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2023 Senior Bowl Preview: Defense

2023 Senior Bowl Preview: Defense

Thor Nystrom will be reporting live from Mobile for the 2023 Senior Bowl. To get you ready for the big game, Thor has put together his 2023 Senior Bowl Preview, focusing on the defensive players involved.

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2023 Senior Bowl Guide

Thor breaks down which NFL Draft prospect has the most to prove, most to gain, and who’s flying under the radar at each position entering the 2023 Senior Bowl.

2023 Senior Bowl Edge Rusher Preview

Most to Prove: Lonnie Phelps

Phelps is an extremely usage-specific defender. If he finds the right team, with the right scheme, with a coaching staff that isn’t going to stretch him, I think he’s going to provide bang-for-buck on draft day investment.

A 6-foot-3, 242-pounder, Phelps is a pure edge-rusher. When he’s coming forward on the attack, he’s a problem. During his 2021 breakout at Miami (OH), Phelps posted 10 sacks and 18 hurries in only 210 pass-rushing reps. Last year, for KU, Phelps had eight sacks and 22 hurries in 282 pass-rushing reps.

He’s relentless. On special teams coverage teams in the MAC, Phelps would wipe out multiple blockers on a kick. He makes offensive tackles work for it. Phelps has a quick first-step, and from there, he’s throwing the kitchen sink at you. You better block him until the whistle because he’s one of those guys who will murder a quarterback on an extended play.

Phelps is on the smaller side, and power is not an aspect of his game. As a pass-rusher, it’s all quickness, effort, and the stacking of pass-rushing keys until he finds one that’ll slip the lock. In the run game, Phelps’ utility is beating his man off the snap and crashing down the line of scrimmage, or chasing a play down from the backside.

When linemen get their hands on Phelps in the run game, they can drive him backwards – he is not an edge-setter. He is also a shoddy tackler, in part because of his hair-on-fire playstyle – Phelps has missed a troubling 19.6% of his career attempts. If there’s positive news, it’s that he cut that percentage to 13.3% at KU last season – it was over 25% before he arrived.

Lastly, and returning to the second paragraph – you don’t want Lonnie Phelps in coverage. In fact, he was only dropped into coverage 39 times total over his four-year career.

For a 3-4 team looking for a pure edge-rusher on the cheap on Day 3 who’ll provide special teams utility and sell out every single rep, Phelps fits the bill. In Mobile, he’ll open eyes in one-on-one drills.

Most to Gain: Keion White

There are some who are still sleeping on Keion White. And you can forgive them for that. White is a sixth-year entrant who played only 1,291 defensive snaps of FBS football, including 666 in the P5. The best look we got at White, last season, he was stranded on a shipwreck Georgia Tech team that fired its coach mid-season.

But I think White is about to embark on a very lucrative three months. White began his career as a three-star tight end at Old Dominion. A two-way starter in high school, White was eventually converted to EDGE at Old Dominion before ultimately transferring to Georgia Tech.

He’s a rocked-up 6-foot-4, 267-pounder. White is a stupid athlete at that size. He’s going to blow up the NFL Combine. On film, you’ll see him running with backs and receivers downfield. He’s also powerful, an edge-setter who doesn’t get pushed backwards.

But White will provide a puzzle for evaluators on Draft Day. Because while he has all the physical ability in the world, White is an older prospect who remains raw at the position he’s still learning. When White gets beaten on a rep, it’s never because he’s at a physical disadvantage.

It’s always because he put himself into the disadvantage – either late to diagnose, not using his hands to control his man, or because he took a shortcut to penetration that opened the barnyard door on the edge.

Scouts know that God only gives these physical gifts to a select few. What they want to see in Mobile is an increased emphasis from White on discipline – both with his technique, and also within his schematic responsibilities.

Mystery Man: Isaiah Land

Land looks more like a college shooting guard than an NFL EDGE rusher – he’s listed at 6-foot-4, 215 pounds. A flash-quick speed rusher with superb bend and agility, he’s a nightmare for slow-footed offensive tackles.

Land led all of D-1 in sacks in 2021. In the offseason following that campaign, there were rampant rumors that Land was going to transfer up to the FBS for his final season of eligibility. I was excited to see that, to see him test himself against the best.

But ultimately, Land returned to Florida A&M. He had another good season at a level he had nothing left to prove at. But we want to see Land against high-end tackles. And we’re finally going to get the chance in Mobile.

Land is small, and he has very little play power. I probably didn’t need to tell you that. Land could lick any FCS OT with quickness and speed. Even the threat of it allowed him to win by veering inside on the guys so terrified of getting taken outside that they would comically overcompensate.

But like a high school pitcher who can throw 95 mph and doesn’t need to develop other pitches, Land at this time hasn’t proven he has an array of pass-rushing moves. I want to be very clear: I’m not nicking him for this. Not yet. He didn’t need them to utterly dominate at his last stop.

But Land had better show in Mobile that he has second-, third-, and fourth-options on reps where his speed is stymied. And any plan he could provide in the run game whatsoever would be a boost – because organizations are viewing him as a passing-down only specialist heading into the process.

2023 Senior Bowl Defensive Line Preview

Most to Prove: Siaki Ika

We know that Ika can do one thing very, very well: Occupy blockers in the run game. He might be the best in this class at that. He’s a linebacker’s best friend – he’ll occupy one or two blockers on every running play and allow the players behind him to flow to the ball.

The question for evaluators in Mobile will be: Is Ika anything more than that?

The 6-foot-4, 358-pound monster cannot and will not be moved off his spot. And when he gets his hands on you, you’ve lost complete autonomy in the interaction until a whistle frees you from purgatory.

But in the run game, Ika, despite appearing to have uncommon movement skills for a human this large, doesn’t shed and make plays like you’d hope. And as a pass-rusher, he’s a one-trick load who remains unrefined.

Ika’s strength and initial quickness will overwhelm on some reps. But for opponents ready and equipped for that, he hasn’t shown the ability to audible to secondary plans of attack.

Ika has a high-floor for 3-4 teams as a planet-sized space-occupying nose tackle. His mission in Mobile: Prove he can be more.

Most to Gain: Jalen Redmond

This guy is an enigma.

Redmond played plenty his past three active seasons – opting out in 2020 – and flashed all kinds of upside. But he never made the star-turn. The former five-star recruit has all the physical ability in the world. Will he finally make good on it at the next level?

Redmond needs to begin answering that question in Mobile. This is the sort of event that caters to a guy like Redmond. Blessed with a blink-and-you-miss-it first step, strong athleticism, active hands, and good balance, Redmond is a handful off the snap.

But folks in Norman holding their breath for his breakout season have now died of asphyxiation. Redmond plays high and his pass-rush plan is inconsistent.I like his effort, I like his play recognition, and I like his physical ability. It’s time to prove he’s a bonafide player.

Mystery Man: Karl Brooks

Brooks absolutely dominated the MAC during his five-year career. He posted 30 sacks, including 12 last year. He also piled up 110 hurries, 49 of them coming last year. Brooks’ PFF grades of 93.0 (overall), 90.3 (run), and 91.9 (pass-rush) were all elite in 2022.

Brooks plays with good leverage and is a skilled hand-fighter, throwing flurries at offensive linemen. When his first plan is shut down, he’s quick to go to his second, and then third, contorting, spinning, ripping, anything to get free. Karl Brooks will keep trying to get off the hook until the whistle blows.

He’s also a very dangerous bull-rusher – he’s a load coming forward, with a quick first step and a powerful uncoil into contact. He pushed numerous MAC offensive linemen right into their quarterback’s lap.

Brooks was too much for MAC offensive linemen to handle. What’ll be interesting to watch is how the Senior Bowl offensive linemen deal with him. The nitpicks about Brooks’ game are that he doesn’t project cleanly against the run – he can be pushed backwards – and he lacks length. He might not be an upper-tier athlete, either.

Brooks has a big process ahead of him. NFL Combine testing will be important. But his first order of business is proving his worth in Mobile.

2023 Senior Bowl Linebacker Preview

  • SirVocea Dennis, Pittsburgh
  • Daiyan Henley, Washington State
  • Cam Jones, Indiana
  • Marte Mapu, Sacramento State
  • Carlton Martial, Troy
  • Aubrey Miller Jr., Jackson State
  • DeMarvion Overshown, Texas
  • Ivan Pace Jr., Cincinnati
  • Henry To’oTo’o, Alabama
  • Dorian Williams, Tulane
  • Dee Winters, TCU

Most to Prove: Carlton Martial

An undersized, whirling-dervish tackling machine at Troy, Martial must prove in Mobile that his lack of size and play strength don’t nullify an NFL future. Martial is only listed at 5-foot-9, 210 pounds, and he’s probably smaller.

But the sixth-year senior is arguably the most singularly decorated player who will be in Mobile. His trophy case is already filled with awards. His 578 tackles are an FBS record. He also recorded 51 TFL and forced eight fumbles during his five active seasons.

“Instinctual” will be the first word in every Martial scouting report this spring. This kid may not have been born with a linebacker’s body, but he was born to be a linebacker. He triggers immediately after the ball is snapped and is rarely deceived.

Offensive linemen who get their hands on Martial can have their way with him. But he’s not as easy to take care of as you might think. He comes downhill so quickly, and gets hidden so well because of his frame, that it’s hard to square him up on your terms. Martial has very good contact balance, so glancing shots to his side, even from men 100 pounds heavier, are not moving him off his line.

Everybody will be pulling for Martial in Mobile. But he has plenty to prove as a pint-sized box linebacker who isn’t good in coverage. Martial was targeted 124 times in his career and gave up 89 receptions for 917 yards. But he’s not an outstanding blitzer, either – so is he only an undersized run-down linebacker? And if so, how much value will he provide?

We know he’ll be a strong special teams player, so that builds some floor value in his profile. Martial needs to arrive in Mobile ready to show out against the run, and ready to prove he’s either better as a blitzer or in coverage than his collegiate profile suggests.

Most to Gain: Daiyan Henley

Perfect Senior Bowl prospect: Henley is both a fabulous underdog story, and a very real threat to skyrocket up draft boards. We see cases like this every year: Henley was an overlooked recruit who needed multiple years to find his correct position at the collegiate level.

He signed with Nevada as a two-star dual-threat quarterback in the 2017 class. From there, he was converted to receiver and saw action as a true freshman. For two years, he was a rotational receiver who also got work as a kick returner.

In 2020, Nevada switched him to defense – and while the Wolfpack clearly knew he needed to be on the field, they couldn’t figure out what to do with him, giving him snaps at safety, nickel, off-ball linebacker, and EDGE before a season-ending injury four games in. In 2021, the plan to develop Henley as a linebacker was more solidified and he broke out with 94 tackles.

This past year, Henley transferred to Wazzu for his final campaign. He had his national coming-out party, piling up 106 tackles, 12 TFL and four sacks in 12 games.

Henley is still learning the position, and he makes some frustrating beginner’s mistakes because of that. But his upside is tantalizing. The athleticism that made him a receiver/returner/safety is still very much apparent on tape. And Henley is an extremely efficient tackler – his 90.3 tackle grade last year was one of the class’ highest.

Henley’s pass-rushing game ticked up last season while his coverage – an area he was sensational in during the 2021 season with Nevada – fell back to mediocre territory. He’s still learning. And until he gets there can contribute on special teams. In Mobile, teams want to see how quickly Henley diagnoses plays to allow his athleticism to take over.

Mystery Man: Aubrey Miller Jr.

A four-star recruit who signed with Missouri, Miller Jr. transferred to Jackson State in Nov. 2020 after not getting on the field much over his first three years. A knee injury in 2019 didn’t help matters. Miller Jr. turned into an FCS All-American and SWAC Defensive Player of the Year under the tutelage of Coach Prime.

Over the last two seasons at the FCS level, Miller Jr. was a force, combining to post 226 tackles, 23.5 TFL, 8.5 sacks, nine deflections, and six forced fumbles. Miller Jr. was used both as a middle linebacker (with more run-game responsibilities) and as an outside linebacker at JSU (where he had more coverage responsibilities on RBs and TEs).

Skilled on the blitz, Miller also gets after it in the run game. And he’s a bit more proficient in coverage than I think he’s getting credit for. On top of all that, Miller has extensive special teams experience, and he was lauded as having turned into a team leader on the past few Jackson State teams that flipped the program’s fortunes around.

A few things to watch for in Mobile. While Miller was a pest to opposing run games in the FCS, he was far from perfect in that regard. Despite being a veteran, Miller wasn’t the quickest to diagnose play flow.

That problem which could be exacerbated by a secondary problem of a lack of play strength – any fractional-second advantages he gives to climbing offensive linemen severely decreases his odds of being involved on a given play.

On top of that, while Miller is involved in a high-percentage of plays in a vacuum, he misses lots of tackles – 17 last year for a 15.5% missed tackle rate that is on the higher-end for the LB class.

Lastly, Miller needs to prove he has coverage chops. This area of his game ticked way up in 2022 (91.9 PFF grade) after he’d struggled in that facet his entire career. Against NFL-caliber RBs and TEs, can Miller show the NFL he’s capable of consistently handling coverage responsibilities?

2023 Senior Bowl Cornerback Preview

  • Jakorian Bennett, Maryland
  • Julius Brents, Kansas State
  • Mekhi Blackmon, USC
  • Chamarri Conner, Virginia Tech
  • Anthony Johnson, Virginia
  • Kyu Blu Kelly, Stanford
  • Darrell Luter Jr., South Alabama
  • Jartavius Martin, Illinois
  • Riley Moss, Iowa
  • Darius Rush, South Carolina
  • Keidron Smith, Kentucky
  • Tyrique Stevenson, Miami
  • Rejzohn Wright, Oregon State

Most to Prove: Kyu Blu Kelly

I struggle with Kelly. There’s a lot to like. He’s built well (6’1/190), he’s a twitched-up former track star, he’s extremely experienced, including in press-man coverage, and he comes from NFL bloodlines (his father Brian played in the NFL for more than a decade).

Kelly is not intimidated on the field. He wants to line up in the receiver’s face, get his hands on him, and he’s happy to cede sideline releases because he knows there isn’t a receiver he can’t run with downfield.

Kelly has some hip stiffness that hurts in sticking with receivers through transitions. Crafty receivers can also fool him into biting down on double-moves, another bugaboo to watch out for in Mobile.

Kelly’s treetop traits suggest that he could be the highest-drafted corner to come out of Mobile this year. But his weaknesses also led to allowing 909 yards in coverage over 21 games the past two years for Stanford.

Will Kelly’s traits rule the day in Mobile? Or will he make enough mistakes to introduce further doubt into his profile?

Most to Gain: Julius Brents

This class is stocked with large boundary corners. Brents is one of the biggest at 6’3/203. His long arms help him not only jamming off the line and getting his hands on balls at the catch point, but in the run game with an atypically-large tackling radius.

Indeed, Brents is one of this class’ best corners in both run defense and tackling efficiency. He’s difficult to block for receivers, he flies downhill with abandon, and he rarely misses when he’s on the doorstep.

Brents isn’t going to appeal to man-coverage defenses. He doesn’t have the swivel-hips to stay with receivers throughout the route, and he lacks the long speed to keep up with burners downfield.

But zone-based defenses are going to be very intrigued. They know Brents will improve their perimeter run defense immediately, they know Brents is rarely going to be caught out of position, and they know Brents’ instincts and length will lead to ball production.

And you have a little bit more cost-certainty here than meets the eye: Brents played 295 special teams snaps in college and will contribute across numerous units immediately. And if it turns out he can’t handle corner at the next level, he’ll get a second chance as a safety convert.

Mystery Man: Darrell Luter Jr.

In a Senior Bowl corner class filled with Power 5 prospects, Luter Jr. is the local underdog. This is his shot to cover high-end WR prospects and rise up boards.

Luter Jr. was a boundary corner at USA, and a very good one. In 2021, he allowed a comical 3.9 opposing NFL QB rating on his 45 targets – allowing only 12 receptions for 150 yards. He wasn’t as consistent in 2022, but still broke up six passes and intercepted another.

Luter Jr. comes equipped with solid size (6’0/180) and good length. He’s a pesky corner, because he has a very good understanding of route concepts, will run the receiver’s assignment with him, and then use those arms like prods at the catch point.

He doesn’t often get fooled, but Luter Jr. can be beaten. He’s an average athlete who needs a few steps to regain his speed after changing directions. Luter Jr. will also need over-the-top help at the next level against burners – he isn’t a sprinter.

But as a heady, experienced boundary corner with good length, Luter Jr. could appeal to zone-based teams looking for a discount on Day 3 – if he can win over fans during the pre-draft process. Mobile is very important for him, as it provides the opportunity to show he can stick with higher-end receivers.

2023 Senior Bowl Safety Preview

Most to Prove: Jay Ward

Is Jay Ward versatile? Or a tweener? Is he a safety who covers like a corner? Or a safety who struggles to tackle who previously couldn’t hack it at corner? Senior Bowl week is the time for him to answer those questions for evaluators.

Ward was lined up everywhere by LSU. By this point, he has extensive experience at boundary corner, nickel defender, free safety, and box safety – he played 300 or more career snaps at all four spots. Evaluators will be trying to figure out what his NFL fit is in Mobile.

Moving Ward off corner was the right call by LSU. Ward gave up a 111.5 NFL QB rating against on his career targets in Baton Rouge. He struggles to keep up with shifty receivers out of breaks.

And even though he’s a willing run-defender, Ward’s transition to safety concerns a bit because he’s an unreliable tackler, missing a career 21.8% of his attempts. Slightly-built, Ward battled through multiple nagging injuries in his career.

Ward plays hard, and is very clearly a team-player. But is he just a combination of disparate traits that won’t ever equal NFL utility? Or can he prove to evaluators in Mobile that his versatility will carry over to the next level?

Most to Gain: Christopher Smith

Smith is another safety we got to see in various alignments in college. Georgia used him as a free safety, as a nickel defender, and as an extra body in the box.

His best position is as a defensive center fielder with the game unfolding in front of him. Smith gets good reads on the quarterback, and crashes downhill quickly when the ball is in the air. No matter where he’s aligned, he’s an enthusiastic run defender,

Smith’s concerns are mostly things he can’t do anything about. He’s a 5-foot-11, 195-pound safety with short arms. His willingness and physicality in the run game are at times trumped by his lack of pop at the contact point and small tackling radius – Smith’s 14.6% career missed tackle rate is an area of concern.

In Mobile, Smith figures to impress scouts with his on-field IQ, play style, and ability to handle multiple positions across the formation. Can he show enough at one of those positions to lock himself into Day 2?

Mystery Man: JL Skinner

We have plenty of tape on Skinner, with 1,825 defensive snaps taken in college. But he’s the only non-P5 safety in this group, and he’s more of your old-school in-the-box safety than he is a new-age chess piece.

Skinner is a total unknown as a blitzer, because BSU only sent him after the quarterback 13 times over his career. This is in part a testament to his coverage – despite not being the most fleet-of-foot safety, Skinner was a big plus in the MWC, posting PFF grades over 80.0 in that facet in each of the past two years.

He’s not very agile and will struggle to stay with fleet-footed skill players in space, but Skinner is fast and north-south explosive, especially for his size. Skinner is clever in coverage, always in the right position reading the quarterback’s eyes.

This his is how you want to use him – with the action unfolding in front of him, not with his back to the quarterback. Skinner crashes down to the catch point with authority, either getting his mitts on the ball or jarring the receiver as it arrives.

In the run game, Skinner is a plus. He relentlessly works to the ball until the whistle blows, and he’s a punishing finisher when he gets home. Importantly, he’s also a very reliable tackler.

Proven at the G5 level but about to step up in competition, and arriving in Mobile with a few questions on his profile scouts would like answers to, Skinner has an opportunity to rise with a big week.

2023 Senior Bowl Specialists to Watch

  • Bryce Baringer, Michigan State (P)
  • Adam Korsak, Rutgers (P)
  • Jack Podlesny, Georgia (K)
  • Chad Ryland, Maryland (K)
  • Robert Soderholm, VMI (LS)
  • Alex Ward, UCF (LS)
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