MOBILE, Ala. – Senior Bowl week began with overcast skies, wet conditions and a lot of anxious faces at the downtown Mobile Convention Center. Included in that group was Heisman Trophy winner Troy Smith, the Ohio State quarterback who had the week's first highlight when he came away smiling after measuring right at 6-foot tall.
During the first three days of practice, there were key opportunities to evaluate the players as the large majority of scouts, coaches and media left town prior to Saturday afternoon's game. In fact, most teams start their pre-combine meetings on Monday so a few days of rest are needed. But that time is likely to be spent evaluating the list of underclassmen and checking out the game and practice tapes from the past few all-star games.
Even though these postseason games are a necessity and provide a great chance for players to lift their grades and impress the front offices and coaching staffs, which really have not seen or heard much on them to date, the final grades on most players have already been completed.
"(I) would say nearly 90 percent of the draft board is done in terms of what your team has or will say on a particular player," explained one former general manager in attendance, "Of course, there are always a handful of guys that jump out at you or run (and) work out better than expected, but you never want to let one area, practice or moment change six months of scouting. … That's how you overdraft and make mistakes."
Here is a look at those who helped and hurt their draft stock the most during this week's practices. For those watching the game on Saturday, keep an eye on Alabama State defensive back Michael Coe (No. 25), a late injury addition who could be this year's Nick Collins – another small school defender that subbed into the Senior Bowl game late in the week but stood out on game film.
Amobi Okoye, defensive tackle, Louisville – The 19-year-old sensation came out of the blocks full-speed during the initial practices, showing the quickness, power and upside to become a feared interior defender at the next level. "The kid is unique in so many ways," said one longtime scout after Tuesday's practice. "(With) his age, first off, that means you can get him for two to three years and he will still be younger than most of the guys in his draft. Secondly, (judging) how good of a kid he seems to be off the field, I have no worries about his ability to adjust to the NFL game or lifestyle." Okoye shed some of his extra pounds while preparing for next month's NFL combine, as he wants to run in the 295- to 300-pound range and hopes to come across the line at sub-4.90 second in the 40. His intelligence and attacking style could position him to be taken among the top 20 choices in April's draft. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who have been coaching him all week, have quite a fondness for Okoye, who could very well be "Warren Sapp light" in their eyes.
Tony Ugoh, offensive tackle, Arkansas – He's the most athletic tackle at this year's Senior Bowl, but he may need to continue to add some lower body weight to his frame, which slims out as you get past his torso. However, Ugoh's footwork and rare athleticism jumped out during one-on-one and positional drills. He is working to get stronger at the point of attack, but that will come with increased maturity, both on the field and in the weight room. There were a few times when he was beaten by an initial move off the snap but was able to keep his balance and use his long arms to ride the opposing defender out of the play. Still, his best days are ahead of him. My only concern with him is that I would like to see a little more of the "bull" come out in him as he is not the type of physical finisher that coaches crave. The fire is there to play in the NFL, but Ugoh keeps it low key. He's a player that has been moving up the draft board since midseason and now has a solid chance to go between picks 20 and 32 of the first round, if not higher, after his combine workouts.
Adam Carriker, defensive lineman, Nebraska – Carriker, who has spent several weeks training in Houston for this week's contest, showed up raring to go. He dominated at the line of scrimmage during nine-on-seven drills and showed good pass rush ability in several one-on-one battles. With his combination of size and strength, Carriker became a more valued prospect at this week's practices, as teams realized they could line him up in a variety of roles, including 4-3 defensive end, 3-4 defensive end and inside at the under-tackle position. He can be a little stiff at times and had a more productive junior campaign, but Carriker now seems to be back on track to becoming a first-round draft pick.
Patrick Willis, inside linebacker, Mississippi – Willis had already proven to all evaluators that he has an ideal combination of instincts, intangibles and the ability to play with and through a variety of injuries. However, this past week he stepped his game up one more level, especially against the pass. Willis had two interceptions during one practice session, and he was more fluid than expected in positional drills. That smoothness carried over to his play during the team portion of practice. Willis has very good leadership tools and could step into the right situation and start next season. The New Orleans Saints were just one of the teams that seemed to have an added interest, but his draft day destination could very well be San Francisco, since 49ers linebackers coach Mike Singletary has worked with Willis up close all week.
Tanard Jackson, defensive back, Syracuse – Jackson was very quick and fluid during positional drills. His biggest benefit came from the coaching staff moving him back and forth between cornerback and safety during the seven-on-seven and team portions of the workouts. He showed good pop coming up from the safety spot and had already proved to be one of the top-rated corners in the draft. The aggressiveness he showed is nothing new, but the fact that he has now demonstrated to be a versatile option in the secondary puts him into the higher portion of the second round on many boards.
LaMarr Woodley, defensive end, Michigan – He came in a little shorter than expected and then struggled to show the explosive burst that made him such a fierce pass rusher in the Big Ten the past four years. His slow start to the week got worse when he was sidelined with a slight hamstring injury, but team doctors say if he misses Saturday's game it will be for precautionary measures. Woodley does not seem flexible enough to move back to outside linebacker, and his best plays come moving forward and attacking the line of scrimmage. His 40 times next month will determine how high he will go, but it now seems as if he is not on the first-round level.
Aaron Rouse, safety, Virginia Tech – Rouse is one of the best pure athletes in the draft, as he has been timed at sub-4.4 in the 40 with a near 40-inch vertical. The problem is that he plays way too tall and lacks great flexibility in his hips. His playmaking skills are more geared towards attacking the line of scrimmage than dropping back deep or when asked to cover one-third of the field on passing downs. He is high in his back pedal and lacks that quick swivel to his hips to become a dominant player against the pass. The team that selects him will have to use its other safety as more of a "centerfield" guy who can go make plays on the ball.
The Quarterback Class – The loss of Notre Dame's Brady Quinn to a minor knee injury cost NFL evaluators the chance to observe the potential top overall draft choice in person, but it did give the other quarterbacks in Mobile the chance to step up. While Michigan State's Drew Stanton flashed his tools and upside and Florida's Chris Leak made several good throws and impressed with his off-field character and intelligence, the crop of signal callers was rather bland. Stanton's physical tools stood out in this group, and record-setting Houston passer Kevin Kolb did not have too much trouble going from a shotgun thrower to more of the classic drop-back QB. Kolb did struggle in one crucial aspect, since the system he used in college had a totally different terminology than those showed to him by NFL scouts and coaches. Ohio State's Troy Smith bounced back with a better practice on Tuesday, but he failed to produce the type of game week necessary to make scouts forget his BCS title game struggles.
Clark Harris, tight end, Rutgers – Harris was an early departure from the game after being limited by what was described as turf toe, although others said that he might have been headed to a foot specialist to see if there might be a bone bruise. He needed a big week both on and off the field, as there were no other tight ends with his combination of receiving skills and downfield speed. However, he now has an injury to deal with and was unable to compete. His ability to bounce back at the combine is now of utmost importance.
OTHER PROSPECT NOTES
- Several junior college prospects were added last minute to the list of underclassmen. They included Northwest Mississippi Community College defensive tackle Walter Thomas, a one-time highly recruited interior defender from Galveston-Ball High School in Texas. He spent one year at Oklahoma State before heading to the J.C. ranks, but measuring at roughly 6-foot-3 and 335 pounds and having been timed in the 4.9-second range in his prep days, he may raise some eyebrows.
- Meanwhile, Northwest Mississippi CC defensive end Devin Hicks (6-1, 260 pounds) was unable to achieve the academic status to join a four-year program, but he flashed enough pass rush potential to have several CFL teams speaking to him in the lobby of the Mobile Convention Center.
- The same attention was being paid to wide receiver/return man Titus Ryan, a former Alabama recruit who spent this past season at Concordia (Ala.) after a one-year hiatus from football and a two-year stint at a pair of junior colleges playing both football and running track. Ryan has exceptional speed dating back to his prep days where he ran the 100 and 4x100 among other events. He is roughly 6-2 and 195 pounds and was a top-10 player in the state of Alabama coming out of high school in 2002.
- Oklahoma junior running back Adrian Peterson has decided to share his business dealings as he has signed a marketing deal with 10 Sports Marketing under the guidance of Bill Henkel and Dusty Stanfield. Peterson finalized an agent contract with CAA, the sports agency that employs Ben Dogra, Tom Condon and Ken Kremer. The news will come to the surprise of many industry insiders who expected Peterson to follow in the footsteps of most clients, like Matt Leinart, who signed mutually exclusive offers with CAA to supply them with both a contract negotiator and marketing strategist.