Big-time tests on a smaller field. (Doug Farrar)
FAIRHOPE, Ala. -- As much as Senior Bowl week has become an official NFL function for all intents and purposes, and comes with many of the trappings that it entails, there are times when the practices become downright informal. So it was on Thursday morning for the North team. While the South team practiced at the usual friendly confines of Ladd-Peebles Stadium, the "Yanks" were shipped off to Fairhope Municipal Stadium a few miles away. The smaller but well-kept field is right in the middle of a park, so you'll see the odd dog-walker traversing around the disc golf course. Inside the stadium, however, it was business as usual. Ted Thompson of the Green Bay Packers and John Schneider of the Seattle Seahawks were catching up with the Oakland Raiders' coaching staff, in charge of the North team all week, and no doubt trying to get intel on the next great low-round steal, or shore up their own thoughts on that possible high pick.
Two North running backs -- UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and Oregon's Kenjon Barner -- continued to impress. While Barner's pure speed in space has been a well-known commodity, Franklin's skill set -- specifically, his niftiness with his feet -- has me thinking that he's upped his stock as much as anyone this week.
Texas receiver Marquise Goodwin has impressed a lot of people all week, but the Thursday practice was the first time that I was completely on board -- mostly because I started to watch Goodwin as a pure, natural slot receiver. The Olympic-level track athlete is very, very sharp with his cuts when streaking across the middle of the field, and he'll burn all but the fastest cornerbacks on quick comeback routes. The fact that Thursday's practice was held with minimal contact could be part of the reason; I'm not always sold on Goodwin's ability to break contact and extend plays, but there's no doubt that in space, he's a truly dynamic threat. As a speed slot receiver in the Victor Cruz or Kendall Wright mold, Goodwin could provide optimal value. Like a smaller Raymond James Stadium, Fairhope Municipal Stadium has its own little ship. Go Pirates! (Doug Fa …
Like a smaller Raymond James Stadium, Fairhope Municipal Stadium has its own little ship. Go Pirates! (Doug Fa …
If your team needs a jump-ball guy able to make contested catches and bring them down inside the lines, take a good look at Marshall's Aaron Dobson. The Oakland Raiders' coaching staff repeatedly sent Dobson on sideline routes, and he kept jumping up and grabbing footballs high above his 6-foot-2, 203-pound frame. Dobson adjusts to throws very well, and there was one media wiseacre (okay, it was probably me) who opined that he would have been the perfect dance partner for Syracuse quarterback Ryan Nassib, given Nassib's tendency to sail his intermediate and deep throws at the best of times.
The consensus through the week has Central Michigan's Eric Fisher as the best overall offensive lineman, and I'm sold as well. Fisher has matched up very well with Texas' Alex Okafor and UCLA's Datone Jones, and while his 6-foot-7, 305-pound frame doesn't always provide drive power, there are few better pass-blockers in this draft class. Think of Wisconsin's Joe Thomas and fellow Central Michigan standout Joe Staley as comparisons. After Texas A&M's Luke Joeckel, I think Fisher has a very good chance of being the second-picked elite blocker in the 2013 NFL Draft.
Syracuse's Justin Pugh has potential in several spots -- his shorter arms may take him out of the running at left tackle (though he played some of that role in Thursday practice), but he's a natural guard and may have a future at right tackle on the right team. At 6-foot-5 and 297 pounds, he could stand to stack some extra weight on, but I liked the way he kept his arms out and turned against pass-rushers to keep his quarterbacks clean. As a right guard, he might excel as a two-level blocker like Chris Kuper of the Denver Broncos does.
Oregon's Kyle Long missed the first few days of practice due to dehydration, according to reports, but there were few missed steps in Thursday's practice. With contact minimized, and Long's athleticism advertised as a premium feature, I wanted to see how well he'd pull and stick on the outside. He did so with aplomb -- Long can get going in a hurry from the left guard position, and though some NFL team might want to take the one-year Ducks player as a tackle prospect, he could play inside as well. Right now, Long is all athletic potential and pure nastiness when he needs it. A strong scouting combine would make his a real name to know.
Jamar Taylor gets ready to mix it up again. (Doug Farrar)
When Eric Fisher did get beaten in pass-rush situations this week, it was generally Alex Okafor who was doing the beating. The 6-foot-4, 261-pound Texas standout understands leverage, and has enough flexibility (that DeMarcus Ware "dip-and-rip") to make life miserable on a regular basis for enemy blockers. UCLA's Datone Jones looks less like a pure edge rusher and more the perfect hybrid lineman who can play five-tech in traditional 3-4 fronts, and slip inside as a pass-rushing tackle in nickel situations. With more and more NFL teams looking to diversify their fronts, Jones picked the right time to start standing out.
I've been back and forth on Boise State cornerback Jamar Taylor. Too often, he comes out of his stance high and struggles to adjust to quick-twitch receivers when asked to backpedal and trail. But on Thursday, I started to see Taylor as more of an ideal slot cornerback -- and in today's NFL, where nickel defense is a base defense among many teams, slot corners are basically starters. Taylor's ability to keep up in pattern-read coverage and mix it up over the middle convinced me that he might be a mid-round steal in that role. He still has technique work to do, and the results don't always show, but I think he has real potential as an inside/underneath defender with good speed.
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