This coming Saturday, Jan. 28, at 4:00 p.m. EST, the Senior Bowl game will be broadcast on the NFL Network from Mobile, Ala.
As Buffalo Bills general manager Buddy Nix has identified, improving the Bills pass-rush is one of the top priorities of the team as they prepare to make their playoff push in 2012. As mock drafts continue to pour in from around the country, Bills fans will continue to see specific names repeating as the likely choice of the Bills with the overall No. 10 draft pick in the first round. Most mock drafts have the Bills taking a pass-rusher, although the names of that pass rusher continue to change.
Today, we are going to explore the Senior Bowl rosters and look at some of the players that Bills fans should keep an eye out for, as there is the possibility that some of these payers could be calling Buffalo home in 2012.
In the 2011 NFL Draft, 83 players that were drafted were participants in the 2011 Senior Bowl game. Twelve of the Senior Bowl players were drafted in the first round of the draft. In the 2012 Senior Bowl, 21 players are coming out of the talent-rich SEC Conference. Eighty-four players from the combined rosters are from BCS schools, while 20 players are from non-BCS schools.
The NFL Draft will start three months from today, and you can be sure that plenty of names will continue to be bandied about as to who the Bills should take with that No. 10 overall pick.
From addressing the Bills anemic pass-rush, I have witnessed the following names so far: Nick Perry (USC), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina), Whitney Mercilus (Illinois), Dont'a Hightower (Alabama), Michael Brockers (LSU), Courtney Upshaw (Alabama) and Quinton Coples (North Carolina).
As for the left tackle spot, you have Matt Kalil (USC), Riley Reiff (Iowa) and Jonathan Martin (Stanford).
The only WR that seems to be worthy enough of a top-10 selection is Justin Blackmon from Oklahoma State, and a number of Bills fans seem enamored with Michael Floyd from Notre Dame.
The two best corners are Morris Claiborne (LSU) and Dre Kirkpatrick from Alabama.
One thing you can be sure of is that names will continue to move up the draft boards and continue to move down over the next three months.
Playing defense on the South team are the following players that are projected to go in the first-round of the draft: Courtney Upshaw, (Alabama LB), Zach Brown (North Carolina LB), Quinton Coples (North Carolina DE), Melvin Ingram (South Carolina DE/DT) and Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama CB).
From this defensive unit, it appears that two players could easily wind up going to the Bills with the No. 10 overall pick—Quinton Coples, the North Carolina defensive end, or Courtney Upshaw, the Alabama outside linebacker.
It would be considered a major upset if neither Coples or Upshaw is available for the Bills when they are on the clock at No. 10. The Carolina Panthers select at No. 8, and they are said to be looking for help with their pass rush, but they also might be tempted to give Cam Newton one of the top wide receivers in the draft.
If the Panthers drafted Coples, I could easily see the Bills taking Upshaw. Upshaw would then he paired with Marcell Dareus, and the two Alabama teammates can keep each other inspired.
Bills fans should tune in to watch Upshaw and Coples in action. In fact, you should try to catch some of the live practices on the NFL Network to watch them hitting in pads. The NFL Network also does a wrap-up show at 10:30 pm EST to review what happened that day in practice.
During practice on Wednesday on the NFL Network, Steelers scout Mark Gorscak compared Alabama OLB Courtney Upshaw to LaMarr Woodley. He said they have similar body types and play a similar game.
Another member of the South team that is projected to go in the first round is Georgia G Cordy Glenn.
The North team has some talent as well, and they have three players that are projected first-round draft picks: Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard, Washington RB Chris Polk and Ohio State T Mike Adams. After practice on Wednesday, Dennard dropped out of the Senior Bowl game due to a hip-flexor injury.
It is not a lock that the Bills will draft a pass rusher in the first round because we know that Buddy Nix is capable of pulling off a surprise or two. But with the proclamations of Nix and head coach Chan Gailey, it would certainly be a surprise if the Bills didn't find some help for the pass-rush in the first round.
Of the six quarterbacks playing in the Senior Bowl, none of them are projected to be drafted in the first round. Of the six, the one quarterback that is the most athletic is Russell Wilson from Wisconsin.
Wilson isn't even 6'0" tall, (measured in at 5'10 5/8", weighs 203 pounds), but finds a way to get the ball to his receivers in spite of his lack of height. He can also make plays with his legs. If he is still available in the middle rounds, he could be an interesting back-up quarterback for the Bills to draft.
Besides Wilson, the other quarterbacks on the North team are Kirk Cousins (Michigan State) and Kellen Moore (Boise State). The South quarterbacks are Nick Foles (Arizona), Brandon Weeden (Oklahoma State) and Ryan Lindley (San Diego State).
Both Weeden and Wilson were drafted to play Major League Baseball, but have opted to give up baseball to go to the NFL. The biggest issue with Weeden is that he is already 28 years old and will turn 29 in October.
According to Mel Kiper, Jr. of ESPN, he has the quarterbacks ranked like this: Andrew Luck, Robert Griffin III, Nick Foles, Ryan Tannehill (Texas A&M) and Weeden. According to the draft experts attending Senior Bowl practices, and this article from The Sporting News, Weeden is outplaying Foles by a wide margin in practices this week.
Will this be the draft when the Bills finally invest in a day-one or day-two draft pick for a tackle? The top-tier tackles like Riley Reiff, Matt Kalil and Jonathan Martin are not in the Senior Bowl because they are not seniors.
But the seniors that are in the game and are thought of highly by NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock are Mike Adams of Ohio State, James Brown from Troy and Zebrie Sanders from Florida St.
Adams is huge, as he was measured at 6'7" and weighed 323 pounds. He has 34" arms and 11" hands. He used his long arms and good hands to his advantage in creating leverage in his pass protection.
The South offensive line had their hands full with the one-on-one drills due to all of the talent that has been amassed on the South defensive line. It would not be a surprise to see the North team struggle on offense for the same reason.
The Bills probably aren't looking for any help at guard right now, but there are two guards worth noting in the Senior Bowl: Kevin Zeitler from Wisconsin and Cordy Glenn from Georgia. Both players have done well this week at practice.
The wide receiver that impressed me the most at Senior Bowl practices this week has been Chris Rainey (University of Florida). Rainey is not very big, at 5'8 3/4" and only 174 pounds, but he is blazing fast. He was easily able to run past anybody attempting to guard him in practice this week.
Rainey played running back at Florida, but also caught enough passes that he could conceivably be shifted to wide receiver, where he could put his speed to use. He would be a much younger and faster version of Roscoe Parrish in the slot. He also is instrumental in special teams, as he used his blazing speed to block six kicks at Florida.
Other wide receivers to watch: Brian Quick (6'3" and 222 pounds from Appalachian State) and ex-quarterback converted to WR, Marvin McNutt from Iowa.
We have already discussed Courtney Upshaw at length, but there is one other linebacker that Bills fans should try to watch Saturday during the game. He is Zach Brown, linebacker from North Carolina. Brown is a former track guy and has amazing speed. He is the type of linebacker that can stay with wide receivers and cover from sideline-to-sideline.
Brown will probably not last into the second round, so if the Bills want to add more speed to the front seven, they might have to trade up to get back into the last half of the first round to add Brown. Brown is 6'1 3/8" and weighs 236 pounds.
It is conceivable that Brown could be there in the second round. If you like the writers at The National Football Post, Wes Bunting only has Brown ranked at No. 58 right now in his chart of the top 566 players.
The Senior Bowl started out with three top cornerbacks, but now, it looks like we are down to two. Janoris Jenkins (North Alabama, ex-Florida Gator) and Leonard Johnson (Iowa State) are the two corners to watch.
The third corner, Alfonso Dennard from Nebraska, left the Senior Bowl on Wednesday due to a hip-flexor injury. Dennard struggled in coverage at the practices, so scouts are now projecting him to be viewed more as a safety than as a corner in the NFL.
Jenkins has supreme confidence in his own abilities, but I saw him gambling and guessing on quite a few patterns in practice. He got beat as often as he stayed with his receiver.
Leonard Johnson from Iowa State is getting noticed because he loves to compete. Johnson is also starting to climb up draft boards.
Dwight Bentley from Louisiana-Lafayette has also made a solid impression on scouts and coaches due to his work ethic and playing well in the practices. Another corner to watch is Jamell Fleming from Oklahoma University, who is also moving up the charts.
Chan Gailey and the rest of his staff were coaching in the Senior Bowl in 2011. The Bills wound up drafting three players last year that played in the Senior Bowl game: Kelvin Sheppard, D'Norris Searcy and Chris White.
A couple other players that I wanted to mention briefly. Keep an eye out for Marshall defensive end Vinny Curry. Curry is 6'3" and weighs 265 pounds. He has been practicing great this week, and his performance means that he is moving up draft boards. If he has a good game on Saturday, he could zoom up all the way to the second round.
There is a player that made the conversion from wide receiver to tight end that is causing a buzz in practice. He is Deangelo Peterson from LSU. Peterson is not quite 6'3", so he isn't physically imposing like Rob Gronkowski or Scott Chandler, but he is a strong receiver for a tight end.
Try to pay attention to the South defensive line and the front seven. The Bills' first-round draft pick could easily be featured in the Senior Bowl game this Saturday.