With one day left before Saturday's 4pm Senior Bowl kickoff, the North and South squads treated Friday as a walkthrough practice. My final article will be a full Senior Bowl review posted early next week, but I'll be live tweeting from @JoshNorris during the game.
Here is the second part of my practice week review, focusing on defenders. Click here for the offense.
I discussed my surprisingly positive practice evaluation of Michigan DT Mike Martin (6-1/307) in my Wednesday article, detailing players that impressed enough to possibly improve their draft grade via an all-star game. You can make a strong argument that Martin was the top interior defensive lineman in Mobile, but two more stood out for the same reason: Penetration.
Clemson DT Brandon Thompson (6-2/311) showed consistent quickness off the snap from both tackle spots, splitting a gap and running downhill into the backfield. Thompson combines an explosive first step with a stiff first punch. Once his initial momentum is stopped, though, Thompson lacks the lower leg drive to continue to push the pocket. While he struggles in the lower half when pressing, Thompson's active hands will keep him competitive in the run game. Despite an underwhelming senior season, Thompson remains a top-five defensive tackle in this class.
For a player with a massive frame, Washington DT Alameda Ta’amu (6-2/341) is far more proficient as a penetrator than roadblock. His first step isn’t quick, but Ta’amu’s hands are always moving and he uses his natural strength to create leverage, redirecting the guard's placement. Ta'amu's upper body is a bit soft, but he never seemed content to lock and bull rush. A big-bodied enigma, Ta'amu consistently failed to anchor versus double teams against the run and lost one-on-one too often. Similar to former first-round NFL bust Jimmy Kennedy, Ta'amu's game does not fit his body type, although I bet he'll be drafted in the second round.
Both Senior Bowl rosters featured a plethora of undersized weak-side linebackers, so predictably many looked "impressive" in a limited to no-contact setting that incorporated many coverage reps. The little linebackers can run. On the other hand, North Carolina State LB Audie Cole (6-4/248) flashed range and reaction skills that had looked adequate at best on tape. Cole has always been solid between the tackles, filling holes downhill with force and proper technique. But this week he flowed to the outside and even backpedaled smoothly in coverage. I still believe Cole fits strictly as a mid- to late-round strong-side 'backer, but he piqued my curiosity.
Arkansas DE Jake Bequette, on the other hand, did not look fluid. A hand-in-the-dirt college end, he played linebacker for most of Senior Bowl week, possibly because the Redskins' staff saw body-type similarities to Ryan Kerrigan. Bequette struggled at the point of attack and in space. He is used to pass rushing from the outside, which involves getting upfield to angle at the quarterback or force him to step up. At linebacker, Bequette’s responsibility was to stay at the line, force runs back inside, and fight off blocks to make tackles. Bequette was often out of position, either not getting to the spot in time or overrunning to expose a large running lane. In coverage, Bequette’s stiffness was a major liability against the South running backs' after-catch skills. Even backs with minimal wiggle made him miss in open space.
“All the DBs on the South are solid," one NFC scout told me this week. "From top to bottom, they are stacked. I gave them all draftable grades. They all will be on a roster.” From my limited NFL experience, I know that teams tend to list fewer than 200 players as "draftable." So, to me, the area scout's comments would seem to suggest that all of the South defensive backs could be gone by the end of round five. (Here is a link to the South squad's roster.) Two prospects stuck out, and they both arrived from small schools.
Louisiana-Lafayette CB Dwight Bentley (5-10/176) is slightly built and most comfortable in off coverage, but South DBs coach Raheem Morris challenged him to get physical at the line and press. Bentley did well to slow down receivers off the snap despite minimal arm length (29.5”), although he allowed too many easy releases against larger bodies. To his credit, Bentley showed make-up and trailing speed while staying patient on routes to plant and undercut. Most impressively, Bentley consistently disrupted at the catch point. He is another name non-area scouts will be quickly cross checking as they arrive back at their team facilities.
Unlike Bentley, Furman CB Ryan Steed (5-10/190) is long (32” arms) and jams receivers at the line with consistent success. After the jam, Steed stays in the receiver's hip and rides him downfield, affecting the would-be pass catcher’s speed. Steed has great natural awareness and supplements it with film study to recognize specific route combinations, anticipating breaks from receivers. In the brief time I had to watch All-22 practice tape at the team hotel, Steed was sitting at the table beside me. He was the only player in the room for quite some time, breaking down North receivers with Buccaneers scouts ahead of Saturday's game. Steed will have no issues mentally at the next level, and there are rumblings that he will score big on the Wonderlic Test at the Combine.