It’s a somewhat quiet town just beyond the Florida-Alabama border on I-10 in between Pensacola and New Orleans. For most of the calendar, the city keeps to itself.
But for one week every year, Mobile becomes the hub of football fandom, both college and pro, by transforming into one of the biggest NFL Draft spectacles of the season, second only to the NFL Scouting Combine.
When you watch players at the Senior Bowl, you just know you’re watching future NFL stars. Some of these players go into the week as projected first round picks, others use the week to make that one team fall in love with them to jump start their carer.
Though Bucs fans won’t be able to see prospects like Tim Williams, Rueben Foster or Jarrad Davis this week, this is their chance to get familiarized with a few new names, names we know will be heard on Sundays for years to come.
So which prospects in the 2017 Senior Bowl have the most potential to see their names in pewter and red in 2017? Here are ten prospects we think you should keep your eyes on this week, because we believe general manager Jason Licht, Dirk Koetter and the rest of the staff will be doing the same.
VILLANOVA DE TANOH KPASSAGNON – 6-7, 290 – SOUTH
It’s hard to go under the radar when you’re 6-foot-7, but that’s what this Pennsylvania native is going into Senior Bowl week.
Kpassagnon, a former track and basketball star, is still just growing into his football talent. Going into his freshman year at Villanova, he weighed 220 pounds. After putting on 70 pounds in four years, we’re just now see what Kpassagnon is capable of as a pass rusher.
As you would expect from someone with his size, length is where he wins. He’s at his best when he can combine a good burst off the snap with utilization of his long arms when engaging offensive linemen. His weaknesses are also size-based, as he has a tendency to lose leverage battles when his technique isn’t on point.
The NFL loves size simply because the age old saying of “can’t teach height” is forever true. If Kpassagnon can show he’s consistent in beating Senior Bowl offensive tackles, we could start hearing his name at the top of round 2, maybe even into round one. He’s a true hand-in-the-ground pass rusher fit for a 4-3 system like Tampa runs.
MIAMI CB CORN EDLER – 5-10, 180 – SOUTH
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a type when it comes to corners. If you look at their roster, they don’t have a single cornerback who is over 5-foot-11 (unless you count Ryan Smith who is 6-foot).
Instead of going for those bigger, longer cornerbacks who thrive on lockdown, man-on-man assignments, the Bucs instead prefer smaller, quicker, faster corners who make their money on recovery speed and zone coverage.
With that known, Corn Elder has to be a guy they have high on their list. He’s tremendously underrated when it comes to both awareness and athletic ability. He’s a player who covered some of the best receivers in the ACC this season, and will get the chance to do with same with players around the country this week.
I expect Elder to make his name known, and for the corn emojis to flow freely this week after the amount of plays he makes.
CLEMSON DT CARLOS WATKINS – 6-3, 305 – SOUTH
Clemson’s defensive has become an NFL factory when it comes to their defensive line.
Watkins was the leader of another stout trench group this year for the Tigers as one of the only permanent team captains every game this season. In the 15 games he played in 2016, Watkins recorded had 82 tackles, 13.5 for loss and 10.5 sacks in 758 snaps.
He plays the same kind of role Gerald McCoy does for the Tigers, but we’ll get to see him lined up in many different spots along the line this week whether it be at 1-tech, 2-tech or 3-tech. We’ll be able to see which spot he’ll be most effective at, and have a better look at where the Bucs could use him, if interested.
Regardless of where it is, pass rushing talent should always be prioritized.
IOWA DT JALEEL JOHNSON – 6-4, 310 – NORTH
Speaking of interior pass rushers, Iowa’s Jaleel Johnson may just be the best defensive tackle in Mobile this weekend.
Johnson is exactly the kind of man-mover you want as the center piece of a defensive line. Everything for the Hawkeyes defense starts with his push up front. If he can get penetration up the middle to collapse the pocket, the rest of the defense can lock down their assignments.
Johnson’s success starts with leverage. He knows how important it is to get offensive lineman off balance, and after he gets them moving back, he has the strength with one arm or two to push them out of the way and into the ground. He’s constantly moving forward, which indicates both a high motor and the skill to get to the quarterback.
I’m excited to see what he can do this week.
YOUNGSTOWN STATE DE DEREK RIVERS – 6-5, 255 – NORTH
During the 2016 East-West Shrine practices, the draft world got to know Youngstown State defensive end Avery Moss. Now they get to learn about the other side of YSU’s pass rushing duo with Derek Rivers at the Senior Bowl.
Rivers and Moss combined for 24 sacks, 32 tackles for loss, 28 quarterback hurries and 103 tackles in 2016. We saw Moss flashes that kind of production in St. Petersburg. Now we get to see how Rivers does against even better competition.
TEXAS A&M S JUSTIN EVANS – 6-1, 195 – SOUTH
Earlier in the season, the safety position was a big need for the Buccaneers. A that time, there were thoughts of them using their first round pick on one of the top safeties in this talented draft class.
Since then things have changed. Bradley McDougald solidified the strong safety spot, and Keith Tandy was a big surprise in the best way with a lot of production, including takeaways, down the stretch. That said, McDougald and his back up Chris Conte are both free agents this offseason which could open the door for a draftable replacement.
Evans would be near the top of that list for safeties to target after the first round for the Buccaneers. He shows good range in coverage, and can really lay the hits in run support. Texas A&M has a tendency to leave their defensive backs out to dry with very little help. I’m looking forward to seeing Evans in a new environment to see how he stands out.
MICHIGAN CB JOURDAN LEWIS – 5-10, 185 – NORTH
Lewis, like Elder, is of that Buccaneer mold of cornerbacks.
If the Buccaneers are to draft Lewis, there are sure to be those speculations of his height being too small much like there was for Vernon Hargreaves III last year. However, at the end of the day, Lewis can flat out play. He took on some of the toughest assignments in the Big Ten over the last two years, and has great athletic ability to go along with fantastic defensive back instincts.
The important thing to look for with him this week is how he fares against taller receivers, especially in the red zone drills.
KANSAS STATE DE JORDAN WILLIS – 6-5, 255 – SOUTH
Jordan Willis was quite the riser this season as he recorded 17.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.
Pro Football Focus is also a big fan of Willis.
“He’s beat up on opposing right tackles, rushing off the left side on 96.8 percent of his rushes, but the production is difficult to ignore. Willis uses strong hands and a variety of moves to rank fifth overall as a pass-rusher at 89.5 while posting the top grade against the run at an identical 89.5.”
Willis, like Kpassagnon, is a hand-in-the-ground pass rusher who would fit right in to Mike Smith’s 4-man front.
SAN DEIGO STATE CB DAMONTAE KAZEE – 5-11, 190 – SOUTH
Kazee is the only corner who I believe the Buccaneers may show interest in who isn’t of that short and speedy mold.
The reason I think they’ll be interested in him is because, though he is more of a true man-to-man corner, he shows top traits that can’t be denied simply because of a scheme preference. He’s a ball hawk for interceptions (he once had three in one game), and loves to come up and hit in run support. He’s a complete corner who defensive coordinator Mike Smith would likely love to get his hands on.
IOWA CB DESMOND KING – 5-11, 205 – NORTH
When I saw Desmond King’s measurements at 5-foot-11, I was surprised. That’s because he plays bigger than he is.
He, like Kazee, is used as more of a man-to-man corner, but he’s a true prototype outside corner, meaning he’s the kind of guy who can match up against an opposing team’s No. 1 receiver. It’s a good year to test how corners and wide receivers fare against each other with such strong classes. King will be put to the test.
Trevor Sikkema is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers beat reporter and NFL Draft analyst for PewterReport.com. Sikkema, an alumnus of the University of Florida, has covered both college and professional football for much of his career. As a native of the Sunshine State, when he's not buried in social media, Sikkema can be found out and active, attempting to be the best athlete he never was. Sikkema can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org