The 2014 Reese’s Senior Bowl is in Mobile, Alabama on January 25 at 4 p.m. ET on NFL Network. The Denver Broncos have made it to the Super Bowl and will be traveling east for the week of practice. However, they have sent scouts (and even John Elway) to search out their next draft class at the Senior Bowl.
This game features the best seniors entering the 2014 NFL draft. Back in 2009, the Broncos saw Robert Ayers have a dominant Senior Bowl performance and made him a first-round pick. In 2011, they noticed Von Miller at the game and made the decision to select him with the second overall pick in the draft. They’re hoping to find another potential starter (or more) in Mobile this year.
Denver has five main spots to focus on during the predraft process. It should take a long look at cornerbacks, defensive linemen, wide receivers, tight ends and linebackers in this game. There might even be a surprise standout at another position who could flash NFL ability.
For the past eight years, I have attended the week of practice for the Senior Bowl. During that time, I have seen some of the best players in the NFL today first showcase what they could do for scouts at this game.
Here are some of the standout players I observed during practice who could fit the Broncos' needs.
The Broncos will likely add secondary help in the 2014 NFL draft. They selected Kayvon Webster in the third round last year, and they need to develop more young prospects at the position.
We’ll see if they re-sign Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in free agency, and they have to decide the fate of Champ Bailey. There’s a chance they move him to safety, but first he needs to restructure his deal.
Stanley Jean-Baptiste (Nebraska) is a big, physical corner who can re-route receivers at the line of scrimmage. Measuring in at 6’3” and 220 lb, he plays like former Broncos (and current Seahawks) corner Brandon Browner.
He loves to push around smaller receivers and does a good job of fluidly changing direction when a play is in front of him. He does struggle with double moves, and he cannot burst out of his backpedal. Jean-Baptiste is currently seen as a third-round pick.
Another player to watch is someone I saw last week at the Shrine Game. Nevin Lawson (Utah State) was a standout player in Tampa Bay, and he’s carried that momentum over to Mobile.
He has good hips, and he can transition quickly from backpedal to sprint when staying with a downfield receiver. He has good ball skills, and he can time his pass breakups perfectly. He was once seen as a sixth-round pick, but NFLDraftScout.com projects him going in the fourth or fifth round.
In a mock draft, I had the Broncos selecting Trent Murphy (Stanford) in the first round. I compared his skill set to that of Robert Ayers, but he is not having a dominant Senior Bowl that Ayers did.
Murphy can set the edge as a run defender, but he is having trouble shedding more than one blocker when going after the quarterback. He is also looking more winded than he should be after one-on-one drills.
I still like the fit for Murphy on the Broncos, but they may be able to get him with a later pick than I originally thought.
Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh) has been a standout player every day in practice. Measuring in at 6’0” and 285 pounds, Donald is disruptive as a pass-rusher. He can get low and push opponents out of his way. He has a quick initial burst, and he has multiple moves to get after the quarterback.
NFL.com's comparisons of former Dolphins linebacker Zach Thomas to Chris Borland (Wisconsin) are accurate. His stature may be smaller than some desire (5’11”, 246 pounds), but Borland more than makes up for it with his tenacity and nose for the ball.
He’s been showing well during Senior Bowl week. He is a smart player who can diagnose plays quickly as they unfold in front of him. This skill allows him to fly to the ball on nearly every play. He’s always around the ball, and Borland is known as a passionate player who loves to hit.
He could be just what the team needs at inside linebacker.
The Broncos could look for outside linebacker help from this game as well. Jordan Tripp (Montana) is a small-school player who is likely to be a mid-round pick. He plays with great body control and can explosively change direction to get to the ball. He can make up ground quickly and has a good closing burst in pursuit.
It’s not just the No. 87—Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt) reminds me of Eric Decker. I was excited to see how he’d look at the Senior Bowl, as he was my favorite senior receiver this year.
Matthews has not disappointed.
He plays bigger than his size (6’3”, 206 lb) and can make difficult catches seem routine. He can work the sidelines, but he’s also not afraid to run routes over the middle. He never gets great separation, but he does catch almost everything thrown his way.
It’s not really going to show up at practice, but on film Matthews was clutch for the Commodores. When the team needed a big play, he came through with a high-pressure catch.
If the Broncos lose Decker in free agency, a player like Matthews could be a perfect replacement. He could step in and start for the Broncos from Day 1. He is seen as a second-round pick.
Solomon Patton (Florida) is another player who is turning heads in Mobile.
Patton could help the Broncos as a slot receiver and return man. He has an electric, playmaking ability every time he has the ball in his hands.
Last week, Crockett Gillmore impressed me during the week of practice for the Shrine Game. When Marcel Jensen (Fresno State) was injured, the Senior Bowl called up Gillmore.
Wednesday was his first day of practice in Mobile, and he didn’t waste any time. He immediately impressed scouts with his fluid movements, hands and concentration. He made several difficult catches in different parts of the route tree.
He can run the hook route effectively. He will turn and square up his shoulders to the line of scrimmage completely. This presents the biggest possible target for his quarterback. Gillmore also comes back to the ball and boxes out smaller defenders on that route.
He can also run the seam route. On Wednesday, he caught a pass in the seam between two defenders. He quickly turned up the field to gain more yards after the catch.
Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz has had a complete week of practice. Over eight years of traveling to the Senior Bowl, I’ve noticed that some players who flash on Monday can fade by the middle of the week. Fiedorowicz has made plays every day, and he’s been the most impressive tight end over the course of the week.
He has a big frame and knows how to use his size to his advantage. He can make tough catches with defenders draped all over him. Fiedorowicz is also a natural hands catcher and a devastating blocker.
The Broncos are likely to be in the market for a tight end (or two) if they end up releasing either Jacob Tamme or Joel Dreessen in 2014.
There’s nothing better than players who surprise on the all-star road trip. The Broncos will have their eyes on players who stand out during the week of practice, even if they are players in a position of strength for the team.
My favorite player to watch in Mobile has been Charles Sims (West Virginia). Bucky Brooks of NFL.com has compared him to Matt Forte of the Chicago Bears because of his ability as a runner and receiver out of the backfield.
Sims runs with high knees, and he has great footwork when running through the hole. He runs with great balance and can change direction without losing much (if any) speed. He also has great hands and can be dangerous as a receiver on screen passes or wheel routes.
Some may think Montee Ball is the back of the future, as Denver selected him in the second round of the 2013 NFL draft. I will point out that John Fox selected DeAngelo Williams in the first round of the 2006 NFL draft (27th overall), only to select Jonathan Stewart in the first round of the 2008 NFL draft (13th overall).
If the Broncos let Knowshon Moreno go in free agency, then perhaps they would take another running back with a premium pick to help strengthen the position. Sims is currently seen as a third-round pick, per CBS Sports.
Note: All quotes and injury/practice observations obtained firsthand. Record/statistical information provided via email from the Denver Broncos. All contract information for individual players is from Spotrac.com.
Draft projections courtesy of NFL Draft Scout unless otherwise noted.
Cecil Lammey can be followed on Twitter @CecilLammey.