Scouting the Senior Bowl defenders

As we ramped up to the Senior Bowl, a few names came up that Broncos fans may want to keep an eye on. There’s little doubt that Denver will need a top man corner in the near future. Safety is an issue, with Brian Dawkins unsure of his return and the number of injuries that have plagued the team at that position. Then there’s the running back the Broncos need, probably a wide receiver (although hopefully a veteran who can teach and catch, like, oh, Jabar Gaffney or someone) and the constant need for ever-better defensive line players. The OL is very young already, but you never miss a chance to upgrade if you can take it rationally. Since you can only do so much, I mostly wanted to take a look at some of the names that we can watch on defense, given the issues that Denver has there.

Denver’s front office and scouting team did a heck of a job of putting together a front defensive line for 2011, but there’s still some work to do going forward. They have a one-gap penetrating line that needs the discipline to sniff out the screen, but the ability to get pressure consistently. Former longtime NFL GM Ernie Accorsi said once, in essence, that beyond a QB and his protection, you can’t have too many pass rushers. Defenses that also play the run tough are even more difficult to go up against. Getting a first-rounder with both attributes, if he’s still there, makes the middle more powerful early on. It’s one option.

The importance of another DL player when the group has played so much better than the year before? It’s about more than just depth. Between the opening of Derrick Harvey, the move to flip Robert Ayers to undertackle/DE when Von Miller’s on the left end being used as rush linebacker, the questions about Kevin Vickerson since his substantial weight drop and subsequent injury, and those regarding Ty Warren’s health problems (he’s played only one game in two years), Denver needs to consider a backup plan, as well as locking in their solid big guys - Brodrick Bunkley, Marcus Thomas (both young but mature UFAs coming off good seasons) and the oncoming Ryan McBean, who’s an RFA. That’s not a bad group - the issues are Warren’s health and the play of Harvey. Vickerson, who I like a lot, seemed to have less, rather than more athleticism at the new, lower weight. I’m not knocking him, but you have to have a reasonable concern when the player seems to lose his professional edge, as I thought Vickerson did in early 2011. New DC Jack Del Rio has almost immediately talked about his feelings on the need for top DTs in the defense, and that may play into this.

Defensive Tackles

On possible DTs, Penn State's Devon Still declined his invite to the Senior Bowl and should go higher than Denver’s pick at #25, but there are some excellent DTs that were demonstrating their skills in Mobile who may fit Denver, if they go that route in the first round. Three guys seem to be interchanging spots right now: Brandon Thompson of Clemson is an excellent penetrator and had a great Senior Bowl. It’s sometimes said that he lacks run-stopping sand, although he didn’t show that on Saturday. What I can tell you is that he plays with excellent leverage and has an explosive first step. The second is Michael Brockers, who some feel may be the best penetrating tackle on the board. Fletcher Cox of Mississippi State (he’s also listed as a Denver first-round pick by some mocks) is another guy like Brockers and Thompson who can penetrate well. I enjoyed watching him last season. To add any of them to Marcus Thomas as an undertackle with Bunkley and McBean at nose sounds like a good upgrade on the interior DL. Brandon Thompson’s often mentioned as one of the ‘safest’ picks in the first round. They could, in theory, also bring in a top nose to push McBean for now.

Several mocks have Denver taking the well-rounded Jerel Worthy (6’3”, 310 lb, Michigan State) in the first round, and he does a lot well. Worthy ended 2011 with 30 total tackles, 10.5 for loss, 3.5 sacks and two blocked kicks. He has been projected as a potential first-rounder and was an All-American, and a key in Michigan State going 11-3 and leading the Big Ten with a 7-1 record. They also beat Georgia 33-30 in a triple overtime heart attack at the Outback Bowl. No matter who or if you root for one or the other - it was one amazing football game.

Michigan DT Mike Martin (6’1, 307 lb) generally played the nose during the season, and he struggled there. He’s a great example of the importance of understanding your players' strengths and weaknesses and placing them accordingly. He had trouble at Michigan when anchoring or handling double teams, but made the Senior Bowl regardless. All week in Mobile he demonstrated at undertackle the ability to penetrate effectively. In his case, he needs a lot of coaching on hand placement, but his first step is unusually fast and leads to a powerful and efficient punch. Guards in general can’t handle him, and he’s got a wrestling background that has helped him redirect them. His stunts are hard to stop, and as an undertackle he’s a very interesting player who was just misused in college, much like who I thought was easily the best defensive lineman in the Senior Bowl this year, who we'll discuss next.

The game proved one thing that I was watching for - Washington DT Alameda Ta’amu is a 6’2”, 341 lb player who’s totally unsuited for playing a 3-4 nose unless it’s a Wade Phillips-style one-gap system - and even then, he’s probably out of position. While Ta’amu is short, heavy and monstrously wide, he’s got skills as a penetrating DT that a lot of much lighter guys wish for. He’s also unusual in that he doesn’t have a particularly fast first step, yet he’s anything but a bull-rusher, either.

His approach to the position centers on the fact that he has extremely powerful hands and arms and he constantly keeps his hands moving;  punching, shoving, and always working them to redirect the OL guy in front of him;  using the natural leverage a man that short and wide has to get separation from blockers and to the QB.  He’s hardly perfect, and possibly not a first-round player - his upper body is too soft, he isn’t solid against a double team and has had trouble anchoring against the run at times, but you couldn’t say that on Saturday. He spent quite a few plays in the South backfield and created havoc several times, stuffing the run and harassing the QBs. His draft stock just rose more than a bit. I liked him for Denver before - I really like him now. He’ll need to be ‘coached up’, but he’s a heck of a player if he’s there in the mid-rounds - third sounds right, but with his size, he could go much earlier.

UConn DT Kendall Reyes also had a good game, including a sack. I liked his burst off the snap and his hand use, which was no surprise given that he was the linchpin of the UConn DL. Since he’d been touted in practice all week, a good Combine will also raise him up on the big boards.

Defensive End

At defensive end, North Carolina’s Quinton Coples is the consensus top DE in this year’s draft, and it’s not happening that Denver would have a shot at him. Whitney Mercilus of Illinois might be available, and he’s a player who has had both brilliant and hostile opinions on him in the sports media. He led the NCAA in sacks with 16 and forced fumbles with nine, as well as notching 22 tackles for loss, so production isn’t the concern - being a one-year wonder is. Those on-site in Mobile claim that he was outplayed by the 6’2”, 276 lb Carolina Gamecock Melvin Ingram, who I saw a couple of times and was impressed with - he’s got power and burst. Ingram’s got a lot to offer - it will come down to a question of who’s still on the board for Denver, unless they move a lot. I’d expect Ingram to go higher than Denver would want to pay for him, and I’m not sure that DE is a first-round need, although improving the four-man rush has lots of options.

Marshall’s Vinny Curry had a fine game - I’d run into a couple of analysts who talked about him during the week, but he really hit the national stage with two sacks and an endless motor during the game, as well as run-stopping skills. Unless he tanks at Combine, he just changed his income bracket, although the 3-4 teams won’t like that he can’t drop into coverage. I loved watching him play and see him as a 4-3 form - hybrids are endless in the NFL at this point, but John Fox, for example, uses everything, yet holds to a 4-3 hybrid variation as his base D. Alabama's Courtney Upshaw hasn’t gotten the same press, but he may be quite nearly as good as Coples. He will rise as the draft gets closer if he has a decent Combine.

Linebacker

In Denver, linebacker may need depth but it mostly needs to solve the MLB question - is 2011 draftee Nate Irving just a special teams guy, or can he come out and play that slot? I love Joe Mays, but you can’t miss over 20 tackles, especially in only two downs of work, and hold that position. D.J. Williams was only responsible for 10 of Denver’s 104 missed tackles (in regular play), but he’s not a natural Mike either. Of the Mobile players, BC's Luke Kuechly will probably be gone when Denver picks, but Dont'a Hightower of Alabama might be there - both players are well worth watching. Mikes often drop, and that’s a big gap for Denver.

Two linebackers that should be there beyond the first round had particularly good Senior Bowls. Bobby Wagner, OLB out of Utah St. had a game-high seven tackles with an INT, a TFL and a PD and was named the Most Outstanding Player for the North team. He also had a fine week in practice and scouts are reappraising their opinions of him quickly. Audie Cole, another ILB or Mike out of NC State, is 6’5” and 240 lb, had a good week and a good game. He was equally comfortable filling his gap, taking down the runner or playing in coverage. At 6’5”, he’s tall enough to see the field easily and is supposed to always be in the film room. He’s someone to keep an eye on. Some have him ranked as a 4th- or 5th-round pick, others as the #3 MLB in the draft. I don’t know enough about his leadership, but he has the drive.

Unlike many, I don’t even consider ASU's Vontaze Burfict. It wasn’t a small decision, so here’s why: he’s leaving school apparently due to academic eligibility issues for 2012; not just to play in the NFL, but because he’s failing college. Even more concerning, since some players do have low academic scores but high football IQs, the LB who played next to him in 2010, Brandon McGee, has stated that he had to keep feeding Burfict the right calls all year, as Vontaze was unable to handle that responsibility. If you look at the problems Burfict had without McGee in 2011, that fits history - few have tried to argue that Burfict had a good season in 2011 when McGee was lost to an Achilles tear. Add to that Vontaze’s refusal to listen to his coaches, the irresponsible violence he enjoys that led to multiple personal foul penalties and an eventual benching because he just wouldn’t listen to his coaches and it’s obvious to me - he’s not the solution for Denver, and he’d be a dangerous choice. He’s also weak in coverage despite his lateral range, and that’s gone on long enough: Denver needs a Mike who can handle all of the aspects of the job.

What I see in Burfict is a very mean and motivated guy on the field with top lateral range and powerful tackling. He can be instinctive, in the sense of reading plays as they unfold, yet he’s not skilled in terms of reading offenses and making the calls which go with the Mike position. His aggressive attitude can go a long way, and I don’t ignore that. It can also lead to a lot of personal foul penalties, and no one at the college level could get Burfict to stop trying to illegally hurt people. Add a lack of football IQ as well as poor academic qualifications to a refusal to listen to his coaching and his weakness in coverage and he doesn’t fit the defense that Denver is running under John Fox (and will now with Jack Del Rio, who likes his linebackers smart). Someone will take him fairly early, but I doubt it will be Denver. Maybe someone who needs an outside linebacker or runs a 3-4 that permits the other ILB to make the calls would fit well with him. OLB is a solid option, especially in a 3-4 base system, vague as that designation is these days.

Cornerback

Corner, whether through free agency or in the draft, is a necessity for the Broncos in the immediate future and could lead the draft. Syd’Quan Thompson and Cassius Vaughn should both return from their injuries, which will help Denver out, but the Broncos are still looking for a press-man coverage CB or two. On display was Janoris Jenkins, who had troubles due to a positive test for cannabis while at Florida, transferred to North Alabama to show his skills, and has been one of the top CBs in this year’s Senior Bowl, sharing that honor with Morris Claiborne of LSU. Claiborne is also a talented returner, so the team that takes him might get a three-way player - defensive STs, CB and returner. CB Leonard Johnson (Iowa St., coming off a neck injury) has been compared to Kansas City star Brandon Flowers and is highly competitive. Alabama's Dre Kirkpatrick has lost some traction due to a recent marijuana arrest of his own, but his size and vast skills will be likely make up for that.

The cornerback class is deep - one scout said that every CB on the field for the south will be on an NFL team come April. Keep in mind also that CB is perhaps the most scheme-specific position on the field other than QB, and that plays into how well a certain player reacts that week. The North squad, for example, was using off coverage in practice to get them ready for the game, which doesn’t fit their players well. The players generally responded to it in the game, though, so that practice paid off. The South was playing a lot of press coverage in practice, even though it’s forbidden in the game except inside the 5-yard line. It told the scouts a lot.

Cornhusker Alfonzo Dennard didn’t have a good game. On the other hand, Jamell Fleming had a quality game and probably saw his stock rise. Janoris Jenkins did a lot to redeem himself during the 2011 season and at the practices last week. He had a good game - definitely not bad, but not as exciting as I had hoped for, either. He’s still very talented in man coverage. Even though he’s a hair shy of 5’10, he flips his hips effortlessly and that’s not a common trait. Vanderbilt’s CB Casey Hayward had two pass interference penalties - he had that problem all week in practice, too. He’s very aggressive, but talented. He could be a good project for the right team.

Furman’s little known CB Ryan Steed also showed substantial skill in man coverage, and he’s someone to watch. He’s not getting a lot of media, and that’s fine. Quality man coverage guys are hard to find and you take them where you find them. It’s a good, deep class, though. It’s possible that Del Rio talks to Fox about going zone, and other players would be preferable. We’ll know that about the team at the draft, if not during FA period.

Safety

Perhaps one of the most interesting potential players for the Broncos to me at the Senior Bowl was Boise State’s George Iloka. He’s a huge 6’4” and weights 222 lb, but he reportedly runs the 40 with 4.5 speed. With long arms and good angles at FS, if he runs that fast at Combine he’ll draw even more interest. He also often seems to live in the film room with his coach, which helps. What makes him even more interesting is that Iloka had troubles when due to size, he was type-cast as a SS-type and in-the-box player - he wasn’t taking the right angles, and seemed out of place there. He was a FS at the Senior Bowl and took to it smoothly, playing much more strongly and improving his angles and general play. With Quinton Carter’s development at SS/FS, given Brian Dawkins' age and the issues with Rahim Moore, Iloka is someone that Denver might be looking at as a future piece of the puzzle. David Bruton might develop into a good starter, but right now he’s one who’s learning well but who still specializes as one of the key players on special teams (gunner and escort) and is getting better as a backup, which is no small thing either.

Mike Mayock, who has access to the All-22 film that shows the safeties, rates Notre Dame's Harrison Smith just above Iloka as a first-round pick - the 6’1”, 200 lb Smith had three INTs in the Sun Bowl, and then returned for a fifth year in 2011 to be a captain at ND, showing the leadership, maturity, intellect and physical skills to handle the position. That he was willing to maximize his college football education before moving up is a bonus. I look forward to seeing what his metrics show and even more so his drills, but on the field he’s been a demon with his length, intellect and reads, and I’d be happy to see him in orange. Mayock’s also considered Mark Barron of Alabama to be rated at the top of the current crop of safeties after watching all-22 film on him, but Barron declined his invite to the Senior Bowl and I’ve only seen him play twice and was focused on other positions. Any way you cut it, though, FA or draft, Denver needs a safety and Smith, Iloka or even Barron could be that guy. CBs usually come off the board first, but Denver needs both, so it may come down to the board.

The Senior Bowl is a great opportunity to get more familiar with a lot of the players that will tend to go higher in the draft. There’ll also be a lot of guys on that field who you can look for in later rounds, and Denver has found some good pieces in late picks - Cassius Vaughn was undrafted, as were Chris Harris and Kyle McCarthy, and Virgil Green has been a solid piece on offense out of last year's seventh round. Spencer Larsen came via the sixth round (pick 183). This year, the Broncos have one scout assigned each position, and will be specializing in grading and rating the talent in that category. We’ll see how well it works in April - but many of the potential picks were on display Saturday.

Offensive Notes

Of the two biggest losers of the week that I hoped might work out, the first and biggest was Florida State's Zebrie Sanders, who proved that he’s not only not an NFL left tackle at this point, but might not be a right tackle, center or even a guard at the next level. He was considered a borderline first-round pick recently, but he’ll need a heck of a Combine to get this taste out of teams’ mouths. Someone will pick and try to develop him, but as of right now, he’s been a disappointment. Granted, the North had a brilliant DL, but that didn’t change anything.

The proof of which is that the right tackle out of Cal, Mitchell Schwartz, who had a great game. I’ve watched him all year, and I’m very impressed with him. Despite being directly across from Quinton Coples, the top DE prospect for the year who had a stellar game, none of Coples’ successful plays came against Schwartz and that says volumes. In terms of his footwork, which was exceptional, his hand placement and use of leverage, Schwartz was flying under the radar for a while. That changed on Saturday.

Washington Huskies RB Chris Polk had some nice games this year that I caught, but seeing him against better competition showed that he may be too soft and not explosive enough - that was also what I heard all week in practices. Boise State RB Doug Martin, light in weight but a big favorite of mine, had the quote of the week courtesy of Andrew Garda - “If you don’t have a chip on your shoulder - you better find one.” Martin played like he’d found his, with surprisingly good blocking against a much bigger DE standing out and good overall play - he could be a good piece on third downs for Denver if he can block at NFL levels. Wisconsin’s FB Bradie Ewing impressed me, and his blocking was a goodly piece of the stellar production for the Badgers' Montee Ball, who's sticking around for another year. If Denver has concerns with Spencer Larsen for any reason, Ewing’s probably a late round/UDFA candidate right now who’s worth asking in - he even had a nice reception on Saturday, which I love to see out of a fullback.

Next week I’ll get more into depth on the offensive players that we may see from this game as well - it was a great chance to get an early look at some players to keep an eye on at Combine.

Go Broncos!

Learn to laugh at yourself. You will be ceaselessly amused. - Sri Gary Olsen

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