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 offensive side of the ball.
E.J. Manuel, QB, Florida State: Tape shows that Manuel will throw erratically at times, and everyone knows that his decision-making needs work, especially when his first read is covered. But as a pure thrower, I think he’s pretty seriously undervalued. Time after time in practices, Manuel made accurate stick throws downfield across his body, and once in a while, he’d rip off a really nice touch throw over the top. Matt Waldman of Football Outsiders, the Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and the New York Times summarized my thoughts about Manuel better than I could in this Times piece, but the short version is that I believe Manuel’s a bit of a blank slate. In the right system — heavy motion and boot action — and with the right kind of coaching — he’s got a great deal of potential.
Mike Glennon, QB, North Carolina State: None of the six signal-callers at the Senior Bowl looked “elite” (to use that overdone quarterback term), and that was expected in a generally weak class at the position. But of all the pocket passers, I thought Glennon showed the best overall skill set. He stood tall in the pocket and was not tentative with his throws, and he’s a better mobile thrower than you’d think at 6-foot-7. He’s still iffy under pressure (which shows up more on tape than in practices in which quarterbacks are not to be taken down) and there are mechanical issues to deal with, but Glennon at least set himself up to be a slightly bigger fish in that small pond.
Stepfan Taylor, RB, Stanford: We knew that Taylor was a high-quality power runner with excellent fundamentals, because that’s the kind of player one gets from the coaching of Jim Harbaugh and David Shaw. The surprise to me during practices this week was Taylor’s edge speed — more than once, he would hit the edge and burn past a cornerback for a good gain. At his best, I think Taylor could become a mid-period Willis McGahee — bulling inside from all parts of the field, and stealing red zone carries.
Johnathan Franklin, RB, UCLA: We already knew that Oregon’s Kenjon Barner is great in space and is bulking up to block like an NFL player. Franklin, however, put on a show this week that I’m not sure a lot of people expected. There were some questions about his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, but I didn’t see that problem here, nor did I see his alleged issues with breaking tackles. What I liked most about Franklin was his patience to the hole, and his subsequent ability to blast through gaps and be very nimble in space. At 5-foot-10 and 200 pounds, Franklin may have come out of this week as the second-best every-down back prospect behind Taylor.
Marquise Goodwin, WR, Texas: There’s been as much buzz about Goodwin this week as there has been about anyone, but it took a while for me to buy in — until I saw him in Thursday morning practice, making defenders look silly with his pure speed and agility. Of course, Thursday was the non-contact portion of the week, which allowed Goodwin to display those attributes without a nagging inability to catch against contact and consistently break free from more aggressive defensive backs. He’s got Olympic-level speed, but you want to see more strength, especially when he transitions to the NFL. Right now, he’s a speed slot guy who will need the benefit of multi-receiver sets to give him matchups against smaller nickel and dime corners.
Quinton Patton, WR, Louisiana Tech: Perhaps the most impressive receiver overall this week, at least in my eyes. Patton showed impressive foot quickness in cone drills, surprised with quick cuts in drills and on the practice field, and has a toughness in traffic that could see him as a #1 receiver in the right system. The lack of that extra gear may drop him on some draft boards, but if you want a great overall receiver who can do just about anything — especially at the intermediate level — you won’t do much better in this draft class.
Aaron Mellette, WR, Elon: There isn’t a lot of Elon tape on the interwebs, and guys like Mellette get overshadowed by NFL teams whose scouting departments don’t go quite as deep. That’s why the Senior Bowl is so important for players like him, and Mellette has made the most of his opportunities. The first thing that stands out is his pure separation speed — once he gets going about 10 yards from the line, cornerbacks start to drift behind him. Mellette has good hands, decent route awareness,
Aaron Dobson, WR, Marshall: At 6-foot-2 and 203 pounds, Dobson plays bigger — and taller — than he actually is. As the week of practice progressed, the North team coaches and quarterbacks seemed to like more and more to test Dobson’s ability to get vertical in the end zone and at the sideline. He didn’t bring everything in that was thrown to him, but he did enough to make himself a name to be known among teams in need of a jump-ball guy with some real athleticism, as well as a fast receiver with estimable route awareness.
Eric Fisher, OT, Central Michigan: The word was already out on Fisher, but he did well enough this week to possibly put him in the first half of the first round, and the second tackle taken after Texas A&M’s Luke Joeckel, who just may go first overall, Fisher isn’t a pure power guy — he can be rocked back and he’ll need some core strength work — but as a pure pass-protector, he may be the best overall in this class. He reminds me most of fellow Central Michigan alum Joe Staley, and former Wisconsin standout Joe Thomas, who now anchors the Cleveland Browns’ offensive line.
Lane Johnson, OT, Oklahoma: The former high-school quarterback (no, that’s not a typo) solidified his place behind Joeckel and Fisher in this tackle class with a practice week that saw him stone a lot of good pass-rushers with a wide base and excellent ability to kick-step and mirror edge rushers to the pocket. Like Fisher, the 6-foot-6, 302-pound Johnson will need to pack more of a punch against power rushers, but he projects well at left and right tackle — just in time for an NFL in which the right tackle position has grown in importance.
Jack Doyle, TE, Western Kentucky: Another trend in the NFL — the big tight end who can run up the seam and make contested catches — really favors Doyle, who threw his weight around in a good way all week. Right now, Doyle isn’t even on the bubble list for the scouting combine, but that could easily change. He reminds me of a slightly slower Dennis Pitta in that he can hit the 12-15-yard routes with enough of a gear to make linebackers nervous, and is strong enough to make a play when he gets there, no matter what’s bearing down on him. Not a speed receiver, but a good overall tight end who can play inline, H-back, flex, and slot.
Kyle Juszczyk, FB/TE, Harvard: The fullback may be a dying position in the NFL, but don’t tell Juszczyk that — if you do, he’ll probably stand you up and block the heck out of you. That’s certainly what he did all week whenever the North team went into I-formation, and Juszczyk got to show his textbook blocking form. In addition, he shows a surprising ability to break out of the pile and make contested catches in short spaces. He reminds of a bit of Bruce Miller of the San Francisco 49ers, and any team with a multiple run game will have him on its radar.
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