Another Senior Bowl week complete! It’s on to the Combine in about a month’s time for all these prospects, which is the next big event along the road to the NFL draft in April. As ended up being the case with the Shrine game the previous week, Saturday’s contest was again fairly one sided. The South team took an early lead and never relinquished it on their way to 27-16 victory. That certainly pleased most of those watching in the stadium, with the South team featuring all of the Alabama Crimson Tide players who were taking part. It’s not the widest winning margin ever, but the North team can thank a last-play Hail Mary touchdown throw by Louisiana Tech’s Jeff Driskel for making the score look better than it actually was. As mentioned a few times now during the all-star circuit, practices count more to evaluations than the game, but there were a few noteworthy performances by some of the prospects to make a good final impression, and a couple who weren’t able to do so.
Darian Thompson, S, Boise State – With so much player rotation, it’s hard for players to get in rhythm and stand out in all-star games like this, but for the first half, Thompson seemed to be around the ball almost every play in a highly active performance. He left a few additional plays on the field, but overall had a very positive game. The distinctive blue of the Boise school helmet was easy to spot for more than one reason thanks to his play. Lining up deep in a cover one and down in the box as a big nickel or extra linebacker, the Broncos safety showed his versatility to play both the run and pass equally well that has been evident throughout his college career. Plenty safeties impress against the run but struggle in space, while others can cover on the back end but don’t have the strength to fight off blocks playing downhill. What makes Thompson such a coveted prospect is that he is equally adept at either. Strongly built at 6ft 2, 220 lbs, he is a hard hitter with great ability to get in position to make the play, albeit with a few issues with miss tackles (though every college safety ever has had those moments to some degree!). He matches that on the back end with his superb ball hawking skills that have led to 19 career interceptions. The more film watched and the more that is being written positively about his character and attitude in interviews, the more I think he could be in the conversation of the top safety in this class. He can check off the Senior Bowl as another part of the draft process where he has excelled. Dak Prescott, QB, Mississippi State – Outside of Wentz, none of the other seven quarterbacks succeeded in doing much to stand out from the others in attendance during the week of practices. Many reports from watching scouts and media were disappointed with the group as a whole. Prescott did manage to make a memorable impression during his second quarter opportunity during the game. After a slow start to his day, and with time running out, Prescott was able to move his offense down the field in a two-minute style drill to score a touchdown for the South team to end the first half. With the need to move quickly, it seemed that taking the thought process out of the situation somewhat helped the former Bulldog QB just play naturally and execute well. He finished completing 7 of 10 pass attempts for 61 yards and the TD. His drive was enough to earn him the distinction of “Most Outstanding Player” after the game. However, a couple of plays at the end of that drive might have gone a different way. Just prior to his scoring pass, Prescott threw up a ball that really should have been picked off by Darian Thompson. Then on the actual touchdown throw, the ball was in fact a little behind his receiver Paul McRoberts, who made a nice adjustment to make the play. In truth, as much credit ought to go the way of McRoberts for that one. Either of those plays could have led to zero or three points on the drive, and someone else just as easily accepting a large block of Reese’s chocolate as part of the post-game ceremonies. Still, after an under-whelming week prior to the game, it was a solid finish to Senior Bowl week for Prescott, and he’s an interesting mid-round prospect that has shown steady improvement over the past few years. Vernon Butler, DL, Louisiana Tech – Arguably the best position in the draft this year, in terms of both quality at the top and in depth throughout the rounds, is the defensive line. The group were one of the stories of the Senior Bowl week, dominating their offensive line counterparts for the majority of both the practices and then in the game itself. Butler is still not one of the better known prospects at the position, but the buzz has been growing for a while now, as this is a legit first round prospect. His performance throughout this event will hopefully have gotten his name out there to more draft fans. The 6ft 3, 309 lb Butler made one of the best plays of the game in shrugging off his interior lineman like he was a minor nuisance before taking down quarterback Jake Coker for both the sack and a forced fumble. Missouri’s Evan Boehm is no slouch either as one of the stouter and stronger centers in this class, yet Butler handled him with power and leverage to force past. That signature play is a huge part of what excites about his game. Butler is a big presence, but moves so well, and is outstanding in pursuit for a defensive tackle. Movement at his size is always a desirable combination, and Butler gives full effort every snap too. Few players helped themselves more during the Senior Bowl, and it was great to see him flash some of that in the game to finish. Nick Martin, C, Notre Dame – While so many of his fellow offensive linemen were struggling, the most impressive and consistent was Martin, both during the week and in the game. With so many places to look on Saturday, I made a point of keeping a watch in the trenches throughout, and Martin looked comfortable and in complete control each snap while playing in the majority of the game. Given the previously mentioned D-line talent he was facing, the consistent play in maintaining his anchor made him one of the few winners from his group this week. An experienced starter during his time with the Irish, Martin has versatility to play guard as well, but looks a long term starter at center in the NFL. He’s not as powerful as his brother, Cowboys Pro Bowl guard Zack, but is just as tough and reliable. If he wasn’t already a lock to be selected by the end of round two, he surely is now. Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky – In terms of pure talent, Spence was perhaps the best player attending the Senior Bowl this week on either roster. His off the field concerns, primarily based around drug issues that he’s assured people are in the past, have been well discussed, but there’s no question that he has early to mid-first round talent on the field with his elite explosion as a pass rusher. He’s helped himself greatly in the first few days in Mobile, by not just backing up his reputation as a player by being highly disruptive in one on one drills, but also by making a very good impression when speaking to NFL personnel after practices. He finished off a strong week by consistently getting effective backfield pressure on a number of fast and violent rushes that left two talented tackles in Indiana’s Jason Spriggs and Stanford’s Kyle Murphy trailing on multiple occasions. Even when including the underclassmen not present, in terms specifically of getting to the quarterback there is no-one more gifted than Spence in the 2016 class. He couldn’t have done much more over the entire course of the event than he did to help convince teams that he’s worth taking a chance on. Nick Vannett, TE, Ohio State – The Buckeye’s tight end was picked out in our preview of players to keep a look out for, and he didn’t disappoint. He’s a better receiver at the position than he got the chance to show during college, and having already given evidence of that during practice, backed that up by taking his opportunities in the game too. Showing a nice chemistry with North Dakota State QB Carson Wentz, the two hooked up a couple times early on, including a good looking strike over the middle for a nice gain. With his 58 yards on 3 catches, Vannett ended up being statistically the top receiver during the game, with Baylor WR Jay Lee closest with 49. He’s not an elite athlete at the position but certainly moves pretty well for 6ft 6 and 260 lbs, and continued to solidify his claim to be the top senior tight end prospect in the 2016 class.
Le’Raven Clark, OT, Texas Tech – Plenty won’t stand out, but not many players truly “hurt” their stock over a Senior Bowl; the quality is high and the players very experienced. If there was one to single out as poor though, Clark is the clear choice. He’s very divisive among scouts. Some love the raw tools, which he certainly has with the size and length to potentially start at left tackle in the league eventually. His long vine-like arms are certainly ideal. Unfortunately though, the play and the mental game just don’t come even close to matching the measurables at the moment. The number of times during drills that he was beaten easily, frequently to the inside, was extremely frustrating, and those struggles continued into Saturday’s game when he was again vulnerable to inside moves, which Utah State’s Kyler Fackrell took advantage to get an easy hit on Jake Coker early on in the game. It’s easy to get sold on his physical build, and then take a film like his Baylor performance and convince yourself. But that Baylor film was almost exclusively against a hugely ineffective Shawn Oakman who had one of his worst showings of an already poor season in that one. Elsewhere, Clark is so unconvincing as a pass protector who is consistently exposed on the edge, all of which was on show throughout this week. John Theus, OT, Georgia – Sorry, keep picking on the offensive line! Another who had his problems was Theus, who has played a heck of a lot of football against high quality opposition in the SEC since his freshman year. It didn’t start great this week however. His rather loose, untoned build led to some very unflattering comments by one or two NFL personnel attending the weigh-in. His lack of athleticism was clear and resulted in giving up pressures during the game while playing at right tackle. He has length at 6ft 6, and the general thought is that the right side is his best fit for the next level, but speed off the edge looks like a problem for Theus who doesn’t have the movement to match. There wasn’t a great deal positive to take from his time in Mobile, and his big body and four years starting in a top conference will remain his main selling points. Overall his potential ceiling feels like it is pretty low.