Senior Bowl week is one of the biggest dates on the NFL draft calendar. Over 100 draft prospects spend the week working out in front of hundreds of NFL scouts, coaches and personnel executives.
I've been fortunate enough to catch all the practice sessions in person, as for the seventh year in a row I've spent Senior Bowl week in Mobile, Ala. as credentialed media. The action has been strong, with several players standing out while others wilt under the added scrutiny.
The Detroit Lions' new coaching staff, as well as general manager Martin Mayhew and the entire scouting crew, have also been here all week. Here are a few players who figure to intrigue them in May's draft.
One of the draft concepts floating around the Lions is using a high pick on an outside linebacker. Should the team buy into that strategy, BYU's Kyle Van Noy makes a great deal of sense.
Van Noy has been fantastic throughout the North team practice sessions. As Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting noted:
So far, Kyle Van Noy has been top LB in each drill. Picking up RBs, physical/tight with TEs, looking balanced throughout. #SeniorBowl— Eric Galko (@OptimumScouting) January 20, 2014
What has really stood out is his versatility. He was noted for being a pass-rusher for the Cougars, terrorizing the quarterback around the edge.
In Mobile, he has proven he can handle the full package of duties required of a 4-3 outside 'backer.
The Lions may know him well, as he lined up opposite, and at times flanking, last year's first-round pick Ziggy Ansah.
The issue with Van Noy is whether he merits the 10th overall pick. That's higher than his projected draft range, which typically falls in the 25-40 overall range. He might be a reach at 10, but there's a pretty good chance his strong week in Mobile will get him off the board before Detroit picks in the second round.
A couple of weeks ago I professed my football man crush on Weston Richburg, the physical center from Colorado State.
At the time, many thought that the third-round evaluation I gave there seemed high. Not anymore.
Richburg has been the best performer amid a surprisingly strong center class in Mobile. As NFL Network's Daniel Jeremiah noted after Monday's practice:
CSU Center Weston Richburg is a solid player on tape and he had a good day today...Quick feet, balance and anchor.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 21, 2014
The ability to handle imposing pass-rushers with no threat of the run game to slow them down is always a challenge for the interior linemen during the practice sessions. Richburg has done that consistently all week.
Even though incumbent center Dominic Raiola might return for another year, that should not deter the Lions from selecting Richburg. I talked with him after Wednesday's practice, and he indicated he has played guard in the past and would have no problem starting at guard and moving inside after a year or two.
Detroit snared a star right guard in the third round a year ago. With a strong performance in the Senior Bowl, Richburg has proven he has star potential at center. Detroit should strongly consider tabbing him in the third round in 2014.
While Vanderbilt wideout Jordan Matthews has garnered more attention, his Commodores teammate Kenny Ladler has piqued the interest of many scouts in Mobile.
The safety has consistently displayed range and sound instincts in coverage, including a great play to kick off Wednesday's practice where he undercut a route and nearly picked off a throw.
I talked to Ladler after practice, and I asked him what he felt was his best asset.
"I think my ability to cover deep down the field. I take pride in never letting anyone get behind me, and I feel like I see where I need to be before I have to be there."
That sounds like someone the Lions can use, a coverage-oriented safety with decent size (he's 6'0" and 200 pounds).
Right now he is not highly rated by a lot of draft evaluators. SB Nation has him listed as the 21st safety prospect. Expect him to rise up after his strong Senior Bowl week.
One of the big winners in Mobile has been Wyoming wideout Robert Herron. His blend of top-end speed, instant acceleration and soft hands has left scouts raving about him all week.
No less an authority than Senior Bowl director Phil Savage, a former NFL general manager, had this to say about Herron:
Wyoming WR Robert Herron is a name to get familiar with for 2014 draft. He has caught the eye of scouts with his quicks and top-end speed.— Phil Savage (@SeniorBowlPhil) January 22, 2014
It is no secret the Lions sorely need help at wide receiver. Herron, who stands a hair under 5'9", presents an excellent option in the third or fourth round as the replacement for oft-injured slot receiver Ryan Broyles.
Another linebacker to watch is Florida State's Christian Jones.
Fans might recall his heat-seeking-missile style from the BCS National Championship Game against Auburn; he was in on seven tackles and constantly around the football.
The scouts in attendance in Mobile have seen the same story all week in practice. Shane Hallam of Draft TV noted:
Christian Jones is so massive and fluid. Looks in another level in interception drills from the rest of the LBs— Shane P. Hallam (@ShanePHallam) January 22, 2014
He's also performed well in pass-rush drills, showing an ability to flatten around the edge and close quickly.
CBS Sports currently has Jones listed as its 115th-rated player overall and fifth-rated inside linebacker. What should help intrigue the Lions is that he can also play outside linebacker or even rush end in a pinch.
Jones is a viable option for Detroit in the fourth or fifth round should the Lions acquire a pick in the latter one.
Many Lions fans are thirsting for an infusion of more young talent at cornerback. One player to look at is small-school stud Pierre Desir.
Hailing from Lindenwood University outside St. Louis, Desir earned a promotion to the Senior Bowl thanks to an impressive Shrine Game week. He has made the most of his opportunity.
Desir has great size at 6'1" with long arms and big hands for his height. He has demonstrated he can turn and run with any receiver in either all-star game.
Unfortunately, he has had some struggles as well. In that respect he is similar to Chris Greenwood, another small-school corner with great physical gifts but lacking polish.
Still, he has impressed:
Lindenwood CB Pierre Desir is showing he can play with the big guys at the Senior Bowl. For sure day 2 pick, pressing to be a day 1 pick.— NFL Philosophy (@NFLosophy) January 22, 2014
The Lions selected Darius Slay in the second round a year ago. While he struggled early on, his play steadily improved during his rookie season. Slay figures to earn a starting spot for good in 2014.
It's easy to see a similar career path for Desir in Detroit over the next couple of seasons.
For a late-round receiving prospect, Oregon's Josh Huff is worth checking out.
Huff offers a little bit of everything teams want in a receiver. He has good size, strength, quickness and top-end speed. He's also proven to be an exceptional blocker.
What waters down his value is that he doesn't really stand out at any one thing other than blocking. Others will be bigger, faster and stronger, but not likely all in the same package.
He had a very strong week in Mobile, as noted by Detroit Lions Draft's Darren Page:
Josh Huff is dominating. Compact vs the press, fights off contact with hands, multiple catches at full extension & some toe taps.— Darren Page (@DarrenPage15) January 22, 2014
Huff could make a middle-round option to replace veteran Nate Burleson in Detroit.