Senior Bowl Day 1: First Impressions, Defense



In reality, college players turned aspiring NFL athletes get many chances to make a positive impression. Teams evaluate multiple games on film and get access to players for interviews here in Mobile, at the combine, and at Pro Days. But Senior Bowl Week is the first time the NFL calendar and news cycle turns to the draft. So, while it’s not truly a first impression—it’s often the first time most NFL fans are exposed to some of the best college talent available.

In past seasons, I’ve had time to do extensive prep work on the incoming draft class before coming to Mobile. This year, Senior Bowl practices will be my first opportunity to evaluate many of these players.

So, for me, this truly is a week for first impressions.

General Roster Notes

The Senior Bowl is the premier pre-Combine destination for every team and a ton of independent media and scouting outlets. But only athletes who have graduated are eligible to attend—which means very few juniors get invites— and senior players who expect to be high first round picks often choose not to participate. But while you may not see a lot of elite college names on the roster, many players here will have an impact on an NFL roster. In the five years I’ve been in Mobile, I’ve been excited by Aaron Donald, Melvin Ingram, Dee Ford, Bobby Wagner, Lavonte David and Deone Bucannon, and many, many others.

Senior Bowl Director Phil Savage is clearly making an effort to involve more non-FBS talent. In addition to the blue bloods of college football, there are players here from Lindenwood, St. Francis, Bucknell, Youngstown State, Chattanooga, Tiffin, Villanova, and Simon Fraser in Canada.

The need for versatile and interchangeable talent at every level of the defense is not new. Though that trend started in college with teams recruiting athletes to spread offenses—and later the defenders to stop those athletes, it took time for the trend to be reflected on the Senior Bowl rosters and defensive installations. We’re seeing the edge players here used more interchangeably than ever and installations this year included more alignments than in past seasons.

The safeties on this year’s rosters are big. The North roster has four players over 200 pounds and two players over 6-2, 210. It’s not likely to be an anomaly. Teams need players who can be the sixth or seventh run defender in the box in passing situations while still having the ball skills to handle man coverage in the slot or in zone coverage.

South Practice Notes

I took some heat for my snarky tone on Twitter about the North practice. But I’m certain I wasn’t the only one wondering about the way Cleveland ran today’s practice. I like to watch the defensive line on Day 1. Generally, individual drills are run in one location, the position groups come together for one-on-one work in another location, and the team drills take place after that.

The Browns had the defensive linemen go from one corner of one end zone to the other end zone four times today. They did pit drills—one-on-one defensive line vs offensive line —in the end zone that’s traditionally been closed off to nearly everyone. That area had to be opened today. With only 5-8 minutes per rotation, some players got only 3-4 reps total. And the mass exodus of position coaches and scouts scrambling around the sideline from end zone to end zone to keep up was comical. I’m hoping the Browns get some constructive criticism from their fellow teams tonight.

I also didn’t get much out of the heavy bag gauntlet the defensive line practiced for much of the individual session. I think the Browns’ coaching staff was trying to teach a heavy hands and power concept. But most of the players repeatedly went through the drill without attention to balance, footwork, hand placement, and leverage. Players were moving through the bags straight up and down, sometimes finishing with their back to what would be the line of scrimmage after each bag, and hitting the bag at a height above their own helmet. The Browns did finish the drill with an interesting two-hand technique to defeat combo blocks. I’m hoping this drill is cleaned up in tomorrow’s workout. Though many scouts I spoke with had similar concerns, it’s also possible I’m missing something simple and critical here.

I heard good things from multiple scouts on Texas A&M safety Justin Evans before practice. While it’s sometimes difficult to read defensive play in practice due to the no-contact rules and limited reps, Evans impressed with quick passing reads, middle of the field to sideline range on deep balls, and an understanding of fill angles against the run.

One of the most striking figures at the weigh-in was Villanova edge Tanoh Kpassagnon, who measured nearly 6-7 and 280 pounds with almost 35 inch arms and an 84.5 inch wingspan. On film, Kpassagnon showed some edge-setting ability and the beginnings of a technically sound pass rush. Today, he was often slow off the ball, handled at the point of attack, and played with a troublesome pad level. He also seemed to hurt his thumb on a one-on-one rep. There’s a ton of athleticism here, however, and a good chance he’ll bounce back in the next two practices.

Texas A&M edge Daeshon Hall was the most impressive player in one-on-one reps today. Scouting reports have him as an edge rusher, but he showed back-to-back inside moves and a spin move to win in the pit. He will help himself tremendously with two more productive days.

Linebacker Alex Anzalone was often limited by injury at Florida but drew an invite to Mobile on the strength of intriguing all-around play when healthy. I liked his range, flashes of downhill play and power, and footwork in small spaces in one-on-one coverage drills today.

LSU linebacker Duke Riley impressed some observers between the tackles. But he had trouble keeping up with running backs moving laterally in coverage.

I thought Houston edge player Tyus Bowser moved better than I expected in individual drills and he looked comfortable at times moving laterally in coverage. But he could not keep up with Alabama move tight end O.J. Howard on a seam route and may not have the foot speed necessary to succeed in that role at the next level.

Auburn defensive tackle Montravius Adams was the quickest interior lineman off the ball. one-on-one reps are favorable to defensive linemen, however, and it will be important for Adams to show those skills in team drills throughout the week.

Other thoughts: Alabama edge Ryan Anderson was solid and will get good practice reviews from many. My eyes happened to be elsewhere on most of his reps. Multiple scouts, including Emory Hunt, have had very positive things to say about Chattanooga’s Keionta Davis. I’ll be watching him more tomorrow. I also heard good things about Tulane defensive tackle Tanzel Smart.

North Practice Notes

The Chicago coaching staff ran a more “traditional” Senior Bowl practice. After a brief installation period and stretching, the Bears had a long period of varied positional drills followed by one-on-one reps between position groups in the same location and over 30 team repetitions in various situations.

The North front seven defenders worked out at multiple positions. Edge defenders worked with the defensive line and linebacker groups. Non-edge linebackers saw time at both inside and outside linebacker. None of the North defenders seemed confused by the movement, which usually affects only one or two defensive end – outside linebacker hybrids each year.

I chose to focus primarily on two linebacker prospects of interest today—Temple hybrid Haason Reddick and Simon Fraser inside linebacker Jordan Herdman.

Reddick was as fluid in change of direction drills as any linebacker I’ve seen here in Mobile over the past five years. There were no extra or gathered steps and his pad level was solid over multiple reps. He dropped to coverage landmarks well and looked comfortable one-on-one against underneath routes. There were multiple instances where he looked slow to react in seven-on-seven and 11-on-11 run situations but once he saw the play he was downhill and decisive. It’s not clear what Reddick is yet—he’s had experience as a cornerback and edge player—but his athleticism and potential versatility gives him great upside if he can react more quickly in time.

Herdman looks like a missile in YouTube highlights. But footwork and balance can be an issue at times and I’m not convinced his speed translates here yet. But his better reps were impressive. When there were no false steps, he avoided blocks and met runners at the point of attack well. If some of today’s missteps were opening day jitters against heightened competition, Herdman could pop as the week progresses.

Other thoughts: Connecticut safety Obi Melifonwu is huge at 6-4, 219 and a long strider but was surprisingly fluid when changing directions in his back pedal and looks to be a willing run defender. His size will draw attention from writers this week. I didn’t see any consistent flash plays in the one-on-one pass protection reps, but Iowa defensive tackle Jaleel Johnson was in the backfield often in team drills and I was told Illinois edge D.J. Smoot was active in one-on-one reps.

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