Senior Bowl Defensive Wrap


There’s really no sugar coating it; it was a weird Senior Bowl week.

The North practices were strong, but there weren’t any clear difference makers among the front seven prospects. The South roster was strong, but their practice sessions were light on full speed drills. And it didn’t help that there were 17 front seven players to rotate through.

With limited repetitions available for the South players and my interest in observing Rod Marinelli work in the North sessions, I didn’t have the opportunity to form a meaningful opinion on the defensive backs on either squad.

Here’s what caught my eye this week while watching the front seven.

Potential Difference Makers

Noah Spence, Eastern Kentucky – Spence will have to prove to NFL decision-makers that he’s an acceptable off-field risk. But he stood out – as he should have – in a mediocre group of edge prospects this week. His edge rush was consistently technically strong and successful. In Mobile, Spence didn’t show an effective counter in 1v1 and team drills and the Jaguars’ individual sessions weren’t robust enough to judge. More film study is needed here.

Sheldon Rankins, Louisville – Rankins won consistently with a combination of first step quickness and power before sitting out Thursday’s practice with a sprained knee. Don’t buy into any comparisons to Aaron Donald, however. Rankins may have dominated in the pit as Donald did, but the Louisville tackle doesn’t have Donald’s elite first step, footwork, or understanding of leverage.

Pleasant Surprise Warranting Further Study

Jihad Ward, Illinois – I was told by Justus Mosqueda and a couple of scouts that Ward’s film won’t stand up to scrutiny. And it was easy to stand out at defensive end on a North roster devoid of elite pass rush talent. But Bill Parcells’ Planet Theory still applies. Athletic talents with 6-5, 296 pound frames are rare. Those with a projectable first step and violent hands are worth following closely. Ward earned praise from Marinelli all week long. I expect teams to push Ward – who didn’t start playing football until 10th grade and missed his junior season with an injury — at his Pro Day and private workouts to decide how much potential there may be here.

Kyler Fackrell, Utah – Fackrell didn’t show much in coverage drills and didn’t stand out much as a run defender in team drills. However, he flashed some good pass rushing traits in his very few shots in 1v1 reps against the North offensive tackles. I don’t think Fackrell is the next Anthony Barr or Ryan Kerrigan, but there’s potential here if he can allay concerns about durability.

Deion Jones, LSU – I really wanted to love multiple linebackers this week. Unfortunately, no one on the North roster stood out other than a brief flash from Joshua Perry in individual drills on Tuesday, and the South backers didn’t get an opportunity to show much in practice. Jones was the exception. His footwork and pad level were good. He showed an understanding of route concepts and the recovery speed to take advantage. And it was reassuring to see Jones play bigger and more physical than his 6-1, 219 pound frame.

Upside Rotational Interior Players

Sheldon Day, Notre Dame – Marinelli loved Day, frequently asking the Notre Dame tackle to demonstrate technique and praising his heavy hands and hip turn. Day doesn’t profile well as an early down 5-technique, however, so he’ll need to land on a team that uses lots of 1-gap and underfront concepts.

Adolphus Washington, Ohio State; Austin Johnson, Penn State; Jarran Reed, Alabama; D.J. Reader, Clemson – Each of these interior talents showed an ability to penetrate in individual and team drills. None have an elite first step or enough of a bubble to consistently anchor against the run. But they’ll each be contributors and could all get a look before the end of the draft’s second day.

Missed Opportunity

Vernon Butler, Louisiana Tech – Butler came in at 325 pounds, which is about 15 more than was expected. Whether the added weight was the cause of Butler’s slow first step remains to be seen. And Butler didn’t show an understanding of leverage or a willingness to play with power in his practice reps. With apologies to good friend Josh Norris, I didn’t see anything this week to warrant comparisons to Muhammad Wilkerson.

Joshua Perry, Ohio State – In individual drills on Tuesday, Perry’s frame stood out as NFL-ready on a North roster full of undersized backers. Perry was fluid and comfortable changing direction with an appropriate eye and pad level. Unfortunately, a mid-practice groin injury ended his week before he took any 1v1 or team reps. Had Perry continued to impress in pass rush drills and showed an awareness in coverage in team drills, I think he’d have been highlighted by many observers as one of the best practice performers of the week.

Reggie Ragland, Alabama – Ragland admitted on Thursday he’d eaten too much after the national title game and was 5-10 pounds heavier than he wanted to be in Mobile. It makes you wonder whether Ragland was planning on bowing out of Senior Bowl week at some point this month. Ragland didn’t stand out in coverage and didn’t flash in the pit after asking to show his pass rush capability. None of this may prove fatal to his draft stock, but it’s sure to give teams pause.

Jordan Jenkins, Georgia – I wanted to see Jenkins win his 1v1 reps against offensive tackles and at least hold his own in zone drops. The athleticism was there in individual drills, but the production in 1v1 and team sessions was not. Jenkins will need to test well at the Combine to separate himself as more than a middle round prospect.

Dadi Nicolas, Virginia Tech – It was easy to love Nicolas’ long arms at the weigh-in. However, the 235 pound edge prospect not only struggled to produce in pass rush drills this week, he often looked like he didn’t have an understanding of pass rush technique at all. In five years, the only pass rush prospect I’ve seen who struck out in Mobile that later went onto succeed in the NFL was Ezekiel Ansah.

It’s folly to write off any prospect without proper film study, and that’s the next step with these prospects. As always, however, the Senior Bowl was a great introduction to this year’s senior draft class.

Continue checking for additional Senior Bowl coverage at the RSP blog’s Senior Bowl Central

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