MOBILE, Ala. — The Senior Bowl’s top prospects, like usual, are the big men.
This time it’s guys like wide-bodied Washington defensive tackle Danny Shelton and LSU left tackle La’el Collins who are trying to help cement their status as first-round picks in the much-scrutinized workouts heading into Saturday’s game.
The 6-foot-2, 343-pound Shelton went from being projected as anywhere from a fourth-round pick to an undrafted free agent after his junior season to a guy many project as going somewhere in the middle or early part of the first round.
“It’s overwhelming,” Shelton said. “I hear a lot of people talking about it. For me personally, I don’t really get involved with media and outside voices. I want to just continue to stay levelheaded and continue to just focus, really.”
While the quarterbacks and tailbacks get more headlines, the 300-pounders are often the prized NFL prospects at the annual showcase game.
The Senior Bowl has had 61 offensive and defensive linemen taken in the first round over the past decade. Defensive tackle Aaron Donald was the 13th overall pick by St. Louis after a strong showing in last year’s practices, which are attended by hundreds of NFL scouts, executives and coaches who mostly leave town well before kickoff.
Two years ago, three of the first five selections were linemen who played in the Senior Bowl, including No. 1 overall pick Eric Fisher.
With players like West Virginia receiver Kevin White and Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota turning down invitations, blockers, run-stoppers and pass rushers are some of the most coveted players in Mobile.
Collins also appears to have improved his draft stock by returning for his senior season, when he won the Jacobs Blocking Trophy as the Southeastern Conference’s top blocker.
“I learned a lot and gained so much more maturity,” Collins said. “I think that was the biggest thing about me coming back for my senior year, really getting that maturity and really learning a lot.”
He and Pittsburgh’s T.J. Clemmings, a converted defensive end, are both widely projected as first-rounders on the offensive line. Others like Duke offensive lineman Laken Tomlinson and Iowa defensive lineman Carl Davis are hoping to work their way up.
A couple of college football’s top pass rushers are in the Senior Bowl, though some college defensive ends are making transitions to outside linebacker.
That includes Shelton’s Washington teammate, Hau’oli Kikaha, whose 19 sacks led the nation, and Utah’s Nate Orchard. Orchard’s 18.5 sacks were the second most nationally.
Shelton and Orchard, especially, have impressed NFL Network analyst Charles Davis in practice. Davis said Shelton’s performance has confirmed his high opinion of the mammoth lineman, who collected 93 tackles and nine sacks while often facing double teams.
Shelton attributes some of his athleticism for a big man to trying to emulate skill players like Troy Polamalu as a youngster. He also said he’s the type who practices pass rushing moves while walking down the street.
“I tried mirroring some of the defensive skill players, just trying to mirror their footwork and everything when I was little,” Shelton said. “I’ve always had this mentality of being a skinnier kid in a big body, really.”
Clemmings, meanwhile, has started 26 games the past two seasons since moving from defensive end under coach Paul Chryst.
“I don’t know where I would be but I don’t think I’d be here if I’d stayed at defensive end,” Clemmings said.