Road to the Draft: Senior Bowl notables

Road to the Draft: Senior Bowl notables
January 25, 2014, 7:15 pm
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There is no down-shifting for NFL teams going from in-season game planning to offseason preparation. The Patriots, for example, are still operating full-throttle and just changing lanes.

"When your season goes into the postseason as ours did for three weeks, you’re behind going into the college draft and to a certain degree, I would say the free agency process," Bill Belichick said earlier this week. "To be honest with you, we’re into the 2014 season right now. We’re behind, so we have some catching up to do."

First major event of the 2014 offseason for the Patriots to catch up on: The Senior Bowl.

The game's executive director Phil Savage explained during the Saturday afternoon contest in Mobile, Ala. that there weren't any future top-10 picks participating in this year's game, but there were perhaps a few first rounders, and maybe as many as 90 that would be drafted.

For a team like the Patriots, which won't have a selection until late in the first round, the Senior Bowl is a chance to get a look at all types of players, from low first-rounders to seventh-round projects.

Here are a few players who came through with notable performances in the game.

Is he a defensive end? Is he an outside linebacker? He could be either in the NFL, it seems. Whatever you want to label him, he was dominant in the Senior Bowl and was named the game's MVP. He recorded two sacks in the first half and showed very good instincts when he got into the backfield in the second quarter, broke down, read the quarterback, and jumped like he was going for a rebound to break up a pass into the flat. By the end of the game, he was being triple-teamed. With Chandler Jones and Rob Ninkovich on the outside, the Patriots would seem to be set at the spots Ford will play as a pro, but as a projected fringe first-rounder (for now) he could be one of the more talented players available when the Patriots pick.

He may not have some of the same physical tools of other receivers who are currently projected to go higher in the draft -- Sammy Watkins from Clemson, Marqise Lee from USC, Mike Evans from Texas A&M -- but he's by all accounts a polished receiver who will be able to run a variety of routes as a pro. At 6-foot-3, he has good size, and he flashed an ability to make good adjustments with the ball in the air when he faded to the sideline for a 33-yard completion in the fourth quarter of the Senior Bowl. After the Patriots nabbed Aaron Dobson with their second pick last season, going after Matthews might seem redundant, but the the Commodore had a pretty good day Saturday.

After helping the Seminoles win a National Championship, the 6-foot-3, 218 pounder put his athleticism on display at the Senior Bowl. He was a factor in the run game and in the pass game, using his speed to elude blockers and chase down a screen play before it went for a big gain in the first half. Built like a tall strong safety, Smith appears to have similar attributes to New England's athletic rookie linebacker Jamie Collins.

The Patriots got solid production out of rookie defensive tackle Chris Jones this season after Vince Wilfork and Tommy Kelly went down with injuries. But if Belichick wants to infuse the interior of his defensive line with more young talent, the Ivy League product might be worth a look later in the draft. He recorded sacks on back-to-back plays in the Senior Bowl, showing a good combination of speed and power. On those plays he beat Baylor's Cyril Richardson and Miami's Brandon Linder, showing that his ability translates against competition from more noteworthy Division 1 programs.

Gillmore got a last-minute invitation to the Senior Bowl, but he made the most of it. With about 10 minutes left in the first quarter, the 6-foot-6, 255 pound tight end recorded the game's first score when he caught a pass from Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr and waltzed into the end zone untouched from 17 yards out. Touted as a solid blocker, he finished the game with 5 catches for 61 yards. At CSU, he went from tight end to defensive end then back to tight end for his final three seasons.

Does a smart guy who can play a variety of positions sound like someone the Patriots might take a liking to? The 6-foot-4, 246-pound bruiser won't be the most athletic big man in the draft, but during the Senior Bowl he lined up as a fullback in an I-formation and as a traditional tight end. He took three handoffs and caught two balls for short gains.