The 2013 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama will be sure to draw interest from teams around the league, including the Minnesota Vikings.
While most fans know in general what to watch for, it behooves the knowledgeable fan to dig deeper and learn about some of the top performers competing in the game.
While the game on January 26 will certainly factor into scouts' evaluations, more important will be the film from their college seasons and their performance in practice. The NFL Network's Mike Mayock correctly predicted Matt Jones' bust potential in 2005 when he saw the former quarterback-turned-receiver dog practices.
That's not to say the game doesn't matter. The improved mechanics and sharp route-running that evaluators see in practice might disappear in game situations. While most teams won't have a scout at the game, they will certainly be watching.
While the Minnesota Vikings have been interviewing players at nearly every position, from tackles and running backs to receivers and fullbacks, fans can be assured that the Vikings will want to prioritize their needs.
For the most part, they will want to pay attention to wide receivers, defensive tackles and linebackers, although some other positions like guard and tight end will be sure to spark interest.
We'll take a look at players at priority positions in Saturday's game, which air on NFL Network at 4:00 PM EST.
The most glaring need of the Vikings is wide receiver.
With an anemic passing offense and a receiving corps that hauled in all of nine touchdowns (two less than A.J. Green managed), the Vikings are missing talent at wide receiver.
The Senior Bowl has a crop of intriguing receivers that fans will want to watch, as any number of them could end up in a purple uniform.
Markus Wheaton, Oregon State
At 5'11" and projected to run a 4.44 40-yard dash, Wheaton might remind fans of Percy Harvin. Certainly, his measurables and upper body strength compare. While Wheaton isn't as dynamic as Harvin, he could potentially provide a different element to the offense.
While both receivers have strong hands and an ability to catch the ball—both in traffic and through tight windows—the Oregon State prospect could add depth to the passing game. This week at Senior Bowl practices, he's consistently shown a strong deep game, usually forcing cornerbacks to miss or bite on the wrong routes.He's the consensus best receiver on the North squad, and seems to have the scouting community buzzing.
He looks to have earned a spot in the second round of the NFL draft.
Quinton Patton, Louisiana Tech
While Wheaton has been lighting up practices for the North squad, Patton has been the clear frontrunner among receivers on the South team. He's slightly taller at 6'0" and even more diverse in his skill set than Wheaton. A favorite among small-school scouts, Patton is extremely polished and boasts an extraordinary set of talents.
A fluid runner with precise route-running, Patton should be a pleasure to watch on Sunday. It remains to be seen if he'd stay underneath in routes or continue to display the deep-threat capabilities he's exhibited in practices.
While he must do more to get off press coverage, Patton looks to be the full package and seems to have played himself into the second round.
Terrance Williams, Baylor
The fleet-footed Terrance Williams seems like the prototypical deep threat, standing tall at 6'2" and boasting the most receiving yards in college football in 2012—the fourth most in NCAA history. Williams was the most exciting receiver in the first day of practice, but has somewhat mellowed out his stock since then.
His choppy footwork improved over the course of the week, but he still remains a relatively one-note receiver.
During the game, he'll need to show improvement, both in running precise routes and catching the ball with his hands instead of his body. He's dropped a few passes over the week and will want to make up for that.
Nevertheless, he still looks like a solid second-round player that could potentially make a big impact for the Vikings.
Chris Harper, Kansas State
In Mobile, there's some buzz building for Kansas State receiver Chris Harper.
At 6'0" and 228 pounds, Harper has the ability to impose himself on opposing defensive backs and has been doing it all week. Most surprising for Harper, however, is how well he played his assignments—as a fluid runner, he's been able to disguise his intentions against the nation's top cornerbacks.
He didn't explode off the line or out of cuts, but he did consistently develop separation. He has a talent for catching tough passes and coming away with contested balls.
With his concentration and body control, Harper looks to be a good possession receiver that could potentially sneak into Day Two of the draft, but will likely stay an early Day Three pick.
While other receivers have been impressing, they haven't made quite the same impact as the four standouts.
Marshall's Aaron Dobson has done well against most of his competition and has solidified his draft stock as a potential second-round pick. As a deep threat who stands just under 6'3", he could interest fans looking for that missing piece.
Aaron Mellette from Elon is having trouble establishing his natural position—he might be a fit inside or outside—but it is difficult to ignore his 78" wingspan. Conner Vernon from Duke is drawing interest from some teams as well, although he largely projects as a third receiver. He rarely drops the ball, however, and could play well as an underneath option. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Cobi Hamilton improved his route-running over the week, but still looks rough. He had some nice catches, but couldn't draw attention for a long period of time.
The most salivating prospect is Marquise Goodwin from Texas. Unlike most football players who have a track background, he's fast on the field as well. Without the long track strides, Goodwin still produces elite speed—his footwork is impressive. He can change direction quickly and is remarkably precise. On third day of practice, he caught everything thrown his way. That wasn't always the case over the week, but it was certainly impressive enough to warrant a look.
While not as noticeable a need for the Vikings, the extremely poor play of Letroy Guion and the declining skill of aging Kevin Williams provide reason enough for concern if the Vikings hope to build on this year's playoff appearance.
Despite a defense that ranked in the middle of the pack in yards allowed, more advanced defensive metrics, like Football Outsiders' DVOA and Advanced NFL Stats' defensive success rate, rank the Vikings defense much lower (21st and 27th respective)—and they explain why the Vikings have given up so many points.
An inability to prevent short third down situations led to the nation's 24th worst defense against third downs, and interior defense is historically a big part of that.
With a deep defensive tackle class in the 2013 draft comes an opportunity to upgrade the position for years to come. The Vikings will certainly be looking to add to their defensive line corps.
At the Senior Bowl practices, the showcase of talent held up to the hype, and any number of rookies could make an impression.
John Jenkins, Georgia
Perhaps the most highly-touted defensive tackle at the Senior Bowl, Jenkins has a massive frame, weighing 359 pounds and standing at 6'4". While he generally lined up over center at Georgia, he showed an ability to play a single-gap position at times during practice.
His subtle footwork speaks well to his ability to play at 1-technique for the Vikings—the nose tackle position the Vikings have been trying to replace with Letroy Guion (a year after Remi Ayodele did a terrible job). He can split the gap and has shown surprising quickness, although he still needs to resolve stamina concerns—not something we'll see resolved during the game, given the defensive rotation schedule.
He may have to lose weight to address his stamina issue, and he could lose 30 pounds if he wants to play nose tackle in a 4-3 system. Before this week, there were worries he couldn't play anything but a 3-4 nose tackle, but Jenkins may have resolved those concerns.
Sylvester Williams, North Carolina
Williams didn't hurt his draft stock much at Mobile, but did he help it either. He may have had the best burst off the line this week, something he's been lauded for in the past, but unfortunately, he also reinforced some concerns about his second effort and variety of pass-rushing moves.
Again, he had a good series of practices and he doesn't have a poor motor, but if his initial burst doesn't get it done, he just doesn't bring much as a pass rusher. He has some gap integrity problems, but is a good tackler when he gets to the running back.
He reads plays well and coaches have praised his hustle. His strong hands and good instincts should give scouts hope that he can correct his problems getting through O-linemen with second effort.
Unfortunately, despite his size (6'3" and 313 pounds), he seems fit best for the pass-rushing 3-technique, not the nose tackle the Vikings need.
Brandon Williams, Missouri Southern
Williams has told draftniks going into the Bowl practices, he was given a fourth-round grade, but he may have improved it in a big way.
At Missouri Southern, he largely played the pass-rushing 3-technique role that Kevin Williams currently fills, but looks to play nose tackle in the NFL, largely in a 4-3 system where his gap attack capabilities are a good fit.
At 6'2" and 341 pounds, Williams is massive enough to raise doubt about his quickness, but he proved that he can move laterally and upfield if need be with speed and agility. His greatest asset, however, is his strength. He has great power and plays with good leverage. He interviews well and could be a great fit in Minnesota.
He still doesn't have tape against top-tier talent and will have to prove he can play with gap integrity and against double teams, but so far he is doing well at proving himself a capable player.
Kawann Short, Purdue
Short entered the Bowl as one of the better prospects at defensive tackle and as a potential first-round pick—although the likelihood seems higher that he will be picked in the second. Not much has changed that, and he recovered from a bad first day of practice to impress.
His leverage is good, and the combination of strength and speed that Short possesses will make him a useful NFL prospect for any team. He's very consistent in his drive and can use a good menu of pass-rushing moves to make it into the backfield.
He largely plays as a pass-rusher between the guard and the tackle, but there is some potential for him to replace Letroy Guion if he can prove he can hold blocks.
The talk at camp has been about Datone Jones, the UCLA defensive end who has lined up everywhere on the line at practice and made an impact, but he will likely go to a team that needs an end, not a tackle. He's been the only player to consistently beat Bowl standout Eric Fisher, so he'll garner a look, but it's unlikely the Vikings will select him.
Jordan Hill is a bit undersized at just over 6'1" and 294 pounds, and his struggles against a weak interior line corps did not help his stock. While he was effective at Penn State, he looks to only be a rotation level player in the NFL. His motor is great, but he doesn't use his natural advantages (quickness), attempting to power through clearly stronger players.
Cory Grissom of South Florida looked good at times, but just as often looked poor. He holds up well at the point of attack, but doesn't move laterally or drive upfield. He can eat up blockers, but doesn't do much otherwise. On the other hand, Montori Hughes has done extraordinarily well. He has a lot of technique issues to clean up, but is surprisingly polished in other areas. The Tennessee-Martin prospect (who was dismissed from Tennessee) is active and plays low off the snap nearly every time. As a vocal leader with a high motor, he might be worth a mid-round flyer.
Josh Boyd may have improved his stock and could also be a mid-round prospect when all is said and done. He didn't get upfield as often as you would expect someone playing the 3-technique role, but he forced the type of double teams you see in the nose tackle position. He can plug the run and could transition to play behind Guion if need be.
The Vikings need an upgrade from Jasper Brinkley, who didn't show consistent improvement over the year or an ability to consistently defend the pass.
Even in 2003, commentators were calling the pure downhill linebackers "obsolete" because of the speed of the NFL and the dominance of pass-heavy defenses. The pass-friendly evolution of football makes that even more true today.
That's not to say the Vikings don't need a linebacker who can defend the run, but Brinkley hasn't lived up to his reputation in that arena either. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription), Brinkley was the least efficient middle linebacker in the NFL in tackling—missing more tackles per attempt than any other linebacker in the league (and it wasn't particularly close).
Upgrading at linebacker needs to be a priority for the Vikings. More than that, Minnesota needs to assure that it has adequate depth, as well as a good plan for what happens if Erin Henderson successfully tests the free agency market and leaves.
Henderson didn't do poorly as an outside linebacker, but his play wasn't without worry. If the Vikings don't address this position, they might not see themselves in the playoffs in the 2013.
Khaseem Greene, Rutgers
No linebacker stood out in a big way at Mobile, but Khaseem Greene was perhaps the best of the bunch. Greene looked great in coverage, moving his hips well and staying step-for-step with running backs and tight end in coverage. Greene even had large stretches where he didn't allow a single pass to be caught in his direction.
He seems undersized at 6'0" and 236 pounds, but scouts noted at the weigh-in that he could potentially add weight to his upper body, which looked relatively soft. Regardless, he closed well in the run game and did much better than expected, taking on blockers by bringing up his hands first and driving well. He managed run fits and gap integrity well enough that he could fill any deficiencies the Vikings have.
His easy communication and good recognition of offensive schemes is a plus, and even though Greene regularly plays on the outside, it's not too much of a stretch to see him in the middle linebacker position. He definitely has the leadership qualities.
Nico Johnson, Alabama
Johnson might be the single best run defender at the linebacker position on either roster in the Senior Bowl. He closes well and gets to the ball carrier with ease, often making the play in the run game. In nine versus seven drills, Johnson regularly made plays in the run game. He slips his blocks well and has good intuition. Unfortunately, Johnson might also be the slowest linebacker in Mobile.
While his instincts have served him well getting to running backs, they have not been able to make up for his extremely poor play against the pass. His poor change-of-direction skills, low straight-line speed and stiff hips make him very poorly suited to play the middle in a Tampa-2 scheme.
But if Johnson can recover and play well against the pass in an actual game situation, he might be able to rehabilitate his image.
There aren't many linebackers who impressed during the Senior Bowl practices, and the withdrawal of Arthur Brown due to injury really set the class back. Sean Porter is attempting to prove he's the next Von Miller, a convert from a 3-4 outside linebacker to a 4-3 outside linebacker at Texas A&M. He can rush the passer well, but needs to prove he can do more in other facets of the game. His high football intelligence hasn't given him the ability to overcome his rawness against the pass.
Sio Moore flashed ability in practice as well, and might earn a top-100 grade from NFL teams for his versatility against the run as well as the pass. Moore is a vocal leader, and another outside linebacker who the Vikings could invest in for depth. Zavier Gooden has had at least one good day in practice, and it was as a cover linebacker. Scouts are concerned with his hitting ability, but he built up an impressive resume as a pass defender.
Vince Williams could be the best of the weak inside linebacker corps at the Senior Bowl, but he didn't pop off the tape so much as exceed expectations. He grabbed an interception off a deflected pass and hit hard, including tackles for loss in padded drills. He seems to be more a hitter than a pass defender, but could bolster a group of linebackers that needs help.
The Vikings offensive line has improved by leaps and bounds with the addition of Matt Kalil and some improvement from Phil Loadholt. Unfortunately, the interior play has been marred by poor performances by both guards, Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco.
Adrian Peterson had a career year, and it would be easy to assume that it his offensive line played a big role. However—while center John Sullivan has been blocking well in the run—fullback Jerome Felton and tight ends Kyle Rudolph and Rhett Ellison did most of the heavy lifting in the run game last season.
The Vikings could improve their already good pass protection and do even more in their run game with an upgrade at guard—a position that the Senior Bowl has in supply.
Larry Warford, Kentucky
Headlining the interior linemen at the Senior Bowl is Larry Warford, standout guard from Kentucky. His excellent play saw him stonewalling Johnathan Jenkins, Cory Grissom, Josh Boyd and other defensive tackles.
Warford uses his hands excellently and can lock on to defenders, rendering them incapacitated. He plays with power and leverage, using his size (6'3", 333 pounds) to his advantage. He can move linemen and linebackers around in the run game, but he'll want to prove he has the quickness to make it to the second level in the NFL.
Hugh Thornton, Illinois
Thornton did not have a good week of practice at the Senior Bowl, and his stock will likely drop as a result, but he still has good film to his name and the ability to add some weight—although not much. After a strong first day, Thornton just couldn't sustain his performance and broke down against Datone Jones fairly consistently.
After that, there wasn't much he could do. He's generally solid in pass protection and has a good punch in the run game. He'll look to recover that ability during the game. Thornton might not be able to rehab his draft stock in entirety, but the excitement of a game situation sometimes brings out the best in players.
Other than Warford, guards had a tough time in Ladd-Peebles Stadium. The best of the rest might include Brian Winters from Kent State, who has hand strength to spare and is a decent pass blocker, but leaves quite a bit to be desired as a run blocker. His footwork isn't clean on pulling blocks, and he can't really maul when pushing forward. Brian Schwenke from California was consistently overmatched and moved back despite a good understanding of his responsibilities. He isn't balanced enough to be a good blocker in the NFL, despite good technique.
Garret Gilkey from Chadron State might be the most surprising prospect, although not much has been written about him. An ability to handle players like Johnathan Jenkins is a necessity in the NFL, and he showed that he has that talent. A violent punch and quick feet will keep him in the conversation, although he also needs to prove he can consistently play against top talent. Without that film, his upside is limited.
Joe Madsen may have had the worst time this week, despite good hand movement. He couldn't move defenders around or deal with athletic tackles. He didn't bend at the waist naturally and plays too stiff to deal with players who can penetrate with agility. His overextension is a fatal flaw in the NFL, and he'll only serve as depth for a team willing to coach him up.
The Vikings had a much better secondary in 2012 than they finished with in 2011.
Chris Cook has become an above-average cornerback, and Josh Robinson seems to be progressing well. Harrison Smith looks to be a hit, and Jamarca Sanford has vastly improved his game. Antoine Winfield, one of the best free agent signings in recent Vikings history, still plays at a elite level, but he's aging and could leave soon.
Even with strong play in 2012, the Vikings need to ensure they have depth in case a corner goes down or Winfield leaves. It's a deep cornerback class, and the Vikings could look to the middle rounds to help set themselves up for years to come.
Jordan Poyer, Oregon State
The Vikings likely won't be in a position to pick Poyer, as he may have moved his stock all the way into the first round. While not the fastest cornerback, he plays with extremely solid fundamentals.
His best talent is his play in press coverage. He's strong off the snap and can jam receivers out of their routes. He also recovers well and has fluid hips to make the transition. This week he read some receivers incorrectly, but that is at odds with his film—his skill in anticipating routes is consistent and proven in game situations when he's had the chance to study film on his opponents.
Poyer can play in many schemes and has shown the awareness in zone coverage to play well in the Vikings system. With the ability to funnel receivers inside, it's a bit of a shame that the Vikings won't be able to select him.
Leon McFadden, San Diego State
Despite his size (a hair under 5'9"), McFadden is the best cornerback on the South squad. He plays with surprising physicality and can reroute receivers. He has excellent athleticism, and his entire body seems primed to play football. He has fluid movement and can flip his hips without committing too much with his shoulders—critical in preventing savvy receivers from forcing him out of position.
He's very technically sound and knows how to time his jumps so he can get his hands on the ball. With excellent ball skills, he's been able to come away with a few interceptions in practice and reads receivers well. His recovery speed has been described as "phenomenal,"and is rarely caught out of position.
Desmond Trufant, Washington
Trufant looks to have improved his draft stock and was constantly praised by coaches. He shows extraordinary competitiveness and looked to be the most "NFL-ready" cornerback in practice. Trufant has an excellent backpedal, which should help his stock with Cover 3 teams, and he can break on the ball with the best of them—part of the reason he's always getting his hands on the ball.
While he had many small mistakes over the course of the week, Trufant consistently leveraged his flexibility, acceleration and excellent footwork to work his way back into position before the mistakes he made were exploited. Trufant shows the ability to play the slot and on the outside, and his 5'11" frame is well suited for either spot.
Robert Alford, Southeastern Louisiana
Alford has excellent quickness that should serve him well on a number of routes, and certainly has value in the NFL. He executed nearly all of his assignments well this week and showed an ability to play in zone, pattern-match assignments and man-to-man situations. Alford might be best pressing receivers, disrupting a wide variety of routes on the line or on the fly.
Alford doesn't have the deep speed one wants from an outside cornerback, and his recovery speed isn't phenomenal either, but he's rarely out of position and displays great balance.
Johnathan Cyprien, Florida International
Cyprien possess the macro-level traits that all scouts love to see in safeties: He hits hard and has fantastic range. With an impressive build and quick reaction time, Cyprien has quickly forced the South quarterbacks to look off of him in seven on seven drills.
He looks more to play in the box than as a deep safety, but he's not useless in coverage. While he shouldn't be put up man-to-man against a receiver, he can play with good zone awareness and limits yards after the catch.
On the ground, he generally takes good angles and can dislodge the ball with his strips and big hits. He might be able to complement Smith when Harrison plays up top.
Not many safeties stood out as having consistently solid practices, even with big names like Bacarri Rambo and T.J. McDonald. Rambo, from Georgia, displayed the variety of talents he's known for, but was indecisive and couldn't set correctly in practice. McDonald was streaky, and his recognition was spotty. Unfortunately, his playing style relies on aggressively attacking the ball, and misdiagnosis leaves him out to dry, particularly because he can't recover well.
J.J. Wilcox from Georgia Southern is an intriguing safety prospect, and is extremely physical, but allows too much separation when in assignment. He has good agility and fluidity at the waist, but he's raw and needs time to develop.
Opposite Rambo at Georgia was Shawn Williams, and he didn't look terrible this week, but was he special either. He can redirect receivers and plays with physicality, but isn't terribly strong or consistent in coverage. There are also potential problems with him causing pass interference down the field.
Robert Lester from Alabama looked terrible. While an impressive physical specimen, he played stiff and without speed. He couldn't react to new developments downfield and has poor change-of-direction ability. He has a limited ceiling.
If the Vikings are still interested in cornerbacks, the Connecticut pair of Blidi Wreh-Wilson and Dwayne Gratz should grab some attention. Gratz has had issues with speed, but has played receivers well enough at times to create small passing windows. He can push receivers around and it's difficult for them to do much in response, given his strength and thick frame. He's limited, but can play a zone scheme fairly well.
His teammate Wreh-Wilson comes from the opposite mold, being both fast and tall. He can play with strength, but is much more of a ball-hawk. He showed that anticipation in practice, but still struggled to consistently shut down receivers.
Teams are constantly building, even at positions of strength. The Vikings are no different and may want to add depth at positions already considered strong in order to sustain consistent success. Of those positions, defensive end, tight end and offensive tackle stand out as the areas that the Vikings could bolster.
While defensive end doesn't seem like a problem for the Vikings, Jared Allen's salary and length of contract raise questions about when he'll leave. The Vikings need to be prepared for that.
Vikings are also stuck with John Carlson, creating issues for an offense that wants to heavily feature its tight ends, and Phil Loadholt has not signed an extension yet.
Not to mention, offensive line depth at the tackle positions is not great.
While Datone Jones and Alex Okafor (from Texas) have caught everyone's eye, it's the late-round picks that should pique the Vikings' interest more.
Malliciah Goodman might be on the Vikings' radar, but he had a poor week and looked sluggish on the field. He can stuff the run, but struggles with consistency.
Ezekiel Ansah (BYU) and Margus Hunt (SMU) are both players that will likely be drafted too high for the Vikings to seriously consider, but both are the type of prospect that the Vikings could live with—raw talent that could develop new habits and muscle memory to take on NFL offensive linemen. Hunt looks to have fallen a bit. If he falls too far, the Vikings could pounce. Although unlikely to fall that far, Minnesota woud have the time to develop him.
Vance McDonald from Rice could be the best tight end at the Senior Bowl, and may have jumped up an entire round as a result of what he showed at practice. He's both a good blocker and solid receiver, playing both assignments aggressively. He caught nearly every ball thrown to him and has the frame NFL teams like. He could go in the bottom of the third round, but the Vikings may pounce on him if he doesn't.
Michael Williams, the Alabama tight end that lit up the BCS National Championship, is not as much of a receiver as that game might suggest. An extremely poor route-runner with inconsistent hands, Williams is a great blocker that could serve the same role as Rhett Ellison. Mychal Rivera from Tennessee can generate suddenness whenever necessary—off the snap, at the break, or when chasing a deep ball. Unfortunately, he's not much of a blocker.
Unfortunately, the Vikings won't be able to rely on a surprising slide from Eric Fisher, the standout tackle from Central Michigan and perhaps the best player at the Senior Bowl.
Instead, they might take a look at Dave Quessenberry from San Jose State, who had a very good week. On the other end, Xavier Nixon from Florida could attract their attention due to his size, as opposed to his play. He's not athletic enough to kick out at tackle and bends far too much at the knee to develop leverage.
Justin Pugh took a huge hit after his arms were measured (31.5 inches), and did better kicking inside to guard. He couldn't gain control of the edge, even with his good footwork. If the Vikings want a swingman, they could invest in Pugh, but he needs to learn more about playing inside.
Another player that the Vikings could consider sliding inside is Oday Aboushi. Aboushi is not proactive enough in blocking. He slides well, but needs better work with his hands. He's likely to go into the second round, so the Vikings might be better off staying with Loadholt.
There are a number of moves the Vikings could make to bolster their roster, and the Senior Bowl was a great tool for the Vikings' scouting team in 2012. Fans might get a glimpse of future Vikings on Saturday as these players line up against each other, although who they end up picking could come as a surprise.
While the game's importance is sometimes be exaggerated, it certainly does provide a glimpse into the future.