Senior Bowl week is almost more about what’s happening off the field than on it. Like so many of the NFL’s offseason storylines, the players involved in the practices in Mobile this week served as a backdrop to the many backchannel conversations and discussions among media, scouts, front-office guys, coaches and agents. Saturday is when the players take center stage. If you’re watching the Senior Bowl on Saturday afternoon, here are the 10 players you have to keep an eye on.
5 TO WATCH
Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State
I’ve been accused of not only riding the Wentz Bandwagon, but also driving the train. I’m fine with that. Wentz was a stud all week in Mobile, standing head and shoulders above the competition at quarterback. He measured in at 6 feet 5, 233 pounds, and had 10-inch hands. That’s great size for a quarterback, but he’s also extremely mobile and confident in the pocket. The thing that scouts like most? He came from an NFL, pro-style offense at North Dakota State. Wentz was a "0-star recruit" out of high school, but had a growth spurt, waited his turn and was the starting QB the last two seasons of the top team on the FCS level. Any fears about his 2015 wrist injury were put aside this week, as the ball flew out of his hand. The comparisons vary. One AFC front office executive said Wentz reminded him of Joe Flacco. One NFC executive said he was a "bigger Alex Smith." I have him listed as the No. 2 pick in my latest mock draft and believe he will be the first quarterback selected in April.
Sterling Shepard, WR, Oklahoma
FOX Sports college football analyst Joel Klatt compared Shepard to last year’s Senior Bowl star and current Seahawks standout Tyler Lockett. Shepard’s stop-and-go ability was praised by scouts, and one AFC front-office executive said he liked Shepard’s game as much, if not more, than 2015 Colts first-round pick Philip Dorsett. The Senior Bowl handed out awards at the end of the week, and Thursday afternoon, Shepard won the award for best practice for a wide receiver. At Oklahoma, Shepard recorded 223 receptions for 3,482 yards receiving, as well as 26 touchdown receptions. He was a semifinalist for the Biletnikoff Award as a senior and a first-team All-American by ESPN. Shepard is a 5-10 burner with great route-running ability. I’m told he’ll likely be a second-round pick.
Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama
In recent years, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and T.J. Yeldon have all been top 40 selections. Drake quietly made his case to go in the top 75 this week. He impressed with his pass-catching ability, serving as a safety valve on many pass plays where options 1 and 2 were covered. He’s elusive in the open field and, unlike those other Alabama running backs, has relatively little tread wear on the tires.
Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State
You know Miller’s story. Starting QB, injured, moved to WR, became the Buckeyes’ top receiving option by the end of the year. Pretty wild few months for Miller, and this past week was eye-opening for scouts. He went from being viewed as a Pat White- or Denard Robinson-type wild card to being viewed as a viable first- or second-round pick. One NFC coach told me Miller was the player who impressed him the most this week, and proved in three practice sessions that he’s no gamble at the receiver spot. If there’s a knock on him, it’s that his route running isn’t as crisp as perhaps other wide receivers. But he’s getting there. He was learning this week, too. At one point, a Cowboys coach pulled him aside and gave him instruction on twisting and turning earlier than he was, so he could make eye contact with his quarterback. Miller’s stock has risen. He could put a show on for the country on Saturday.
Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky
The NFL hasn’t had too many prospects out of Eastern Kentucky in recent years, but Spence is getting first-round chatter after a great week in Mobile. An AFC front-office executive said that though he’s got more than a checkered past, he could end up being a top-20 pick after this week and another strong week of performances and interviews in Indianapolis at the Combine. Spence was kicked out of Ohio State for drug issues, but found a home at Eastern Kentucky, and measured 6-2, 255 on Monday. He’s owned up to his past issues and has taken on the right approach in team interviews. Can he get to the quarterback? Absolutely. He was the best pass rusher at the Senior Bowl and played that way all week. Keep an eye on him flying off the edge on Saturday.
5 WHO ARE UNDER THE RADAR
Tyler Ervin, RB, San Jose State
He’s a 5-10 scat back who put up huge numbers at the collegiate level and will be a late Day 2 or early Day 3 pick.
Kyler Fackrell, LB, Utah State
Fackrell is a converted high school safety who had a standout career as a 3-4 outside linebacker at Utah State. He was all over the field this week and could end up being a late first- or early second-round pick.
Harlan Miller, DB, Southeast Louisiana
Another small-school prospect who had a big week. Miller was all over the field, played with high energy and has the size (6-1, 185) to be a Day 2 pick.
Tyvis Powell, DB, Ohio State
A big, hawking safety out of Ohio State, Powell won’t get the same pre-draft love as teammate Eli Apple. But he had a solid week in Mobile and has all the physical gifts to be a first-round draft pick. You’ll be surprised at just how fast he is for how big he is, and will make his impact known on Saturday.
Riley Dixon, P, Syracuse
I was almost half-kidding tweeting about Riley Dixon from Mobile, but the truth is the kid kicked some real bombs during Wednesday’s special teams workout. In addition to a stellar punting career at Syracuse, he was almost a dual threat, having converted six fake punt attempts. He’s a fun fan favorite from ‘Cuse.