Jene Bramel drops by the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for a recap of the 2018 Senior Bowl’s defensive units on Day 1.
The Tuesday Senior Bowl schedule includes two events that invite sweeping generalizations and over-reactions – the weigh-in and the first on-field practice for both teams.
The measurables provided by the weigh-in are helpful. But players outside established norms aren’t immediately disqualified from practicing. The NFL is slow to adopt at times but it’s not a one-size-to-rule-them-all league. Graduates of the Senior Bowl have proven that time and again, with Russell Wilson’s 5’10″height and Aaron Donald’s 288-pound frames serving as prime examples of the dangers of being disappointed when players are unable to meet weigh-in expectations.
The first practice is important. Players only have three days of practice and first impressions against elevated competition are critical. But the first practice of the week is not a full-padded workout, must necessarily spend more time on playbook installation, and asks players who have never played together to communicate well immediately.
So, take these first impressions of today’s front seven work as precisely that – first impressions.
1. The NFL coaching staffs – Denver (North) and Houston (South) – both play 3-4 fronts. While the defensive installations have expanded from the vanilla over- and underfronts I saw during my first practices six years ago, the 3-4 front has always been a rare look. That changed today. Both North and South installed the 3-4 as the base front.
The change affected the expected alignment of some highly anticipated prospects. Edge prospect Marcus Davenport took the majority of his reps as a 3-4 defensive in a 4i stance. Off-ball linebacker Shaquem Griffin saw a lot of time as a 3-4 strong outside linebacker. The change in front may allow defenders to show versatility and value in multiple fronts but we’ll likely see some players take time to adjust.
2. There were very few wins for the defensive line in one-on-one pit drills today. That’s notable because these one-on-one matchups usually favor the defensive player. The drills usually don’t mimic the variable quarterback cadences occurring in game conditions – though the South practice did today – and don’t include other linemen or a live quarterback capable of moving the pocket to influence the rusher’s route. When the defensive line doesn’t win consistently, it may be because the offensive line competition is really good. More often, it means there’s not a dominant defensive player in the pit.
3. Today, there were two offensive linemen that stood out. Humboldt State tackle Alex Cappa quickly dampened the excitement over UTSA edge Marcus Davenport’s weigh-in buzz during the South practice. And UTEP guard Will Hernandez was an impenetrable force for the North.
But there was clearly no player who came close to the dominance shown by Aaron Donald or Dee Ford in previous seasons. Georgia edge Obo Okoronkwo was the most consistent, repeatedly earning praise during one-on-one run defense drills for a quick first step, strong punch, and powerfully leveraged stance against every tackle he faced.
4. There’s a gentleman’s agreement of sorts during these practices. Ballcarriers are generally not hit hard and are not supposed to be taken to the ground. While it’s best for player safety, it can make assessing the instincts and physical play of the linebackers challenging. Today, Auburn’s Tre Williams skirted the line really well. Williams was physical throughout the partially padded practice, showed off his sideline-to-sideline range, and got the crowd to react twice with shoulder-pad-popping finishes without taking ballcarriers to the ground.
5. If you’ve not read the story of Central Florida linebacker Shaquem Griffin, do a Twitter search. Griffin had his left hand amputated when he was four years old after struggling through pain and limited range of motion due to a birth defect. But Griffin is more than an interesting and unique story. His game film shows an impressive all-around athlete. Today, Griffin found a way to win in all situations. Notably, Griffin beat an offensive tackle easily in a one-on-one rep when rushing from the right side. That’s a tough ask for a player whose inside arm (when rushing from the right side) is nearly a foot shorter. Griffin successfully executed a quick and still difficult to defend spin move.
Others with multiple strong reps in individual and team drills: Utah edge Kyle Fitts, Fort Hays State tackle Nathan Shepherd.
Those I’m hoping to watch more closely on Day 2: South Carolina State linebacker Darius Leonard, North Dakota State linebacker Nick Deluca, Rutgers edge Kemoko Turay.
Jene Bramel’s annual coverage of the 2018 Senior Bowl can be found here at the Rookie Scouting Portfolio.