physicality to beat press at the line, and a star rebounder's mentality when challenged at the catch point, Gandy-Golden is a serious prospect. This is a perfect event for him because he'll finally get the opportunity to face top competition. He caught 20 touchdowns over the past two seasons at Liberty with 70-plus catches in each campaign.
Akeem Davis-Gaither, LB, Appalachian State
We are talking about a modern-day linebacker here. Davis-Gaither is listed at 6-2 and 215 pounds and is absolutely electric in space. He changes directions like a wide receiver and strikes like a much bigger outside linebacker. He had 101 tackles, 14.5 tackles for loss, five sacks, and a stellar eight pass breakups this past season. ADG was blessed with long arms, has honed outstanding play-recognition skills, and has high-end range because of his athleticism and length. He is what today's version of the NFL is looking for at linebacker.
Alex Taylor, OT, South Carolina State
Listed at a ridiculous 6-9 and 310 pounds, Taylor might be the tallest player in Senior Bowl history. Despite height that typically creates stiff movements, Taylor glides out of his stance as a pass protector and, amazingly, possesses the lateral agility needed to stymie inside rushes and ride defensive linemen out of the play. He certainly could add weight to get stronger, and he's not always in the correct spot on combo blocks for the run game, but his size and athleticism combination cannot be coached. Taylor also plays with good knee bend, so he's not routinely out-leveraged by shorter defenders, and every defender he faces is shorter than him.
Kyle Dugger, S, Lenoir-Rhyne
Yeah, Dugger is from Lenoir-Rhyne, a Division II school in Hickory, North Carolina. If you are good, the NFL will find you. And Dugger is. At 6-2 and 220 pounds, he roamed the middle of the field in college and, his top gear is undoubtedly NFL caliber. Because he's so big for the traditional safety spot, and his click-and-close is seemingly elite, don't be surprised if he ultimately plays linebacker on Sundays.
Which prospects can play their way into the first round?
Josh Jones, OT, Houston
The long-time left tackle for Houston has an NFL body with plus athleticism and a controlled, balanced style of play. His footwork improved in 2019 -- kick slide was kind of a mess in 2018 -- and he simply dominated everything in front of him. The 6-7, 310-pound blindside protector has the athletic profile and experience teams adore, and with a strong week playing "up" in competition, we very well could leave Mobile talking about Jones as another first-round tackle in this class.
Josh Uche, EDGE, Michigan
Uche is a speed-to-power demon with above-average bend and versatility to play off the ball in coverage. His multi-faceted game lends itself an NFL game that has become more positionless. If Uche wins with his acceleration off the snap, bend around the edge, and awesome speed-to-power conversion like he showcased at Michigan, the first round will not be out of the question for him.
Zack Baun, LB/EDGE, Wisconsin
Another edge rusher with linebacker traits, Baun is a twitchier, bendier version of Uche with less size and not as much pure power. Oftentimes, he lined up off the football and looked like a classic outside linebacker with his range and tackling ability but was at his best in 2019 flying around the corner and using his arms to keep longer blockers off his frame. He finished with 12.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for loss as a senior.
Brandon Aiyuk, WR, Arizona State
Aiyuk is a speedster with good size at 6-1 and over 200 pounds. He's more impressive running in a straight line than he is changing directions, but his instant acceleration and top gear will threaten NFL cornerbacks right away in 2020. He averaged over 18 yards per grab with eight scores in 2019 at Arizona State and was magnificent after the catch thanks to his athletic traits. A big week in one-on-one drills could catapult Aiyuk into Round 1.