It’s not where you start, but how you finish. This is true in life and often during a Senior Bowl practice week. While not true for all players, the first practice session for an all-star game is good for setting an informal baseline for the week ahead.
We did not attend the Jaguars’ South practice, but according to an AFC scout we didn’t miss anything more than basic play installation and a bunch of minor errors. The Falcons’ practice wasn’t much different. If judging by first impression, the Atlanta coaching staff’s practice format isn’t the best I have seen for Senior Bowl observers, but it is far from the worst.
The positive of practice is that the Atlanta staff focused a lot on footwork, releases, and one-on-one drills between receivers and corners while also giving running backs chances to show their stuff in light scrimmage conditions. The negative is that there was a period of 10-15 minutes during field goal drills where the Falcons could have been working with the skill position players on the opposite side of the field.
Understandably, a coaching staff running practice at the Senior Bowl should not and could not care less about what the media wants to see. The event’s director Phil Savage has an opportunity to get the coaching staffs to provide an agenda of what the practices will include, but there’s only a handful of people like Jene and I who actually care about things like this. Still, it’s one of those things that many in attendance might value once they see the result.
As for the players, the first day reveals little things that provide layers to their overall analysis: who’s flexible, who has difficulty executing basic drills, what’s their level of effort, etc. Here’s a list of notes we observed from the North’s initial session.
Logan Thomas, Virginia Tech: He missed throws high and wide on basic drills to receivers running routes without coverage. He also threw an interception on a check-down to a back, which is something I rarely see in scrimmage conditions like these. He was not aggressive down field on his first day.
Tajh Boyd, Clemson: The Tigers’ quarterback led off scrimmages with a play action roll right with a deep throw long and wide of a wide open Josh Huff. Beyond this play, Boyd stuck to short passes and quick decisions running the basics of an offense that emphasized wide receiver and running back screens during this session.
Stephen Morris: The Hurricanes’ quarterback weighed a surprising 208 lbs. today. I fully expected him to be at least 10-15 pounds heavier. While I’ve seen Morris throw the football 60 yards in the air against Florida State like it was nothing, today he under threw a wide-open Huff up the right sideline and forced the receiver to work inside and wait on the ball. The Oregon receiver almost made a tricky one-handed grab on the play. Otherwise, Morris stuck to the short stuff.
David Fluellen, Toledo: Fluellen is one of several running backs in this class who I still don’t have a great gauge of his acceleration and short-range explosiveness. Some plays look better than others and today it was no different with Fluellen. At 226 pounds, the Toledo back looked good in receiving drills and fluid with his change of direction. He made a nice decision inside left tackle with a strong cut down hill early in practice that caught my eye.
Charles Sims, West Virginia: Strong hands, good feet, and a feel for the openings ahead of him. Nothing new from what I’ve seen on film, which is a good all-around runner with lead back potential. We’ll see what happens tomorrow.
James White, Wisconsin: The 5’9″, 206-lb. runner was a fun interview with a good sense of humor. I asked him about recent alums from his program and how their performances have contributed to the perception that Wisconsin backs are a product of great line play. We also shared a laugh about the general surprise that the draft community had about his weigh-in. The best thing I got from White was a brief but informative take on what he watches when diagnosing run blitzes before the snap. I believe White has a realistic sense of who he is as a football player attempting to earn a job as a professional.
This is the position I spend the most time watching and the first day of practice confirmed (thus far) much of what I’ve seen on tape from these guys. The focus of the next few days will be looking for examples that they’re learning new things and on the way to improving their craft.
While some new lessons have a quick turnaround time, others will require far more than three practices to matter. If these players are making the effort and demonstrating incremental improvements – even if small – it can be a good sign.
Shaq Evans, UCLA: What I’m most interested in seeing is Evans’ vertical game. The Bruins receiver told me this evening it was the untapped aspect of his game that wasn’t on display at UCLA and many don’t realize he has the skill to make big plays down field. While I agree with him, I’m not confident his quarterbacks have the deep accuracy to help him this week as much as we saw from Marvin Jones a couple of years ago.
Still, Evans’ practice was among the better performances in positional drills. Other than a route where he was late looking for the ball from his break and it got on top of him before he could raise his hands, I didn’t see a dropped pass.
Evans was consistent at attacking the football away from his body. He also adjusts to the ball with fluid athleticism. What’s most notable is the speed and precision of his footwork in drills.
Atlanta’s opening drill was an emphasis on footwork patterns that ended with a break across the field to catch a pass. Over half of the receivers were either fast with their feet or precise with their steps, but only two possessed both characteristics. One of them was Jared Abbrederis. The other was Evans.
One of Evans’ best plays of the session was a fade route where he didn’t get too close to the sideline until he beat Dez Southward by a step and angled to the boundary for a catch over his inside shoulder with good extension of his arms. This was not the typical route of 12-17 yards that he says he saw routinely at UCLA.
Kain Colter, Northwestern: A quarterback-turned-receiver, Colter has a lot of work to do, but the frame and athleticism to get there. The opening footwork drills were sloppy in terms of precision, but the foot speed was there. He was the one receiver position coach Terry Robiskie had repeat a rep in practice and it was handled with a level of patience that connotes and understand that Colter is a behind the curve compared to his peers.
Colter had multiple reps where he struggled to get free from press. He lacks the polish to execute more than one release move and he doesn’t appear to recognize how to read the ways he should approach a release from the line at this stage of his development.
When Colter got down field on a route, Dontae Johnson pinned the receiver to the sideline and forced a throwaway. When he caught the ball on a route breaking to the left flat, his opponent forced a fumble.
These are the type of plays one should expect from a new convert still thinking his way through all the steps required to play the position. The quickness, hands, and hustle are all traits he brings to the table, but his athleticism won’t come to the fore until he isn’t thinking about the small things. The fact Colter is covering punts in this team is a good indication of his immediate potential value for an NFL team.
Jared Abbrederis, Wisconsin: I have admired Abbrederis’ game since he got the best of Ohio State’s Bradley Roby last fall. Some observers will be impressed and/or surprised with his performance today, but Abbrederis’ opening practice was not the best I have seen from the receiver.
Still it was a good overall afternoon for the receiver. As mentioned, his opening performance on the footwork drills was cleaner and faster than anyone’s save Evans and the occasional strong rep from Michael Campanaro. He also made a number of good plays in one-on-ones with cornerbacks.
He forced Pierre Desire to commit deep before breaking short and also flashed a strong rip move to get inside on his teammate Southward. Late in one-on-one sessions, Abbrederis caught a slant in tight coverage and ran through a wrap attempt. He plays bigger than his 189-lbs. frame.
At the same time there were reps that highlighted the need for Abbrederis to add more muscle. He had multiple one-on-one reps where he failed to get a clean release on press coverage and would not have earned a target if it wasn’t a drill where he was the sole receiver. He also had an early drop on a slant after contact from Stan Jean-Baptiste.
Yet, these plays weren’t indicative of his game and minor notes in the scheme of a player capable of winning just as many as he loses. The play that spoke most to his skill was his best of a the afternoon: A streak up the right sideline against Marqueston Huff.
Abbrederis beat the corner with a good outside-inside to earn the initial release and he had a solid step on the corner when quarterback Stephen Morris released the ball. Morris, under-threw the route and Abbrederis had to turn to face the trailing Huff and make the catch in the tightest of quarters.
The Wisconsin receiver will be a minor revelation to the uninitiated this week.
Jeff Janis, Saginaw Valley State: As Abbrederis validated his skills, Janis further demonstrated that he drops as many passes that he catches when forced to attack the ball with his hands. He trapped his first two reps and then dropped the third when forced to extend his arms from his body on an accurate throw. He resorted to trapping the ball for most of his reps where he had a chance to make the catch with the exception of a quick slant in 11-on-11s that resulted in a hard hit that knocked Saginaw on his side and drew oohs from the media.
Between that drop early and that catch late, Janis struggled beating press against Marqueston Huff, Dez Southward, I believe Deone Buchannon. During one-on-ones he failed to break to the quarterback on an in-cut that his opponent undercut for a near-interception and also failed to work to the quarterback after a good break on a stop route.
There will be some talk about what Janis can do based on isolated moments on tape where they see him make a good catch with his hands or get open and earn the reception in tight coverage. However, the volume of plays I had to watch to see these good moments were too large to give significant weight.
Robert Herron, Wyoming: What I liked most about this smaller receiver was his initial quickness and variety of moves to earn a clean release. Although I’m not convinced he has the down field speed to extend a lead against top corners, he was consistent at getting on top of his opponents in practice.
Herron demonstrated a swim move, rip, and underhanded release, and integrated these skills with good footwork. His play of the day was an excellent double move on a post-corner and flashed enough closing speed to corral a pass over his shoulder with full extension of his arms on a throw I didn’t believe he’d reach.
The Wyoming receiver was also a good interview. He shared some quality tips on the technique of position, including how to successfully find the ball on quick-breaking timing routes where it’s mandatory to get his head around fast.
Josh Huff, Oregon: As anyone familiar with his game would guess, Huff got open deep multiple times on Monday. He beat Dez Southward on a double move and then later had a touchdown in on a go route where he got open early and maintained his position.
Huff demonstrates some skill to catch the ball with his hands, but when he has to make a more difficult adjustment there’s a tendency to fight the ball. He juggled a low and away throw in drills and had another awkward catch in the middle of practice.
I like what I see from Huff as a future deep threat in a rotation, but not a slam-dunk future starter. No only do his hands need to get better, but he needs to display greater precision with his footwork. He was one of the three best with his feet today, but he lacked the precision of Evans and Abbrederis.
Michael Campanaro, Wake Forest: The 5’9″, 191-lb. receiver was shorter than I thought, but his weight was a pleasant surprise. A quick player, the Demon Deacon got the best of every corner he faced at least once on Monday. He displayed a variety of release moves that worked and he often displayed good feet in one-on-ones even if his footwork was less consistent in opening drills.
When defensive backs got the best of Campanaro it came when they pressed the receiver. It wasn’t an automatic loss for Campanaro, but he had to work hard on some plays where his peers had an easier time.
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