Jene Bramel posts his takes on the North squad’s front seven on the opening day of practice.
By Jene Bramel
The first day of practice in Mobile is a transitional practice of sorts. Each NFL team that I’ve seen coach in Mobile runs their practice a little differently. Players that assimilate concepts in drills and installation work quickly and players with superior raw talent and technique stand out and draw rave reviews early. Players asked to do drills that may be just a little different than those they ran in college, who are learning a new position or who are now facing elevated competition for a full 90-minute period either do not draw any notice or are called disappointments.
Today was no exception on the defensive side of the ball.
I focused on the front seven today during the North practice, watching a mix of linebacker and defensive line drills and focusing on line play during the team sessions.
DT Aaron Donald, Pittsburgh: Without question, Donald was the most dominant player on the North defense today. Showing a mix of strong hands, a technically sound base and quick first step, Donald improved with each repetition. He was unblockable during 9-on-7 and team drills, including a stretch where he made Baylor’s Cyril Richardson look like a stationary heavy bag. Penetration is Donald’s game and today was a great start for the 288-pound defensive tackle. During team drills, Donald would have had at least three sacks had he been allowed to finish plays at the quarterback.
DT Ra’shede Hageman, Minnesota: Entering today, Hageman carried a higher consensus draft grade than Donald. He showed very quick feet during drills, especially moving laterally, but the Atlanta staff wanted him lower as he moved through the bags. Hageman was better in 9-on-7 and team drills, but didn’t flash as Donald did. Hageman’s size and athleticism are intriguing and it’s early, but if he’s unable to show he can be consistently disruptive, scouts may start to look at him as more of a 5-technique than a 4-3 defensive tackle.
DE Kareem Martin, North Carolina: In our weigh-in review earlier today, I implied that Martin’s above-average length might become a hindrance if he was unable to control his opponents with his hands. Technique was an issue for him today, as he frequently lost leverage with a base that was too wide for his pass rush plan. Notre Dame’s Zach Martin, a tackle whose measurements have observers wondering if he’s better suited to play guard, handled him with relative ease.
DE Trent Murphy, Stanford: Zach Martin also handled Murphy on the vast majority of their matchups. Murphy may have just had a bad opening practice, but he looked stiff laterally at times and had difficulty with his footwork in bag drills. He also seemed to noticeably tire at the end of his 2-3 rep bursts. It’s notable that, while Michael Sam and Marcus Smith joined the defensive line group for 1-v-1 pass rush reps, I didn’t notice Murphy join the linebacker group for coverage drills. Given his struggles with footwork in line drills, it may not be a surprise that Murphy is being looked at exclusively at end.
LB Chris Borland, Wisconsin: Borland played inside at Wisconsin, but is taking reps as the Will linebacker in Mobile alongside UCLA’s Jordan Zumwalt. In a group of linebackers featuring two edge rushers trying to learn a more traditional strong side linebacker role and others more athletic than instinctive, Borland stood out today as the only linebacker who looked confident in his reads and instinctive enough to put himself in position to make plays. He was in the right place to pick up at least two turnovers today and frequently was waiting in position to finish a tackle. The other North linebackers looked a step slow to the play and were often seen reaching to get a touch on a ballcarrier. I didn’t watch the LB v RB/TE coverage drills today. If Borland holds his own there, he may quickly move up draft boards.
CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste, Nebraska: Though I didn’t watch the CB v WR drills today, I did make a point to watch Jean-Baptiste footwork and hip turn during a handful of team reps. He looked fluid on those occasions and not limited by his 6-2, 215 pound frame. I expect he’ll generate lots of buzz if he holds his own during press drills during the week.
The North safeties are a promising group. Ahmad Dixon seemed to generate the most positive discussion from observers today. I’m also looking forward to watching Dixon, Jimmie Ward and Deone Bucannon more closely tomorrow.
Tomorrow is arguably the most critical practice session of the week. Players who struggled today can relieve concerns with a bounce-back effort while those who impressed early can further boost their momentum with another strong set of reps. North players on the hot seat include defensive ends Kareem Martin and Trent Murphy and outside linebacker Chris Kirksey.
Inside linebacker Jonathan Brown has an opportunity to take advantage of a relatively weak group of linebackers with a better day of practice. And the two edge rushers working primarily as strong side linebackers – Michael Sam and Marcus Smith – must show more comfort in playing the run off the line of scrimmage and recognizing run-pass from the second level.
[We’ll have coverage of both North and South practices on both Tuesday and Wednesday.]