Senior Bowl Preview: 10 Small School Sleepers to Keep an Eye On

Senior Bowl. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
Senior Bowl. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /
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2022 NFL Draft, Reese’s Senior Bowl. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images)
2022 NFL Draft, Reese’s Senior Bowl. (Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images) /

Ahh… the smell of draft season is officially in the air. Senior Bowl Week signals the first major milestone leading up to the draft in April.

The Senior Bowl is a chance for players who haven’t been front and center in most draft discussions to showcase their ability for pro scouts. This week also allows the small school prospects to share a field with talent from more prestigious programs. It gives scouts a better overall idea on which players will be able to keep up with NFL-caliber talent.

I picked my ten favorite “sleepers” — five on offense and five on defense — to highlight for Senior Bowl week. Every name listed has a great opportunity in front of them to boost their draft stock in a major way.

Without further ado, let’s jump right into it!

Isaiah Likely, TE, Coastal Carolina

Height: 6’4     Weight: 240 lbs

Isaiah Likely has always been viewed as a “tweener”, even dating back to high school. This stigma led to him receiving limited offers once he hit his senior year. He chose to continue his playing career for the Coastal Carolina Chanticleers, helping put them in the national discussion following their move to the FBS in 2017.

Likely became a threat in the red zone by catching five touchdowns in each of his first three seasons, all in mostly limited action. In 2020 he averaged a jaw-dropping 20 yards per reception, which placed him tenth nationally for all pass catchers.

In 2021, Likely was given a clean bill of health and he made the most of it. He played in 13 games and racked up 912 yards and 12 touchdowns. This includes a game versus Arkansas State that saw him detonate for 232 yards and four total touchdowns. One of those touchdowns tied an FBS-record (99 yards).

NFL general managers are chomping at the bit to find the next Darren Waller. A true diamond in the rough player that offensive coordinators can build whole game plans around. Likely is going to be a hot commodity because of such demand for game-changing tight ends.

He has a skill set that’s perfect for the league today. He’s extremely athletic, does well separating downfield, and is a consistent red zone threat. Likely is a rare home-run hitter from the tight end position. He is a nasty run blocker and displays proper technique and balance that will translate to the NFL.

Teams will question whether or not Likely is capable of reaching the upper echelon of the position, but a lot of those questions will be alleviated with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl.

Luke Goedeke, OT, Central Michigan

Height: 6’5     Weight: 310 lbs

Luke Goedeke played tight end throughout high school and college before eventually moving to the offensive line. Goedeke made the move prior to the 2019 campaign, starting 14 games at right tackle and proving the position change was wise.

Unfortunately, he was unable to build upon that momentum due to an injury that kept him sidelined for the entirety of the 2020 season. Luke was able to return to form in a big way the following season, bookending one of the best offensive lines in the country with his teammate — and fellow Senior Bowl attendee — Bernhard Raimann.

Goedeke makes his presence felt in the run game by asserting dominance at the point of contact. He sets the tone early in the game and never wavers due to his unmatched motor. His technique is borderline flawless. Goedeke is never caught off balance in pass protection, showing enough strength to stick bigger defenders and plenty of agility to slow down quicker ones. What makes Goedeke special is his ability to so easily get to the second level of the defense. He creates lanes for runners and continues upfield until the whistle blows. Central Michigan ran a lot of zone, so he is familiar with the concepts and does well out in space.

Don’t be surprised if scouts come away more impressed with Goedeke at the Senior Bowl than his teammate, the aforementioned Raimann.

D’Vonte Price, RB, Florida International

Height: 6’2     Weight: 216 lbs

D’Vonte Price was recruited heavily by Kentucky and USF, but ultimately chose the FIU Panthers in hopes that he would receive instant playing time. However, this decision did not pay off as quickly as Price expected.

For three seasons, he was part of a running back by committee. Price never surpassed 90 carries or 560 yards in any of those first few seasons on campus. This all started to change in the COVID-shortened 2020 season.

After years of putting in the work, he was finally given the reigns as lead back. In only four games, Price gashed defenses for 581 yards on 6.8 yards per carry. The latter number setting the pace for all Conference-USA players, as well as setting an FIU single-season record.

He had similar success in 2021, putting up career highs across the board. Price’s 682 yards on the ground and seven touchdowns paved the way for an invite to the Senior Bowl.

Price has very little experience as a lead back, along with non-existent production in the passing game. Where he thrives is between the tackles, playing “smash-mouth” football. He runs angry and never takes a big hit, because he’s the one initiating contact. Price is a willing — and capable — blocker, which will help his efforts to become a true three-down running back.

Limited usage can be a red flag for teams, but others will view him as a prospect with minimal wear and tear. Josh Jacobs is a good example.

Price projects as a day-three pick, but could help improve his image considerably if he’s able to flash some pass catching ability at the Senior Bowl.

Jalen Tolbert, WR, South Alabama

Height: 6’3     Weight: 195 lbs

Jalen Tolbert played three sports while growing up in Mobile, Alabama. He specialized in football, but also lettered in both basketball and baseball. He was not a highly sought-after recruit, receiving only two stars. His hometown college, the University of South Alabama, gave Tolbert one of his only offers and he accepted.

Tolbert battled injuries and limited opportunities his first two seasons. Year three was the first sign that something truly special existed inside this player. He had ten, 20+ yard catches in 2019 and found the end zone six times. In 2020, he proved that it wasn’t a fluke by exceeding 1000 yards for the first time in his collegiate career. Tolbert followed that up with an even more spectacular 2021. He set new career-highs in receptions (82), yards (1474), and touchdowns (8).

Tolbert is perhaps at his best in contested catch situations. He is not scared to go up and get the ball, oftentimes putting his body at risk in order to complete the play. He has a swagger that you love to see at the position and an innate ability to make highlight reel catches look easy.

Tolbert needs to add some weight to fill out his frame and must cut out his focus drops. He is extremely raw in terms of the fundamentals, showing inconsistent effort when he knows the ball is going elsewhere. Tolbert will have to prove he can separate to be a threat on Sundays but if he’s able to cash in on the Senior Bowl being in his hometown, NFL teams will come calling.

Christian Watson, WR, North Dakota State

Height: 6’5     Weight: 208 lbs

Christian Watson was not highly-recruited out of the DC area where he grew up. North Dakota State was the one team to take a shot and the rest is history. However, like others in this article, Watson did not become an immediate contributor.

It took until 2019, but his breakout moment finally occurred as he was part of one of the best quarterback/wide receiver tandems in the entire country. Trey Lance hooked up with Watson early and often, leading to an exhilarating 21.5 yards per reception. He was able to replicate the success in his final season with the Bison. Watson caught an impressive 43 passes, on the way to 800 yards through the air. He also caught seven touchdowns to boot.

Watson truly excels creating yards after the catch. For a man of his size, he is surprisingly quick and has great straight-line speed. He is still raw as a route runner but flashes potential to consistently get open once refined. An extra feather in the cap is that he played special teams every year on campus, which gives him a safer floor than others.

You would like to see Watson come down with more catches in traffic. He has a wide catch radius but doesn’t always get the ball at its peak. Another cause for concern is how his body will hold up against press-coverage, as he has instances on tape of getting jammed.

Watson will have an entire week with an NFL coaching staff to soak up valuable information and advice. If he is able to add weight to his frame and give a good showing versus top tier talent, look for his name to be called on the second day of the draft.