This is going to be a reasonably quick take of Day Three, because morning will be here sooner for us than many others staying in Mobile or flying out of here. As opposed to the detailed, player-by-player highlights I gave the first two days, here are the takes I think everyone needs to know based on three days of the practice days that matter most at the Senior Bowl
One of the positives for me during this week is the chance to talk with a number of people who study football. Doug Farrar, Jene Bramel, and I spent a fair bit of time together watching the third day of practice. Farrar is one of the few who is bullish on Florida State quarterback E.J. Manuel. One of the things I’ve feared writing is that I could see Manuel as a terrific tight end prospect due to his size and athleticism and there are moments where I have watched him play and wondered if he has the acumen to develop into an NFL quarterback. Despite this fact, I had some hefty, pre-Senior Bowl praise for Manuel:
There is a lot I love about Manuel from the standpoint of potential. Physically Manuel has all the tools you want from a franchise quarterback: strong arm, quick release, compact delivery, strength, height, size, speed, quickness, and the ability to throw the ball to the right or left on the move. He’s willing to deliver the ball from a tight pocket and take a hit to do so. He has touch in the short range of the field and I like his movement in the pocket, he keeps his eyes down field and can hitch, climb the pocket, or slid outside and then finds that outlet when under pressure. If he were a more refined passer in terms of decision-making, I’d feel even stronger about him. However, I think his maturity in the middle of the field and lack of experience with precision intermediate and deep passing is a big part of playing pro football that he’ll need to address. I would draft him late and hope I could develop him from the practice squad or as a QB3. I like him more than Terrelle Pryor and as a potential passer, but not as a top prospect. If he can learn to put let air under the ball he could shore up his issues on sideline routes in the intermediate and deep range. If he does this one thing, he actually has a chance to develop into an NFL QB.
Observers have been all over the map on Manuel. NFL writer Adam Caplan had Manuel ranked last in terms of his performance this week. Yahoo! Shutdown Corner columnist Doug Farrar has Manuel has a vastly underrated prospect in this group. I find him argument more compelling and there will be a link (here) to the piece he’ll be writing about his perspective. I’ll give you a few highlights: Farrar sees Manuel as more of a blank slate than a prospect who has to unlearn and then relearn concepts that will put him behind the curve. Think more Colin Kaepernick, less Terrelle Pryor. It didn’t hurt watching Manuel end Day Three of practice with a beautiful pass down the middle in tight coverage with touch to tight end Vance McDonald. It was one of the handful of NFL-caliber throws I’ve seen from any quarterback this week and most of them came from Tyler Wilson, the quarterback I think has the best combo of physical skills, feel for the game, accuracy, and leadership qualities to perform as an NFL starter.
Among the running backs in Mobile, Johnathan Franklin made one of the best blocks of the week in drills versus linebackers when he dropped defender to the ground with good position, hand placement, and turn of the defender. Franklin has to develop a much better punch, but doesn’t shy away from an oncoming defender. He’s my favorite back here, but I have to say that the best runner in Mobile might be Stepfan Taylor. Franklin has more big-play ability, but I know Taylor will be able to carry a load if needed. His style of play is along the spectrum of Doug Martin, but lacks the same quickness. I think Farrar’s thought of Taylor as a mid-career Willis McGahee who can get to the edge, but grind for those tough yards on third-and-short. Kenjon Barner made some of the most impressive catches of any runner I’ve seen in my four years in Mobile. He catches the ball in stride, with his hands, in coverage, and like a receiver in the intermediate range of the field. Yet as much as he tries, he’s a liability in pass protection because he “catches” blitzing defenders and lacks the bulk to anchor.
One of my Twitter followers, NFL Draftnik and writer Ethan Hammerman believes 6-7 running backs from this 2013 rookie class will have 1000-yard seasons in the NFL due to opportunity and talent. He’s extraordinarily high on the talent of this running back group. History keeps me skeptical. I believe 1-2 backs with 1000 yards as a rookie is likely. I would say 3-4 has even odds. Anything more than that is improbable based on recent history. This is a deep class, but I don’t think I agree with him that it is a class filled with elite prospects at the position. I think 6-7 backs from this class could have 1000-yard seasons, but not all as rookies. I’d bet on 1-2 at the most even if I like Hammerman’s optimism. When it comes to the Senior Bowl backs in Mobile, Taylor, Franklin, and Gillislee have the talent in the right situation, but I’m not sold there’s ample opportunity in 2013.
Markus Wheaton made a terrific back-shoulder catch on a seam route in scrimmages on Wednesday – one of his three best catches of the week. Even in run blocking drills, he delivers a punch and moves his feet. He’s a feisty, scrappy blocker who won’t dominate but for all that you get from him as a receiver, the play away from the ball won’t be a major disappointment. I might like him more than a top-tier prospect from 2012 like Kendall Wright.
Speaking of Baylor receivers, Terrence Williams probably received the most “that’s way better than Monday,” responses from the coach than I have heard in a single day of practice. Every rep with footwork drills or exercises emphasizing releases and breaks were a little sharper and with better pad level. The Lions receiver coach imitated Williams’ previous high pad level for effect to demonstrate the dramatic difference with Williams’ improvement. At the same time, Williams wasn’t in the middle of the pack among all the receivers I saw. In blocking drills, one of the Lions coaches saw Williams shield a defender without a punch and drive of his legs and he told the receiver that his effort was “powder puff shit.” Williams picked up his efforts in subsequent reps, but he still has to do a better job of pad level and striking. Although at the mid-tier among performers when studying this week in a vacuum the Baylor receiver’s upside is among the best of the players in Mobile.
Marquise Goodwin plays too high when coming off the line of scrimmage and he’s not strong enough to handle press coverage when he isn’t in good position to generate angles to avoid defensive contact. But stylistically there’s some Jacoby Ford to his game. He extends well for the ball, playing “long” even in tight coverage. His speed makes up for a lot of errors, but I’m skeptical this will continue to be an advantage he can lean on in the NFL.
Russell Shepard, the LSU dual-threat quarterback, running back, and now receiver replaced Ryan Swope today and immediately flashed some of the best hand-eye coordination in ball drills, some of the best footwork in route drills, and a terrific physical streak as a blocker. The natural skill and ability to pick up concepts quickly is there, but his conditioning was not. Once the drills were over and the scrimmages began, Shepard had multiple routes where he slipped while making his break – something he didn’t do at all in drills. He also dropped a couple of passes, and in drills he made some really impressive receptions on high velocity, awkwardly placed balls. He’s a player who intrigues me and I want a closer look.
Cobi Hamilton is a big player who plays too high and not physical enough. He doesn’t consistently get smart position on the football when he’s working against tight coverage down field. Quinton Patton, Markus Wheaton, and even small-school prospect Aaron Mellette is better at it and he has more technique flaws than Hamilton. The strength of Aaron Dobson’s game might be plays on contested throws and making late adjustments. Hamilton has the goods at first look, but under the hood the performance isn’t there.
Mychal Rivera fights for everything and has enough athleticism and concentration as a receiver to make plays downfield and in tight coverage. He’s a little more consistent and physical than what I remember seeing from former Purdue star Dustin Keller. Rivera probably isn’t the fifth-best tight end in this class, which should tell you the depth is strong this year.