Senior Bowl Practice Wrap: Defense – 2017 NFL Draft Prospects


The week of Senior Bowl practices is a worthwhile evaluation period. NFL coaches take teaching drills seriously and are encouraging but demand improvement. Many of these players are facing the best competition they’ve seen all season.

However, it’s important to understand the limitations of the week. Practices are non-contact and repetitions are limited. This year’s practices were more limited than usual. There were fewer full-speed repetitions than in most years. Installation time was longer than usual and many of the individual drills on the defensive side of the ball were run at less than full speed. Many of these drills are still useful—they’ll show those on the field how coachable a player may be and reveal subtle day-to-day improvements – but they can be difficult to scout for value from the stands.

As always, these players will require lots more film study to form a strong opinion on their future prospects. We’re at the beginning of a three-month pre-draft news cycle and even strong opinions you’ll read from evaluators this week are sure to change.

Of note: I planned to focus on the defensive backs for both rosters on Day 3. Poor quarterback accuracy, inconsistent wide receiver routes, and generally poor cornerback play on few repetitions made evaluation difficult. I did not feel any one cornerback stood out in individual drills. In fact, I liked multiple safeties better than the cornerbacks in one-on-one coverage drills. Two safeties in particular—Obi Melifonwu and John Johnson—arguably had better footwork and change of direction skills than any cornerbacks in Day 3 drills. Earlier in the week, evaluators I trust had good things to say about Miami’s Corn Elder, San Diego State’s Damontae Kazee, LSU’s Tre’Davious White, and Lamar’s Brendan Langley. White did not participate in Day 3 drills due to injury.

Potential Difference Makers

Obi Melifonwu | DB | Connecticut

Melifonwu was one of many defenders with striking weigh-in measurables. Of that group, the Connecticut defensive back was the only one to be equally impressive on the field. Long, tall defensive backs often have difficulty opening their hips and changing directions. Melifonwu did so effortlessly in individual drills. The North coaches routinely asked him to match up one-on-one against wide receivers in individual drills and Melifonwu more than held his own. Though a little grabby at times, Melifonwu was comfortable in his stance, never guessed on a route, and showed easy recovery speed when needed. He often looked like he was gliding next to a receiver or tight end who looked to be running at full speed. Melifonwu was never matched up against the week’s most refined wide receiver Cooper Kupp in the slot but his consistent coverage reps will have scouts drooling over his combination of size (6-4, 219) and potential versatility.

Haason Reddick | LB | Temple

Reddick was arguably the best defensive prospect on either roster this week. Reddick held his own in coverage against running backs in individual drills, showed an improved understanding of reading defensive keys in team drills as the week progressed, and was more effective off the edge than most of this week’s edge prospects. Though he saw very few snaps as an inside linebacker at Temple, that’s where NFL teams are likely to see Reddick. While there’s still a learning curve to navigate, this week’s practices strongly suggest Reddick can be successful there.

Justin Evans | DB | Texas A&M

Evans didn’t practice on Day 3 due to injury. He wasn’t as striking on the field as Melifonwu but his coverage skills were impressive earlier in the week. Evans showed no difficulty getting to the sideline from a centerfield position. NFL defenses must have players in the secondary with range and ball skills and Evans’ playing style will fit with any scheme.

Pleasant Surprises Warranting Further Study

Tyus Bowser | EDGE | Houston

I quickly reviewed two cutups on Bowser early this week and didn’t see an explosive linebacker talent. But Bowser looked as comfortable changing direction as any linebacker in drills this week and had a very high success rate in one-on-one pass rush drills. He struggled when asked to cover downfield routes but held his own on routes developing in front of him. Lance Zierlein tweeted that Bowser could be a top 100 pick and others I spoke with were equally impressed with his week of practice. I’m looking forward to watching his college tape with a more critical eye.

Tarell Basham | EDGE | Ohio

I felt Basham had the most consistent week of practice among the edge rushers. Others (D.J. Smoot, Daeshon Hall, Tyus Bowser) may have flashed brighter at times but Basham showed success setting the edge and demonstrated a variety of pass rush moves. His pass rush will have to mature over time but it’s always good to see a prospect execute a plan in drills and then carry his good play into 11-on-11 reps which are always less conducive to success than the one-on-one pit drills.

John Johnson | DB | Boston College

Johnson looked like gravity didn’t apply to him when high-pointing balls downfield during defensive back drills. Like Melifonwu, Johnson stayed with the cornerbacks in one-on-ones against the wide receiver and tight end groups rather than working with the other safeties against running backs. Johnson wasn’t as fluid as Melifonwu but was comfortable in coverage. It’s a deep safety group this year but Johnson has a chance to play every down on Sundays as a rookie.

Duke Riley | LB | LSU

As I wrote yesterday, I wasn’t as impressed with Riley on Day 1 as others but I began coming around on Day 2. Last year, Riley’s teammate, Deion Jones, attracted my attention after a strong Senior Bowl week. Jones’ film reinforced many of the things he did in Mobile. Should Riley’s practice attributes be supported by game film, Jones may get some attention in the early rounds.

Athletes with Upside

Tanoh Kpassagnon | EDGE | Villanova

There were moments for Kpassagnon this week but not enough to generate the same buzz his weigh-in result did. A work in progress, Kpassagnon’s size and athleticism has drawn comparisons to Carlos Dunlap. While that comparison is not yet warranted, Kpassagnon has measurables that cannot be taught. If he improves his pad level, footwork, and learns a more mature array of pass rush moves, he could blossom into an elite edge player. That rarely happens quickly. Thankfully, NFL teams know it takes time for pass rushers to mature and Kpassagnon’s physical attributes will give him time to develop.

Daeshon Hall | EDGE | Texas A&M
D.J. Smoot | EDGE | Illinois

Both Hall and Smoot flashed strong edge rush capability in the pit and in team drills this week. They also, unfortunately, disappeared for stretches of practice. Smoot sometimes seemed to rely on guessing the snap count to get a jump against more talented opponents. Hall didn’t show a viable counter moves in one-on-one drills. Both have upside. Like Kpassagnon, both will require time to develop.

Players Who Need Consistency at Combine and Pro Day Workouts

Ryan Anderson | EDGE | Alabama

Anderson showed a quick first step on film against his best competition this year. That step wasn’t evident during practices and he did not win any of his limited one-on-one matchups against the offensive line. He also looked slow in his transitions and didn’t move in coverage nearly as well as Bowser. That may have been due to injury as Anderson didn’t participate in practice on Day 3. He’ll need to test well at the Combine and show better movement skills or risk falling behind in a deep edge class.

Alex Anzalone | LB | Florida

I thought Anzalone did well this week in drills and he frequently drew praise from his position coaches here. But I’m not convinced his foot speed is sufficient and there were enough question marks in his coverage against Senior Bowl level running back competition to wonder whether he’ll ever be capable of an every-down role in the NFL. He’s another player who will need to test well – especially in lateral movement and change of direction drills – to convince teams he has starting upside.

Damonte Kazee | CB | San Diego State

I spoke with Turron Davenport – who helped turn me on to Deone Bucannon in 2014 when I had my eye on Jimmie Ward and Terrence Brooks – earlier this week about cornerbacks to watch. He made a point of mentioning Kazee, who he sees as a physical talent with above-average ball skills. Kazee struggled at times this week to effectively jam receivers and not use his hands too much downfield, but the physical play Davenport noted was evident. He’ll need to clean up his technique to be successful in the NFL, but Kazee might fit as a slot corner or better as a rookie.

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