MOBILE, Ala. — It's Senior Bowl week, which means much of the NFL has descended on the quaint gulf town of Mobile to evaluate many of the prospects in the league's upcoming rookie class.
It's a meaningful event because it's the first chance for the young players to receive professional coaching, with the Bears and Browns coaching this year's North and South squads, respectively. And at the same time, it's also a time for scouts and coaches to see what these young players can do in an NFL scheme. Plus, there's time for teams to have formal meetings with prospects to start to get to know them on a personal level.
Rams All-Pro defensive tackle Aaron Donald was a participant in the 2014 Senior Bowl. And last year, notable 2016 rookie quarterbacks Carson Wentz and Dak Prescott both made positive impressions in Mobile.
Who will make that positive impression this year? Here are four names to keep in mind this week.
1) O.J. Howard — TE — Alabama — South
Despite his team's ultimate result, Howard had a particularly memorable national championship game on Jan. 9, recording 208 yards receiving and two touchdowns on just five receptions. With Alabama's run-heavy scheme, he's also been known as a solid blocker on the line of scrimmage. He's expected to be one of the strongest performers this week.
2) Cooper Kupp — WR — Eastern Washington — North
In a sense, Kupp may be this year's Wentz — a dominant player from a small school who many don't know in January, but all will likely be familiar with come draft time in April. After four years at Eastern Washington, the wideout holds 15 FCS records, 11 Big Sky Conference records, and 26 program records for his performances. He finished with 6,464 career yards receiving — an average of 1,616 yards per season and 124.3 yards per game — 428 receptions, and 73 touchdowns, which are all FCS records. He's someone scouts will definitely have an eye on this week.
3) Ben Boulware — LB — Clemson — South
You may have heard of Boulware from his performance in the national championship game, for which he was named Defensive MVP. In that game, he recorded six tackles — two for loss — and a pass defensed. But he also was a clear factor in diagnosing a number of Alabama plays that Clemson was then able to successfully stop.
Boulware received this year's Jack Lambert award as the nation's top linebacker, having recorded 116 total tackles — 11.5 for loss — 4.0 sacks, and an interception. In all, Boulware recorded 26.5 tackles for loss and 8.0 sacks in his four years at Clemson.
4) Tanoh Kpassagnon — DE — Villanova — South
Kpassagnon is another small-school player who could improve his draft stock with a strong showing in Mobile this week. The defensive end put up eye-popping stats against FCS competition, becoming a first-team AP All-American for his 2016. In 13 games, Kpassagnon recorded 11.0 sacks and 21.5 tackles for loss. He was particularly consistent, recording one sack in nine of Villanova's 13 games.
Listed at 6-foot-7 and 290 pounds, Kpassagnon appears to have the measurables necessary to be an impact player as a professional. Going against fellow NFL-caliber talent this week can potentially confirm that in practice.
NOTABLES NOT PARTICIPATING
There are a couple notable players who will not be participating in this year's Senior Bowl, either due to injury or declining the invitation.
The biggest name out there would be Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson, who declined the invitation despite reports that the Browns — who would have coached him on the South team — asked him to consider participating.
One notable player who won't play due to injury is Ole Miss quarterback Chad Kelly — nephew of Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly — who suffered a torn ACL and torn lateral meniscus in November. Kelly is in Mobile to talk to teams, going through the interview process, however.
Michigan tight end Jake Butt also suffered a late-season knee injury — a torn ACL in the Orange Bowl — and will not be able to participate in the on-field activities.