Saturday afternoon will kickoff the 2022 Senior Bowl, airing on NFL Network at 2:30/EST today. Hopefully you’ve enjoyed our coverage the entire week. I’m incredibly proud and impressed by the job Jonathan Heitritter, Tyler Wise, and Jacob Harrison did for the site this week from their practice reports, player interviews, and other nuggets of information.
With all the information and player review, we’ve done our best to boil down eight players to watch out for in today’s game. Each of us have picked two of them. This isn’t necessarily a list of the best players from the week, though it’s generally a group of prospects who performed well, but ones who carry a lot of intrigue into today, especially for those who haven’t been able to take in the week of practice.
Here’s our list of eight players to watch for in today’s Senior Bowl contest between the National and American squads.
Liberty QB Malik Willis (#7 – American Team)
When action kicks off this Saturday in Mobile at Hancock Whitney Stadium, my eyes will revert to the guy that has apparently garnered the attention of the Pittsburgh Steelers brass as well throughout the week: Liberty QB Malik Willis. The reports coming out the last few days of Pittsburgh’s affinity with Willis as a prospect has become the worst-kept secret in the league down at the Senior Bowl. Whether it be the shared conversation on the field with HC Mike Tomlin, GM Kevin Colbert, and OC Matt Canada, the time spent by those same men with Willis’ parents after practice concluded, of how Tomlin and Canada were up close and personal watching Willis throw during practice, captivating their attention.
The intrigue in Willis is warranted as the dynamic dual-threat quarterback brings a skill set to the table that no other QB in this draft class can replicate. His ability to extend plays with his legs as a passer by getting outside of the pocket help his receivers open up down the field when initially covered. His legs also are a weapon when he decides to tuck and run the rock if pressure gets to him or no one breaks open in coverage.
Willis not only is impressive when it comes to his ability as a runner, but his arm talent has been as advertised when watching him up close. When profiling Willis, I saw several instances on tape of him making the NFL-caliber throws on the deep out route, cover two hole shot, etc. Willis replicated those throws down here in Mobile, showing off impressive zip and velocity on his throws to the sideline outside the numbers. When comparing him to the other QBs in this class from what I’ve seen, Willis has been the best at these type of throws as the ball jumps off his hand.
Now Willis has had some of the best moments here at Mobile, but he’s also been prone to some of the worst. His footwork is still erratic and he can be inconsistent in his mechanics, relying too much on his arm to throw it into tight windows rather than squaring his shoulders and stepping into his throw. This has led to bad misses both over the receiver’s head as well as low passes into the turf. The game will be a chance for Willis to show on national television that he has consistently improved each day and that he can make those big-time throws against NFL-caliber competition in a game-like atmosphere. Willis helped his stock this week and is in prime position to finish strong.
UCONN DL Travis Jones (#57 – National Team)
Before coming down to Mobile, I heard a little bit of DL Travis Jones from UCONN and saw a lit bit of his tape. However, when I got to watch him in-person, Jones stuck out in a BIG way: figuratively and literally. Jones measured in at 6’4 3/8”, 326lb, with 10 1/4-inch hands, 34-inch arms, and a 82 3/4-inch wingspan. Standing amongst the rest of the defensive lineman, Jones still was a giant compared to the rest, having the thick build and defined limbs you love to see in a 300+ pound defensive lineman. Jones actually lost weight before coming down to Mobile, and you could see the benefit in his play, combining sheer power and subtle quickness to dominate all week.
IOL Zion Johnson was whipped by Jones in the rep above, but he was really the only one that was able to neutralize Jones occasionally during the week of practice. Jones’ strength and size have the makings of a dominate nose tackle at the next level where he can hold the point of attack against double teams against the run but is a mismatch against single blocks where he can use his brute strength to walk blockers back in the pocket. Jones was one of the biggest winners of the week, regardless of position. He also showed off ability to play 1-tech and 3-tech, bringing more scheme versatility to the table. Should Jones dominate in the exhibition game, look for his draft stock to skyrocket.
WR Calvin Austin III (Memphis) – 5073 – 173 – (American No. 83)
If you’ve been following along with me, Christian Watson has been my guy all week, but wanted to go in a different direction here with a lesser-talked about name. Austin III, a record-breaking track star at Memphis, can certainly hold his own on the gridiron. While he’s small in stature, he’s close to untouchable off the line with exciting releases and game-breaking speed. He’s a big play waiting to happen and Memphis knew how to use him. He accrued 156 receptions, 2541 yards, and 22 receiving touchdowns in his time with the Tigers. During the practices, you saw him move inside and outside, but you may see the American squad use him most in the slot to maximize mismatches. I wouldn’t be shocked for the Lions coaching staff to utilize his speed some in the running game as well with some jet sweeps or reverses to give him some opportunities to operate in space.
CB Tariq Castro-Fields (Penn State) – 6003 – 194 – (National No. 22)
The corner who spent the last five seasons in Happy Valley, impressed me down in Mobile. He is a tad stiff and plays high at times, but he got his hands on the football a ton through the three practices this week. That came as no surprise as he had nice production in that area through his college career with 25 passes defended. While his turnover rate was a tad lower than you’d like with only a three interceptions career, Castro-Fields had the most impressive play that I saw in Mobile coming on an interception. He stayed calm at the catch point and played through the hands of Alec Pierce in the end zone, ripping it from the receiver on the way down, turning a touchdown into a turnover. If the American squad QB’s decide to test Castro-Fields Saturday afternoon, I’m willing to bet he makes a few more plays on the football.
Trevor Penning, Northern Iowa OT (#70 – National Team)
The Northern Iowa prospect came to Mobile with high expectations. While he’s certainly one of the most talented players participating in the Senior Bowl, Penning’s struggles have only been given more attention by his aggressive post-play antics.
Different minds see the aggressiveness from opposite perspectives. There’s certainly a positive to being a big, mean dude on the offensive line. But when offensive tackles start throwing defensive lineman into quarterbacks knees and are accused of punching guts, the line of aggression to manic is being stretched. On top of that, a lot of Penning’s bickering with the National Team’s defensive linemen has come on reps he lost.
Penning has had notable issues with anchoring against power rushers throughout the week. Awaiting Penning in Saturday’s game off the edge will be Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone, South Carolina’s Kingsley Enagbare and Florida’s Zachary Carter. It’s a shame Jermaine Johnson may not be playing in the showcase game as the Florida State pass rusher has shown to be one of the best overall players in Mobile all week. How Penning would handle game reps against Johnson was something I was really looking forward to. Hopefully Johnson does suit up.
Whether you think Penning crosses a line with his aggression or not, there’s still plenty to love about Penning’s game. He’s not a lunger and uses his 34 3/4” arms to his full advantage to keep defenders at bay. In the run game, he’s a bully, throwing defenders around and driving them into the turf with regularity.
Eric Johnson, Missouri State EDGE (#99 – American Team)
A late entry into the Senior Bowl lineup, Eric Johnson is a fun guy to watch work. Johnson stood out in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl a week ago and arrived on the American Team with a bang. The 6’4”, 302-pound defensive tackle has explosive quickness and loves his spin moves.
In Thursday’s indoor practice, Johnson was creating backfield penetration with regularity in the running game. He plays with good leverage and can read plays with good quickness and accuracy. His arms measured in at 33 7/8”, which has helped him create first contact with his opposition and make his next move accordingly.
Johnson has held his own against great interior names like Georgia’s Jamaree Salyer and Justin Shaffer, LSU’s Ed Ingram and Kentucky’s Darian Kinnard. Saturday he’ll be matched up with the likes of Boston College’s Zion Johnson and Oklahoma’s Marquis Hayes. Johnson has taken full advantage of his opportunities to this point and there’s no reason to expect that to change once the showcase game kicks off at Hancock Whitney Stadium.
DeAngelo Malone/EDGE Western Kentucky (#10 – American Team):
I’ll admit Malone wasn’t a name I was incredibly familiar with before my time in Mobile, largely because I was so early in my draft preparation work. Malone’s resume is certainly worth paying attention to, a two-team C-USA Defensive Player of the Year winner with a remarkable 59 career TFL, 32.5 sacks, and eight forced fumbles, including four in 2021. He’s long and lean but plays with more power and better leverage than most guys of his body type.
One of my favorite reps came in 1v1, showing a speed bull rush through the tackle and showcasing the power he has in his hands.
But Malone also has bend and the hand use and leverage to attack and shed blocks. It’s no wonder he had so many forced fumbles with those long arms to get to the quarterback from a half-mile away. EDGE is not an incredibly high concern on the Steelers’ list, though depth here isn’t great, but I see Malone as a better version of a guy like Taco Charlton. And I think Malone will make an impact later today.
Connor Heyward/FB Michigan State (American Team):
A bit biased here? Yeah, probably. But I note Heyward here not just because he had a solid week of practices, and he did, showing anchor in pass protection along with smooth route-running and sure hands but for what he could do on special teams today. That’s going to be his NFL calling card and in a practice, even one that devoted a fair amount of time to “teams,” it’s hard to showcase your ability.
Heyward could perform well on these units and it’s truthfully one of the top ways for a fullback nomad like him to boost his draft stock and convince a team to take him late on day three. Fullback is a dying position but quality special teamers are not.