I was excited to see Emanuel Hall play at the Senior Bowl. Burner from Missouri needed to prove he had hands and a route tree -- and this week could have been his chance to do just that. But a groin strain kept him off the field, and he didn't make the trip.
I was excited to see Jalen Hurd play at the Senior Bowl. RB-convert -- not a typical position shift, of course -- from Baylor had a chance to prove to teams he was worth the developmental pick at a position he was still learning. Hurd was hoping to recover from a knee injury in time to be healthy and play, but it wasn't to be.
I'm not sure which of those two dropped spots opened the door for Penny Hart -- but boy oh boy, am I glad it came to pass.
The initial reaction wasn't so, however. There were several likable senior receivers at the Shrine Game -- Fresno's KeeSean Johnson, Ole Miss' DaMarkus Lodge, and Georgia's Terry Godwin -- who many thought deserved a call-up. You can throw me in that group for sure.
Instead, a Sun Belt third-teamer with 49 receptions, 669 yards, and 2 touchdowns to his senior season took the field. Some 5-foot-8 punt returner from a bad Georgia State team, we thought. That close to the Senior Bowl week, with so many players left, I didn't get to him -- and given his lack of buzz coming into the week, many others didn't get there as well.
The odds were up against Penny: No hype coming into the week, poor measurables, and other prospects favored for the spot he got late. If he was going to get attention, he was going to have to rip it from a WR group with Andy Isabella, Jakobi Meyers, and Keelan Doss.
In that spirit, here's what he did on Day 1:
Here's what he did on Day 2:
And here's what he did on Day 3:
By then, he already had our attention. Every analyst whipped out his phone when Hart lined up in the slot; made sure they tracked him left and right as he spun DBs 'til their heads popped off. Red zone reps, 7-on-7s, 11-on-11s, it didn't matter -- if the North team was out on the field, Penny Hart was embarrassing all the corners whose names we knew weeks ago; outshining the receivers who got the invite before him.
Hart is an impossibly loose athlete. His hips, knees, and ankles have so much mobility to them, that he works through tremendously awkward angles and still retains velocity. That Day 2 release? Sickening deception in his footwork and hips. The angles that his body makes with the ground are unbelievable -- how can you not believe he's going one way, when really, he's wanted to go the other way all along?
This fluidity and route deception is evident on Hart's Georgia State tape. His stats were limited in 2018 by a QB that simply couldn't hit the broad side of a barn, and Hart was regularly left wide open downfield and in the intermediate areas. Moving at a different speed as everyone else on the field, Hart's ability to uncover on isolation man routes will immediately translate into NFL play.
The Georgia State tape also illustrates the issue that likely kept Hart so quiet to this point: the dropsies. Hart has 8 7/8" hands, which comes just below a 9" benchmark. 31 3/8" arms as well on a 5-foot-8 frame? That is a small catch radius, and Hart struggles to attack the football outside of his frame, maintain leverage against longer defensive backs, and adjust to poorly thrown balls.
He showed sticky mitts during Senior Bowl practices and regularly made hand catches at full extension, so I was surprised to see the problem pop up -- but it's an understandable limitation for a player with his frame.
But teams saw him in Mobile make the catches; win the routes; and they know that his quickness and motor will translate when the ball is in his hands. They won't throw away his tape just because of a strong week, but they will wonder: what's the floor with this kid? A great gadget player who can turn manufactured touches into homerun plays -- and that's as a returner as well. That's a Round 5 or 6 selection every day of the week.
And in Mobile, he proved that he could be more: A starting slot, who can win downfield and in the underneath areas. A regular staple for 11 personnel teams. An absolute problem -- a nightmare and a half -- for teams without a strong nickel corner.
Penny Hart is the biggest riser of the week, and he was a healthy groin or a recovered knee away from never making it here at all.
Comparing Hart, Isabella, and Hunter Renfrow is a tricky proposition -- three different levels of football, and three different players. Bickering about Hart and Isabella's relative quickness is of no interest to me -- what is of interest to me is how Hart took a glimmer of opportunity and twisted, snapped, and shimmied his way into NFL front-offices. Scouts did their homework on him, and we did too: Penny Hart is the real freakin' deal.