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Malik Willis and 5 other Senior Bowl observations that could change the NFL Draft

Malik Willis is going to be fascinating to watch in the NFL Draft.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

The Senior Bowl is always a fascinating event. While it ranks below the combine in the mind of fans, it serves as a rare opportunity for NFL coaching staffs to get hands-on experience with players they could be selecting in a few months.

It’s really an inside track to learn things that can’t be told by measurables and interviews. Sure, prospects tend to mind their P’s and Q’s with next-level coaches around, but they can’t hide their ability to absorb coaching and advice, then apply that to their games. In the past we’ve seen players be selected by their Senior Bowl coaches, so it’s not something you can simply blow off in the process.

No. 1: A least one team is going to fall in love with Malik Willis

I was given absolute hell (seriously, you should have seen my inbox) for mocking Malik Willis in the Top 10 earlier this year. At the time my reasoning was that one team was going to absolutely fall in love with his potential, and now that seems to be growing.

Willis was the talk of the town during practice week, with everyone in attendance gushing about his athleticism and willingness to absorb coaching. It’s a rare example of a quarterback garnering tremendous hype without the college stats, or tape to really back it up. This will unquestionably be a leap of faith for whoever pulls the trigger on the pick, but his rare attributes are pronounced enough that I think numerous teams are now going to want to take a deep dive into evaluating Willis.

In the passing game Willis was very average, just going 2-for-4 for 11 yards. However, as a dual-threat QB he lit the game up with his rushing ability. Willis led both teams with 54 yards rushing, including a deep 27-yard gash that showed big-play ability.

Teams will now want to take a deeper dive and isolate which issues he needs corrected at the next level, and watch all the tape to see how much some of his lackluster performances can be blamed on poor surrounding talent at Liberty. In his only game against a ranked opponent this season (No. 16 Ole Miss), Willis had his worst game of the season throwing three interceptions, but he was also sacked NINE TIMES with an offensive line that was basically Swiss cheese.

All it takes is one team, and I suspect someone is going to see Josh Allen potential in Malik Willis.

No. 2: Kenny Pickett is going to be polarizing throughout draft season

Pickett was perfect in the Senior Bowl, going 6-for-6 for 89 yards and a touchdown. Still, he leaves the game without much hype. It’s a curious case where teams seem reticent to get on board, even though he’s widely considered the best quarterback in this class.

It all comes down to ceiling, and there’s a very definite fear that Pickett is already as good as he’s going to get. For what it’s worth, I think this a pretty unfair assessment, but the NFL Draft is always about marrying production with potential, and that second element is where things tend to falter. This week was more about confirming what everyone knew about Pickett, rather than him blowing people away with elements of his game they hadn’t seen.

Ultimately he has an above-average arm, above-average athleticism, but nowhere near the football IQ as someone like Mac Jones. I mention Jones because he was a similar QB who people felt had maxed out his ceiling before entering the NFL, then went on to have a better rookie season than anyone else in his highly-vaunted class.

There have been some claims Pickett can come off as arrogant, and this will likely give teams pause — especially considering his major areas of improvement need to come with how he perceives and reacts to pressure. There’s no doubt he’ll get plenty of deep looks from teams, but he leaves the Senior Bowl more or less where he began.

No. 3: Boye Mafe shot his draft stock to the moon

Minnesota defensive end Boye Mafe was seen as Top 100 player with a chance to be selected on Day 2 of the NFL Draft. Not anymore. An absolute freak athlete with technique concerns, nobody did more for themselves than Mafe with the Senior Bowl.

The edge rusher was a sponge when being coached, absorbing everything being given to him and continually getting better throughout the week. Then when it came to the game he went off. Mafe finished with two sacks, a tackle for a loss, and a forced fumble. All this coming with only five days of practicing playing with his hand in the dirt. Seriously, he’d been a stand up pass rusher until the Senior Bowl, and immediately became a force.

There is absolutely no doubt Mafe turned heads, and the only thing keeping him out of the first round could be just how ludicrously deep the pass rushing class is. Still, I could see him sneaking into the back-end of the first and joining a playoff team where he can be a rotational rusher to start, with the promise of being a difference maker in year two.

No. 4: Trevor Penning is making a strong push to be a first round pick

There are so many good offensive linemen this year that it became easy to overlook Trevor Penning out of Northern Iowa. That can’t be the case anymore. Penning took himself from being a possible 2nd or 3rd round pick and looks every bit of a player who will be taken by someone in the first.

At 6’6, 330 pounds his size in this class is only rivaled by Alabama’s Evan Neal, who will likely go in the Top 10. Penning similarly knows how to use his size to his advantage, and also has really quick feet for a man of his size. In addition, he showed a mean streak in Senior Bowl practices this week that makes old-school football guys salivate.

If Penning doesn’t go in the first round I expert he’ll be gone in the top few picks of the second round.

No. 5: Carson Strong will need to put in huge work at the combine

One of the more interesting QBs not getting a lot of attention is Carson Strong, and there’s no need to sugar coat this one: He was bad. It’s going to take a specific team who values statuesque, pocket QB to select him in the first place — but one of the big selling points for Strong has been his decision making in the pocket.

Taking limited snaps in the Senior Bowl, Strong was inconsistent in his passing, threw an interception, and fumbled the ball. It was a nightmare outing for a player that has first round potential. That said, saying it’s all over is dumb. It’s more than Strong is going to need to put a ton of work in during his Pro Day and at the scouting combine to show that the Senior Bowl was a blip on the radar, and not a sign of something more damaging.

If he can’t do that, then I think Strong will fall into being a late Day 2, or even early Day 3 pick.

No. 6: The line depth this year is out of control

While QBs understandably garnered all the attention, the Senior Bowl really served to highlight just how ridiculous the amount of talent on both the offensive and defense lines are this draft. If you’re a team lacking on either side, then 2022 is going to be the year to stock up on players.

Boston College OG Zion Johnson, UConn DT Travis Jones, the aforementioned Mafe and Penning — from top-to-bottom the absolute best players at the Senior Bowl were linemen. They’re joining a class that already boasts a ludicrous amount of elite pass rushers and protectors that could make this a truly legendary year for big men.