Sunday Senior Showcase: The Underrateds

Photo: © Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Offense: Arizona State RB Eno Benjamin

Is Eno Benjamin actually a senior? No. Is he going to the Senior Bowl therefore grandfathered into my Senior Showcase? Absolutely, and thank goodness for that.

Benjamin is a doggone good football player, and when you're ripping through college film, it's rare to see a running back with as much polish as he has. His decision-making behind the line of scrimmage and his vision approaching the first two levels of the defense allow him to maximize yardage on every rep; he rarely, if ever, picks up negative yardage on a run.

This, from my final report on Benjamin:

Vision: A practiced and intelligent runner on multiple concepts. Does an excellent job forcing the issue by pressing the line of scrimmage or leaning into blocks to make defenders play with leverage so that they choose a direction and he can work opposite them. Anticipates the movement of second-level fill and alley players well and is able to break into the third level on runs with rush moves accordingly...
Decision-making: A consummate professional who does not put his offense at risk of falling off schedule. Never dances behind the line of scrimmage in an effort to create something and is always willing to do the hard work of burrowing into the line to get what he can...highly trustworthy in key down situations given his instance on not losing yardage.

That's a big deal for NFL teams. When creating a backfield, the first question teams have to answer is: Who hits my homerun in this backfield? The next: Who has the breakaway ability necessary to take a well-blocked run the distance? And that player probably isn't Benjamin. Benjamin doesn't have the strongest profile as a third-level runner with only modest elusiveness and average speed in the open field. He's a shorter and thicker running back who simply doesn't have the track ability to bust a safety's angle and house an explosive touchdown.

But the next questions: Who's going to be our grinder? Who's going to generate consistent, positive yardage for us to get us into manageable down-and-distance situations? That player is definitely Benjamin.

He's the best first-level runner in this class — no, players like Travis Etienne and Jonathan Taylor haven't declared yet, and I haven't given them final film evaluations. But of the players I' have watched, Benjamin consistently makes the correct and rapid decision behind the offensive line; he regularly sneaks into the second level and survives first contact to generate some chunk plays in the secondary.

Watch those two reps and focus on what Benjamin is processing as he works through multiple blocks, tackle attempts and reads. On the first rep, he adjusts to the leverage of the linebackers against the blockers as he's still working through the first block. On the second rep, watch as he gets ready to break the second tackle attempt while he's still working through the first tackle attempt. Benjamin has such a good eye and feel for the game, he works these narrow gaps and tight quarters with great consistency. And that's not just mental — it's physical. 

Benjamin has a wide base and good hip mobility to change direction in tight quarters. On top of that, work in the weight room and a good natural build has created a thick torso and thighs, which is how he survives the initial contact on both of these reps to work into the next level of the defense. This is just hard-nosed stuff right here. It isn't sexy, it's not obvious, it doesn't get speed ramped into highlight films. But it gets the job done.

Benjamin will not break into the top tier of backs we expect to declare in this class unless he tests much better than I anticipate, but in the second tier, he's my favorite prospect by a country mile — delightful film from the yeoman out of Arizona State.

Defense: Wisconsin EDGE Zack Baun

If anyone asks you who the most underrated 2020 draft prospect is in the media right now, answer "Wisconsin EDGE Zack Baun."

Then lavish yourself in your spoils after the Senior Bowl. Because this guy can play.

Baun has a lot of the traits that we come to expect from Wisconsin EDGEs: His hands are great, he builds everything off of a strong first step, he's super quick in tight spaces and he's just a little stubbier/lighter/leaner than you wish he was for a stand-up outside rusher. But when you watch him sequence together his outside rushes with his inside counters, you see a player who is immediately ready to contribute in the NFL because of how well he sets up, then addresses tackles on their sets.

This, from my final report on Baun:

Rush Moves: Has the goods. Works an arm-over, inside spin, and cross-chop all with good effectiveness and timing. Does a good job initially sculpting a rush plan and immediately winning with his first step to set up his opponent, and then can read tackle sets and adjust accordingly on the fly. Has some issues with hand location and power at times when he's working the cross-chop and inside spin and seems to be lacking for ideal mass up top. Has an excellent ability to finish his initial move with clever footwork, surface-area reduction, and angles to minimize the issues of his limited bend.

The bend is the big question mark with Baun. At his best, he's inconsistently able to take tight corners by rushing with tilt and using smart footwork to make angles as soft as possible. On average, he gets folded over by powerful tackles and pushed beyond the peak of the pocket. He just does not take the tightest angles.

Baun is smart at working within the confines of his bend. Much like Benjamin above, Baun has such clean and intelligent footwork, and he uses it intentionally to generate quick rush angles and create more room for him to take wider corners. While his hand usage is strong, his upper body strength is only average, so it's important for him to win with quickness and foot placement to win reps early. And that approach is all over his film.

If you're this effective at generating inside push, teams who stunt and run simulated pressures will love you (New England, Indianapolis, the New York Giants). But Baun brings this same approach to his outside rushes as well and accordingly can win as a traditional stand-up 3-4 outside linebacker who occasionally drops into space.

Baun needs to add mass at the NFL level to win as a three-down defender and must be placed in a stand-up role at this juncture. But in terms of pass rushers ready to contribute in Year 1, he's one of the best in this class — and the Senior Bowl should bear witness to that.