You know your team is doing well when the Reese’s Senior Bowl is getting underway and the NFL Draft is one of the furthest things from your football mind. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their fans, this is the situation they find themselves in now as they get set to face the Kansas City Chiefs in Super Bowl LV.
As focused as the franchise and fans are on the upcoming title fight between Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, the Senior Bowl is underway and at least two Buccaneers personnel are on ground in Mobile, Alabama.
On the line? Only the beginning of NFL careers and the potential success or failure of 32 pro football franchises. No big deal, right?
I’m fortunate enough to be on ground for this year’s edition, and bring to you my thoughts following the first practices for both the National (coached by the Miami Dolphins staff) and American (coached by the Carolina Panthers staff) squads.
NATIONAL TEAM (MIAMI DOLPHINS)
The National Team took to the practice field first, and to be perfectly honest, I didn’t get to see their session until it was about thirty minutes in.
Weather was a concern on Tuesday and initially the Senior Bowl had decided to move the practices to an indoor facility where media access wouldn’t be possible. Then, as Tuesday progressed the weather proved to be much better than anticipated - pause for shock at weather report inaccuracies - and the day’s activities were back on for the outdoor stadium.
The change was made shortly before practice began, thus resulting in the tardiness. However, I did get there in time to see North Dakota State University offensive lineman Dillon Radunz absolutely dominate in squad drills.
Radunz took reps at left tackle and at left guard. The other side of the National offensive line didn’t fare so well during some snaps, and at least two of those, Jake Curhan (Cal) and Brenden Jaimes (Nebraska) are expected to try the left side on Day 2.
Benjamin St-Juste (Minnesota) is a cornerback prospect I’m particularly interested in and seemed to hold his own fairly well throughout the day. He’s got size, length, and plays an aggressive brand of football which would make Buccaneers fans very happy if he were to join the team this April.
Arizona State wide receiver Frank Darby was another player who caught my eye today as he played outside for the National team. He brought in a particularly impressive reception requiring the use of physicality, in-air body control, and demonstrated great football IQ as he waited for the last possible moment to make his move for the ball.
Darby is expected to work out of the slot on Day 2, further demonstrating his versatility, and he also has return ability for teams in need of special teams contributors as well.
AMERICAN TEAM (CAROLINA PANTHERS)
The second team to practice also got the worst of the weather as rain joined the party for the final thirty minutes or so, on Tuesday.
Before the rain started falling it was Wake Forest quarterback Jamie Newman doing the dropping by placing dimes into the hands of Senior Bowl receivers throughout the practice.
Of all the quarterbacks we saw on Tuesday, Newman was easily the most impressive. The most impressive player overall, however, had to be South Carolina wide receiver, Shi Smith.
Smith made the catch of the day, and it wasn’t even close.
Outside of Smith, wide receivers Kadarius Toney (Florida) and Austin Watkins Jr. (UAB) also turned some heads.
Speaking of UAB, edge defender Jordan Smith is of particular interest to me as a potential 3-4 pass rushing outside linebacker. With the Panthers staff running a 4-3 base defense this week, I’m not sure how many looks we’ll get of Smith as a stand-up rusher, but we’ll take as many looks as we can.
Duke tight end Noah Gray also displayed solid pass catching ability and held his own well in blocking reps, although he’s not a player I started watching until late in the day.
All things considered, it was a solid day of practice and we could tell the players and coaches were taking full advantage of the best opportunity this year to make a pre-draft impact on their stock.
Tomorrow is another day - and weather permitting - is another chance to see these players, and more, in action once again.
Coverage of the Senior Bowl will continue here and across the sports media landscape. If you have favorites yourself, let us know who they were in the comments!