MOBILE, Ala. – Two of the best edge prospects at the Senior Bowl come from very different conferences. Mississippi State's Montez Sweat hails from the big, bad Southeastern Conference. Louisiana Tech's Jaylon Ferguson played in Conference USA, which UAB won in 2018 a few years after the school shut down the program.
If Sweat broke the NCAA career sacks record while leading the nation in his final season, then he would be the surefire No. 1 pick in the draft. He wouldn't have even needed to go to Mobile. Ferguson, on the other hand, did those things and still needs to prove he can play this week against Wisconsin Badgers after feasting on Rice Owls. Offensive lineman Will Hernandez, the Giants' second-round pick last year, had to do the same thing coming from UTEP, which also plays in C-USA.
"I feel like it's an opportunity to put my face out there, let people know me personally," Ferguson said. "Also to show I'm good against other competition because despite my numbers, I've still got some doubts in my game, and I'm here to put all the doubts to sleep."
With 2.5 sacks in his final collegiate game, the 6-foot-5, 262-pound Ferguson broke the all-time NCAA record for career sacks with 45.0 over the course of his Bulldog career, passing Terrell Suggs' previous record of 44.0 at Arizona State. More important, Ferguson said, was winning five consecutive bowl games, a program first.
"When I got the sack I was happy, but I was more happy about having five bowl rings with my brothers on the field," added Ferguson, who was named the Hawaii Bowl Most Outstanding Player after LA Tech's win over the Rainbow Warriors. "That's the most important thing."
The redshirt senior led the nation in sacks with a school and conference single-season record 17.5, earning him C-USA Defensive Player of the Year honors and four separate All-America accolades. You wouldn't know it by his demeanor off the field. Self-described as "real, real country," the Louisiana native was laid back during media day at the Senior Bowl. Don't get him wrong, though. He'll remind you that no one has put up numbers like him. Even so, he does it in his own cool way.
"I live my life slow so I can play fast," Ferguson said. "Really before the game, I'll just be in my own world, just chilling and quiet. And then right before we go on the field, I turn it up, I turn it on, get ready to go because on the field you can't be cool and laid back. You've got to be up. People are looking up to you. People are depending on you. So you've got to get up and go."
NFL Media's Daniel Jeremiah, who listed Ferguson No. 35 overall among the top prospects, wrote the following in his scouting report: "Ferguson has ideal size, length, power and production. He has experience standing up on the edge, as well as putting his hand on the ground. In the passing game, he is a pure power rusher. He uses a violent stutter bull rush and he'll mix in a long-arm move, as well as an occasional hand swipe. He has very heavy hands and OTs immediately give ground once he lands them. He is a little tight at the top of his rush, but he's an excellent finisher (see: 45 sacks at Louisiana Tech, including 17.5 this past season). In the run game, he can use his length to set the edge. His effort on the back side needs to improve. He'll take some snaps off. Overall, Ferguson isn't a bendy edge defender, but I love his physicality and ability to finish. He should be a Day 1 starter in the NFL."
NFL.com's Daniel Jeremiah released the fourth edition of his top 50 prospect rankings.
The Giants, who were tied with the Patriots for 30th in the NFL in sacks this season, have a rich history of small-school players making it big at the next level, particularly pass rushers. Hall of Famer Michael Strahan, who holds the franchise sack record, went to Texas Southern. Osi Umenyiora, fourth on the list, played at Troy here in Alabama.
"They open the doors for players like me because they've been through it," Ferguson said. "They had the same chip on their shoulder that I've got on my shoulder. Even Khalil Mack, he came from Buffalo in New York. Now look at him, big time, big Khalil Mack. First, coming out of a school people couldn't tell you where he went to school at, but now I think all eyes are on small schools when it comes down to pass rushers. Even last year with Marcus Davenport out of UTSA, he did the same thing. He opened a lot of doors for me, too, and I appreciate him for that."
Meanwhile, the doors get blown wide open when playing on stages with the likes of Alabama and LSU in your division. That is the case with Sweat, ranked No. 20 overall by Jeremiah.
"Sweat is a tall, long and athletic defensive end," Jeremiah wrote in his scouting report. "As a pass rusher, he relies on a quick get-off and his length to pop/separate before bending around the edge to generate sacks. He doesn't show much snap/power on contact, but he still finds ways to win. His effort is excellent. Against the run, he plays a little high and will get moved around by opposing tackles. He will improve once he learns to lower his pads. Sweat is much better versus tight ends. He has the agility to drop into the flat in coverage. Overall, Sweat needs to get stronger, but his combination of length, agility and production makes him an easy sell in the draft room."
Sweat earned first-team All-America accolades by three outlets in his senior season while being named first-team All-SEC by the coaches and Associated Press. He teamed with defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons, ranked No. 5 by Jeremiah, to become one of the best defensive line duos in the nation. Sweat declined the NFL a year ago after he was tied for the SEC lead in sacks and tackles for loss in 2017. He went on to lead the Bulldogs in sacks for a second straight year (11.5). So why did he stay another year and come to the Senior Bowl?
"I just feel like I've still got a whole lot to prove," Sweat said. "I wanted to play with these coaches and also learn something from them, just keep on getting better."
Sweat certainly did that in his first Senior Bowl practice with the South Team. He provided one of the top highlights that made everyone gasp as he made easy work of an offensive lineman with a little shake into a bull rush. NFL Network's "Scout Cam" captured it perfectly.
"It's something that I've always been working on," Sweat said of the move. "I just finally decided to pull it out. It's just been a long time since I put on the pads. I've been a little rusty, so it just came out."
The NFL Media crew took notice and named him one of the stars from Day 1.
"Sweat annihilated everyone he matched up against today during the South team practice," NFL Media draft analyst Lance Zierlein wrote. "He's going to end up being picked in the top 10, and his performance on Tuesday demonstrates why he's going to be selected so early.
"The former Mississippi State star showed that he has developed a few different moves with his hands, and he also showed some variety in how he rushed guys. The bottom line is he used his length to defeat blockers in pass protection on a consistent basis. He's 6-foot-6, 252 pounds with 35 5/8-inch arms. That's a big deal to NFL teams. Everyone knows he's going to grow into his frame like Danielle Hunter did coming out of LSU, and that's my player comp for him. Hunter wasn't a first-round pick -- he went in the third round -- but Sweat is going to be a first-rounder because teams are going to be quicker to recognize his talent than they were with Hunter. Sweat was the most dominant guy out here on Day 1. If you had him as a late first-rounder, you need to go back and reassess your grade for him. I projected him for the late teens in Round 1 coming into this week, but that might be too low for him."
The Giants hold the No. 6 pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, which takes place April 25-27 in Nashville.