With the college football season squarely in the rearview mirror and the scouting combine about a month away, the annual pre-draft all-star games can serve as a primer for fans transitioning their focus toward the 2023 NFL Draft.
The Athletic‘s draft team will be there for both the Senior Bowl and Shrine Game next week, and I’ll be on location in Pasadena this week to watch and report on practices for the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl. The National Team at the Collegiate Bowl will be led by Eddie George, the former Titans star and current head coach of Tennessee State University, a historically black institution in Nashville. The American Team will be led by Jeff Fisher, George’s head coach from 1996 to 2003 and the current head coach/general manager of the USFL’s Michigan Panthers.
As is typical with these all-star games, expect each team to use a four-down front with single-high coverage and no blitzing. Those rules are put in place so each player can showcase his skill set without the mitigating circumstances that might come from tactical decisions.
Here are a few of the players I’ll have my eye on in Pasadena:
2022 stats: 136-of-218 passing for 1,568 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs; 560 rushing yards, 12 TDs
Games like these are made for quarterbacks with a lot to prove to NFL scouts, and Malik Cunningham will have an early opportunity to show that he can handle running an offense at the next level. With 114 combined passing and rushing touchdowns and more than 10,000 total yards over the past four seasons, Cunningham has effectively been the engine of the Louisville offense, taking over a role held from 2015 to 2017 by Lamar Jackson (and by Jawon Pass in 2018) .
Cunningham has real burst and creation ability as a runner, and he has enough arm to meet the NFL replacement level, at worst. His decision-making in competitive periods this week will be a focus of mine.
MALIK CUNNINGHAM TOOK OFF FOR THE TD 💨 pic.twitter.com/tLLQKxWChs
— ESPN (@espn) September 17, 2022
2022 stats: 41 catches for 526 yards, 2 TDs
Joseph Ngata’s career trajectory was a bit of a surprise, considering how dominant he was for Folsom (Calif.) High School. A top-10 receiver in his recruiting class, Ngata’s 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame gives the impression that he could be a No. 1 option in a passing offense, and he has the leaping and movement skills to win routes, too. But he ended his Clemson career with fewer than 100 receptions and just three touchdowns.
Not all of that falls on Ngata’s shoulders, especially since he battled injuries at different points. NFL teams, though, will need to see Ngata deal with the press and tight coverage to ease any concerns about the discrepancy between his talent and production.
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2022 stats: 47 tackles, 16 tackles for loss, 11.5 sacks, 1 INT, 2 forced fumbles
A three-time All-MWC player (first team in 2022, second team in ’21 and ’20) and one of Phil Steele’s 2022 All-America honorable mentions, David Perales had 48 combined sacks and tackles for loss over the past two seasons. . A transfer from Sacramento State, Perales is more of a motor/effort rusher than an edge bender or hand fighter, but you can see his adept understanding of angles and quarterback pocket management. At 6-3 and 255 pounds, he meets the NFL’s size thresholds and has a legitimate first step when getting off the ball. I’ll be keyed into whether he finishes his rushes with wins and/or collapsed pockets in one-on-one drills.
— Fresno State Football 🏆 (@FresnoStateFB) November 12, 2022
2022 stats: 3 catches for 38 yards
Frankly, I have no idea what to believe about Jahleel Billingsley’s potential. When Billingsley was at Alabama — and Mac Jones and Tua Tagovailoa were shredding SEC defenses — he looked every bit the athletic mismatch at his position that DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs were at wide receiver. Prior to the 2021 season, however, Billingsley incurred the wrath of Nick Saban, who answered questions about his tight end’s role with a pointed comment on work ethic and discipline.
“He knows what he’s supposed to do,” said Saban of Billingsley. “You know, this is not a democracy. Everybody doesn’t get to do what they want to do. Everybody doesn’t get to do what they feel like doing. You’ve got to buy in and do what you’re supposed to do to be a part of the team and do the things you need to do in practice every day.”
After banking 37 receptions and 559 yards for the Crimson Tide from 2019 to 2021, Billingsley should have been building toward a breakout 2022. Instead, he transferred to Texas, missed six games after being suspended by the NCAA for an undisclosed issue stemming from his time at Alabama, and only produced three catches for 38 yards. Billingsley is a great athlete — and I expect him to undress some safeties and linebackers in one-on-ones — but what will ultimately matter is how the National Team coaching staff feels he’s handling himself throughout the week.
Titus Leo, Edge, Wagner
2022 stats: 65 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 blocked kicks
One of several FCS defenders I’m excited to see compete this week, Titus Leo is a 6-4, 245-pound edge rusher who had 53 combined sacks and tackles for loss in his Wagner career. His go-to move is a long-arm power rush and, while he has the right size to play edge at the next level, I want to see his explosive strength to verify that he could replicate his collegiate success at the next level.
Leo also recently accepted an invitation to next week’s East-West Shrine Bowl in Las Vegas.
Wagner DL Titus Leo has accepted an invitation to play in the Shrine Bowl. Leo was a 2X NEC Defensive Player of the Year, 2021 FCS All-American, & 3X First Team All-NEC selection https://t.co/AEtKtHbkpx
— The Bluebloods (@The__Bluebloods) January 19, 2023
Marte Mapu, LB/DB, Sacramento State
2022 stats: 76 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 2 INTs, 1 sack
Playing as a nickel back for a Sacramento State team that posted an undefeated regular season, Marte Mapu earned FCS All-America honors and led his defense in tackles. At 6-3, 215, chances are that he’ll be worked out (and projected) as a true safety this week in preparation for the NFL Draft. With seven career interceptions and 22 passes defended, Mapu has shown some ball skills and comfort playing close to the line of scrimmage. However, his viability moving back to the third level of defense will be determined by his range. We’ll see how he handles himself in seven-on-seven drills.
2022 stats: 67 receptions for 1,016 yards, 10 TDs
CJ Johnson is built like a 6-2 running back and shows the power of one. His 220-pound frame moves smoothly with the ball in his hands, he has good top-end speed for his size and he plays through weak tackles.
While I like Johnson’s hands and ball-tracking skills, I struggle to find much tape of him winning with physicality or explosiveness at the catch point. During one-on-ones this week, I’d like to see him going over the top on jump balls and bullying defensive backs.
— ECU Football (@ECUPiratesFB) December 28, 2022
2022 stats: 65 tackles, 14 tackles for loss, 3 sacks, 2 INTs, 2 blocked kicks
A converted cornerback, Anthony Johnson’s career stat line looks more like that of a five-year linebacker: 164 solo tackles in 62 games, over 200 total career stops and no interceptions prior to the two he grabbed in 2022. It’s tough to project anything when it comes to players from Iowa State defensive coordinator Jon Heacock’s three-high safety scheme, given the amount of soft zone and drop-eight coverage. So, I’ll be eager to see how Johnson navigates space and shows a feel for the game throughout the week.
2022 stats: 126 carries for 624 yards, 3 TDs; 21 receptions for 155 yards, 1 TD
His production took a real hit when Billy Napier’s staff (and multiple players) moved on from Lafayette after 2021, but Chris Smith is an explosive back who can fit into the outside-zone schemes we see all over the NFL. He only had three touchdown runs in 2022 but averaged 5.0 yards per carry. For his career, he ran for 2,167 yards and 16 TDs. Smith isn’t the best finisher through contact, though, so scouts will want to see him falling forward and fighting for extra yardage.
— Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns® Football (@RaginCajunsFB) November 29, 2022
2022 stats: 57 tackles, 1.5 tackles for loss, 2 INTs, 1 sack
A Jim Thorpe Award semifinalist this past season, Trevon Flowers was one of the best tacklers for Tennessee’s defense over the last three years. He finished 2020 and 2022 ranked second on the Volunteers in tackles; he was third in 2021. Flowers is capable of making explosive contact, tracks the ball well from distance and improved his ball production in 2022 (four forced turnovers). Tennessee was comfortable aligning Flowers in the slot, so I’m curious to see how he covers guys who have an entire route tree available. (*Flowers accepted an NFLPA Collegiate Bowl invitationbut as of Monday morning, he was not listed on the roster for the game.)
(Photo: Ken Ruinard / USA Today)