There's still one NFL game left in the 2015 season, the ultimate one between the Broncos and the Panthers. But the rest of the NFL is already focused on the 2016 and the draft. And draft preps began in earnest this week, with the Senior Bowl practices in Mobile, Alabama.
After spending the week in Mobile, talking to the prospects, scouts, NFL personnel, media experts, and watching the North and South practices, here are my top seven takeaways from the Senior Bowl:
1. BILLS KEEPING THEIR OPTIONS OPEN
And they should. They have to.
There's still uncertainty about the health at certain key positions (safety, right tackle) and there are the constraints the salary cap will impose on Buffalo's ability to re-sign current players or go after free agents.
Bills GM Doug Whaley is reluctant to specify his team's personnel needs. But he says there's a certain freedom to Buffalo's approach to the draft, given the talent already on the roster and the talented class of NFL prospects.
"We could go at any position," Whaley said this week in Mobile. "And that opens the board for us and makes it a lot more exciting where we're not narrowing our focus."
After spending their resources on the offensive side of the ball last offseason (LeSean McCoy, Charles Clay, Tyrod Taylor, Percy Harvin and others) Whaley says the focus this offseason will likely be on defense. And he got a look at some top defensive prospects at the Senior Bowl.
2. DEFENSIVE LINE TALENT IS DEEP AT THE SENIOR BOWL
All the scouts and experts in Mobile agree – the defensive line crop is stocked this year.
"The defensive line is loaded from top to bottom," according to Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage. "You've got pass rushers, from Carl Nassib, to perhaps Jihad Ward, Jarran Reed, and Sheldon Rankins on the inside. Adolphus Washington, Sheldon Day-- this defensive line group is very impressive."
One of the most impressive players all week was Eastern Kentucky DE Noah Spence. He is a long, powerful, edge setting athlete who made plays in practice all week. Spence left Ohio State after failing multiple drug tests and being banned from play by the Big 10. He finished up his collegiate eligibility at Eastern Kentucky.
"This is a guy who is going to be looked at as a closer in the NFL," says ESPN NFL Analyst Louis Riddick. "When you have a lead and you're in the fourth quarter and you're trying to get the opposing team's quarterback on the ground, that's the kind of guy you want."
"I had someone suggest to me about Noah Spence that he is a better pass rusher at this point, more explosive and more valuable on third down than Khalil Mack was at the same time, when he came out," Riddick continued. "The only thing with Noah is he has to make sure that he answers all the questions about his character off the field. Because it is troublesome. And it's something people need to get their mind around so they're comfortable with him."
3. BRAXTON MILLER IS FOR REAL
By far, the most dynamic and impressive performer during Senior Bowl week was Ohio State WR Braxton Miller. The former QB began his transition to WR during his final year with the Buckeyes. And working against the best senior NFL prospects in the country this past week, Miller was dominant.
His size, explosiveness, and route running savvy was evident. Perhaps most impressive was his determination to fight for the ball in tight coverage situations, especially near the goal line.
Miller sounded very confident this week in his potential value for NFL teams.
"I feel like every team needs playmakers," he said, "and they've mentioned that I can do it all-whether it's being a punt returner, in the backfield as a decoy, or playing on the outside."
ESPN's Riddick says Miller will help his NFL team in a variety of ways.
"This guy, to me, is just like Randall Cobb-he'll be utilized the same way in the league. He'll be a guy who can run the ball from the backfield. He can line up at quarterback if you needed him to. He can run routes from the slot obviously because he's a matchup problem in there."
4. CARSON WENTZ AT THE HEAD OF THE QB CLASS
He'll soon be evaluated alongside California's Jared Goff, Memphis' Paxton Lynch, and Michigan State's Connor Cook. But for now, for this week, North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz was head and shoulders above the rest of the QB class at the Senior Bowl.
That's in part because of his size-Wentz is 6-5, 233 pounds. He's a classic drop back passer who seemed comfortable making any throw he was asked to make during the Senior Bowl practices.
The Bills are looking to add depth at the QB spot behind Tyrod Taylor. And GM Doug Whaley says Carson Wentz is an intriguing prospect.
"Big guy. Quick release. Strong arm. And he's a winner," Whaley said in Mobile. "He's won two national championships and that's one of the things that a lot of people, we put a lot of stock into. Is this guy a winner? Can he raise the level of his teammates and get them to play at a championship level? He's proven it."
5. FOR CORNERS, SIZE DOES MATTER
As NFL receivers continue to get bigger and more physical, so do the guys covering them. Of the ten cornerbacks working out at the Senior Bowl, six of them were 6-0 or taller.
The most impressive big corner may have been James Bradberry of Samford College. He's 6-1, 209 pounds. He did a good job in press coverage during Senior Bowl practices and used his 33-inch long arms to jam receivers and hold them up at the line of scrimmage during one on one drills.
"In press coverage, I can use my arm length," Bradberry said during the week. "I think I have pretty good long arms. I can use my arms to get on the receiver and control them when they go into their breaks. That's the advantage mainly of being tall-I can use my long arms."
Bradberry seemed to get extra attention from his Senior Bowl Coach-Gus Bradley of Jacksonville. Bradley consistently pulled Bradberry aside for extra instruction after practice reps, a good sign for a developing young prospect from an FCS school like Samford.
Louis Riddick of ESPN calls Bradberry one of his top under-the-radar prospects at the Senior Bowl.
"He's a big, strong, physical corner who can really get up on the line and press you and play physical at the point of attack," Riddick says.
6. ANOTHER GRONK ON THE WAY
Although East Amherst native Glenn Gronkowski is nowhere near the physical specimen his brother Rob is (who is?), he had a good week in Mobile. Baby Gronk is making the switch from FB at Kansas State to TE in the NFL.
He lined up in the backfield at times as a HB-type of receiver.
Whaley says Glenn Gronkowski will have to demonstrate that he can play a variety of roles for an NFL team. "Versatility is always a bonus for us," Whaley says. "If he can play fullback and do a little tight end, and do a little H-back and then also be good on special teams-those are type of guys who carve out those eight and nine year careers."
Senior Bowl Director Phil Savage mentions Gronkowski as a Kyle Juszczyk type of prospect. Juszczyk was a fourth round pick of the Ravens three years ago and has contributed on offense and special teams for Baltimore.
7. DON'T GO TO SLEEP ON …
You can't watch a week's-worth of Senior Bowl practice sessions without coming up with a couple of sleepers-guys who are underrated but light up the workouts with big plays and hustle.
One of them is Temple LB Tyler Matakevich, the Chuck Bednarik Award Winner as the top defensive player in college football last year. On a Senior Bowl practice field filled with giant, long, physical freaks, Matakevich stands out because of his lack of stature. He's listed at a generous 6-0, but with Matakevich, it's not about size. It's about smarts and instincts, and plenty of hustle. The redheaded terror always seemed to be around the ball during the workouts in Mobile.
Another is West Virginia safety K.J. Dillon. He made the hit of the week during the non-contact practices Thursday afternoon, when he burst into the backfield and hammered one of the North running backs.