Defenders I’ll Be Watching In Mobile

Senior Bowl pics 023

Bramel shares where practice helps analysts value defensive prospects and who he’ll be watching perform these drills in Mobile.

Some argue the limited playbook and lack of full contact during team drills prevent a full reckoning of a defensive player’s talent during Senior Bowl practices. I always counter that there’s much to see in the individual and team sessions and this week remains a valuable setting to evaluate players

And with 2016 adding another record number of underclassmen to the draft – 107 players have declared themselves draft-eligible – the prospects invited to this event are undoubtedly looking to take advantage of every repetition.

Bobby Wagner and Deone Bucannon are two of many players whose strong Senior Bowl practices revealed critical talents and demanded further film study. Both improved their draft value significantly. And both continue to show the same notable traits in the NFL they did in Mobile.

Wagner came to the Senior Bowl billed as little more than a two-down player who may not have been physical enough to hold in run support either. By the end of his first practice, Wagner had shown the strong technical base and physical shed skills that would elevate him to the top of Seattle’s middle linebacker depth chart early in training camp later that summer.

Bucannon’s stout frame immediately drew attention at the weigh-in. When he followed up in practice with change-of-direction, range, ball skills, and footwork that rivaled some of the corners in one-on-one coverage drills, he cemented himself as a top all-around safety prospect.

A strong week of practice in Mobile isn’t the only reason Wagner and Bucannon have succeeded. But it very likely jump-started a strong pre-draft process for both.

Here are a few players and drills that will have my attention this week.

How dominant will Noah Spence be in one-on-one drills?

One on one CB/WR match ups often draw oohs and ahs from the crowd in the stands during practice, but the pit – where defensive and offensive linemen go head to head – is where the best action of the week can be found. These reps arguably favor the defensive player, but they still aren’t easy to win. For many edge and interior linemen, these reps represent the best competition they’ve seen in their careers to date. Showing scouts the ability to win in multiple ways here is important.

Allaying team’s off-the-field concerns will be critical to whether Spence earns consideration in the top half of the first round. But solid repetitions in the pit will build on his already strong tape and help kickstart Spence’s predraft process.

Will Vernon Butler cement himself as a first round pick?

Aaron Donald’s ridiculously consistent and dominating performance in 2014 will probably never be repeated. But the reps in the pit are becoming more and more important for pass-rushing defensive tackles. Interior pass rushers are now critical to the defensive huddle. In a deep class of big and athletic defensive linemen, a strong week of practice is critical for Butler, who’s already drawing comparisons to Muhammad Wilkerson.

How will the off-ball linebackers fare in all phases?

Every-down linebackers are becoming a rare breed. That’s not necessarily because there’s fewer athletic linebackers to be found. It’s because it’s becoming an increasingly harder job. Only the most elite players can handle it.

Previously, teams were hoping to see whether instinctive between-the-tackles run supporting linebackers could hold up in coverage. Now, with the talent cycle showing a preference for slight, coverage-savvy backers, teams want to see whether these players can play the run physically and effectively.

Tyler Makatevich, Kentrell Brothers, and Deion Jones are all likely to weigh in under 6-1 and 235 pounds. Reggie Ragland will weigh in around 250 pounds. Both groups will be looking to prove themselves every-down capable.

How will edge players be used in practice?

Under Phil Savage, the Senior Bowl has been much more proactive about giving edge players the opportunity to show their ability in defensive line and linebacker drills. Still, some edge players see many more pass rushing reps than others.

The lack of pass rushing reps didn’t hurt Hau’oli Kikaha last year. But I’m still hoping to see a balanced week of practice for Joshua Perry, Jordan Jenkins, and Kyler Fackrell this year. And I’m wondering how the Jacksonville coaching staff will rotate their front seven roster, which currently lists seven defensive ends and one defensive tackle.

Who stands out among an above-average safety group?

Jeremy Cash is likely the consensus top prospect here this week. But Darian Thompson, Sean Davis, and Miles Killebrew are also big-bodied safety talents looking to prove two-way capability. If any prove as impressive in coverage drills against the running backs as the tight ends, they’ll earn big praise this week.


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