The Senior Bowl, held annually in Mobile, Ala., provides a jump-off point for #DraftSZN by inviting the best college seniors around the nation to participate in the all-star game and week of practices leading up to it. Now-former collegiate athletes get their first taste of the pros by learning from NFL coaching staffs and speaking with NFL personnel staffs. This year, in addition to representatives from all 32 NFL teams, Matt Patricia and his Detroit Lions assistants coached the North team along with Zac Taylor and the Cincinnati Bengals' staff coaching the South.
Practices are where the meat of evaluations happen, along with those interviews by personnel staffs. It's a valuable opportunity to see players go up against top-tier talent, and make no mistake, it can significantly impact their draft stock. The Senior Bowl as a whole provides the first major test many of these players will take in an attempt to prove their readiness for the pro level to potential employers.
With that in mind, there were a few things we learned from the week in Mobile.
-QB Justin Herbert passed his first major test
Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert was already projected as a first-round pick coming into Mobile but there were still questions about his big-play ability. In practice, it seemed most of the beautifully arcing long passes came off the hands of Herbert. He looked completely comfortable in the pocket and also knew when to take off himself or buy himself time to complete the play.
He capped off his good week by winning Senior Bowl MVP after completing nine of 13 pass attempts for 83 yards and a South team touchdown in the first quarter of the game Saturday before he was pulled. Last season at Oregon, Herbert threw for 3,471 yards and 32 touchdowns against six interceptions. NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah, who was in Mobile this week, released his first mock draft of the season and has the Bucs taking Herbert at No. 14 overall, though many mocks now have Herbert going before that – especially after his Senior Bowl outing.
-DL Javon Kinlaw is as advertised and more
The South Carolina product was probably the most anticipated attendee of the Senior Bowl, especially among non-quarterbacks. Kinlaw impressed right off the bat, meeting with the media on Monday night during the introductory press conference. He had the whole room laughing, while also sharing some of the adversity he's fought through. The son of immigrants, Kinlaw and his family were homeless for periods of his childhood. His maturity was evident in that podium session, as well as the one that followed it during media day on Tuesday.
Then came practice.
Kinlaw stood out in every facet; size, strength, physicality, technique. He earned the praise of his coaches in one-on-one drills and the respect of his teammates in team work. He was shut down on Thursday with a nagging injury but Kinlaw had nothing left to prove at that point. At 6-6, 310 pounds, calling him a disruptive interior lineman is putting it mildly. His stature is menacing and his athleticism at his size is more than impressive. He's another player that many have mocked to the Bucs, who could potentially need help on the interior of the defensive line, but especially after this week, I'm not sure Kinlaw lasts that long either.
-Offensive tackle class is solid, interior not so much
A pleasant surprise during the week was just how many offensive tackles stood out. The prospect that probably helped himself the most was Houston offensive tackle Josh Jones. If he wasn't on your radar before Mobile, he should be now. He's quick and strong and has the size of an NFL tackle already at 6-7, 310 pounds. The only knock on him could potentially be his lack of versatility. He's played left tackle almost exclusively, with no significant collegiate snaps anywhere else.
Another tackle that impressed was Auburn's Prince Tega Wanogho, though being from a big-time SEC program, that's not exactly surprising. Connecticut's Matt Peart also flashed.
Conversely, this class of interior offensive linemen may not be as deep as initially thought. Both LSU offensive linemen, Lloyd Cushenberry III and Damien Lewis looked good. Lewis, especially, showed his toughness. But the interior group lacked the bonified standout like Jones.
-Defensive line standouts
We talked about Kinlaw already, but another pleasant surprise was the North team's Jason Strowbridge from the University of North Carolina. I'm not sure anyone helped his draft stock more than Strowbridge. A pretty unknown prospect coming into Mobile, Strowbridge looked like a man among boys. His one-on-ones were a joy to watch. His hands were good, and his speed was even better. Strowbridge also made plays on the ball, recording multiple pass breakups at the line in practice. He consistently won all week against good talent.
Though he's a pass rusher, Utah's Bradlee Anae deserves some praise – especially for what he was able to do in the game, getting back to back sacks on quarterback Jalen Hurts in the second quarter. They weren't his only sacks of the game, either. No one had an answer for him. He showed the same flashes in one-on-one drills but really punctuated his performance during Saturday's game.
-Small school guys get noticed
I purposely left out Ben Bartch of Saint John's when talking about standout offensive tackles. The big question about a player coming out of a Division III program is obviously if he's as effective against tougher talent. The answer when it comes to Bartch is simply: yes. He was consistent all week in practice and put the media in attendance on notice. Jim Nagy, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, mentioned Bartch in his introductory press conference and drew a parallel to Bucs' guard Ali Marpet. It wasn't meant so much as a talent comparison as it was how important this week could be for someone coming out of Bartch's situation. Marpet went in the second round of the 2015 NFL Draft out of D-III Hobart and was put on the mainstream map largely due to his performance in the Senior Bowl that year.
Another small school product that stood out was Lenoir Rhyne safety Kyle Dugger. He's bigger than you think a safety should be, looking more like a linebacker at 6-2, 220 pounds. But he moved really well. It'll be interesting to see what he translates to in the NFL.
-The North team had the ground advantage
Two backs who had impressed all week in practice had excellent games for the North squad, who ultimately ended up winning the game. TCU's Darius Anderson and UCLA's Joshua Kelley stood out among the others and Kelley capped off the week with 15 carries for 105 yards.