Senior Bowl 2022: One prospect to watch at every position for Detroit Lions

Detroit Free Press

The Detroit Lions are headed to Mobile, Alabama, to coach the Senior Bowl this week. Historically, coaching the game has given teams a leg up on evaluating the prospects they work with.

The Lions moved up to draft one of their best offensive linemen, Jonah Jackson, after coaching him in the 2020 Senior Bowl, and the San Francisco 49ers fell in love with top receiver Deebo Samuel after spending time with him in the 2019 game.

The Lions will coach the American team, a roster full of SEC prospects (outside of Michigan State’s Connor Heyward), while the New York Jets will coach the National Team with mostly Big Ten prospects.

Here are 10 players to watch in the game, one from every position who could interest the Lions in April’s NFL draft:

QB Malik Willis Liberty Willis is the highest-upside quarterback prospect in a class full of question marks. An Auburn transfer, he amassed more than 5,000 yards passing and 1,800 yards rushing in two seasons as a starter. He’s raw and will need time to develop in the NFL, but he has a skill set to win because of, not just with, and the same can’t be said for most quarterbacks in the draft. The Lions probably aren’t in the market for Jared Goff’s replacement at No. 2, but they’ll have a pretty good idea of Willis’ star potential after spending a week with him in Mobile.

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

WR Jalen Tolbert, South Alabama The Lions need a big-play threat to pair with Amon-Ra St. Brown at receiver and Tolbert was one of the best in college football this season. He caught 21 passes of 20-plus yards and finished with a school-record 1,478 yards receiving. The reigning Sun Belt Offensive Player of the Year, Tolbert faced just one power five team this season — he caught a late 68-yard touchdown in a blowout loss to Tennessee — so scouts will keep close tabs on how he performs this week in practice. 

TE Charlie Kolar, Iowa State The Lions won’t be spending a high draft pick on a tight end and they might fill their need for a blocker at the position in free agency. If they don’t, Kolar is a mid-round talent who would make sense as a backup to T.J. Hockenson. He was a capable receiver at Iowa State, catching 62 passes for 756 yards this season, and he’s a willing blocker who has the size (6-6, 260) and smarts — his parents are both college professors — to succeed in the NFL.

RB Hassan Haskins, Michigan Haskins ran for 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns this season, but Senior Bowl executive director Jim Nagy said he’s underrated as a prospect. “Man, he had an incredible year,” Nagy said. “It’s one of those years I don’t even think Hassan saw it coming, but when (Blake) Corum went down and he had to kind of shoulder the load, he proved a lot. And I think everyone’s kind of just pigeon-holed him as a plowhorse running back and there’s more to him than that. I think he’s going to test really well in the spring, I think he’s more explosive than he’s given credit for. Yeah, it should be good to have him down here. I think he’s got more juice than people think.”

OL Cole Strange, Chattanooga Small-school linemen like Ali Marpet and Quinn Meinerz have helped their draft stock with strong showings at past Senior Bowls, and there’s bound to be one lower-level prospect who does the same this year. There are no Division III linemen in this year’s game, and the draft’s top Football Championship Subdivision prospect, Northern Iowa’s Trevor Penning, already is considered a potential top-50 pick. Strange played six college seasons because of a COVID exception and started games at guard and center. The Lions don’t need much help on the offensive line, but if Strange fares well against a good defensive line crop, he could turn out to be a sound investment.

DL Phil Mathis, Alabama The Lions spent two draft picks on interior defensive linemen last spring, so adding another big body is not their foremost need. But they struggled to generate pressure up the middle and have two of the draft’s top interior pass rushers on their roster at the Senior Bowl in Mathis and Georgia’s Devonte Wyatt. Wyatt had a more dominant year with 27 quarterback pressures, but Mathis had nine sacks spread out over nine games and might present more value for the Lions come draft day.

FILM REVIEW: Aidan Hutchinson still worth No. 1 pick after Georgia game

Edge Cameron Thomas, San Diego State There’s a good chance the Lions take Michigan’s Aidan Hutchinson or Oregon’s Kayvon Thibodeaux with the No. 2 pick in the draft. If they don’t, Thomas is a player who could help the pass rush late in Round 1 or early on Day 2. The big defensive end had a dominant 11.5-sack, 20.5-tackle for loss season in which he logged 19 other quarterback hits. He didn’t play against the best competition week in and week out, but if he performs like scouts expect this week he will solidify his spot as a potential first-round pick.

LB Chad Muma, Wyoming The Lions have a pretty good group of linebackers on the American team roster in LSU’s Damone Clark and Georgia teammates Quay Walker and Channing Tindall, but I’m most intrigued by the two linebackers on the National team. Utah’s Devin Lloyd is a first-round talent who projects somewhere between the Lions’ first two picks, while Muma is the type of coverage linebacker who fits the modern NFL game. A converted safety, he returned two of his three interceptions for touchdowns this season. Like Willis and Tolbert, he’s taking a step up in competition, so this week will be important for his draft stock.

CB Tariq Woolen, Texas-San Antonio If you like size-speed prospects, Woolen is for you. A converted receiver who still is learning the intricacies of being a defensive back, Woolen is listed at 6 feet 4, 205 pounds and reportedly runs a sub-4.4-second 40-yard dash. There aren’t many cornerbacks anywhere with those kind of measurables. The Lions have a young defensive backfield and might not need another project for their room. But working closely with Woolen, they should be able to discern quickly whether he’s worth the roll of the dice in April.

S Kerby Joseph, Illinois Most of the draft’s top safeties are underclassmen or otherwise not in Mobile, so NFL teams will be left to sort through sleeper prospects at the position this week. Joseph doesn’t have ideal length at 6 feet tall or a long history of production as a one-year starter, but he had five interceptions and three fumble recoveries this season. The Lions could use that type of nose-for-the-ball production in their secondary, especially with Tracy Walker and Dean Marlowe headed for free agency.

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

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