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Kozora: 2018 Senior Bowl Preview

So happy to be back at the 2018 Senior Bowl (as you’re reading this, I’m wheels up). It’s a great time of the year. And seriously, you gotta give its leader Phil Savage a ton of credit for the job he’s done promoting it. Second only to the Combine in terms of the draft’s biggest event.

Our focus this year is Steelers-centric, of course. It’s impossible to see everything at an event like this. I’ll provide as much information as possible no mater what position, but the main goal is to learn about the biggest positions of need in Pittsburgh. Inside linebacker, edge rusher, safety, corner, and a little bit of tight end and receiver. Maybe one or two of the offensive tackles as well.

That in mind, we’ll still go position-by-position, all of them, to get you ready. Should be a great week of practices. We’ll have daily reports for the Tuesday-Thursday practices and some articles during and after the week from interviews.

Last thing. Don’t expect to see any of the Steelers’ brass there. They’re at the Pro Bowl. So no Mike Tomlin, Keith Butler, Randy Fichtner, etc in Mobile. Which is fine, they always liked to stay pretty hidden anyway. Kevin Colbert figures to be there (I saw him powerwalk across the field after a practice last year to chase someone down) and the scouting staff should all be in attendance. The usual suspects: Mark Gorsack, Phil Kriedler, and yes, Chidi Iwuoma.

Also want to thank our big sponsor for the week, Touring Plans. Check them out for your next Disney Trip. Good people and they’ve been fantastic to work with over the years. And a thank you to everyone who donated. I’ve written everyone back but if I missed someone, yell at my stupid face for it.

Let’s jump into the previews.

Quarterback

This is where the big names stand out, especially after several other marquee players have pulled out due to injury. One QB did the same – Oklahoma State’s Mason Rudolph with a foot sprain. The North team (coached by Denver) is loaded. Wyoming’s Josh Allen and Baker Mayfield are two potential top 15 picks; Allen was projected to go first overall by Mel Kiper.

Allen will draw Ben Roethlisberger comparisons with his size (6’5 233) and strong arm. Made some wow throws. But there are plenty of questions over his inconsistency, mental makeup, and lack of production against good teams. He is going to wow with a couple money throws this week. Can he be consistent? That’s the more important question.

Mayfield is sort of a wildcard. Some teams will love him, some will hate him for his attitude and demeanor. That’s going to create a lot of drama in a week where every team is down there and people are going to talk. But he’ll be fun to watch. Ability to extend the play outside of its structure. The Broncos specifically asked for Mayfield and they are clearly interested.

Luke Falk played under Mike Leach in his spread, pass-first system. Getting reps under center isn’t as important as it used to be, practically everyone works mostly out of shotgun these days, but still, it’s something he’s got to know. It’s not just about taking the exchange either. It’s about being able to fluidly drop back, reach your depth, all while reading the defense. And he’ll be huddling too, another basic adjustment.

Nebraska’s Tanner Lee looks the part (6’4 220) but completed 57.5% of his passes and tossed 16 picks, including three in his final game against Iowa in an ugly 56-14 loss.

The South side (coached by Houston) is much less impressive and to be honest, I don’t know nearly enough about these guys. Richmond’s Kyle Lauletta is an interesting small school guy who threw 26 touchdowns and threw for more than 3200 yards as a Spider. Virginia’s Kurt Benkart is a pro-system player who had a strong senior season. Two year starter who racked up 46 touchdowns, leading the Cavs to their most wins since 2011.

Running Back

For the South squad, it starts with San Diego State’s Rashaad Penny. Outstanding senior season – averaged nearly eight yards per carry and 2248 yards rushing. Well-built and a much better prospect than Donnel Pumphrey, who was there last year and overhyped.

For the types of guys the Steelers go after, though a running back probably won’t be taken early, look at LSU’s Darrel Williams. 6’1, 229, and averaged 5.7 yards per carry and nine scores. 23 receptions too, not too shabby for the #2 on that team. Watched a little bit of him. A one-speed guy who isn’t very fast but shows power, vision, and patience in power or zone schemes.

The North has another Bell-type. Arizona State’s Kallen Ballage, who you might remember for the 7 rushing touchdowns he had against Texas Tech a year ago. 6’3, 230, definitely curious to see if that’s how he weighs in. Quieter senior season but not significantly so. 82 career receptions so he’s showing his versatility.

Tight End

On the North side, most Steelers’ fans will recognize Mike Gesicki, the big Penn State tight end. Viewed like a big receiver, he did line up in a three point stance a little more than people give him credit for but he didn’t play particularly well there. Power-forward frame at 6’6 252 who can adjust to the ball in the air with his catch radius and ability to box out. But a build-up speed player who I want to see him run his routes with more consistent effort all the time. Doesn’t profile as the Steelers’ blocker but hey, neither did Ladarius Green.

A guy who does fit the Steelers’ style is Notre Dame’s Durham Smythe. Used mostly as a blocker, he’s excellent at it and an underrated receiver. Only 28 career receptions but shows good burst out of his stance and ability to make tough throws in traffic. Pass blocked too which in college football, he might as well be a unicorn.

Finally, Wisconsin’s Troy Fumagalli is one of the top tight ends here. A Badger, so you know he’s used to blocking in the run game, and a decent athlete who makes combative catches. You’ll hear a lot about how he only has nine fingers but when you watch him play, you wouldn’t know it. Looks like a non-issue to me.

I haven’t studied the South side as much. Indiana’s Ian Thomas is the name to watch here, who averaged 15 yards and caught five touchdowns last year. The rest are smaller school players guys the Steelers, don’t often target, though there’s another UMass tight end, Adam Breneman. Hopefully works out better than Rob Blanchflower. South Dakota St’s Dallas Goedert is a popular small-school sleeper to keep in mind.

Wide Receiver

The North’s Cedrick Wilson Jr is probably my favorite guy I’ve watched. The Steelers’ receiver’s son, he has a Martavis Bryant like frame at 6’3 188 and the same big play ability. Averaged 18 yards per catch last season for Boise State and found the end zone seven times. Run after catch ability is strong as is his straight-line speed. Dominated in only two years after transferring from a JUCO.

Iowa State’s Allen Lazard is an even taller 6’5, 222. Doesn’t have crazy speed or RAC ability but a more impressive route runner than you’d expect who makes combative catches downfield. Highly productive receiver for the Cyclones.

Roethlisberger likes big receivers and they don’t come much bigger than Jaleel Scott (6’6 220). Lost at New Mexico State, though the program turned things around in 2017, he racked up nine scores as a senior.

Still learning about the receivers on the South side. Missouri’s J’Mon Moore is impressive. Like the nuances in his route running, ability to track the football, and team-first attitude as a run blocker.

Offensive Line

Tons of small school gems along these two squads. Maybe no one better than Humboldt State’s Alex Cappa. Big body at 6’7, 305, with a nasty demeanor and finishes every block. The OL guys on Twitter love him. Chance to get some big-time exposure. Georgia’s Isaiah Wynn is an underrated guard, though the Steelers, if anything, are going to search for a tackle.

Three names to note on the North side. Army’s Brett Toth, one of the best prospects out of there in a long time and the first prospect from that school to be invited to Mobile. He’s more than a feel-good story though; he’s legit. Also participated in the East/West Shrine game. Gotta give credit to guys who pull off both games. Tough to do mentally and physically.

There’s Will Fernandez, a guard who will play for his former head coach Sean Kugler, who also coached the Steelers’ offensive line years back. And Pittsburgh’s own Brian O’Neill, viewed as a better prospect than Adam Bisnowaty, a 7th round pick of the Giants in last year’s draft.

Defensive Line

Not an area of need for the Steelers so not expecting a whole lot of focus here. Heard some good thing about Fort Hayes State’s Nathan Shepherd. Couple of Buckeye’s on the North side, too. At 6’4, 265, Tyquan Lewis is a tweener in the Steelers’ scheme and will have to become an OLB in an odd front but had seven sacks last season.

The South side is a similar story. For five techs, look out for LSU’s Greg Gilmore (6’4, 308) and Christian LaCouture (6’5 292). The two combined for 13.5 sacks in 2017. At nose tackle, Poona Ford from Texas is generating plenty of buzz. A fire hydrant at 5’11, 309 but has 33 1/2 inch arms, pretty incredible length at that height.

Outside Linebackers

On the South side, Ole Miss’ Marquis Haynes (6’3 230) is high-cut and raw but has a quick first step and plays with physicality. 11 TFL, 7.5 sacks this past year. 32 of them in his career. But the guy I’m most interested in is USC’s Uchenna Nwosu. Only 6’2, 240 but uses that leverage to his advantage with a strong rip move. Great first step and advanced hand use for a guy at this point in his career. Maybe the Steelers need to think about going with the shorter edge rusher like they have in James Harrison (6’0) and LaMarr Woodley (6’1). Even Joey Porter was just 6’2. Nwosu should be on their list.

Wisconsin’s Garrett Dooley isn’t as impressive as T.J. Watt but used in similar fashion. Comfortable lining up all over, walked out of the box, and blitzing from the interior. Not a tremendous athlete but converts speed to power well.

Inside Linebackers

Big area of focus. I like Michigan’s Mike McCray (6’4 248). Physical player with a high IQ and enough athleticism to make it work in the NFL. Another guy who was lined up all over. Could get some reps at OLB during the week. Some of the others are small-school players and unfortunately, the Steelers’ track record of drafting those guys is pretty poor. Just one sub-FBS player since 2014 (Hargrave).

Couple of polar opposites on the South side. Dorian O’Daniel is a Telvin Smith type. Crazy athletic, great range, but a poor pass rusher with a very slight build (6’1 220). Obvious concerns about him anchoring against the run and it showed up on film. Probably not a fit for the Steelers but I bet he has a good week. On the other hand, Auburn’s Tre Williams is a below average athlete but hard-nosed and takes on blocks really well. Wasn’t a three down player with the Tigers – that won’t change in the NFL.

Virginia’s Micah Kiser is a little like Williams but even a worse athlete. He needs to have an impressive week.

I had written about and liked what I saw from Alabama’s Rashaan Evans, projected to be a first round pick, but he decided to pull out of the Senior Bowl after accepting his invite. He says he’s healthy and that’s not a good look for scouts. Expect Savage to lay into the guys who turned the invitation down before Tuesday’s weigh-ins. Lots of talent pulled out of the event this year, watering down what would’ve been a fantastic crop of players.

Cornerback

Couple of impressive South corners who fit the mold of what Pittsburgh looks for (big, physical, press man types). UNC’s M.J. Stewart (6’0 205) and San Diego State’s Kameron Kelly (6’2 200). Stewart is the better athlete and more fluid player but Kelly was more productive and made some clutch plays. Impressed and interested by both.

Boston College’s Isaac Yiadom is one of my favorite guys down here. What the Steelers are looking for. 6’1 190. Long, comfortable in press coverage, aggressive at the catch point and takes pride in shedding stalk blocks in the run game. 53 tackles and a pair of picks in 2017.

Duke Dawson can be over aggressive in coverage and needs to work on a speed turn to recover but a quick-twitch slot corner at the next level. He closes well and can hit, a couple qualities that’ll be on display this week.

Safeties

Another group you know we’re going to look closely at. Marcus Allen out of Penn State is versatile, physical, and a capable blitzer. Needs to work on coming to balance as a tackler and is probably best in a zone, SS role as the Robber/Rat in Cover 3. But some intriguing tools and upside.

I didn’t get too excited about WVU’s Kyzir White but he’s got the size (6’2 218) and vertical to play catch points. 7.5 tackles for loss and three picks.

On the South team, Virginia’s Quin Blanding is not a tremendous athlete or big hitter but a reliable, wrap up tackler who plays with good leverage for someone who is 6’2. Tackle machine; 492 in his career, including 136 in 2017. 10 career picks too, so he made some splash plays. At worst, you’re getting a special teams ace.

Auburn’s Tray Matthews is a star/dime defender type. Something that could interest the Steelers in the late rounds. Stands in at 6’1, 209 and a three year starter against great competition.

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