Thoughts on Team Practices This Week
The atmosphere of the two practices on Day 3 were polar opposites. The North squad operated at a slower pace and intensity on Thursday despite it being a padded practice. Although the coaching staff ran its players through many of the same drills, the pace and intensity wasn’t nearly as brisk or urgent as it was during the first two days.
The South squad performed at a higher level of intensity and it appeared the coaching staff encouraged the players to enjoy the process. During red zone passing drills, the south tight ends made it a habit to Gronk-spike the ball whenever they scored.
While Jene joked that the tight ends better have their chinstraps extra tight later in the session for 11-on-11 drills, the defenders seemed okay with it all. Players on opposite sides of the ball were helping each other off the ground and there was a lot more cheering among teammates and staff during scrimmages among the South units.
Overall, I was more impressed with the Jaguars coaching staff this week than the Titans’ group. While Tennessee’s crew used far more props and interesting drill, I believe the Jacksonville staff created a practice that had more continuity, climbed steadily in its intensity, and incorporated more important situational football challenges for the units as a whole.
The Jaguars and Titans ran 5-on-7s from the red zone, but Jacksonville also ran 11-on-11s from the red zone and backed deep in its own territory inside its own five yard-line. The South team also ran two sets of two-minute drills.
While I think the Jaguars-run South squad had more game preparation drills, I can see how the Titans drills might be helpful to the long-term development of its players. An exercise Tennessee used today, and for the first time this week, was a blind-spot drill where a standing pad was placed within the sight line of the receiver running an out to the sideline. The receiver begins a break behind the pad, working inside-out and attempting to track the ball as it arrived outside the pad.
With all the pads, cones, cans, and piping around, I think it’s safe to say that the Titans receivers coach is a gadget freak. His assortment of toy-aided drills allowed observers to see where certain skills are missing the games of these receivers, but the small number of reps and high intensity at the early stages of practice didn’t give receivers much of an opportunity to work and improve as much as show what they currently can or can’t do.
Ty Montgomery and Vince Mayle were particularly good at these blind-spot reps, but a scout also suggested that a great way to gauge a receiver’s skill at tracking the football is simply asking him to remove his helmet and throw the ball high into the air. If he passes this simple test, move onto the drill with the helmet on.
I have a feeling Montgomery and Mayle would have struggled a little more often in this type of drill than they did with blind-spot drill with a line-drive throw that they faced. In contrast, Jamison Crowder and Justin Hardy had trouble with this drill, but displayed consistent skill with tracking vertical throws on tape and in practice.
Game Plan Wrinkles
The North squad practiced the flea-flicker twice. Expect David Cobb to be the pitch man if and when they call it Saturday. It also ran the end around with Mayle and Montgomery as recipients.
The South squad ran the end around twice today with Tyler Lockett and Jamison Crowder each receiving reps and in contrast to the North ballcarriers, picked up yards on the play.
With all the likely substitutions, lack of time to develop continuity and rapport, and the simplicity of the schemes, who knows which squad will win the game. But if practice is any indication of preparation and talent, I’m thinking the South could win this one easily.
Jeremy Langford miss this morning’s practice with a back strain, but he was on the field. Ameer Abdullah performed in two-thirds of the practice, but was seen standing next to Langford without his helmet for the remaining time. We did not find out the issue, but it did not appear to be serious, either.
Tyler Vargas made strong catch on a wheel route up the left sideline where he displayed enough speed to earn a half a step on the defender and track down the ball with a diving catch just inside the boundary. He also showed good burst to the short corner on a run in 11-on-11s. His blocking drills didn’t display the same steady improvement from the day before. He telegraphed his arms and overextended on one of his reps.
David Cobb had two good receptions over the middle. One was a grab ahead of his front shoulder with coverage tight to his body in one-on-one drills. He later has a similar player in the red zone of an 11-on-11 scrimmage. Cobb was the best blocker of the North runners during the past three days of practices. He was the closest to delivering a good punch today, but more importantly he was consistent at establishing position and timing his arms.
Ameer Abdullah’s blocking was better today, although not good enough that you’d call him a vastly improved player in this area after just three days of very limited work in the area. The back consistently established better position against his opponent, but he still had issues delivering his arms and moving his feet fast enough to sustain his position. He was pushed back easily and has to develop a punch.
One of the pleasant sights of today’s practices was Jacksonville’s decision to use fullback/running back tweener Jalston Fowler as the halfback or single back in the red zone. As you may know, I compared to Fowler to Jason Snelling last year. The NFL people and writers I’ve shared this comp like the basis of it.
Today, Folwer scored on a red zone snap after displaying excellent anticipation of the defense’s shift inside, using a quick stutter step, and then accelerating up the backside untouched and diving across the goal line. Nice patience, footwork, and agility that I’ve seen in the link above. I believe Fowler will make a quality fullback who can eliminate a team’s need for a No.3 RB on its depth chart. He’s one of the more underrated values of his 2015 class.
The North squad displayed slight improvement with its releases during drills that stifled them earlier this week. All of them still had issues using rip moves. Only Antwan Goodley, Jamison Crowder, and Ty Montgomery displayed improvement with their second attempts–Crowder’s effort was far better in comparison. I still haven’t left this week with the belief that the Duke star remotely compares to past small, but dynamic starters like Santana Moss or Steve Smith.
One of my contacts in the NFL is a fan of Josh Harper, the Fresno State receiver. However, the only standout play I noticed was a post pattern that he dropped today. I’ve seen some of Harper’s tape so this rather quiet week from the receiver isn’t a concern.
Dezmin Lewis continued to flash. He made an excellent catch on a corner fade where he had to turn back to the trailing defender, leap above the opponent, and then extend over the man’s back to snare the ball while staying in bounds. If the targets he received on other routes were remotely within a somewhat reasonable catch radius, Lewis might have earned more receptions. His only major mistake today was a drop of a slant that went through his arms, because he was a bit late getting his head around and the ball was on top of him.
Rannell Hall had the best catch of the day after Lewis’ — a diving grab near the back pylon in tight coverage on a corner fade thrown by Garrett Grayson in 5-on-7s.
Sammie Coates continues to tease. He earned bad position due to his break on a red zone route in 5-on-7s and could only get on hand on the ball. After receiving some coaching, he ran a better route during the next round of reps to catch a touchdown pass on a corner fade. Earlier in drills, Coates made a pretty one-handed snare and appeared pleased with himself. The coach immediately talked to Coates about his route and body position on this drill without any coverage. I shared my Day 2 take on Coates with a scout and he told me that many scouts hold a similar view that he looks like a Bose sound system, but performs like a transistor radio and will be over-drafted.
Garrett Grayson is the only quarterback who displays any semblance of pocket skills and accuracy that I’ve seen from past Senior Bowl options in recent years. Even so, he’ll still make some questionable decisions and he lacks the arm to hit some of the more challenging throws in the repertoire.
Southeastern Louisiana’s Bryan Bennett sprayed the ball around the field during the past two practices–and I mean that in the “say-it-don’t-spray-it” connotation. He threw multiple interceptions where the receivers were nowhere near his target point. He misread the defense, routes, and his general accuracy on attempts were bad where he did the first two things well. Not a good impression for a player that some hoped to nominate as a potential sleeper.
Blake Sims had the type of week where he looked better in scrimmages that he did in drills. This makes sense from a performance standpoint, because it can be easy to over think small details in practice and then get out of one’s way during live action. Scrimmage is very close to live action in this respect.
None of these options looked explosive. Clive Walford was quick, but not a game breaker. The rest had to work to get down field and it was difficult to tell whether they lacked the speed to stretch the seam and earn separation on tight coverage or the linebackers were slow and the quarterbacks this inaccurate.
The runners and receivers in this group are the most competent of the skill positions in Mobile, but I’m not seeing a player who truly stands out beyond David Cobb, Ameer Abdullah, and Jalston Fowler for their versatility. I have doubts that either Cobb or Abdullah will win a starting role as a rookie, although I think both could contribute immediately.
Phillip Dorsett and Jamison Crowder appear capable as role players with upside. Tyler Lockett is a good football player who should contribute sooner than later. The same can be said of Justin Hardy. Devin Smith, Vince Mayle, Sammie Coates, and Dezmin Lewis are all upside options due to their physical skills and flashes of football ability, but Lewis is likely the best value due to his small-school background and the plays he makes despite some rawness.
Garrett Grayson is rookie vying for a No.3 role so he can develop into a competent backup. The rest of his peer group in Mobile are fighting for a camp tryout and a futures contract.
There are others I didn’t mention who could be good enough to emerge as role players in the NFL, and some will have a shot to become quality starters. However, this week’s practice didn’t show case these things.
No compelling narratives based solely on the performance of the talent this week from my end of the bleachers, but still a well-run event with a lot of knowledge gained that will supplement that tape.