MOBILE, Ala. -- When the draft is the subject, there is always a lot of hype around quarterbacks and other skill-position players.
However, this is a year where NFL scouts insist that the real talent on display at the Senior Bowl is in the offensive and defensive lines.
There are those who believe as many as 10 linemen from the Senior Bowl rosters could be drafted within the top 50 this April -- and that is with highly-touted prospects Ndamukong Suh, Russell Okung, Trent Williams, and Charles Brown having backed out after initially agreeing to play in the all-star game.
|If Ole Miss' John Jerry continues to impress, he'll be smiling even bigger on draft day. (Getty Images)|
Most linemen, like prospects at the other positions, confirm throughout this week the skills and weaknesses they have displayed on film. Considering his nation-leading 53 starts at left tackle for the Tigers, for example, scouts know what LSU's Ciron Black can do. The competitive fire he has shown in participating this week is appreciated by scouts, but these practices are also about showing NFL teams something different.
Through the first two days of practice, the South lineman making himself the most money is Mississippi's John Jerry. Jerry impressed scouts on Monday with his weight, measuring in 18 pounds lighter than his listed 350 pounds and actually coming in nearly an inch taller than his listed 6-5. The second-team all-SEC selection showed surprisingly quick feet and great strength while at right tackle Tuesday, easily handling the bull rush. The versatile lineman saw action at right guard Monday, but remained outside almost exclusively yesterday. Considering his size and athletic bloodlines (brother Peria was the Falcons' first-round pick last April and his cousins are former NFL linebackers Eddie Strong and Dwayne Rudd), some scouts see Jerry as a more polished prospect than the North's more hyped Vladimir Ducasse and Mike Iupati, while still possessing significant upside.
On the opposite side of the spectrum was West Virginia offensive tackle Selvish Capers, who struggled against speed and power Tuesday while playing left tackle. To be fair, Capers is a former tight end whose experience along the West Virginia offensive line was exclusively at right tackle. Capers has good quickness out of his stance for pass protection, but doesn't keep his feet moving. As a result, defensive ends C.J. Wilson (East Carolina) and Brandon Lang (Troy) were able to catch Capers leaning and burst back inside for easy penetrations. He also plays too high, negating his strength and making himself susceptible to bull rushes.
Still, Capers offers an intriguing upside. He has an athletic V-shaped frame for an offensive lineman and has rare straight-line speed. He might be the quickest tackle in the country in getting to the second level. His struggles with the added physicality here, however, prove he might not be able to make an immediate impact in the NFL.
Baylor center J.D. Walton distanced himself a bit Tuesday from his counterparts Ted Larsen (North Carolina State) and Jeff Byers (USC). Despite his time in a predominately zone-blocking system while with the Bears, he has held up well in the physical battles inside. The same could not be said for Larsen, a former defensive tackle who has strong hands to grab hold of the defender, but still has some work to do in maintaining leverage. When going against stouter defenders, such as Alabama's Terrance Cody and Tennessee's Dan Williams, for example, Larsen struggled to get the snap off and then get his hands on the defender. Many of his snaps in drills were bounced back to the coaches and he was consistently pushed back into the pocket. Byers was moved between guard and center, and while athletic and tough, he struggled with bigger, stronger defenders.
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Depending on the snap scouts watched, Arkansas guard Mitch Petrus can be the most or least impressive lineman on the field. Scouts knew the former fullback was very athletic and can get to the second level. He is also surprisingly strong and seems to enjoy the battles inside. However, Petrus proved to be too much of a waist-bender in drills, and this carried through during the team drills, as he was often pushed backward when losing the battle for leverage.
The stars of yesterday's practice on the offensive line for the North, UMass's Vladimir Ducasse and Idaho's Mike Iupati, once again looked strong but also displayed some holes in their games. Michigan defensive end Brandon Graham showed Ducasse the sort of strong, relentless pass rush he'll face at the next level during one-on-one pass-rush drills, beating him on inside moves by using violent hands and getting to the corner. However, Ducasse held his own in team play, looking more comfortable as the day went on.
Iupati was a bull in one-on-one drills and team play, anchoring against the formidable strength of North Carolina's Cam Thomas and Purdue's Mike Neal. When taking on Graham outside, however, Iupati showed his inexperience working in space, failing to extend his arms and move his feet to hold the 6-1 Wolverine at bay. The All-American is also not accustomed to coming out of a three-point stance, and the lack of work showed when coming hard off the snap and blocking down on the tackle, but then losing his balance trying to hit a linebacker at the second level.
Needless to say, Graham's strength and phenomenal hustle were pretty obvious in practice Tuesday. Only his height (6-1) might hold him back from getting that first-round slot. Another end generating buzz in Mobile is Arkansas State's Alex Carrington, who has displayed the strength and ability to pressure the outside shoulder of right tackles in practice, which is nothing new to regional scouts watching him the past couple of seasons.
Zane Beadles from Utah was one of the offensive linemen getting worked over by Carrington. Beadles has the ability to run-block from the right-tackle spot, but he appears to work best inside, playing both left and right guard Tuesday and performing much better in tight quarters than out on an island.
Two centers, Mike Tennant (Boston College) and Eric Olsen (Notre Dame) both stood strong in one-on-one drills and team play. Despite measuring 6-4 and 290 pounds, Tennant anchors very well against guys like Thomas, outweighing him by 40 pounds. Olsen does not lose the leverage battle often, either.
Like John Jerry on the offensive line, two SEC defensive linemen are helping their stock tremendously this week. Though they play essentially the same position, the two players couldn't be any different in their body shape or style of play.
Tennessee's Dan Williams has the wide, lower body that defensive line coaches are looking for in a potential nose tackle. His great strength and 6-2, 329-pound frame might not have earned the hype of Alabama's "Mount" Cody, but he's the more consistent player. Scouts would like to see more burst and better use of hands to slip blocks and pressure the passer, but Williams will make his money the same way Cody will: By eating up blockers and shutting down running lanes inside.
A virtual opposite of Williams (and Cody) is Georgia's Geno Atkins. Possessing the best burst off the snap of any defensive lineman in this game -- including pass-rush specialists George Selvie and Antonio Coleman -- Atkins has been able to consistently slice through gaps and wreak havoc in the backfield. This week's practices have presented the inconsistent Atkins at his very best. Georgia coaches wish they could have gotten this type of effort from Atkins consistently throughout his career, but in being asked to only play for a few snaps before getting replaced, he has responded to the proverbial carrot of playing time in front of him with a strong performance.
Terrance Cody's sloppy build might draw sneers, but the big man is helping himself this week with his stout play inside. Teams knew he could hold the point against double-teams, but seeing him stuff the action on television is much different than watching him in person blow up plays before they even get a chance to begin. Cody clearly isn't the same dominant player at the end of practice that he is in the beginning, but if substituted often, he could quickly emerge as one of the league's better nose tackles. As a specialist, it might be too much to think he'll earn a first-round pick, but there is no way he'll get out of the second round if he comes in healthy at the Combine.
One highly touted defensive tackle struggling to make his customary impact has been Texas' LaMarr Houston. His combination of quick feet and strong hands helps him gain penetration, but he has been relegated to making plays in lateral pursuit so far, rather than collapsing the pocket. Despite his impressive 6-3, 300-pound frame, Houston has struggled against the South's bigger blockers.
Rob Rang of NFLDraftScout.com contributed to this report.