Senior Bowl loaded with potential first-round QBs who may tempt Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

Before Justin Herbert was one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL, he was the best quarterback on the field Senior Bowl week.

Herbert played for the South team in the game two years ago, when the Detroit Lions got an up-close view of his talent while coaching the North team.

It wasn’t quite the gift from the football gods the franchise needed to free itself from purgatory. Had the Lions spent seven days coaching Herbert and still passed on him with the No. 3 pick in the 2020 draft, that would have been unforgivable.

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But looking back on a week where Herbert was named MVP of the game and Practice Player of the Week, signs were there that he was headed for future success.

“To me, the snapshot of Justin that really resonated was after the game, the NFL Network was taping the postgame celebration after Justin got his MVP and to see the amount of players, big, small, Black, white, Samoan. Regardless of who it was, North team, South team, all coming up to Justin, I think shows a lot,” Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said. “That he endeared himself to those guys in really a short week, he’s certainly not a rah-rah guy, but he does something. He does something to connect with people and I think that’s what really impressed the teams probably the most. And then just the kind of humble, genuine guy that he was. He’s really unique that way.”

The biggest benefit NFL staffs derive from coaching the Senior Bowl is the hands-on time they get with top draft prospects.

They see how players learn. They get a feel for how coachable they are. They watch them interact with teammates. They test their leadership skills. And they see whose personality is a fit for their franchise.

Those traits are especially important at the quarterback position, and the Lions will have the opportunity coaching the American team next month — the teams have been re-branded American and National from the old South and North — to spend time with three of the draft’s top QB prospects as they try and plot out their future at the position.

Before the first roster reveal of the week Thursday, Nagy spent a half hour with the Free Press discussing the game’s six quarterback prospects, a group he called “probably the deepest one we’ve ever had from top to bottom” in the game.

The Lions will work with two potential first-round picks in North Carolina’s Sam Howell and Liberty’s Malik Willis, plus Western Kentucky’s Bailey Zappe.

The Jets, as coaches of the National team, will work with Cincinnati’s Desmond Ridder, Nevada’s Carson Strong and Pitt’s Kenny Pickett.

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Nagy said no roster trades were made involving quarterbacks.

“Depending on which team you talk to, they all have a different order, so to me it didn’t even matter who I put with each team because they’re all, five of the six guys are carrying first-round grades around the league right now with teams and Bailey Zappe’s the sixth one, and all the guy did was break Joe Burrow’s single-season (passing) record and touchdown record,” Nagy said. “Some years, it’s a little more top-heavy and it’s more difficult. This year it’s like, just pick three names and put them with a team cause they’re all bunched so close together.”

Pickett is the most likely Senior Bowl quarterback to end up a top-10 pick after a standout season at Pitt in which he completed 67.2% of his passes for 4,319 yards with 42 touchdowns, all career highs.

A four-year starter, Pickett nearly declared for the draft last season, when Nagy said he was largely considered a Day 3 prospect. This year, he stayed healthy, showed off his mobility and made a meteoric rise similar to that of Burrow in his senior season at LSU.

“What’s impressed me going back for the last three years watching Kenny is just his feel for the game,” Nagy said. “He’s an instinctive guy, he sees it. He anticipates. There’s a calmness to him. He’s got a great clock. Lot of stuff you can’t coach.”

Pickett also earns high marks in the leadership department, where Nagy said he got important feedback from representatives of the Manning Passing Academy last summer.

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“Talking to the guys that run the camp, he was kind of the pied piper of the week,” Nagy said. “That’s kind of telling when you get in the setting with all the alphas from around the country, kind of who becomes that alpha of the alphas, and Kenny, according to those guys, Kenny was that guy this year.”

While Pickett’s draft stock improved dramatically this season, Howell and Willis were potential high-first-round picks who now are projected to go later in the round.

Howell saw a decline in all his major passing numbers after North Carolina lost several of its top skill players to the NFL, but flashed enough potential that he still could end up in Round 1.

Willis, an Auburn transfer, is considered one of the highest-upside quarterbacks in the draft but is extremely raw as a passer.

“Those were the two guys that in terms of supporting cast around them, had to do a lot on their own,” Nagy said. “I think that was part of the misevaluation of Justin Herbert a couple years ago. He wasn’t playing with any NFL skill guys on that team, so Justin had to do a lot on his own. It’s a dependent position. You got to have people around you that can make plays.”

Nagy said Willis, who threw for 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns and ran for 878 yards and 13 scores against mostly Group of Five competition this season, reminds him of Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.

“I think we all remember Ben throughout most of his career in Pittsburgh, of Ben making throws and people draped all over him, and guys hanging around legs,” Nagy said. “Malik can do that. He’s just a really strong guy. So he’s got all the tools. I think that when you’re trying to do a lot on your own, it can force you into some decisions you wouldn’t normally make and just trying to force the issue and do too much. And again, I don’t fault a quarterback for doing that. The guy’s trying to help his team win. For whatever NFL team has him, it’s really pulling all that stuff together because he has all the tools.”

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Strong has one of the biggest arms in the draft, but his stock as a prospect ultimately will come down to how teams view his medical history. He underwent surgery to repair a torn ACL last February, was given a 10-month timetable for rehab and recovery but returned to action six months later.

Mobility was an issue for Strong at times this season, but Nagy said Strong recently was checked by an NFL team doctor who gave a good long-term prognosis.

“I kind of joke that, God rest his soul, if Al Davis were still alive, he’d be the Raiders’ No. 1 pick,” Nagy said. “If you’re a vertical passing team, he is a really good fit. The guy can really push it down the field accurately.”

Ridder still has questions to answer about his deep-ball accuracy, but checks off most other boxes at quarterback.

He’s cerebral under center, should run somewhere in the 4.5-second range in the 40-yard dash at the NFL combine, and he lifted Cincinnati’s program to unprecedented heights, going 43-5 as a starter and becoming the first quarterback to take a Group of Five team to the College Football Playoff.

Nagy said Ridder has similar leadership traits to Pickett.

“Relatability is a huge thing right now in the NFL and leadership is a huge thing in the NFL because the teams can’t have structured stuff in the offseason as much,” he said. “It is on the quarterback. You got to have teammates that buy into the quarterback, cause he’s the one coordinating all that offseason stuff. I think that that’s going to be a big deal for Desmond. He’s a natural leader. He’s got just a genuine charisma and relatability to him.”

Zappe, a transfer from Houston Baptist, is less physically imposing than some of the other Senior Bowl quarterbacks and more likely to slide the middle rounds, but he had the most prolific passing season in NCAA  history — 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns.

Zappe played well in games against Michigan State and Indiana in 2021 and Texas Tech in 2020, and Nagy said he will have a chance next month to improve his stock by playing with and against the best competition of his career.

“The stage won’t be too big for him,” Nagy said. “He’s mobile, he can run around and make plays. He’s really poised. He plays the position well, he sees the field well, he distributes the ball well. Nice touch. And, yeah, he’s a guy that’s helped himself at the quarterback position as much as anyone in this year’s class this year.”

Contact Dave Birkett at dbirkett@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @davebirkett.

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