Juron Criner ran a comeback route during full-squad practice on Thursday, only to see that his quarterback was in trouble. Even indoors, in sneakers, on cement, at half speed, the South defense found a way to apply simulated pressure. So Criner drifted toward the back of the "end zone," which really was an orange cone sitting in the middle of a gray slab of floor. The quarterback found him, and Criner extended his arms to make a fine catch. Unfortunately, he was at least 3 yards beyond the cone. "Out of bounds! Out of bounds! No catch!" the defenders yelled, and Criner shrugged and grinned as he tossed the ball back to a coach.
Criner could not do much to impress scouts or coaches during Thursday's practice: with no pads, no cleats and no field, there's not much any player can do to stand out. Luckily for Criner, he did enough during the early part of the week to not worry about whether he could stay "inbounds" in a convention center ballroom.
Criner, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound possession receiver from the University of Arizona, has probably helped his stock more than any other player during Senior Bowl practices this week. He was projected as a late-round pick by most experts before practices started. He has probably worked his way up to the middle rounds.
Criner does not have breakaway speed, but he appears to have the rest of the package. "I'm very agile for a man my size," Criner said after Thursday's practice. That agility was evident earlier in the week, when he made smooth cuts and adjusted to poorly thrown balls in live practices. Criner has also been demonstrating good hands and pass-catching technique, and he looks more fluid and comfortable running routes than some of the other big receivers on the South squad.
Janoris Jenkins (CB, North Alabama), the likely first-round pick who transferred from Florida because of personal issues, singled Criner out as the hardest South receiver to cover this week during his Thursday press conference. "He's kinda got ball skills," Jenkins said. "If you hit his hand, he'll catch it. And he's tall."
Criner caught 82 passes for 1,233 yards and 11 touchdowns in 2010, but missed several weeks of offseason workouts to spend time with his sick mother. Rumors swirled that Criner was himself ill, perhaps gravely ill. He returned to the Wildcats in mid-August, only to have an appendectomy on Sept. 5. Criner was back on the field three weeks later, and ended the season with 75 catches for 956 yards and 11 touchdowns.
The offseason health issues may leave Criner undervalued on many draft boards: the "serious illness" rumor was out of control for a while, and it may have conflated into a "character issue" for armchair analysts. Criner's lack of pure speed is a more legitimate knock against him: He is a possession receiver, not a game breaker. There are also questions about an Arizona offense that gave Criner tons of open space to operate. "I didn't see very much press," Criner admitted about his college career in a no-huddle offense. "I was already lined up, got my signal from the quarterback, and I could just go."
During practices, Criner looked very comfortable at breaking press coverage. His size is an advantage against smaller cornerbacks, and Criner was able to release quickly to the inside to escape contact at the line. "I've definitely been tuned in when they've been talking about it: getting off the line of scrimmage better, better hand combat at the line." Criner's ability to beat the press will make him more valuable to teams that prefer to align bigger receivers at the line of scrimmage so smaller, shiftier players can work in the slot.
This has been a brutal week for offensive players, particularly receivers, to try to stand out. Quarterback play has been weak, and defenders have held a clear edge, particularly in South practices. Criner was the only receiver to really change anyone's perception of him, though others like Joe Adams of Arkansas, Patrick Edwards of Houston and Jeff Fuller of Texas A&M all had their moments. Criner's final draft position will depend on his 40-time: If he runs considerably faster than the 4.6 he is projected to run at the combine or at workouts, he may leap well into the early rounds.