BBD Editor: Dan Hope
Though there is still one remaining day of practice and a game to be played Saturday, most NFL scouts, coaches and executives who attended the 2014 Senior Bowl left Mobile, Ala. after Wednesday, the final day of fully-padded practices of both the North and South teams.
After three days in Mobile, Wednesday night was also time for me to return home, but not without a notebook full of chicken-scratch and observations that left me feeling confident in evaluations of some players and with more questions than ever on others.
On Wednesday, I focused mostly on the North wide receivers and defensive backs in the morning session. I spent time watching those same groups and also the offensive and defensive linemen during the South team’s two hours on the field.
Regardless of position, the most important thing I wanted to see Wednesday was progression. One should go in expecting that the players will have some issues during the Monday practice as they are just getting acclimated to new teammates, coaches, schemes and drills. But as these players attempt to enter a league that will require them to quickly prove themselves in training camps, it is imperative that they showed quick and steady progression over the course of the week.
While some of the same stars from the first two days continued to stand out Wednesday, there were others whose progression was clear from early struggles to showing serious promise in the last pivotal practice session of the week.
Some small-schoolers prove they belong, others disappoint
While every prospect comes to the Senior Bowl with something to prove, none come with a bigger opportunity or more necessity to perform well than its non-FBS prospects. For an NFL team to be sold on an FCS or Division II player being able to make the jump to the league, it would certainly be more confident should that player prove himself well against top competition in Mobile.
There are 11 non-FBS players at this year’s Senior Bowl who have been looking to make the statement they need. Some of them have and some haven’t but specifically Wednesday, a couple of them shined.
Princeton defensive tackle Caraun Reid was impressive both days I watched the South defensive linemen go through their one-on-ones/pass-rush drills, but especially Wednesday. Reid consistently exploded off the snap then showed the ability to rip through his opponents with violent hands.
Needing to prove this week that he could hold up against the strength of bigger, more powerful offensive linemen, he not only held up but was frequently able to drive his opponents back by getting low pad level and winning the battle of leverage at the line of scrimmage. A penetrating 3-technique, Reid has really strengthened his case this week to potentially move up into Day 2 of the draft.
In a week in which he started strong and yet continued to make progress, Reid credited the talent around him for making him better.
“Not many guys are 330 pounds that I’ve been going against (in college),” Reid told reporters during a Tuesday press conference. “They’re bigger, they’re stronger and they force me to get better every day.”
On the North squad, Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir was one of Wednesday’s standouts. He did a terrific job throughout the practice of breaking on passes and getting a hand on them, doing so at least four or five times. He did drop one interception right off his hands, but his quickness and ball skills really showed up in this practice, while he also did a great job of utilizing his size in press man coverage.
“I came out here to prove a point that I can make plays, I competed and I think I did very well today,” Desir said Wednesday. “I think I’m making improvements every day, I’m getting better each separate way, especially going against some better competition, so I think each day I’m improving on having better technique, better leverage, just taking what the coaches tell me and putting it to work.”
The other small-school prospects have been more of a mixed bag. Former Georgia Southern quarterback Jerick McKinnon has looked good as a running back all week, and has likely earned himself a chance as a Day 3 draft selection. Eastern Illinois quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo and Saginaw Valley State wide receiver Jeff Janis have each had more than their fair share of bad plays this week, but both has shown enough upside at their positions that they should be mid-round draft selections.
The biggest disappointment among the small-schoolers has been North Dakota State offensive lineman Billy Turner. Though I boldly predicted before the week that Turner would establish himself as a first-round pick in Mobile, that simply hasn’t been the case this week. Instead of looking like a legitimate starting offensive tackle, he is making it look as though he will have to kick inside to guard.
That’s at least what the Jaguars coaches apparently saw going into Wednesday’s practice, as Turner spent most of the day working inside at right guard. While he exhibits the strength and power to play that position on tape, he lost some battles inside on Wednesday and didn’t do much to stand out. He lost all of the only three repetitions he took outside at right tackle during one-on-one drills Wednesday, as he continued to show a lack of ability to quickly kick out and defend speed rushes on the edge.
Still, Turner should be in line for a Day 2 draft selection, even if that does come with a move to guard. On the other hand, small-school Senior Bowlers in Liberty cornerback Walt Aikens, Tennessee state guard Kadeem Edwards, Georgia Southern cornerback Lavelle Westbrooks and Coastal Carolina running back Lorenzo Taliaferro have not looked like they belong in the NFL.
Westbrooks had a particularly bad day Wednesday. He showed a susceptibility to being faked out as he was burned deep on multiple occasions, and he shows an overall lack of quickness, instincts and technical prowess for the position.
Quick to defend Westbrooks following Wednesday’s practice, however, was Gus Bradley, the head coach of the Jacksonville Jaguars and the South team. Bradley said that because the team was shorthanded at the position due to injuries, including the torn ACL suffered by Oklahoma’s Aaron Colvin on Tuesday, Westbrooks and the other cornerbacks “(couldn’t) help but get tired.”
“They’re putting that on tape and it looks like they’re getting beat but you don’t know on tape that there’s only three of them,” Bradley said following Wednesday’s practice. “Those guys jumped in even though they were tired and went and competed their tails off. I hope teams see that in them.”
Chris Davis continue to generate attention with impressive Wednesday
Auburn’s Chris Davis was also part of that “tired” group of South cornerbacks, but that didn’t show in his play Wednesday. After a rough Tuesday practice in which he was burned deep by Mike Davis off a double move and gave a number of other catches, Davis was dominant on the outside Wednesday.
One of the biggest concerns with Davis’ game coming into the week was his lack of physicality and hesitancy to take on contact. He showed significant improvement in this area Wednesday, doing a great job of getting his hands on his opponents and press coverage and for the most part, locking them down.
“I think today was a pretty good day for me,” Davis said Wednesday. “Tried to come back and regroup from yesterday, I had a pretty average day yesterday and I think I came back and did that.”
Davis is best-known, and might always be best-known, for his 109-yard missed field goal return touchdown at the end of the regulation against Alabama in this year’s Iron Bowl. That said, Davis is trying to prove with days like Wednesday that he is more than just a returner.
“I think since that play, it gave me the attention that I think I should have been getting in the beginning,” Davis said. “So I’m just taking advantage of that moment.”
Chris Davis stood out during the South’s passing drills Wednesday, but two of the week’s stars, Vanderbilt’s Jordan Matthews and Texas’ Mike Davis, continued to stand out at wide receiver.
Matthews looked great again Wednesday; he caught nearly every pass thrown his way by extending and making catches away from his body, and he made that look effortless. Mike Davis, meanwhile, continued to show the ability to make big plays, whether it was faking Westbrooks out of his shoes to burn him deep, playing a ball deep up the left sideline in front of Aikens and finishing it for a touchdown or making catches off of strong comeback routes.
The North team also had a number of standouts in these drills on both sides of the ball.
Oregon wide receiver Josh Huff had a fantastic showing Wednesday. He made just about every catch he had an opportunity to make by running crisp routes, catching the ball away from his body, getting himself in the right spots to beat his man and diving or making another additional effort to play the ball when necessary.
Huff looked like the best receiver on the field Wednesday morning, but the best overall for the North squad this week has been Wyoming’s Robert Herron. Herron continued to stand out Wednesday, showing consistent route-running prowess while also having the speed and quickness to separate from defensive backs both deep down the field and coming back to the football.
The best defensive back on the field for the North this week, meanwhile, has been Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward. How good has Ward been in coverage? Rotoworld’s Josh Norris said Ward might be the best cornerback prospect at the Senior Bowl, even though his experience and likely NFL future is at safety.
Ward, who was also a solid run support safety at NIU, continued to excel in passing drills Wednesday. He showed good technique in press coverage and broke on the ball well. He also showed in pass-catching drills that he can catch the ball securely in his hands and away from his body with consistency.
One more cornerback whose strong performance this week is worthy of note after Wednesday’s morning session is Utah State’s Nevin Lawson. Lawson got the week off to a shaky start in coverage Monday, but he has steadily improved with each day, performing to his best Wednesday when he consistently locked down his opponents with physical man coverage and showed that he could also get his hands on the ball.
Between the Shrine Game and Senior Bowl, Lawson is really making a name for himself and should be a mid-round draft selection.
See page 2 for more on the new additions on the South roster, the best quarterback from Wednesday’s practices and two other players overcoming doubters to boost their draft stock.
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Tags: 2014 NFL Draft, 2014 Senior Bowl, Billy Turner, Caraun Reid, Chris Borland, Chris Davis, Crockett Gillmore, IK Enemkpali, Jeff Janis, Jerick McKinnon, Jimmie Ward, Jimmy Garoppolo, Jordan Matthews, Josh Huff, Lavelle Westbrooks, Matt Patchan, Mike Davis, Nevin Lawson, Notes and Quotes, Pierre Desir, Robert Heron, Senior Bowl, Tajh Boyd, Weston Richburg