The NFL season hasn’t officially ended yet, with the Super Bowl still yet to be played, but the first big event of NFL draft season has already come and gone. This past weekend, the Senior Bowl game was played as the culmination of a week of practices between some of college football’s top senior prospects.
There were plenty of players who turned in impressive performances, but these six players were among the very top of the list. This is also exclusive to players the Cowboys are likely to target, so quarterbacks like Malik Willis and Kenny Pickett aren’t included even though they also did well this past week.
Trevor Penning, OT - Northern Iowa
If you had to pick just one player from the Senior Bowl who had the best performance, most people would say Trevor Penning is that guy. He entered the Senior Bowl already expected by many to be a first-round pick, and his film at Northern Iowa had many taking note of his physical style of play.
Penning doubled down on that at the Senior Bowl, absolutely manhandling the competition in one-on-one drills and in the game itself. His mean streak flashed on more than one occasion, and it had several defenders coming close to exchanging blows because of how easily he got under their skin.
Offensive tackle may not be an obvious priority for the Cowboys right now, but they’d have a hard time passing on one like Penning if he was still available when they pick. It might be a blessing in disguise, then, that Penning’s head-turning performance in Mobile has probably taken him out of the Cowboys’ range.
Zion Johnson, OG - Boston College
Zion Johnson has the potential to be a real feel-good story in this draft. After playing for several seasons at FCS school Davidson, he transferred to Boston College and played exceptionally well at left guard.
Johnson parlayed that into a Senior Bowl invitation, and he didn’t take it for granted. Johnson consistently turned heads with his strength and physicality. But perhaps the biggest part for him was playing most of the week at center, a new position for him. Johnson didn’t look lost, either, and undoubtedly improved his draft stock with the added versatility to play center.
For the Cowboys, who are preparing to see their starting left guard of the past four years, Connor Williams, enter free agency, Johnson must look pretty good right now. Add in the ups and downs that center Tyler Biadasz had this year, and Johnson’s appeal only goes up.
Khalil Shakir, WR - Boise State
Barring an unforeseen turn of events, the Cowboys figure to be in the wide receiver market to some degree this year. Both Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson are on expiring contracts, and rumors persist that they might cut Amari Cooper to save cap space.
Enter Khalil Shakir, receiver from Boise State. At the Senior Bowl, he had arguably the best week of any receiver in attendance, showing off in particular his ability to create separation off the line of scrimmage. Shakir likely isn’t a first-round prospect, but he’s rising up draft boards now.
Considering one of the Cowboys’ bigger problems on offense this past year was the ability for receivers to get open, adding someone with Shakir’s skillset would be a big deal. There’s also the obvious Boise State connection, especially after the team just added a coach with strong ties to the program. If Shakir wasn’t already on the Cowboys’ radar, he definitely is now.
Perrion Winfrey, iDL - Oklahoma
If Trevor Penning was the biggest standout at the Senior Bowl, then Perrion Winfrey was immediately behind him. The Oklahoma defender, who came to Norman as a JUCO transfer, was dominating in one-on-one drills all week. His explosiveness off the ball made things difficult for anyone tasked with blocking him.
Then came the Senior Bowl game. Winfrey was a complete game-wrecker, tallying two sacks and three tackles for loss. He was all over the field, seemingly getting in on every play. Anyone who didn’t know his name going into the game definitely knows it now.
The Cowboys have two promising players in Neville Gallimore and Osa Odighizuwa, and Trysten Hill showed flashes when he returned from injury too. But the team still lacked a consistent interior pass rush, and also struggled to stop the run inside too. Therein lies the appeal for Winfrey, whose strong Senior Bowl may have propelled him right into the Cowboys’ draft range.
Boye Mafe, EDGE - Minnesota
The 2022 EDGE class is shaping up to be loaded with great talents, and as such many were overlooking Minnesota’s Boye Mafe heading into Senior Bowl week. That changed in a hurry. During practices, he kept getting attention for his explosive first step against linemen, but it wasn’t enough.
He really got the conversation going in the game. Like Winfrey, Mafe recorded two sacks and three tackles for loss. He also forced a fumble on the day. Mafe played like he was shot out of a gun on seemingly every snap and easily took advantage of the slower tackles he went up against.
With the Cowboys set to see contracts expire for both Randy Gregory and Dorance Armstrong, as well as potentially making DeMarcus Lawrence a cap casualty, EDGE will be a priority this offseason. Mafe probably won’t be a first-round prospect just due to how loaded the EDGE class looks to be, but he’s certainly emerged as a sneaky good option on Day 2.
Jalen Pitre, S - Baylor
If Dan Quinn had fun moving Micah Parsons all over the field this year - and his decision to pass on several head coaching jobs to stick around indicates he did - then he should love Baylor’s Jalen Pitre. Listed as a safety, Baylor moved him around quite a lot, using him as a safety, outside cornerback, slot cornerback, off-the-ball linebacker, and blitzer.
But the Senior Bowl was a chance for Pitre to show what he could do in coverage, and he aced the test. At just 5’10” and 196 pounds, Pitre has the frame of a guy destined for slot duties exclusively. However, he consistently held his own in one-on-one drills before making plays everywhere during the game. He showed great skill as a tackler and coverage safety, reinforcing the idea that he truly can be a Swiss army knife type of player.
The Cowboys are currently slated to lose three of their top four safeties to free agency, although Israel Mukuamu effectively took a redshirt season this year. Still, it would figure that Dallas would look at safeties in this upcoming draft class. And Pitre’s strong showing this past week, in conjunction with his positional versatility, has to make Quinn salivate at the thought of pairing him with Parsons.