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NFL Draft: From Kenny Pickett to Jalen Pitre, Senior Bowl practice winners at every position

Feb 2, 2022; Mobile, AL, USA; National squad quarterback Kenny Pickett of Pittsburgh (8) works under center during National team practice for the 2022 Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports
By Dane Brugler 36m agocomment-icon.png 7 save-icon.png

MOBILE, Ala. — The Senior Bowl game is coming up Saturday afternoon, but most NFL evaluators have left having enjoyed a full week of practice and some delicious seafood.

Each squad had three full practices with three different environments — Tuesday was outside and dry, Wednesday was outside and wet, and Thursday was indoors and controlled. Regardless of the practice, the main takeaway from the week was dominant defensive line performance, both on the interior and outside by the edge rushers. But for my practice wrap-up, I wanted to highlight one player from each position who “won” the week.

I’m not saying these players will be the first drafted at their position among Senior Bowl players (although some will). But these are the players who consistently stood out from Tuesday to Thursday and were the best at their position this week.

Quarterback: Kenny Pickett, Pittsburgh (6-3, 217)

I struggled making a pick here because although each quarterback had moments this week, there wasn’t a no-doubt-about-it winner. Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder started slow but got better throughout the week. Liberty’s Malik Willis was terrific in the elements Wednesday but was up-and-down inside during Thursday’s practice. In terms of overall consistency, I have to go Pickett.

Also, I heard glowing reviews from several scouts about Pickett and the way he handled himself during interviews this week. For teams willing to bet on high-upside traits, Willis could be QB1 on some draft boards. But for teams looking for a quarterback ready to step in and compete for starting reps from day one, Pickett will have the edge. One thing is for sure, we didn’t have one quarterback separate himself throughout the week of practice.

Running Back: Dameon Pierce, Florida (5-9, 220)

I thought Missouri’s Tyler Badie had his moments, especially as a receiver. As did Alabama’s Brian Robinson and Baylor’s Abram Smith. But Pierce consistently showed out, both as a pass-catcher and in pass protection drills, and was the easy choice for me here.

Pierce never eclipsed 600 rushing yards in any of his four seasons in Gainesville as he shared the workload. But he can be as productive as his volume and be an every-down back capable of a larger role. Pierce has an NFL build and run style, and scouts were talking positively after practice about his performance this week as a blocker.

Wide Receiver: Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama (6-1, 195)

Several wide receivers stood out this week. The plant, burst, and short-area acceleration from Memphis’ Calvin Austin created separation for him all week. Boise State’s Khalil Shakir was the best route-runner I saw, and he was consistent at the catch point. SMU’s Danny Gray showed an explosive gear that gave cornerbacks trouble and belongs in the NFL.

But in terms of overall consistency, Tolbert unsurprisingly impressed. Once Penn State’s Jahan Dotson pulled out, Tolbert became the clear top wide receiver on the Senior Bowl roster, and he lived up to that high billing. Though not a burner, he can win at the line of scrimmage and mixes his gears really well to out-leverage coverage. Tolbert was at No. 49 overall in my recent mock draft, but I’m not sure he lasts that long.

Tight End: Jeremy Ruckert, Ohio State (6-5, 250)

Even though he missed Thursday’s practice with a minor injury, Ruckert impressed during the first two days. He is smooth in his routes to uncover downfield, and his ball skills were on display, consistently snaring throws away from his frame.

Although Colorado State’s Trey McBride is the favorite to be the first tight end drafted, that isn’t a consensus opinion around the league, and Ruckert is very much in the mix. A pair of “F” tight ends (tight ends who play more as receivers or H-backs) who looked good this week and are also in the early round discussion are Coastal Carolina’s Isaiah Likely and UCLA’s Greg Dulcich.

Offensive tackle: Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa (6-6, 330)

It wasn’t always pretty with Penning this week. He struggled to consistently play with balance, either because he gave up his chest or tried to overpower everything. And some of his finishing techniques were out of control. But all the NFL scouts I talked to this week raved about his nasty temperament and his ability to piss off edge rushers as a result of that.

Coming from the FCS level, Penning has dominant tape against inferior competition, so this was an important week for him. And although there were rough patches, he showed steady improvement each day and had his most consistent day of practice Thursday. I don’t think Penning had the type of week that will put him in the conversation to be a top-10 pick. But with his impressive length (34 3/4-inch arms) and movement skills for that size, I think he likely solidified himself as a top-32 prospect.

Guard/Center: Zion Johnson, Boston College (6-2, 314)

Chattanooga’s Cole Strange and Memphis’ Dylan Parham also deserve high praise for their week of practice. But Johnson is just on another level, especially considering he played most of the week at center, a position he had never played before. I gave Johnson a first-round grade based on his 2021 tape, and nothing that happened during Senior Bowl practices has changed that projection.

Like Penning, it was far from perfect. But his ability to reset multiple times mid-rep stood out consistently during each practice. Johnson is stout at contact and plays with strong, precise hands to plant and re-leverage himself as he works to stay centered. Watching him work from 30 feet away gave me even more appreciation for his muscle twitch and reaction skills.

Edge Rusher: Jermaine Johnson, Florida State (6-4, 259)

Defensive line was the most competitive position all week. With his skilled and heavy hands, South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare was my runner-up. And there were no shortage of worthy candidates that who deserve mention (Penn State’s Arnold Ebiketie and Jesse Luketa, Miami (Ohio’s) Dominique Robinson, Cincinnati’s Myjai Sanders, etc.). But Johnson entered the week as the top-ranked defensive player in Mobile and he only exceeded expectations.

Johnson is long, agile and powerful, and he understands how to use all of those traits to break down the rhythm of blockers. He was already considered a potential early-round prospect a year ago when he was part of Georgia’s rotation-heavy scheme. Since then, he established himself as the alpha of the Florida State defense, led the ACC in tackles for loss and sacks, and stood out as the top defensive player at this year’s Senior Bowl. Johnson was already in the first-round conversation, and now the question is, how high could he realistically go?

Defensive Tackle: Perrion Winfrey, Oklahoma (6-3, 303)

Like edge rusher, the defensive tackles were awesome this week. Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt and UConn’s Travis Jones were tough to block all week and showed why they are potential top-50 picks. Houston’s Logan Hall backed up why I believe he is a top-32 prospect in this draft. Arkansas’ John Ridgeway had several splash plays in each practice, and Missouri State’s Eric Johnson impressed at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl and continued that momentum in Mobile.

But Winfrey was consistently disruptive all week and is going to force a lot of evaluators to revisit their initial grades. During one-on-one’s, he slammed his heavy hands into blockers and consistently created movement with natural power and remarkable length (35 1/2-inch arms and a wingspan that is just shy of 86 inches). Winfrey also showed his quickness, using an explosive rip-swipe move a few times to create his own rush lane. He also brought an infectious energy to every practice that rubbed off on all of his teammates.

Linebacker: Troy Anderson, Montana State (6-3, 242)

For “small school” prospects, the main thing at these all-star games is to show you belong — and Andersen did exactly that with his impressive athleticism. He was frequently called out in a positive way by the Jets’ coaches for his range and speed during 7-on-7 drills, making plays all over the field. Before Thanksgiving, I tweeted that some west coast-based NFL scouts believed Andersen was a top-100 draft pick, and he hasn’t done anything to hurt that projection.

This was one of the best plays I saw after studying Thursday’s practice tapes. Andersen finds himself out of position for a split-second, but he recovers, stays under control and plays through the hands of the tight end to break up the pass without drawing the flag. After spending much of his college career on offense as a quarterback and running back, Anderson has only been playing the linebacker position full-time for two years, so he is still raw in areas. But plays like this are why you bet on his athletic traits.

Cornerback: Tariq Woolen, UTSA (6-3, 205)

A tall drink of water, Woolen has elite height, length (33 1/2-inch arms), and speed (expected to run in the 4.3s). As a former receiver, he is still learning the details of the position. But he showed during practice drills that he is more than just impressive size/speed traits.

This rep in receiver-cornerback one-on-one’s is a perfect example. For a player with his long legs, Woolen does an outstanding job staying on top of the route and balancing with his footwork to transition with the receiver. Obviously, you want to see him finish the play with the interception, but the main takeaways from this clip are his composed feet and transition skills. My updated top-100 draft board comes out soon — and Woolen is a lock to be on it.

Safety: Jalen Pitre, Baylor (5-10, 196)

After playing the “star” position in Dave Aranda’s defense, Pitre was well-equipped to show out in the drills during Senior Bowl practices. With his athletic versatility and toughness, he showed the coverage skills to challenge backs and tight ends man-to-man at every level of the field.

Something that stood out on college tape with Pitre were his spatial awareness and natural feel for angles, both in the passing game and in pursuit. And that carried over to practices this week as Pitre confirmed what we thought going in. It is a shame Penn State’s Jaquon Brisker wasn’t here, because Pitre and Illinois’ Kerby Joseph both had a good week of practice and helped themselves in the eyes of NFL scouts.

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1 hour ago, Jungletiger said:

I dont think we'll get to trade down this year so I am pro olineman at 31/32

I think Spicoli is right in the sense that 31picks will be gone..


I see it as the first pick in round 2


If an outstanding CB is on the board you take him..

If all is even then i grab the lineman.

Alot depends on FA as well..


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Actually I think they could be in a good place to trade down a few spots.  Of course it all depends on who is left but at the end of the first round a lot of teams want to trade up to grab a player they feel has slipped down the draft board.  Teams in the past have got some pretty good trades for late round picks so they should be examining all options. 


But if a highly rated OL, DL, or CB is there they should pick that player.

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13 hours ago, Jungletiger said:

I dont think we'll get to trade down this year so I am pro olineman at 31/32

What they did really well last year was recognize that the OL drfat was very deep so it was a good year to drfat a few. There are drfats that are deep at certain positions and other drfats where it is sparse. Tobin said recently they palnned to come out of the 2021 drfat with at least 2 OL and 2 DL. So they did recognize the depth was there and picking Chase at 5 was still the best way to go.


Knowing the depth of the draft by position is a key piece to drfat strategy and is like BPA + strategic planning. Knowing this helps the plans for FA as well.


Having said that, I have not really seemn which positions are 'deep' this year in the draft. I will have a look for that info on the Athletic. Meanwhile, a piece from today:



Senior Bowl to Super Bowl: Bengals continue to tap Mobile to build roster, success

Feb 1, 2022; Mobile, AL, USA; National special teams work through a drill during National practice for the 2022 Senior Bowl at Hancock Whitney Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports
By Jay Morrison Feb 4, 2022comment-icon.png 5 save-icon.png

It was only fitting that less than 12 hours after the Bengals beat the Chiefs in the AFC Championship Game to earn a trip in Super Bowl LVI, some of those most responsible for building this roster were on a different journey, heading back to where it all began.

While most of those in the organization were still sleeping off the euphoria of the team’s 27-24 overtime win at Arrowhead Stadium, director of college scouting Mike Potts and scouts Andrew Johnson and Trey Brown were headed to the airport for a pre-dawn trip to Mobile, Ala., and the Senior Bowl. Just two years ago, the Bengals were one of the two teams coaching the college all-star game after posting a league-worst 2-14 record in head coach Zac Taylor’s first year on the job.

But as catchy as the phrase “Senior Bowl to the Super Bowl” is in illustrating the franchise’s rapid ascension, it encapsulates more than that. It’s more of an organizational philosophy, as no team has tapped into the talent in Mobile more often than the Bengals.

Three of their 10 picks in the most recent draft played in the Senior Bowl — defensive lineman Cam Sample, running back Chris Evans and defensive end Wyatt Hubert.

It was three of seven in 2020 — linebackers Logan Wilson and Akeem-Davis Gaither and offensive lineman Hakeem Adeniji.

Six of the team’s 10 draft picks in 2019 improved their stock in Mobile — tight end Drew Sample, linebackers Germaine Pratt and Deshaun Davis, defensive tackle Renell Wren, quarterback Ryan Finley and cornerback Jordan Brown. There were more misses than hits in that group, but most of the ones they’ve targeted over the past decade have played key roles.

“The Senior Bowl’s been good to us,” Potts said. “I’ve never seen an official list, but I’d be surprised if anyone’s drafted more guys from here than us the last several years. A lot of the guys we’ve taken out of here, first of all, they come down here and compete. That’s what we want to see. There’s a lot of guys that don’t do that, who chose not to come here, and that just pops up. A lot of guys have legitimate reasons not to, but that just gives us more questions that we need to dive in on and figure out what their makeup is and see what their competitiveness is like. Is there something that they’re trying to dodge? This has been a place where we’ve learned a lot about these guys — guys that we’ve taken and guys we’ve chosen to pass on.”

Zac Taylor at the Senior Bowl when he and his staff coached a team in 2020. (Vasha Hunt / USA Today)

Sometimes, the interactions with guys they weren’t able to draft re-enter the equation when they become free agents. A few pillars from the past two free-agent classes — D.J. Reader, Chidobe Awuzie, Larry Ogunjobi — are ones the Bengals were high on during their Senior Bowl seasons. So was B.J. Hill, whom the team traded for right before the start of this season.

Though the Bengals have consistently plucked players from the Senior Bowl rosters — 32 combined in their past 11 drafts — their approach has varied greatly in recent years. In 2019, Taylor hadn’t even officially been hired yet. That didn’t stop Raiders head coach Jon Gruden, whose staff was coaching the game, from spilling the beans during a news conference in Mobile that he was losing quarterbacks coach Brian Callahan to become the offensive coordinator in Cincinnati under Taylor. The Bengals always have sent members of the coaching staff along with the scouts, but that year it was just Darrin Simmons and Rob Livingston as the holdovers from Marvin Lewis’ staff.

In 2020, everyone was there with the Bengals coaching the game.

COVID-19 protocols limited each team to a traveling party of 10 in 2021, and the Bengals were one of two teams (Giants) that sent members of their coaching staff. Part of that was due to the small size of the Bengals’ player personnel department — which in addition to Potts, Brown and Johnson includes director of player personnel Duke Tobin, director of pro scouting Steven Radicevic, scout Christian Sarkisian and vice president of player personnel Paul Brown — but a bigger piece was the value the organization sees in having the coaches see and hear from the prospects.

“I think our guys do a good job of spending a lot of time with the players here,” Radicevic said. “And the Senior Bowl does a good job of getting you that time.”

This year’s traveling party looked the most different of all with no coaches in attendance with preparations underway for Super Bowl LVI.

But three years into the Taylor era, the mesh of scouting and coaching philosophies is a big reason the Bengals have built a roster capable of competing for a championship in such a short amount of time.

Spending five days in Mobile is about much more than identifying the best players. It’s finding the right ones.

“It’s a one-heartbeat type of deal here,” said Trey Brown, who is in his first season with the organization after previously working with the Patriots and Eagles. “We’re trying to find the best players for the Bengals. We don’t worry about any of those other teams out there and what they’re doing in their schemes. We focus on how they’re going to fit into our building, how they’re gonna fit into our offense, our defense or our special teams. You’re trying to find the best players possible to give yourself the most competitive roster every day, whether at practice or on game day. The Senior Bowl is a great opportunity for us to see guys.”

Taylor has been vocal about his desire to find players who love football and the whole process that comes with it, not just game day, as well as guys who are leaders and have experienced success. That was the foundation he wanted for instilling his culture.

For Potts and the other scouts, that made for an easy transition to a new coaching staff.

“I can’t speak for Marvin (Lewis) or his staff or Zac or his staff, but I know what I look for in players and guys that love the game is at the top of the list,” he said. “And I think the rest of our scouts would tell you the same thing. That was just part of the process of meshing with Zac and his staff and getting on the same page. It wasn’t necessarily two viewpoints. There’s differing opinions on evaluations of players. People have different grades. But as far as what we want from a personal character and football character standpoint, I think we really align.”

Most of the group stayed in Kansas City on Sunday night before flying to Mobile early Monday, but Tobin and Radicevic flew home on the team flight to get some work done in the office. They also made sure all the medicals came back clean in case they would need to bring in another player for the Super Bowl.

You’ve seen the raucous videos from the flight on the players’ Instagram stories. What you probably didn’t see was that love of the game and the process that is at the heart of this success.

“You had guys that were celebrating and partying, but there were also a decent amount of guys that were on the film and watching the game, which is crazy to me,” Radicevic said. “That was such a big win. But for some of them, it was just time to start getting ready for the next game already. So that was pretty cool to see.”

Finding that type of makeup and dedication is what hammers home the importance of getting to know a player through interviews, whether it be the official, timed ones or the casual conversations in the ballroom where lunch is served.

It’s why coaching the game in 2020 was so valuable because of the extra time the coaches and scouts got to spend with the players.

Those conversations had a direct impact on two players becoming members of the Bengals’ 2020 draft class.

“It was a big reason we like Logan Wilson so much,” Radicevic said. “His character, his makeup, his leadership qualities. We had a lot of exposure to guys that year especially.”

The Bengals liked what they saw in linebacker Akeem Davis-Gaither at the 2020 Senior Bowl. (Chuck Cook / USA Today)

The exposure begins in the fall, with the scouts traveling to games and, more importantly, practices to see if a player’s personality and performance match up in person with what they’ve seen on film. Part of Senior Bowl week is watching practice to see if the initial reports hold up or if a guy needs to be stacked differently among the others at his position.

The Senior Bowl played a huge role in the Bengals targeting linebacker Davis-Gaither in 2020, one round after selecting Wilson.

Johnson is the area scout for Appalachian State where Davis-Gaither played.

“You go through the school in training camp and Akeem is 207 pounds, and he had a little bit of a reputation going into the year as a really athletic kid, and that’s what he was,” Johnson said. “He’s a long, fast, linear player that you kind of thought would be a career special-teams player in the NFL.

“But then he shows up at the Senior Bowl at 225 and is making all the calls and checks for the front seven and basically running our meetings alongside (linebackers coach Al Golden). Akeem is somebody in my mind who was a different player when we had him at the Senior Bowl compared to who he was when I stepped on campus in August.”

The Bengals drafted three linebackers that year, along with Markus Bailey, who would have received a Senior Bowl invite had he not suffered the knee injury at Purdue.

That came one year after the team selected Pratt in the third round. Sarkisian picked Pratt as his favorite Senior Bowl player the Bengals have selected in the draft.

“GP would be my pick,” he said. “I love everything the guy’s about. You just follow his career arc and overcoming a couple struggles early and see what he’s matured into and it still seems like week after week he’s still progressing. The way that guy’s wired, what he brings to our defense, the importance he puts on turnovers that he echoes every day, every hour in the building. That guy’s very important.”

Offensive line should be a heavily targeted position this year in the draft and free agency the way linebacker was a couple of offseasons ago.

The group of linemen in Mobile this week lines up well for a Bengals team in need of upgrades.

“There’s bodies in this class that haven’t been there previously, just in terms of the measurables you’re looking for,” Sarkisian said. “Putting all the pieces together, it’s not a finished project yet where you can say one way or another. I think there’s a lot of depth in terms of just what you’re looking for on paper, but by no means would I be willing to say there’s any top guys that we’re honing in on yet. We’re still very much doing the full process on everyone.”

The work has been delayed somewhat by the team’s postseason run.

Instead of knuckling down on the draft prospects and prospective free agents, the scouts have been traveling to the road playoff games and celebrating the success. And setting alarms for 4 a.m. to catch their next flight to the Senior Bowl and the other all-star games — the East-West Shrine Game in Las Vegas and the NFLPA Game in Los Angeles.

But no one is complaining.

“Our processes are pushed back a little bit because we have been allowing the scouts to go through the journey with us, and they’ve done a good job of taking that in stride and keeping on schedule with what we have in front of us, which is free agency and the draft,” Tobin said. “It’s good that those guys were able to be with us at these games. It’s the payoff, and it feels good when you get the payoff. But there’s still work to do, and the guys are happy to be down here doing it.”

Germaine Pratt was another future Bengals player who impressed the team’s scouts at the Senior Bowl. (Chuck Cook / USA Today)

That payoff has continued in Mobile. The scouting profession is close-knit, and sometimes members of the Bengals staff spend more time with area scouts from other teams than their own.

Tuesday’s arrival at Hancock Whitney Stadium for the first practice of Senior Bowl week featured a lot of handshakes, back slaps and congratulations from their peers, with everyone knowing the Bengals are doing more with less.

“There’s a brotherhood in the scouting community,” Trey Brown said. “We know how all of us in this business work and being away from your families, working hours away from the building, so I think there’s a common respect for all of us guys in the business.

“It’s been great to hear the congratulations and the praise from your peers, but what I would say is we haven’t done anything yet. We have another game to play, and that’s the focus. I’d rather those congratulations come after we win the Super Bowl.”

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