RSP author Matt Waldman shares his thoughts on the first day of Senior Bowl practices.
The first day of all-star practices set the baseline for the week. Tuesday’s sessions reveal how the coaching staff will organize its sessions and which players start hot or cold. Depending on the film we’ve seen on a player, the first practice also shows us the techniques and concepts a player knows and what he must learn.
The Bengals and Lions are running the practices this week and both sessions had its slow points that weren’t media-friendly. There were less one-on-one reps and scrimmage time than what we’ve seen in the past with other teams.
This could change on Day Two for a number of reasons. Day-One is typically heavy on “install” of the offense where the basics of alignment, shifts, and communication are rehearsed. Both the Lions and Bengals performed their share of “install” during the sessions.
It was also a cold afternoon in Mobile and as the sun descended into the evening, the temperature dropped during the second practice. Cold weather leads to cold muscles and cold muscles lead to soft tissue injuries.
Senior Bowl prospects should have hair-trigger sensitivity to injuries, which means prevention is essential for the team running the late-afternoon practice if it doesn’t want to see multiple players drop out of participation on the advice of their agents.
It’s why the most frequent thing heard during the first 25 minutes of Lions practice was, “stretch your hamstrings,” as the team led the South Roster through a series of stretches. The North Roster had warmer weather and did not place the same emphasis on stretching.
Combine install and stretching implemented during Lions practice and it provides important context behind the lack of media-friendly activity on Tuesday. There were one-on-one opportunities among the North roster’s receivers and defensive backs as well as running plays for its backs but there were fewer meaningful exercises from the North practice on Tuesday.
I expect we will get more worthwhile intel from the North practices on Wednesday and Thursday. These observations are based on live attendance and film review of those sessions later in the evening.
I’m not commenting on quarterback performances from today’s practices. See this link for my thoughts on studying them in all-star games.
Ohio State’s Austin Mack ran a number of impressive routes that broke across the field or back to the passer, repeatedly creating separation where defenders guessed wrong on the break direction or needed several more steps than Mack to come to a change of direction. His first route was a comeback to the left sideline where he used a one-step hesitation move, sold the vertical route, and even made a step inside as if he was about to stack the trailing defender before he broke back to the sideline with a good drop of his hips for the sudden stop at the top of the stem and then extended fully for the target high and away from his frame. His dig route sold the deep stem well enough that an arm-over combined with a sharp turn inside led to a break where the corner was five yards higher than Mack as the ball arrived.
Mack’s breaks were a good thing to see because there are games on his tape where he loses balance on sharp breaks and transitions up the field after the catch. In fact, he fell to the ground trying to set up a route to the inside after chopping down on the reach of the opponent and losing balance as he attempted to accelerate downfield.
Mack had three drops today but two of them were focus-oriented missteps after the initial catch when he turned upfield before securing the ball to his body. The root issue was the same for his third drop but instead of losing control of the ball on his own, Mack allowed a defender to knock the ball loose after tucking the ball but not getting it tight enough to his frame.
Jauan Jennings was the most entertaining receiver of the afternoon. After revealing a pencil-thin frame that seemed to fly in direct opposition to his image as a physical player on the field, Jennings began his day with quick separation on a fade route and used his hands to initiate contact mid-route by reinforcing the separation he earned during the release. He finished with excellent timing and positioning to win the ball behind the defender late in the play. After this fade and a slant where he should quickness to bait the defender outside and avoid contact to get free to the inside, the opposing cornerbacks who played Jennings became more physical with the receiver at the catch point.
One of those plays, Jennings earned separation on the go route with a nice dive inside early in the route and then worked the back of the defender to earn two steps on the opponent. However, the defender grabbed Jennings’ arm and prevented the receiver from closing faster on the target.
Jennings still nearly came down with a pair of contested throws. The behavior frustrated Jennings to the extent that he yelled out (I’m paraphrasing), “It would be different if they would throw a fucking flag,” which prompted the corner to retort, “They ain’t here, so why not [do what I did]?” Even with this comic relief that had us laughing in the stands, Jennings played a physical game. There will be reasons to factor Jennings’ size and inability to win these contested situations. Some of these “fouls” were close calls and it could be argued that Jennings should have made the plays. The camera angles when watching the replays were not good enough to arrive at a definitive conclusion. Considering the nature of the fouls committed and Jennings still earning enough position to even get his hands on the ball, it may not be wise to write off his day as a bad one.
Kalija Lipscomb exhibited some fight for the ball on a fade route, earning a second-chance opportunity on the target but was tightly covered throughout the majority of the route despite earning quick separation at the beginning of the pattern. Earlier in practice, Lipscomb struggled to earn separation on an in-breaking route and could not shake the defender and on another in-breaking route, Lipscomb reduced the shoulder for a clean release but the defender held the back of Lipscomb’s jersey to slow the receiver’s break. Lipscomb also slipped during the break while running a hitch. Not known as a vertical receiver, I will want to see reps where he maintains early separation on deep routes this week to remotely counter what I’ve seen on tape as well as today.
Devin Duvernay led off the receiver-defensive back battles with a quick break back to the passer after leaning into the opponent up the stem. Duvernay double-caught the ball at the target point after earning a couple of yards after the physical contact at the top of the stem. He also blew by the cornerback on a go route, using an arm-over that didn’t require significant contact to earn separation. He didn’t do enough to threaten an opponent’s inside position on a route breaking inside and back to the quarterback. The defender easily defended the target when Duvernay didn’t earn separation and didn’t work back to the quarterback fast enough to earn an advantageous position and attack the ball. He also had difficulty working through the jam on an in-breaking route and the defender earned enough of an angle at Duvernay’s break to knock the ball from the receiver’s grip.
Collin Johnson used multiple footwork patterns to set up a defender on a quick slant. While impressive footwork, the multiple maneuvers rendered the quick slant into a “moderately slow” slant and struck me as a case of inefficient footwork that impresses onlookers in one-on-one scenarios but won’t work in actual game situations on a quick-hitting route that’s the primary pattern. Johnson used a strong wiper move with his inside arm to power past Kindle Vildor to earn separation during his stem on a deep fade route. Although Vildor recovered to get into the back hip and reinforce a tight line to the boundary, Johnson made the catch over his inside shoulder on a throw that Steven Montez dropped into the smallest window between Johnson and Vildor, who tried to track the ball rather than play the man. Although overthrown on a rail route later in the one-on-one session, Johnson used a strong inside wipe to work free from contact and then stuttered early in the stem to set up the rest of his break where he earned a step on the opponent. After earning separation on multiple vertical routes, he used the vertical route to set up sudden stops and break underneath the defenders who were now trying to stop the vertical game.
Van Jefferson began his day showcasing his footwork maneuvers with his first route. He hesitated inside-out and threaten the boundary before breaking back to the inside for an easy catch. Jefferson also repeatedly used variations with pacing to set up opponents during his stems. He did this on an out route and got open but the pass was off-target. Jefferson ran an excellent dig route on Vildor later in the session, releasing outside the corner, setting up the fade and getting ahead of Vilder before pulling the string and making a sharp three-step break to work under and inside the man. Jefferson then angled the break downfield as he attacked the ball away from his chest. He ran an out route that was so well-planned and smoothly executed, including a hop that baited the defender into thinking fade that Jefferson looked like a seasoned pro. In fact, he looked like a seasoned pro for most of the session who was facing overmatched college all-stars.
Backs and Tight Ends
Josiah Deguara and Antonio Gibson appeared fluid in and out of breaks on whip routes. Gibson was not phased by contact at the top of his stem or early in his breaks. Deguara earned separation on an over route where he set up the stem inside and used a nice shake and head fake to work free but the reach of the trailing safety distracted Deguara from maintaining possession of his initial catch. Gibson’s wide receiver experience makes these underneath routes against linebackers and safeties look like child’s play. However, he dropped a target arriving at shin-height near the boundary.
Deguara had the most refined routes that combined multiple moves or setups during his stems while maintaining an efficient pattern. His angled breaks are sudden and he uses excellent head fakes.
When running between the tackles, Gibson pressed the crease briefly towards the left guard and executed a timely cutback but tried to squeeze the play through a crease that was moving quickly inside based on the angle of the lock. If he was a step more patient as he entered the line on the cutback, he could have let this block pass across his face and he’d have a bigger crease to hit. He also did this on an I-formation run working towards the left side of the line and didn’t make the second manipulation opportunity after the initial cutback. This is the type of thing Marlon Mack needed to learn from the likes of Frank Gore early in his tenure with the Colts. It’s also possible he missed this opportunity due to him juggling the exchange before securing it to his frame halfway into the crease.
Stephen Sullivan’s quick stick inside from a three-point stance was enough for him to accelerate past the training linebacker and stack the defender before breaking open on the sail route. He earned early separation that he maintained against off coverage while beginning from a three-point stance later in the session.
Jared Pickney lacked the burst of his peers today on intermediate routes but has a quick and physical wipe to set up his breaks and sharp enough turns to earn easy separation. He also tracks the ball easily over his shoulder. Despite earning easy separation on intermediate routes, defensive backs recovered quickly on deep routes.
In contrast, Harrison Bryant appeared both quick and fluid on intermediate routes, including early separation up the stem on an out. However, the defender was also in a three-point stance to begin the play and most coverage defenders aren’t beginning in this position. Bryant earned a second catch breaking to the flat but initially got hung up with the defender’s contact to his shoulder and arm. Bryant later executed a chop at the top of his stem on a seam route and tracked the ball over his shoulder at a full gallop near the end zone.
Lamical Perine began his one-on-one session with a good shake move that forced the linebacker to the inside and an off-balanced position. Perine then worked into the ‘backer’s frame and broke back outside after using contact to force the defender further outside. He stumbled trying to work under contact at the top of his stem on an angle route and the quarterback couldn’t deliver the target.
Eno Benjamin ran one of the prettiest routes of the day to work across the middle to the left hash after leaving the linebacker in the dust with a fantastic stem and fake to set up the break quickly and efficiently. However, he dropped the ball while reaching for it just way from his frame. This was by no means a difficult target. Benjamin read a double-team effectively on a run between the tackles in 11-on-11s but the backside crease wasn’t wide enough to work through it untouched.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn: He earned an easy flare-out to begin the session and then made a difficult catch on an out at the boundary when he turned against the momentum of his break, made the reception, and kept both feet inbounds. He made a fully-extended diving catch near the boundary on the subsequent route. Vaughn flashed comfort with attacking tight creases between the tackles in 11-on-11 drills. When the crease closed after a patient approach, he found the backside edge and worked loose untouched to the flat.
For additional Senior Bowl coverage, check out Matt Waldman’s RSP 2020 Senior Bowl Page for a schedule and links to previews, practice reports, podcasts, film breakdowns, and commentary.
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