It may sound like a cliche, but walking into the Senior Bowl media day you could feel the excitement in Mobile, Alabama surrounding the start of the first Senior Bowl practice. The day started with 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan stepping to the podium and the media wasted no time digging into Shanahan about his Senior Bowl plans.
The theme of the day for Shanahan was “improvement,” he reiterated it again, and again. Shanahan said his goal is to make the players here better. “We just want to get them comfortable and put them in position to showcase their skills,” said Shanahan.
The lore of Shanahan is already rubbing off on some of the prospects in Mobile. Louisiana State edge rusher, Jaylon Ferguson talked about the energy Shanahan brings, “he can light a room up,” said Ferguson. Other prospects like Old Dominion’s Oshane Ximines, and Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew both spoke about how Shanahan is already showing them how to be pro.
Moving on from media day and to the practice field, one thing stuck out— there is no shortage of wide receiver talent on the field in Mobile. Going into Senior Bowl week there was already an idea that the 2019 receiving class was deep, and they did not disappoint on day one. At the Senior Bowl there’s a mix of twitchy underneath receivers paired with a few big bodied playmakers— good news for 49ers who could use a dose of both.
West Virginia receiver Gary Jennings was a late add to the Senior Bowl roster, but looked like he belonged on day one. Jennings didn’t make any eye-popping plays, but he was continually consistent with every rep. He looked extremely smooth all over the field. He never had a defensive back glued to him, he created separation all day long with his route running ability. It was easy to spot how fast he got in and out his routes, which is something Shanahan preaches. Jennings’ teammate David Sills V also had a good day catching the football. Sills V just pops out as a 49ers-type player that Shanahan will fall in love with. A gritty wideout who catches everything and just seems to work really hard.
South Carolina receiver Deebo Samuel showed why he’s considered one of the best players in Mobile in practice today. He’s a fluid route runner who has athleticism and versatility to play inside and out. Samuel is also extremely physical for his 6’0 size. Even in 7-on-7 and 1-on-1 drills where hitting is frowned upon Samuel’s physical presence was felt.
The last receiver worth mentioning from the South roster is Clemson’s Hunter Renfrow. Yes, Renfrow is small, but he was quietly unguardable today. Renfrow uses footwork to create separation off the line of scrimmage and then it’s all over for the opposing defensive back. Renfrow was consistently open at the college level, but many questioned if that could translate to the next level, after one practice Renfrow is proving the doubters wrong.
Similar to the Shanahan’s South group the North wide receivers balled out on day one of the Senior Bowl. UC Davis wideout and Alameda native, Keelan Doss answered a lot of questions about his game in the North practice. Davis has elite size, and is known as a big bodied jump ball receiver, but today his most impressive trait was his route running. He cut up Ladd-Peebles stadium with several dynamic routes.
Texas defensive back Kris Boyd told me how impressed he was with the receiving group on the North side after practice. He said he had to go against Ohio State’s Terry McLaurin because he knew McLaurin’s speed would test Boyd. McLaurin, similar to several receivers in Mobile, impressed on day one. McLaurin caught an deep on a nine route in the first 1-on-1 session.
It wouldn’t be a Senior Bowl recap without mentioning University of Massachusetts receiver Andy Isabella. Isabella’s electric speed was the talk of media day when Isabella mentioned he once ran a 4.26 hand-timed 40-yard dash. When it came time for Isabella to show his skills on the field he did not disappoint. What was most impressive was that Isabella didn’t do it with just speed. He showed his footwork skills to burst in-and-out of reps at several moment today. Isabella looks to be on track to be the next Tyreek Hill, Brandin Cooks type— an offensive weapon that would be scary for the NFL if Shanahan drafted him
Another offensive position the 49ers were heavily focused on is the offensive line. The line group was tasked with facing an Edge group that boasts several top-tier prospects like Ximinies, Ferguson and Mississippi State’s Montez Sweat. While the offensive line group doesn’t have a headlining players like the edge group, some linemen had good reps versus top competition.
Oklahoma’s offensive guard Ben Powers was a wall in the interior 1-on-1 drills. He stuffed multiple defensive tackles at the line and showed good anchoring ability in the middle. Another interesting late add was Elon’s Oli Udoh. Udoh buried Ximinies on back-to-back reps on the outside. Udoh shined in the East-West Shrine game and is now parlaying a good performance at the Senior Bowl to elevate his draft stock sky-high.
When Jon Gruden’s north roster hit the field, Washington’s offensive tackle, Kaleb McGary dominated the North’s edge group. He looked like one of the superior offensive linemen in Mobile on day one. 49ers GM John Lynch was spending time watching the edge-offensive line 1-v-1’s and McGary, Powers and Udoh might’ve played their way onto the 49ers radar.
If you follow the Senior Bowl you’ll see several stories about the “losers” or “disappointments” of the first day of practice, but that’s not what the Senior Bowl is about— If you listened to anything Shanahan had to say in his opening presser this week is all about “Improvement.” Before stamping players as label of “loser” we have to see how they respond to the coaching the staffs here can provide.