In typical NFL draft cycles, the Senior Bowl acts as a booster shot for prospects’ draft stocks. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t.
In the majority of cases, save for injured players or those with first-round statuses locked up, attending is a better option than not. This especially applies to quarterbacks, where the right general manager, coach or scout can see the right QB operate in unfamiliar surroundings and thrive.
That’s a realistic path for a quarterback to get drafted higher than expected.
The all-star game is really about spending a week in Mobile, Alabama in close contact with two NFL teams and under the watchful gaze of the other 30 clubs. And what the first two quarterbacks accepted to the 2021 Senior Bowl need is more eyes on them.
— Reese's Senior Bowl (@seniorbowl) November 10, 2020
#HookEm! It’s OFFICIAL! Texas QB Sam Ehlinger (@sehlinger3) is heading to the @Reeses Senior Bowl! #BestOfTheBest #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE @JimNagy_SB @PaniniAmerica #RatedRookie pic.twitter.com/2uOG4Gn9l4
— Reese's Senior Bowl (@seniorbowl) November 11, 2020
Both Texas’ Sam Ehlinger, and ex-Wake Forest and Georgia QB Jamie Newman bring interesting skills to the table. Both come with big questions, too. Their eventual draft landing spots will depend, in part, on how they fare at the Senior Bowl.
Jamie Newman’s lost year can be partly made up
In Newman’s case, scouts will be watching a player who last took a meaningful snap on Dec. 27 in the Pinstripe Bowl. Newman started hot, leading Wake Forest on a six-play, TD drive to open the game against Michigan State, but finished on a sour note, with a pick six and an injury that knocked him out of the game in the waning moments.
That was Newman’s final game for the Demon Deacons. Fifteen days later he transferred to Georgia after Jake Fromm declared for the NFL draft, and it appeared to be a perfect transition for both school and quarterback.
Eight months later, Newman’s Bulldogs career was essentially over. He opted out for the 2020 season amid the COVID-19 season, and naturally people were curious. Was this about the virus? Or was Newman not in line to win the job? Perhaps he was confident in his draft stock?
Whatever the case, Newman never took a snap at Georgia. He’ll be asked about it — by scouts and media alike — in Mobile.
Far more important for him, Newman will have a chance to shine on the field. He has been in good hands training with QB coach Quincy Avery, and Newman could show up in better shape than some players coming off the rigors of a full college season.
Newman outplayed 2020 Green Bay Packers first-rounder Jordan Love in the 2019 season opener and was on a tear … right up until wideout Sage Surratt, Newman’s best target, got hurt in the fourth quarter of the Virginia Tech game. The game prior, wide receiver Scotty Washington, also was done for the year.
In his 272 pass attempts prior to Surratt’s injury, Newman had a 22-6 TD-INT ratio, completed 66.2 percent and averaged 8.4 yards per attempt. After Surratt missed the remainder of the season, Newman’s numbers sunk — a 4-5 TD-INT ratio, 47.1 percent completions and 7.4 yards per attempt.
Who knows what he might have done at Georgia this season, but the Bulldogs certainly have struggled to generate much in the passing game, with a 9-9 TD-INT ratio, 53 percent completions and 6.9 yards per attempt.
With a strong Senior Bowl week, Newman can help his cause quite a bit. He’s not yet the early-round prospect some media folks say he is now; summer grades in league circles ranged from Round 3 to 6. Some scouts liked him; others felt he was a raw prospect.
He’s also believed to be smaller than his listed 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds. Scouts estimate he’s closer to 6-foot-2 1/2 and 221 pounds. Newman is expected to run somewhere in the 4.8-second range in the 40-yard dash.
Stepping up in what could be an expanded Senior Bowl (executive director Jim Nagy has flirted with the idea of extending it to more than a week) would be a big help for Newman. Less-talented quarterbacks have gone down there, performed well and helped their causes in the past decade.
The tricky case of Sam Ehlinger
Entering the 2020 season, NFL scouts were intrigued by Ehlinger’s unusual skills — he’s more Bronko Nagurski than Ben Roethlisberger — but also ambivalent about his NFL projection.
Scouts mainly placed grades in the third-to-fifth-round range on Texas’ thickly built quarterback who had rushed for 25 touchdowns his first three seasons combined and improved incrementally as a passer along the way. His toughness, improved downfield passing and low interception totals all were chalked up as positives.
That said, there was hesitation with Ehlinger’s ceiling as a pro passer, given that he tended to be a one-read-and-bail quarterback more often than not and uncorked some awkward passes from time to time. And for all his skill as a runner, Ehlinger’s rough-and-tumble style might be effective in college … but in the NFL? That’s a different story.
Ehlinger’s 2020 season has been a slight disappointment.
Sure, his TD-INT numbers are good (22-5 ratio), he has held up fairly well when he has gotten clean pockets and remains a running threat (323 yards, seven TDs). But his deep passing (14-of-55 on attempts 20-plus yards downfield) and throwing amid pressure have both been disappointing. His overall completion percentage has fallen to 58.8 despite working with a talented group of receivers.
Ehlinger has been banged up after nearly four years of taking a pounding in the run game. His size is also unusual, measuring a verified 6-foot-1 and 224 pounds by scouts last year. And for what it’s worth, his speed (an estimated 4.85-second 40) would be right around where Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold ran when they came out — and slightly slower than the times of Josh Allen and Daniel Jones, bigger QBs who have had some success as running quarterbacks in the NFL.
That means Ehlinger likely remains a complicated evaluation.
A lot of comps have been thrown out there on Ehlinger — Tim Tebow, Jalen Hurts, Taysom Hill and others, all with some merit. But the player Ehlinger reminds me a lot as a prospect is C.J. Beathard, the 2017 San Francisco 49ers third-rounder who was a Senior Bowl attendee that year.
Beathard is short and stocky, and he took a beating in college and won with toughness, smarts and grit. He scrambled a lot, threw outside the pocket by design and could sting defenses deep (when his Iowa receivers hung onto the ball). Beathard wasn’t a refined passer yet, even though 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan thought he processed the game extremely well.
Beathard was not healthy when he was at the Senior Bowl, still feeling the effects of a hamstring injury he’d suffered in Iowa’s bowl game three weeks earlier. His practice performances in Mobile were uneven, and he played only one series in the game at week’s end.
But Beathard won over some NFL people in his workouts and interviews, and the 49ers traded up into the late third round — ahead of the Pittsburgh Steelers and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who were believed to be very interested in Beathard — to draft him.
That’s how we could see it going for Ehlinger. Will he stay in the game if there are more injuries between now and the end of the season? That’s unclear, but if the unique Ehlinger plays, he might win over a team with his intangibles in the same manner that Beathard did.
It feels like Ehlinger — like Newman — has a lot riding on Senior Bowl week.
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