By Josh Norris
With a record of nearly 100 prospects declaring for the draft, the number of top college players using all four years of eligibility is dwindling. Despite a few big-name dropouts (QB A.J. McCarron, OLB Khalil Mack, OLB Anthony Barr, T Jake Matthews, T Taylor Lewan, CB Darqueze Dennard, CB Justin Gilbert, CB Jason Verrett, ILB C.J. Mosley and S Lamarcus Joyner) the 2014 Senior Bowl remains loaded with early-round talent.
The Senior Bowl squads will be coached by two current NFL staffs (Jaguars and Falcons), adding an extra dimension to their evaluations. Be sure to keep in mind which prospects get called up due to injuries, as A.J. Jenkins, Alfred Morris and Terron Armstead were examples in recent years.
All heights and weights are projected until weigh-ins take place early Monday.
“Evaluating the Evaluator” - Waldman
Before we dive into my top 20 prospects heading into the week, let us discuss the conclusions that can be drawn from practice. I have a baseline evaluation for every player attending this week, with the main goal of understanding where each player wins. This is important, since many of these prospects will be utilized in new ways and in a new environment this week. Therefore, their success might be limited or they might put forth poor performances. These will be written up in practice reports in a negative light, but sometimes without context.
Take Alfonzo Dennard for example. A few years ago, DBs coach Rahim Morris asked his corners to play off coverage during one on one drills, and Dennard was smoked play after play. He was used to pressing and getting physical with receivers at the line of scrimmage, then sticking with them downfield at his own pace. Dennard has improved in off coverage, but it has taken some time. His week of practice was bashed by many. I think it lacked understanding and context.
Practice notes are great and I learn so much from watching prospects this week. Just use your own judgment in some of the conclusions and do not be afraid to ask the author questions regarding certain performances.
Out Of Place
Senior Bowl Executive Director Phil Savage is a smart man. He evaluates so many prospects on his own and is not afraid to ask NFL evaluators who they want to see and in what role. With that said, I believe some prospects will be practicing out of position this week. Or, at the very least, are listed in the wrong spot.
The corner group is thin thanks to some of the previously mentioned dropouts, so safety prospects like Wyoming’s Marqueston Huff and Wisconsin’s Dez Southward are listed as cornerbacks. That might get tricky when facing receivers like Robert Herron and Jared Abbrederis in practice. Other prospects that might be in a position to fail include: Edge rusher Michael Sam (listed as traditional OLB), Edge rusher Marcus Smith (listed as traditional OLB), OL Zack Martin (listed at T but I think his projection is at G), OL Brandon Thomas (listed at T but I think his projection is at G), Christian Jones (listed at ILB, which he has played, but did his best work as an edge rusher) and edge rusher Jeremiah Attaochu (listed as traditional OLB, but struggled when given multiple responsibilities outside of pass rushing).
Top 20 Attending
1. DT Will Sutton, Arizona State - I believe evaluators have been too critical of Sutton’s play this season due to a drop in production, and have used his weight as a crutch. He is not Jerel Worthy, who won by timing the snap to burst off the line and shoot gaps. Rather the foundation of Sutton’s game is hand use and leverage to work through his opposition, then quickness to close. Sutton takes advantage of space. Whether it be shooting past reach blocks in the sliver of time afforded to him thanks to an animated first step and forward lean, or hand use and quick feet to generate that separation on his own, Sutton finishes with closing speed. His flexibility to bend and gain positive positioning is tough to find. He likely as a three technique in a four man front, could play some in pass rushing situations. I would be foolish to overlook that he had poor games against Stanford, as he spent far too much time on the ground. I like Matt Waldman’s comparison of La’Roi Glover.
2. DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh - Donald has excellent burst off the line to play on the other side of the line of scrimmage. Despite size knocks, he has good length and active hands. Able to get skinny to work through gaps and trash. Closing quickness is there to make tackles for loss. The productive Pitt Panther is an obvious nickel or dime rusher, but likely not limited to that. He disrupts fronts. Could see him lining up in a variety of sub-package sets at 1, 3, or 5 technique. Mike Daniels, who will get paid this offseason, is a good comparison.
3. DT Ra’Shede Hageman, Minnesota - Hageman has the build of a 5 technique, but I loved what I saw from him as a one or zero. There might be some Michael Brockers to his game, but a better athlete from a Combine perspective. Hageman has improved his hand use and motor, extending his arms against interior defensive linemen with less length to keep them off balance. His pad level can certainly improve, which would help to keep his opponent on skates, but Hageman looks to shed once finding a crease to disrupt the backfield. He might fit every defensive style, depending on how a team wants to develop him.
4. Edge rusher Jeremiah Attaochu, Georgia Tech - As a junior Attaochu was asked to do too much. That is why I have an issue with his listed position of outside linebacker. I don’t care if he stands up or is in a three point stance, as long as he lines up in an edge alignment and is not asked to do too much. Let him pick a spot in the backfield and run. No dropping into coverage or checking what the offense is doing, at least at this point in his career. Attaochu has burst, strength in his hands, and bend to go along with good movement skills to work back inside on an oversetting offensive lineman. I would not be surprised if he ultimately goes in the first-round, but that team’s fit and plan.
5. Edge rusher Marcus Smith, Louisville - With Vic Beasley staying in school, Smith might be the edge rusher to replace him in the top 40 picks. The more I watched the Cardinal, the more I liked him. Not only can he bend around tackles, Smith loves to chase from the backside and converts speed to power with good length and hand use. I know I keep bringing up hands and technical skill, but it really does set great rushers that can win on counter moves apart from good ones that have one trick. Like Attaochu, I don’t care how Smith lines up as much as where.
6. QB Derek Carr, Fresno State - Has an incredible arm, not only when discussing velocity but also touch. Is forced to throw a lot of screens, but is an excellent vertical passer when given the opportunity. Shows athleticism when scrambling outside of the pocket. Aren’t many windows he can’t test. Carr doesn’t always throw from a balanced base, but he has improved willingness to take a hit on release. His footwork can be a mess, though, and that will frustrate the fanbase where he lands, similarly to Jay Cutler or Matthew Stafford. Carr has a great arm and he knows it. Take a look at Greg Peshek’s QB Metrics.
7. WR Jordan Matthews, Vanderbilt - I doubt the attending South CBs, like Keith McGill, Jaylen Watkins and Aaron Colvin, will have much of a chance at stopping Matthews in one on one situations. The veteran receiver truly is a technical player and wastes little movement after the catch. This aspect of his game is often overlooked, and Matthews displayed good burst and long speed with strides once catching slants or screens. He is a hands catcher and does not might extending at the catch point in contested situations. Other prospects might test better, but Matthews is in that top-40 range along with numerous other receivers.
8. OL Zack Martin, Notre Dame - Martin is expected to play tackle this week, something he did at Notre Dame (left side), but I prefer him at guard. On an island out on the edge, Martin has a wide base and struggles against mobile rushers that can weave fluidly between lanes. His hands and functional strength are really good though, and his lower half anchor holds up in tight spaces. I would not be surprised if he is the first guard selected in the draft.
9. Edge rusher Dee Ford, Auburn - Ford is not just a speed rusher. He uses his hands much better than many prospects with better size. Check out his game against Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi, as the Auburn Tiger kept forcing an athletic right tackle to readjust his hand placement while anchoring his lower half. Ford is also not a liability against the run.
10. OL Seantrel Henderson, Miami - This might be a little high for Henderson from a draft projection perspective, but the tackle can be as good as he wants to be. Few have the same combination of athleticism and power. Henderson seemed to turn a corner in the last few weeks of the year, and even though he was a rotational player at right tackle, I think he can move over to the left side. If Henderson lands with the right team, he will live up to expectations that have surrounded him since high school.
11. QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois - Garoppolo has quick feet, quick eyes, and a quick release. As long as a quarterback can find open throwing lanes and/or throw from multiple platforms, I do not care about their height, but some evaluators were happy to see Garoppolo measure in over 6’2 and with a hand size of 9.13 inches.
Teams will likely question his ability to work from center and hit patterns with timing and anticipation. Garoppolo certainly works through multiple reads, but there is a bit of an improvisational style to it. The progressions seem to be at his pace.
Many offenses rely on quick decision makers with a quick release, and Garoppolo can absolutely check these boxes. Things change a bit when pressured, as the quarterback has a tendency to drift laterally rather than step up or work from a phone booth. Garoppolo will end up in the crowded tier of passers after the top four, but do not be surprised if he tops that group. He displays mobility, touch, velocity, placement and a willingness to hit receivers at every level of the field. A second day selection is within reach for Garoppolo.
12. S Jimmie Ward, NIU - I know Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Calvin Pryor, and Lamarcus Joyner draw most of the attention among safeties, but Ward is a legitimate prospect. He flashes range in the deep half while displaying aggressiveness when lining up close to the box. Ward was asked to play some man against tight ends and receivers while at NIU and did very well. I was a big fan of Johnathan Cyprien prior to the Senior Bowl last year, and Ward is the top safety attending this week.
13. OL Billy Turner, North Dakota State - Technique is not Billy the Bully’s strong suit, but his functional strength makes up for it. We discuss improvisational skill with quarterbacks and ball carriers, but Turner is a very unique blocker. I am positive he will get yelled at during individual sessions by NFL offensive line coaches because his posture is tall and he is unconventional. Turner will shine in team drills, especially running periods. Turner might stick at tackle, but he can play guard because of his willingness to adjust with a solid punch and grip in tighter spaces.
14. WR Robert Herron, Wyoming - The receiver group at the Senior Bowl lacks top end talent, but Herron is a good one. Jalen Saunders and Michael Campanaro will be viewed as solely slot receivers, but Herron wins from this area too. He is so quick and fluid off the snap that defensive backs have a tough time getting, and especially keeping, contact. That release creates separation and is only increased with his speed. He pulled off some acrobatic catches during his time at Wyoming as well.
15. OL Brandon Thomas, Clemson - I like Thomas at G a lot more than I do at T, but that is solely a projection. Thomas is playing the latter this week, so be sure to note his athleticism in space. He does have an athletic lower half, which helps Thomas mirror fluid rushers. The Clemson product did very well against Jadeveon Clowney for this very reason. Thomas also utilizes his reach to punch. I would not be surprised if his arm length checks in longer than many comparable players of his size.
16. T Jack Mewhort, Ohio State - Mewhort loves to use length and hands to latch on to his opponents in an effort to control them. Snap after snap, Mewhort held on to their chest plate and prevented sustained momentum and attempted counter moves. He was not rocked on first contact often, but I want to see what happens when Mewhort is off balance.
17. LB Telvin Smith, FSU - I am a huge fan of Telvin Smith, especially prior to the season when he was not on many radars. With that said, I do think he is a late second to early third day pick. Smith is very athletic, that is apparent in his closing speed with a free lane to the backfield or on the edge. He does tend to overrun plays and lacks physicality to stick with receivers in coverage. The tools are there, and I think Telvin could wind up being a very solid weakside linebacker.
18. DT Daquan Jones, Penn State - Sorry for repeating myself, but hand use, hand use, hand use. Jones is one of the better counter move rushers from the interior in this class. Jones does not have a great initial burst or punch to jolt offensive lineman, therefore he frequently winds up in their grasp, but Jones is active to readjust his hands for better leverage. He lifts, pushes and pulls to create a balance advantage and either walks his opposition back into the quarterback or frees himself.
19. DL Brent Urban, Virginia - I think the NFL values Urban higher than many in the draft community at this point, similarly to Derek Wolfe a few years ago. Urban lines up inside at the 3 and 1, but also sees time as a 5 technique end. Urban has balance issues when moving laterally, but he can be effective in a straight-line.
20. LB Christian Kirksey, Iowa - Kirksey might have been the biggest surprise while researching the event. James Morris drew attention at Iowa, but Kirksey was really impressive. He saw time at weakside linebacker out in space over tight ends and slot receivers, but also line up over ends at the line of scrimmage. He is better suited for the weakside role, but Kirksey might be one of the better coverage linebackers in this entire class. He does not mind physical interactions.