Five major storylines to watch at the 2023 Senior Bowl

INGLEWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 17: Quarterback Jake Haener #9 of the Fresno State Bulldogs throws a pass against the Washington State Cougars during the first half of the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Presented by Stifel at SoFi Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
INGLEWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 17: Quarterback Jake Haener #9 of the Fresno State Bulldogs throws a pass against the Washington State Cougars during the first half of the Jimmy Kimmel LA Bowl Presented by Stifel at SoFi Stadium on December 17, 2022 in Inglewood, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images) /

The Senior Bowl brings most of the best senior college football players together for a week of practice and interviews. It’s a chance for top prospects in the NFL Draft to confirm to front offices that they’re worthy of a top selection and for hidden gems to build their resume in an effort to be picked this April. All-star games are all about cross-checking and confirming to scouts what they saw on tape.

With so much talent in one place going head-to-head for three days of practice, it’s no surprise that storylines tend to drive the conversations taking place both in Mobile and across the country. Every year prospects leave Hancock Whitney Stadium with buzz or lack thereof as teams direct their every rep and conversation taking place.

The Senior Bowl, and East-West Shrine Bowl, are the first major building blocks of NFL Draft season, the draft truly does start in Mobile (and Las Vegas)… and who doesn’t love a good storyline?

Which quarterback will emerge?

It always starts with the quarterbacks when it comes to the NFL Draft. From 2018 to 2022 the Senior Bowl has produced seven first-round quarterbacks with at least one each of the past five years. In that same timeframe, six other passers were selected on Day 2 of the draft.

There’s been no shortage of quarterback talent in Mobile, but for the first time since 2017 (Davis Webb was the first Senior Bowl QB selected that year at No. 87), the Senior Bowl won’t have a first-round passer. Although unlikely, this year’s crop may not even have a passer selected on Day 2 of the draft.

The most talented quarterback heading to Mobile is Tennessee’s Hendon Hooker, but still recovering from a torn ACL suffered against South Carolina on November 19, he won’t be participating in practice.

Hooker, who threw for 3,135 yards and 27 touchdowns to just 2 interceptions this season, will smartly be taking advantage of the opportunity to speak with teams and learn from NFL coaches during the week. Hooker has a strong chance to go in the top-100, despite being an older prospect coming off an injury, but after him it’s still wide open with the senior quarterbacks in Mobile.

The next best bet is Fresno State’s Jake Haener, a Washington transfer who found his footing with the Bulldogs and threw for 9,013 yards with 67 touchdowns and 17 interceptions in three seasons.

Haener excels in the quick game and brings consistent short to intermediate accuracy to the table along with poise, toughness, and mobility. He’s similar to Senior Bowl alum Gardner Minshew and it wouldn’t be a shock to see a big week propel him into the third-round conversation.

The wildcard of the group is Shepherd’s Tyson Bagent, the all-time Division II passing touchdown leader (151) and 2021 Harlon Hill Trophy winner (DII Heisman). He’s got an NFL-level arm, clean feet, and smooth mechanics, but most importantly he’s comfortable playing out of structure and remaining a passer on the move. Getting to see Bagent in a setting against premier talent will be exciting.

It won’t come as a surprise if Houston’s Clayton Tune helps himself the most out of this group, he’s a three-time captain and four-year starter with nearly 12,000 passing yards and 119 total touchdowns in five years. Tune is an accurate triggerman who isn’t afraid to push the ball deep and utilize his legs when necessary.

Expect a few jaw-dropping plays out of BYU’s Jaren Hall throughout the week. Another older prospect, Hall is an off-platform connoisseur who has the body control and arm talent to make all kinds of bonkers throws. He’s got to use the week to show improved footwork and accuracy.

There may not be a bigger name in the quarterback group than TCU’s Max Duggan, who not only led the Horned Frogs to the CFP National Championship, but was a Heisman finalist after totalling 41 touchdowns this year. Duggan has a big arm, a physical running style, and the athleticism to extend plays. What he needs to do is show he’s got the mechanics and accuracy to make it in the NFL.

Finally, Louisville’s Malik Cunningham rounds out the quarterback group after getting the call up from the NFLPA Bowl. He’ll have the most to prove this week as the only quarterback there that’s not currently considered a consensus top-15 passer in the class. Cunningham is a dynamic athlete who carried the Cardinals for years while throwing for 9, 660 yards and 70 touchdowns to go with 3,179 rushing yards and 50 more scores. He needs to take advantage of the stage and let it rip this week.

Who will be the first-round pick, and will there be multiple?

Last year’s Senior Bowl roster produced six first-round picks (Zion Johnson, Trevor Penning, Kenny Pickett, Cole Strange, Jermaine Johnson, and Devonte Wyatt), and seven more players selected in the top-50 of the 2022 NFL Draft.

This year’s group doesn’t look quite as talented on paper, but the Senior Bowl has produced at least one first-round pick every year of this century. So although this roster might not stack first-round picks, it feels nearly impossible that at least one player in Mobile won’t hear their name called on the evening of April 27.

A few weeks ago there would have been no question that multiple players on the Senior Bowl roster would go in the first-round, but a few dropped out for various reasons. Texas Tech pass rusher Tyree Wilson, a potential top-5 pick, is dealing with an injury and Illinois cornerback Devon Witherspoon, a likely top-20 pick, has nothing more to prove, while Utah tight end Dalton Kincaid, another potential first-round pick, is also injured, as is Kentucky quarterback Will Levis (who never actually accepted his invite).

That leaves Florida’s O’Cyrus Torrence as the most likely to go in the first-round. A mammoth of a man, Torrence is the top true interior offensive line prospect in the class. At 6-5, 347 pounds, he’s a mauler in the run game who is surprisingly nimble in space and more than capable of climbing to the second level. He should be mashing all week in Mobile.

Another prospect getting some first-round buzz is Oregon State tight end Luke Musgrave. Musgrave is an impressive athlete at the position and was even a member of Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List this year, but was limited to just two games due to injury. This will be the first look scouts get at him in months. Though he caught just 47 passes for 633 yards and 2 scores in his collegiate career, Musgrave’s height-weight-speed potential is exciting.

Two more offensive linemen who could sneak into the first-round convo due to the lack of depth at the position are Ohio State’s Dawand Jones and North Dakota State’s Cody Mauch. Jones is the biggest lineman in the draft (6-8, 360) and plays like it while Mauch is one of the most explosive run blockers in the class.

In the defensive front seven it’s not so clear if a first-round pick will emerge, but Notre Dame’s Isaiah Foskey has the athleticism and production if he can prove he’s developed a more consistent pass rush plan. Another sleeper to rise is Alabama’s Byron Young who was the unsung hero for the Crimson Tide this season; he can line up all over the defensive line. He plays with terrific leverage, violent hands, and possesses natural quickness.

The secondary is chock-full of Day 2 picks, but will any of them jump into the first-round? Miami cornerback Tyrique Stevenson smothers receivers with his size in press-man coverage, Georgia safety Christopher Smith is one of the smartest and most physical defensive backs in the class, and both Ohio State’s Ronnie Hickman and Florida State’s Jammie Robinson have similar Swiss Army knife skill sets to Texans rookie sensation Jalen Pitre.

Which small school prospects will steal the show?

From Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz belly to Ben Bartch of Saint John’s (MN) calorically absurd smoothie, a small school prospect always steals the show during the NFL Draft process. That effort begins at the Senior Bowl where non-FBS prospects finally get their chance to show what they can do against the best of the best from the Power Five.

The two non-FBS first-round picks in last year’s draft, Chattanooga’s Cole Strange and Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, both attended the Senior Bowl. In 2021, North Dakota State’s Dillon Radunz, Northern Iowa’s Spencer Brown, and Meinerz were three of the first four non-FBS players selected in the draft and each of them suited up in Mobile.

A commonality between them all is that they’re all offensive linemen, so which non-FBS offensive lineman will continue the trend this year and steal the show this year?

North Dakota State’s Cody Mauch is a good bet, his toothless smile and evolution from high school tight end to Bisons left tackle will certainly peak the media’s interest. His athleticism is obvious on tape with the way he shoots out of his stance and nothing will get offensive line coaches more excited than they way he plays through the whistle. If Mauch kicks inside to guard, he could be viewed as a top-3 interior offensive lineman in the class.

Other small school offensive linemen include Strange’s college teammate, Chattanooga’s Curtis McClendon, and Tyson Bagent’s collegiate teammate, Shepherd’s Joey Fisher. Although Old Dominion is technically an FBS school in the Group of Five, Nick Saldiveri qualifies as an under-appreciated small school prospect. He was the tone setter on the O-line for the Monarch’s and looks like a top-10 offensive tackle in the class.

Non-offensive line prospects from the non-FBS to watch are Florida A&M’s Isaiah Land, an undersized but electric pass rusher; Jackson State’s Aubrey Miller Jr., a tackling machine for Deion Sanders former program; Sacramento State’s Marte Mapu, a long and versatile safety; and Princeton’s Andrei Iosivas, a freaky track athlete with the size and body control to make impressive contested catches.

How will the wide receivers fare in a weak class?

The 2023 NFL Draft is an outlier. With the recent landslide of wide receiver talent entering the league, this year’s class leaves a lot to be desired. While there are a pair of wide receivers that are viewed as likely first-round picks (USC’s Jordan Addison and TCU’s Quentin Johnston) and a few more pushing to go on Day 1 (Ohio State’s Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Tennessee’s Jalin Hyatt, Boston College’s Zay Flower, and UNC’s Josh Downs), the class doesn’t stack up with the last few.

Two of the top senior wide receivers in the class won’t even be in Mobile with both Flowers and Wake Forest’s AT Perry choosing to go to the East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas instead. That leaves SMU’s Rashee Rice as the only consensus top-10 wide receiver at the Senior Bowl.

Rice is looking to continue the pipeline of Mustang receivers making it in the NFL after finishing third in the country in receiving yards with 1,355 on 96 catches to go with 10 scores. With the size and speed to play outside and the quickness and YAC ability to move the chains from the slot, Rice is a Day 2 lock, but a week of practices at the Senior Bowl could push him into the early second-round.

The only two receivers to put up more yards than Rice in the AAC this season was Houston’s Nathaniel “Tank” Dell. Dell will be in Mobile and looking to prove his dynamic route running skills and blazing speed make up for his size.

Two other big play threats to watch are Nebraska’s Trey Palmer and Princeton’s Andrei Iosivas. Palmer, an LSU transfer and former blue-chip recruit, has got deep threat speed and topped 1,000 yards for the Cornhuskers. Iosivas is a legitimate track star and ran a 6.71 60, the fastest in NCAA heptathlon history; he’s got to show he can run a full route tree.

Look for Michigan State’s Jayden Reed and Michigan’s Ronnie Bell to be two of the more laterally explosive receivers with some of the best route running traits in the group. They’ll both catch the eyes of teams looking for slot receivers.

Arguably the two best receiver prospects at the Senior Bowl after Rice are Virginia’s Dontayvion Wicks and Ole Miss’ Jonathan Mingo. Wicks has fantastic ball tracking skills and body control while Mingo is built like a running back and might have the best hands in Mobile.

Finally, BYU’s Puka Nacua and Stanford’s Elijah Higgins should garner some attention for what they can do with the ball in their hands. Nacua has great vision in the open field while Higgins is the size of a tight end, and might even tape reps at tight end during the week.

Who will make the most money?

In the end the Senior Bowl is just another job audition and key pieces to building a resume worthy of the NFL. The better that resume looks, the earlier a prospect will be selected and the more money to be made on their rookie deal. So, who will make the most money in Mobile?

Even when steering away from prospects already talked about, there are still quite a few prospects who could earn some serious cash. At the Senior Bowl, one-on-one’s are king and no prospects are showcased or exposed in them better than O-line vs. D-line, and that’s where the focus will be throughout the week.

The defensive line group is stacked this year, but the crowdedness of that depth could find clarity at the Senior Bowl. One interior defensive lineman positioned well is Bowling Green’s Karl Brooks who spent his collegiate career as a two-gapping 5-Tech. This week he’ll get to better showcase his short area quickness and pass rushing upside at his natural home as a one-gapping 3-Tech.

As for edge rushers, there’s too many to count. The freakiest ones are probably Georgia Tech’s Keion White, who looks like a Madden create-a-player, and TCU’s Dylan Horton. Both of them bring size, power, and twitch to the field.

There’s also a quintet of ridiculously explosive athletes on the edge who have to answer questions about consistency in pass rush plans with Iowa State’s Will McDonald, Army’s Andre Carter, Clemson’s KJ Henry, Appalachian State’s Nick Hampton, and Oregon’s DJ Johnson.

For Auburn’s Derick Hall and Missouri’s Isaiah McGuire, two of the best QB hunters from the SEC, they need to show their lack of fluidity can be made up for with their ferocious motors and ability to generate power.

Dealing with all that pass rush talent will be a solid group of offensive linemen, three tackles who could really help themselves are Syracuse’s Matthew Bergergon, who must cleanup his pass sets and footwork; BYU’s Blake Freeland, he needs to play with a stronger anchor and better bend; and Oklahoma’s Wanya Morris, a long athlete that will have to be more consistent with hand placement.

At least one of these prospects will leave the state of Alabama knowing their wallet will be a little heavier in a few months.