NFLPA All-Star practice: Battles in trenches highlight physical day

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Miami's Brandon Washington is one of two juniors participating in the NFLPA game. (US Presswire)  
Miami's Brandon Washington is one of two juniors participating in the NFLPA game. (US Presswire)  

CARSON, Calif. -- The first practice of the week in pads was the most physical and most intense of the NFLPA All-Star workouts.

The action was best in "The Pit," a drill matching offensive and defensive linemen one-on-one.

Some of the biggest programs in the country are well represented on either line, but it was the small-school prospects who made the splashiest plays.

OLB Delano Johnson, Bowie State: The most physically imposing player on either roster, Johnson has a chiseled build and looks the part of an NFL athlete. Listed at outside linebacker, Johnson practiced primarily at that position but was also occasionally shuttled to defensive-line drills to try his hand at rushing the quarterback. He showed speed but at the request of coaches resorted to attacking blockers with explosive upper-body strength later in practice. A passionate player whose enthusiasm made him popular with teammates and coaches, Johnson is undeniably raw but his size, strength and speed will draw interest from 4-3 and 3-4 teams alike.

DT Chigbo Anunoby, Morehouse: Anunoby didn't stand out for much of Wednesday's practice. He struggled to pick up some of the techniques from the National team coaches. But as he took to the coaching, his explosive upper-body strength and surprising athleticism made him a tough draw for any interior offensive lineman. Anunoby was particularly impressive in late one-on-one drills, rocking interior linemen back onto their heels, drawing oohs and ahhs from his teammates, the coaching staff and a trio of scouts from the Montreal Alouettes of the Canadian Football League.

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TE Andrew Szczerba, Penn State: Szczerba was forced to pull double duty Tuesday with Duke's Danny Parker, the second tight end on the American team's roster, not yet in uniform. He made difficult catches over the course of Tuesday's practice but with no one to compete against him he certainly had a great opportunity to help his cause. Szczerba was every bit as productive Wednesday even with Parker getting his share of snaps. A naturally large man with good overall musculature that helped him get off the line of scrimmage efficiently as well as help seal defenders off in the running game, Szczerba has been arguably the most consistent offensive player for either team over the first two practice sessions.

OG Brandon Washington, Miami (Fla.): Expected to be the first player drafted among NFLPA All-Star participants and one of two juniors here this week (with Boston College defensive end Max Holloway), Washington was asked to move inside to guard Wednesday. Washington was a first-team All-ACC left guard in 2010 before moving to left tackle this past season. He practiced exclusively at tackle on Tuesday, demonstrating the foot quickness, balance and physicality necessary to play outside. Washington was warned by his offensive line coach -- former Pro Bowl center Kevin Mawae -- that "he might have to get his head right on playing guard" for Wednesday's practice and he certainly did that, alternating between left and right guard throughout the day. Not surprisingly, Washington showed well, though if he'll be making the switch back inside in the NFL, he'll need to get better at blocking at the second level.

DE Wilson Youman, Oklahoma State: Like Bowie State's Johnson, Youman proved effective rushing the passer using a variety of techniques. His speed challenged tackles but it was the natural strength he demonstrated when rolling his hips into the blocker for effective bull rushes that was most impressive. The National coaching staff actually began asking Youman to demonstrate his technique to teammates as practice went on.

OG Trevor Olson, Northern Illinois: Olson is listed as a guard for the National team but proved the most effective pass blocker for the North team during drills, often lining up at left tackle. Quick off the snap and remaining square to the defender, Olson was a step ahead of his opponents, handling speed and power with equal efficiency. Blessed with long arms and good balance, Olson's future could be outside at tackle.

C Mike Caputo, Nebraska: The short, squatty Caputo likely lacks the size to be able to handle the mammoth interior defenders of the NFL. That didn't stop the former Cornhusker from turning heads Wednesday with his rugged play. Caputo has quick hands to grasp his opponent after snapping the ball and a powerful base that defenders couldn't bull rush through. His lack of height was typically beneficial Wednesday as he won the leverage battle and was able to push defenders off the ball. On one occasion, however, an equally short opponent -- Humboldt State's Andrew Iupati -- beat Caputo with an effective swim move. This play was the exception to the rule for Caputo, whose gritty play will endear him to offensive-line coaches.

DT Asa Chapman, Liberty: A short, thick interior run plugger, Chapman showed good power to knock offensive linemen back during scrimmaging Wednesday but is a marginal athlete, at best, whose poor stamina and limited quickness made him virtually helpless on plays outside of the tackle box. Chapman's best asset is his refrigerator-like frame. He's tough to move and has a thick, powerful base.

DE Vince Browne, Northwestern: Of the American team's defensive linemen, Browne demonstrated the quickest feet and best balance. Browne easily slid through and around the bags during drills and was one of the few American team defensive linemen to show the ability to slide laterally as well as turn and pursue down the line of scrimmage.

OLB Alex Hoffman-Ellis, Washington State: At just over 6 feet, Hoffman-Ellis isn't going to struggle to find a niche in the NFL. His lack of height likely kills any chance that 3-4 teams would be interested in him and while plenty of undersized weak-side linebackers have enjoyed success in the NFL, Hoffman-Ellis lacks the elite athleticism that has typically characterized these players. Due to good instincts, however, Hoffman-Ellis consistently was in the middle of the action Wednesday, using a combination of his short stature and impressive upper-body strength to either elude or quickly defeat blocks to be in position for the tackle. Though full-on tackles weren't allowed in practice, one could see Hoffman-Ellis fighting the urge to wrap up ballcarriers -- something he did quite well for the Cougars as a senior, leading the Pac-12 in solo tackles.


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