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NFL draft: Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts has golden opportunity at Senior Bowl

Two weeks from today, Senior Bowl practices begin in Mobile, Ala. For the 110 or so players who will take part in the event, it’s a tremendous opportunity to stand out amid a talented field of prospects, roughly 80 to 85 percent of whom will end up as NFL draft picks.

But there’s one player whose opportunity appears to be bigger than nearly anyone else’s down there.

Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts is one of five quarterbacks to accept invitations for the event (there will be more to come), but he’s the one who has the greatest chance to see his stock rise or fall during the week’s worth of practices, meetings and the game itself.

Hurts is a polarizing figure in the draft community. One personnel director from a QB-needy team we spoke to in December laid out the Hurts conundrum.

“On the one hand, you see this super-talented runner, and he’s clearly made strides throwing the football,” the director said. “And he’s going to win someone over during the interview process — the intangibles, the intelligence, the leadership — they’re all through the roof.

“But as a pro-ready [quarterback], what exactly is he? That’s what I am left with. I just don’t know if he’s shown enough in terms of tipping his throws, dropping his eyes ... and there are just not enough downfield throws that translate. Just because he hits 2 [CeeDee Lamb] on a shot play doesn’t mean [Hurts] is a great deep passer.”

These are all the questions Hurts had in his first three years at Alabama before leaving to join the Sooners. He’ll be the biggest celebrity at this event — assuming Joe Burrow passes on his invitation — in his former home state, as Bama fans remained infatuated with him even as Hurts left to blaze his own trail elsewhere. They couldn’t blame him at all for not wanting to back up Tua Tagovailoa for another season.

Former Oklahoma QB Jalen Hurts has a big opportunity to boost his draft stock at the 2020 Senior Bowl. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

What NFL scouts think of Jalen Hurts now

Make no mistake: Hurts’ invitation is not a PR stunt by the Senior Bowl staff to sell tickets. He belongs in that mix. Last year’s Senior Bowl QB crop included one first-rounder (Daniel Jones), one second-rounder (Drew Lock), one third-rounder (Will Grier), two fourth-rounders (Ryan Finley and Jarrett Stidham), two sixth-rounders (Gardner Minshew and Trace McSorley) and one who went undrafted (Tyree Jackson).

The absolute floor for Hurts would be somewhere in that McSorley range — he went 197th overall to the Baltimore Ravens. They play with similar styles, although we’d argue that Hurts is a more gifted NFL prospect than McSorley, and the Ravens-esque mode of thinking (along with the New Orleans Saints and the way they utilize Taysom Hill) appears to give Hurts a boost above that sixth-round range.

Even if Hurts wants first to prove himself as a quarterback, his athleticism and versatility cannot go overlooked. If he nails the practices in Mobile and crushes the remainder of the pre-draft process, Hurts might crack Day 2 of the draft — perhaps even landing in the first 75 or 80 picks. A safe projection might put Hurts more into the Round 4 range right now. That seems to be where his median NFL grade lies now heading into the Senior Bowl.

“He’s a unique study,” the director said. “Some teams might be blown away by the athleticism and the intangibles and say, ‘Yeah, I’m [comfortable] putting a [third-round grade] on him. Other teams just might not have a fit for him. Maybe he’s a different position for a few teams, or strictly a developmental quarterback. Those teams aren’t giving him a [third-round grade].”

How much can the Senior Bowl really help?

Don’t dismiss what a week in Mobile can do for a player.

It’s where Jones endeared himself to the New York Giants and GM Dave Gettleman, who made him the No. 6 pick in the draft when not many NFL folks imagined that scenario coming into the week. It’s where Baker Mayfield went from a mid first-round possibility to the No. 1 overall selection. Josh Allen improved as the week wore on in 2018 and made a commensurate rise. Carson Wentz thrived in 2016 and went second overall. The list of examples goes back many years.

But yes, it works both ways. Lock looked really strong in practice but never saw a bump from his performances, dropping out of Round 1. Dak Prescott didn’t especially separate himself from a QB group that included Brandon Allen, Jacoby Brissett and Jake Coker and slid to Round 5. Perhaps the most famous example is eventual third-rounder Russell Wilson, for whom the structured practices didn’t provide the ideal environment to showcase his skills.

And that’s the fear with Hurts: Whichever Senior Bowl team he ends up on, that of the Cincinnati Bengals or Detroit Lions coaching staffs, Hurts will be asked to run that team’s offense and likely won’t have a system that is catered to his unique skill set the way the offenses at Bama and OU were.

Any NFL team breaking down Hurt’s practice and game tape from Mobile must keep the proper perspective of what his performance means within the scope of their own system.

He’s not the next Lamar Jackson, folks

What we hope doesn’t happen is teams on the look out for “the next Lamar Jackson” and hoping to find a clone in Hurts. They’re different prospects entirely.

They share possessing the ability to win by both throwing and running effectively, and each can inspire their teammates to levels where they might not have thought they could rise. But that’s about where the similarities end.

Hurts has a stockier build than Jackson and a far different style of running, with less wiggle and more gliding and leg churning. Jackson is clearly the more gifted thrower than Hurts, whose upside in this regard — he was born the same day as Kyler Murray — might be somewhat limited. Besides, looking for the next Jackson is like looking for the next Halley’s Comet. You might have to get comfy and wait it out for a few decades.

So assuming most NFL teams can avoid that trap, there’s still a massive opportunity at stake. Competing alongside other fascinating cases such as Utah State’s Jordan Love, Washington State’s Anthony Gordon and Michigan’s Shea Patterson could really create some separation and clarity for a few of them.

If Tagovailoa’s fate likely will be the big drama for Day 1 of the 2020 draft, Hurts’ eventual landing spot could be the most intriguing Day 2 or 3 cliffhanger. And the answer to that will begin with what happens starting in two weeks.

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