MOBILE, Ala. — Yes, there is still a Senior Bowl game to be played on Saturday, but the hay is pretty much in the barn from a personnel perspective when Thursday practices wrap up, and NFL teams have seen how the best senior draft prospects line up against one another in a dizzying array of drills and situations through practice week. Here are the players who really turned our heads on the defensive side of the ball.
Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State: Boyd really hit my radar on Wednesday, when I was trying to watch the South team defensive backs, and I couldn’t stop watching the kid with jersey number 92 instead. Boyd has violent hands, a nice array of rip and swim tactics, and enough of a bull rush to avoid getting stood up by double teams. He reminds me a bit of Seattle’s Brandon Mebane, and there are elements of the great Kevin Williams to what Boyd does, though Boyd is not anywhere near Williams as a pass-rusher. However, any team in need of a true three-tech brawler will like what they see here.
Datone Jones, DT, UCLA: More than five years ago, Jones might have been lost in the shuffle. But when hybrid defenders like Justin Tuck started playing at a Super Bowl MVP level at the best possible times, and defenses overall turned to more versatile concepts, linemen with Jones’ size (6-foot-4, 280 pounds) have become far more valuable, especially when they exhibit the power Jones does from the end and tackle positions. He won’t blow anyone away with pure speed off the edge, but Jones has the leverage ability and pure fundamentals that will allow him to help any team, in any scheme.
John Jenkins, DT, Georgia: NFL teams would no doubt like to see Jenkins at his ideal playing weight of 335 pounds as opposed to the 359 he clocked in with at the official weigh-in this week, but at 6-foot-4, Jenkins at least has the body length to pull that off. In drills and practices, Jenkins was consistently quick off the ball and knifed through constant double-teams with aplomb. He’s even got a little bit of movement ability in space, though he did seem to get winded at times. As a potential multi-gap player in the NFL, I think he has the potential to rise as Memphis’ Dontari Poe did in the 2011 NFL draft. Poe went 11th overall to the Kansas City Chiefs when he impressed at the scouting combine and backed it up with some impressive game tape. Jenkins could do the same, but he’ll need to get in better shape and have a dynamite combine to cast aside any conditioning concerns.
Alex Okafor, DE, Texas: Okafor’s stock was already high based on his 12.5 sacks in the 2012 season, but it pinned when people saw him beat Central Michigan’s Eric Fisher in 11-on-11 work this week. While he’s not a pure speed guy, Okafor understands leverage, and has an estimable palette of hand and foot moves to bedevil blockers. At 6-foot-4 and 261 pounds, Okafor has the perfect frame to rush outside in the NFL, and he proved this week that he’s got the tools to do it, as well.
Desmond Trufant, CB, Washington: We learned what he already knew when watching Trufant through the week of practice — it’s really hard to cover PAC-12 receivers when you have no pass rush in front of you, as Trufant rarely did at Washington. On more equal footing in Mobile, he was by far the most polished and practiced pass defender of the week. He backpedaled quickly, turned smoothly to trail receivers, adjusted to routes, and showed good recovery speed. He also showed a nascent ability to jump routes, reminding me of an embryonic Asante Samuel at times. Thought to be a mid-round pick by many based on his game tape, Trufant may sneak his way into the high second round with a good combine and pro day.
Jamar Taylor, CB, Boise State: Taylor had his rough moments during the week, based for the most part on a few correctable mechanical flaws. He was befuddled early in the week by speed receivers, who took advantage of his tendency to play high in his backpedal and delay a half-step at times when asked to turn and run in trail coverage. But through the week, Taylor seemed to learn to make up for any mechanical flaws with impressive field speed and an ability to adjust well to quick cuts in coverage. Taylor has a reputation as a hard-working, coachable player, and it was easy to see during the week.
Jonathan Cyprien, S, Florida International: There were going to be questions about the level of competition Cyprien faced in the Sun Belt, and the 6-foot-0, 200-pound safety played all week like a man with a lot to prove. In coverage drills that had defensive backs playing all over the place, Cyprien was very active, physical, and had a good sense of the field.
“I watched him over the summer based off last year,” Senior Bowl executive director and former NFL executive Phil Savage said this week. “I loved his tackling, his explosiveness. He just had a football temperament that jumped off the tape. We kind of waited and let some of the other people go in and check him out. I had a friend from another team go in and check him out late in the year and I told him to just text me, thumbs up or thumbs down. He texted me ‘Thumbs way up.’
“He’s come in here and done what I really thought he could do in terms of the football mentality. He’s been in tune with it. Beneath the service, he’s one of the more talked-about players here at the Senior Bowl.”
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