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2016 Senior Bowl preview: Carson Wentz and a whole lot more

An FCS quarterback is the star attraction at this week's all-star game, but he's far from the only player to watch during a week of practices.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Forget the Alabama players. Forget the Ohio State players. Forget even the Southern California and Notre Dame players. In fact, go ahead and forget any FBS player. At the Senior Bowl this week in Mobile, Ala., the spotlight is on North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz.

After winning another FCS championship for North Dakota State earlier this month, Wentz's stock in the 2016 NFL Draft is high. That's saying something considering Wentz missed a large chunk of the season after breaking his wrist in October and only became a starter last season. For his career, he completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 5,115 yards and 45 touchdowns with 14 interceptions.

Why then is a quarterback with a relatively small sample size at a lower-division school creating so much buzz? It's a combination of high position value and the intrigue of the unknown. That's despite throwing over 900 fewer passes than Jared Goff of Cal, my top-ranked quarterback. There just aren't a lot of big-armed, athletic quarterbacks who are 6'6 out there. If you pay close attention, the high opinion of Wentz isn't necessarily a revelation.

At the Senior Bowl, Wentz will have the opportunity to show whether the interest and praise is justified or the mystery is clouding the hype.

The same issues and excitement can be associated with Eastern Kentucky's Noah Spence. The defensive end should have a national title from Ohio State and would have helped put the Buckeyes in a better position to repeat a championship this season. None of that ever happened.

Spence's future as an NFL first-rounder looked set in 2013 when he had 14.5 tackles for loss and eight sacks. But then Spence got hit with a three-game suspension for using a banned substance. He failed another drug test in 2014 and was banned by the Big Ten. Spence transferred down to Eastern Kentucky and looked like a star this season. He was second on the team with 63 tackles and had 22.5 tackles for loss and 11.5 sacks.

If Spence has a good week of practices – and he'll need to since there's no blitzing in the actual Senior Bowl game – he could establish himself as a top-20 pick in the draft.

Another lower-division player to keep in mind throughout the week is Southern Utah safety Miles Killebrew. He made my initial top 100 players, but slid off after someone much higher was accidentally left off. Killebrew doesn't get a lot of publicity because of where he played, but he could become a household name this week.

Killebrew is a 6'3, 230-pound wrecking ball of a safety. Few players in this year's draft possess Killebrew's on-field aggression. As a senior he had 132 tackles and excelled on kick coverage duties.

Notable players changing positions

One of the game's best players -- Alabama's Reggie Ragland -- actually requested a position change for the Senior Bowl. While he's been more of a middle linebacker to this point, he asked to play outside in Mobile. Ragland's reasoning was that moving to the outside would show off his versatility. It could be a smart move. Middle linebackers have tended to drop in the draft and there are questions about Ragland's ability to consistently make plays outside the box. Moving to the outside could let Ragland to show off his athleticism and movement skills. That will make him look much better as a prospect.

Ohio State's Braxton Miller continues a conversion from quarterback to wide receiver that happened at the start of the 2015 season. It has at times been a challenging conversion for Miller. On the season, he had just 68 rushing and receiving touches for a combined 601 yards and four touchdowns. Sometimes you wonder whether Miller would receive as much attention if he played at another school. But then you remember sensational plays like this one against Virginia Tech at the start of the season:

Miller's future in the NFL is still to be determined, but he'll probably start as a versatile weapon on offense while putting in time on special teams. At 6'2 and 215 pounds, Miller has good size for either a running back or wide receiver. The athleticism is there, too. It's just a matter of marrying the two of them in the NFL, and quickly. If his usage at Ohio State this season is an indication, though, it may be smart not to rush it.

Washington State offensive lineman Joe Dahl is moving from left tackle to guard for the Senior Bowl. It should be an easy transition for Dahl because he started 12 games at guard in 2013. Whether teams view Dahl as a guard or tackle, that versatility and willingness to move inside helps his draft status. The same can be said for Western Michigan's Willie Beavers, who is moving from tackle to guard for the game. That move will help mask Beavers' footwork, which has been his biggest negative.

More big names to know

Beyond the above-mentioned players, this year's Senior Bowl is pretty loaded with talent. That's particularly the case along both the offensive and defensive lines. Alabama defensive lineman Jarran Reed is an ascending prospect. He gambled on himself by returning for his senior season and it paid off. Alabama's defense requires defensive linemen to stuff the run without much help. Reed excelled in doing it. He's a powerful lineman who played end in the Crimson Tide's three-man front and will be able to hold up at tackle in a 4-3. He has the strength to play multiple gaps and gets good leverage on linemen. Fellow South defensive lineman Sheldon Rankins is a much different player. The Louisville product has a good first step and the quickness to burst through gaps and get into the backfield. An easy pro comparison to make for Rankins is Kawann Short of the Carolina Panthers.

The North team has some good defensive linemen of its own with Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech, Austin Johnson of Penn State and Adolphus Washington of Ohio State. Washington was suspended for Ohio State's bowl game after being charged with solicitation. As a senior he moved from nose tackle to more of a three-technique role. It suited his playing style much better because he can create penetration between the guard and center. Johnson is much more of a classic nose tackle. At 325 pounds, he's hard to move off the line and will force running backs to redirect their roles.

The linebackers on the North are nothing to scoff at either. Another Ohio State player, Joshua Perry, highlights the group. Perry is physically imposing at 6'4 and 254 pounds, plus he can play all three downs. He was second on the Buckeyes in tackles this season with 105 tackles to go along with 7.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks and four pass breakups. Like Ragland, he'll really be able to show off his range this week. Kyler Fackrell of Utah State bounced back as a senior after playing just a part of one game in 2014 before getting injured. For Utah State this season he had 12.5 tackles for loss and four sacks. He's a lanky pass rusher who knows how to use his size to his advantage. But this week he'll have to show he's much more than just someone who gets after the quarterback.

One of the players who won't receive much fanfare but will have scouts drooling is Cody Whitehair of Kansas State. Whitehair is arguably the draft's best guard. He has quick feet to read and react to stunts and excellent hand technique to neutralize defenders. His week of practice going up against Reed and Rankins will be must-watch stuff. One player he may not face in one-on-one drills is Baylor end Shawn Oakman. Everyone knows Oakman is a physical specimen at 6'9, but he's been knocked for being inconsistent. But what if he turns into Michael Johnson of the Cincinnati Bengals at the next level? Some team will pick Oakman thinking they can make him into that type of player. Oakman will have to face his teammate Spencer Drango in drills. Drango is an underrated blocker who will have to show that his length is good enough to stick at tackle in the NFL.

The Senior Bowl can often be a hard place for safeties to stand out, but Duke's Jeremy Cash could. Teams should know what they have in Cash, a three-year starter and three-year All-American at Duke. Cash is the draft's second-best safety prospect, so the expectations for him this week will be high. He should able to reach them.

Quarterback group average after Wentz

Wentz is the clear-cut top quarterback at this year's Senior Bowl, which took a hit when Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook decided not to attend. Had he gone, he'd be a big attraction for scouts. Without him, it's a suspect group headed by Dak Prescott of Mississippi State. Prescott put together a great career at Mississippi State that included a 62.8 percent completion percentage and 114 total touchdowns. This week scouts will want to see Prescott open it up more on vertical throws, which he struggled with some in college. He's a known commodity as a mobile quarterback who excels in the underneath game.

Jacoby Brissett of North Carolina State looks the part at 6'3 and 230 pounds. He has excellent pure physical tools with a good arm and decent enough mobility. But he has to hasten up an elongated throwing motion and make reads faster. This week could go a long way in quieting those concerns.

Cody Kessler of Southern California will have to show he's more than a West Coast offense quarterback. Kessler is good at reading the field, but doesn't have an especially strong arm and will get some passes batted down at the line of scrimmage. Brandon Allen will have to show he can consistently drive the ball down the field after coming out of a run-heavy Arkansas program. Jake Coker of Alabama will have to show he's not just a token local invitation. Kevin Hogan of Stanford will have to show a faster release than he often did in college. Jeff Driskel of Louisiana Tech is the last quarterback to mention. He's been developed into a good all-around quarterback after transferring from Florida and commands the pocket better than some of his other peers in attendance.