With a record 65 underclassmen declaring for the draft, the number of top college players using all four years of eligibility is dwindling. Despite a few big-name dropouts (WR Kendall Wright, WR Michael Floyd, DT Devon Still, QB Ryan Tannehill, SS Mark Barron) the 2012 Senior Bowl remains loaded with early-round talent.
A few positions are especially rich -- e.g. running back and offensive line -- but others leave room for declared juniors to emerge as top prospects. The Senior Bowl squads will be coached by two current NFL staffs (Vikings and Redskins), adding an extra dimension to their evaluations.
Just like my Shrine Week coverage, I will be constantly tweeting (@JoshNorris) and producing frequent articles. For now, here is a position-by-position preview along with my top 15 prospects entering the week. Tomorrow, I will post evaluations on players that opted out of the Senior Bowl.
All heights, weights, and forty times are projected until weigh-ins take place early Monday.
Age can be a factor when selecting a quarterback early, but Oklahoma State’s Brandon Weeden (6-4/218/4.92) may be an exception to the rule. He will be 28 once the 2012 season kicks off after exploring Minor League Baseball, but stands tall in the pocket with patience and delivers an accurate ball into tight windows. The former pitcher has NFL velocity, and Weeden's release is quick when his feet are set. If a quarterback-needy team believes it can win right away with Weeden, it should not hesitate to draft him early.
Arizona’s Nick Foles (6-5/240/4.96) has gained steam lately, with some attributing his ups and downs to a poor offensive line. Whatever the excuse, Foles is an incredibly inconsistent passer. At times he flashes the ability to make every NFL throw, but too often Foles’ lack of mobility, dropping release, and erratic decision-making lead to trouble when his feet aren't set. Wisconsin’s Russell Wilson (5-11/210/4.59) and Boise State's Kellen Moore (6-0/195/4.98) will both measure in below six feet and need to break the mold of solid college quarterbacks that lack arm talent and height to succeed at the next level.
A versatile, deep group of ball carriers has made its way to Mobile hoping to change the perception that their position isn't worth early-round picks due to a historically short shelf life. Boise State's Doug Martin (5-9/210/4.48) has been labeled as a power back because of his thick stature, but along with rarely going down on first contact Martin has great balance and breaks plenty of tackles. He explodes through holes with nice posture and does not lack straight-line speed. Martin has the skills of a future three-down back with soft hands and experience in pass protection. The lone issue is that Martin lacks wiggle to make defenders miss in the open field.
Closely behind is Washington’s Chris Polk (5-11/222/4.48), whose best assets are patience and vision. A tackle breaker himself, Polk follows his downfield blocks closely by weaving in and out of lanes and uses deceptive long speed to bust into the open field. Polk is another potential three-down back that has soft hands and gives effort in pass protection.
Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead (5-10/200/4.42) is a versatile playmaker with sure hands that seems to break at least one long run each game. He made his living in college with shifty moves in short spaces and excellent vision, but Pead's explosion out of breaks is not as quick as it should be for a runner that uses it as a crutch. DeMarco Murray faced similar criticism, but his skills have translated to be an effective open-field runner. Pead will need to do the same. Mississippi State’s Vick Ballard (5-10/220/4.58) and Baylor’s Terrance Ganaway (5-11/240/4.62) are between-the-tackles runners that break long runs on occasion but go down on first contact too often and have little short-area quickness to suddenly change direction.
Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
With top-rated seniors Floyd and Wright out, the rest of this year's Senior Bowl receiver group has increased opportunity to catch scouts' attention. UNC's Dwight Jones (6-4/225/4.53) has length that equates to a large catch radius, and strength to beat a pressing corner. For a big target, Jones has underrated acceleration off the line but inconsistent hands, uninspired blocking, and an inability to evade tacklers make him a second-day pick. Former Appalachian State basketball recruit Brian Quick (6-4/216/4.63) eats up off-coverage cushion with long strides and uses his body to shield DBs, but is raw in many areas. Quick has hitches in his routes and fails to snatch the ball in the air with strong hands. Versus top competition (Virginia Tech), however, Quick has showcased vertical skills.
After college teammate Jarius Wright jumped off the page at last week's East-West Shrine, Arkansas' Joe Adams (5-11/190/4.38) will look to keep the Razorbacks' momentum. Adams has ideal size for a slot weapon and can obviously stretch the field, but needs to show he can win 50/50 balls. His return ability is an excellent bonus. TE Michael Egnew (6-5/245/4.60) was a glorified wideout at Missouri, usually lining up in a two-point stance. He is a solid receiver that can adjust to throws but rarely faced pressure off the line. Most of all, Egnew will need to show blocking effort and a willingness to get physical by sealing the edge on outside runs.
With NFL offenses turning to pass-first game plans, Iowa State’s old-school mauler Kelechi Osemele (6-5/347/5.40) is deceptively sound in both run- and pass-blocking technique. Osemele’s best attributes are violent hands that render defensive linemen defenseless. However, he struggles at times to get in proper squared positioning because of heavy feet, which allow quicker pass rushers to beat him inside. The biggest question is where Osemele fits after playing tackle in college, but having the footwork of an interior lineman.
Alabama-Birmingham's Matt McCants (6-5/295/5.26) is just the opposite, needing to add weight to his thin frame without losing foot quickness. McCants’ posture needs work, occasionally standing straight up, but he has great flexibility and athleticism to anchor with length in pass pro. He is a potential left tackle that is already showing the physical play that will lead to strength when his frame fully develops. Quick edge rushers may beat McCants because of his long steps. Georgia C Ben Jones (6-3/316/5.26) absorbs power from interior defensive linemen well, while having necessary footwork to mirror penetrating defensive tackles. At times Jones can lunge and his athleticism and balance are exposed when asked to recover, but he is very quick off the snap to get his hands in proper placement.