The 2011 NFL Draft is exactly three months away. Let the season begin!
This is particularly fitting, because, every year, draft season begins at the Senior Bowl. Yes, there are other post-season bowl games designed to showcase potential pro football talent, but none of them attracts the number and level of NFL scouts that the Senior Bowl does. One of the reason so many talent evaluation types congregate in Mobile, Alabama each year is that the Senior Bowl offers them an opportunity to see top-tier talents go head-to-head. When they watch tape of these guys, many times they are watching mismatches wherein an NFL-caliber player is going up against a guy who has no chance of playing beyond the collegiate level. Thus the game - and, more importantly, the days of practice - provide an excellent opportunity to see who can establish themselves as the elite of the elite.
I'd like to follow up KD's excellent piece on Von Miller by looking at how some of the players at the Cowboys direst positions of need--OL, DL, DB-have been faring this week. In this post, I'll try to piggyback on O.C.C.'s shrewd statistical analysis of the Dallas O-Line by looking at the performance of some of the South Team's offensive linemen in Senior Bowl practices this week.
I don't know whether any of you were able to catch the practice highlights on NFL Network (you can catch them here), but they showed extensive footage from the individual offensive line drills. The South team's OL coach, Buffalo's Joe D'Alessandris, had his charges line up five across even though only one lineman at a time would engage with his DL opposite. This gives a clearer picture of a player's ability to block in a "game space" as opposed to a "practice space" wherein the defensive lineman has nine yards on either side of him. The South O-line dominated in these drills. By all accounts, the two standouts for the South squad were Florida State OG Rodney Hudson and Baylor OT/ OG Danny Watkins.
The undersized Hudson is probably fated to play center at the NFL level, but he's played guard all week--and looked good doing it. According the folks at Pro Football Weekly:
Hudson (6-2 1/4, 291) was quick out of his stance and set in pass protection. His quickness also allowed him to lead on screen passes and perimeter runs. He was the most consistent lineman Wednesday on either squad in terms of getting his hand inside to sustain blocks. He was proficient holding the point of attack against the run and pass because of consistent knee bend and leverage. He played both guard positions Wednesday but has not played center this week, his most natural position.
For those of you who are not Texas locals or followers of Baylor football, Watkins' story may be unknown, which is too bad, because it's fascinating. Go here to read an account of his journey from firefighter to potential first-round prospect.
Former NFL scout Russ Lande, writing for The Sporting News says of the 6-3, 312 lb Watkins:
[He] shined this week playing inside at guard and displayed the outstanding hand usage, technique and surprising strength. He plays with consistent leverage, showing the flexibility and athleticism to bend his knees and sink his hips vs. bull rushers. He also is able to consistently get his hands inside his man's frame, enabling him to sustain blocks. He will be a great NFL guard and should move into the late first round. Watkins reminds us of Patriots All-Pro G Logan Mankins.
Mankins? That's high praise indeed. Wes Bunting of the National Football Post agrees:
if Baylor OL Danny Watkins was three years younger and two inches taller the guy would be a first-round pick. He displayed tremendous improvement as a senior this past year and is quickly taking to playing inside at guard this week in Mobile. Watkins is a strong kid who can bend, generate leverage for himself off the snap and mirror through contact. He's still is a bit raw with his hand placement - getting too high at times - but takes well to coaching, showcased improvements during practice and strikes me as a guy who can come in and play from day one as an NFL guard.
Two other South offensive linemen stood out in practices: Georgia RT Clint Boling, who really finished strongly, and Florida OL Marcus Gilbert. According to Lande, Gilbert:
did a nice job in the one-on-one period. Despite his great size (6-6 1/2, 329), he was very quick to get out of his stance and showed the feet to deny the outside rusher a path to the quarterback. He flashed a strong punch to slow down the charge of the bull rusher, and he showed recovery and slide ability to stay with the spin and quick inside moves. He also displayed strong ability to sustain and finish his run blocks.
The 6-5, 310 pound Boling worked his way onto ESPN's Todd McShay's list of Senior Bowl standouts. Most scouts have seen Boling as an NFL guard in the NFL; McShay now thinks there's a chance he could play right tackle:
He has good balance as a blocker, is aggressive and physical, and just knows where he wants to go. He attacks pass-rushers, does a good job with hand placement, and for a guy who's not a great athlete, he's capable of sinking his hips and getting good leverage. The best part of his game is his strength. He's underrated in terms of his overall strength and power at the point of attack. I think out of all the offensive linemen, Boling had the best day today and has the looks of a guy would could be drafted on Day 2.
These guys, the 312 lb Watkins and 329 lb Gilbert in particular, appear to have the big bodies that the Cowboys value in their offensive linemen. What intrigues me about them, however, are their other, Doug Free-like attributes: quick feet, ability to sink, maintaining leverage, strong punch.
Keep your eyes on these boys, I've got them on my short list of OL favorites, and will keep an eye out for any interest the Cowboys may show in them between now and April.