Senior Bowl 2014: Names You Need to Know
Saturday’s Senior Bowl (3 p.m. CT, NFL Network) at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala. will be the culmination of a week-long opportunity for college football’s top four-year players to make their cases on why they should be selected in the 2014 NFL draft.
Most of the impressions that NFL scouts, coaches and executives will take away from the week have already been developed through practice sessions and interviews.
Still, the game will serve a corroboratory function on Saturday. Teams will evaluate whether the qualities that players showed in practice sessions translate to game action.
Earlier this week, before the fully-padded practice sessions took place, we took a look at the top five players invited to the game and five other players with the biggest chances to rise up draft boards.
Some of those evaluations were not supported by the practices. North Dakota State offensive lineman Billy Turner, for example, looked anything but a left tackle, and he was consistently beaten by outside speed-rushers this week. Pittsburgh defensive tackle Aaron Donald and Northern Illinois safety Jimmie Ward, meanwhile, made serious cases this week in practice for a top-five spot.
Still, many other prospects proved their worth against top competition or made names for themselves. In the following slideshow, we'll take a look at 10 such players who have made it clear this week that they are worth watching closely in Saturday’s game.
Jerick McKinnon, RB, Georgia Southern
A quarterback at Georgia Southern—though always more of a runner than a passer—Jerick McKinnon made the switch to running back at this week’s Senior Bowl. In the process, he has looked well worth taking a chance on with a Day 3 draft selection this year.
Quite possibly the most impressive running back in Mobile this week, he is a well-rounded runner with solid size (5’9”, 209 lbs) and speed. He has demonstrated the abilities to both truck through defenders and to bounce away from them with good quickness.
One might expect a converted quarterback to struggle with finding running lanes, catching the ball out of the backfield or picking up blocks on linebackers, but none of those things caused him significant issues this week.
A small-schooler in a deep running back class, a strong showing in the Senior Bowl might still only make him a late-round pick, but he needed a strong week just to establish he should be drafted at all.
It was evident McKinnon turned heads in Mobile in practices, and as the game usually sets up as a big stage for running backs, he can do the same on Saturday.
Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
It’s not easy to get attention as an NFL prospect when you’re a 5’9”, 193-pound wide receiver from Wyoming. It became clear during Senior Bowl practices this week, however, that Robert Herron’s talent has been largely overlooked.
He makes up for what he lacks in stature and major program recognition with his athleticism, route-running ability and hands.
He has the speed to beat defensive backs both outside and inside and to extend plays with the ball in his hands. He also has great quickness and crisply breaks inside, outside and back to the ball.
Limited size and strength might relegate him to playing slot receiver, while his hands have also been inconsistent at times. That said, he projects inside very well with his skill at getting open for intermediate receptions. He can also make plays deep downfield.
With a strong performance on game day, Herron could solidify himself as a mid-round selection, even in a loaded draft class of wide receivers.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Jordan Matthews came into the week as one of the Senior Bowl’s most highly touted prospects, but he deserves recognition here for backing up the hype, at least through the first three days.
The week got off to a great start when he displayed a chiseled, 209-pound frame as he paraded across the Mobile Convention Center stage during weigh-ins. He continued to impress throughout the week of practices, extending for catches away from his body and making it look effortless.
Matthews is going to get knocked for a lack of explosive speed, but letting him fall far in the draft because of it could work out about as well as it did for teams that passed upon Alshon Jeffery two years ago and Keenan Allen last year. He isn’t going to burn outside cornerbacks in the NFL, but he should still make plays.
His size and strength comprise his calling card, but he also has solid open-field quickness for a receiver. He is a strong route-runner who consistently catches the ball in his hands.
Matthews might have some issues separating deep downfield, but he makes up for it with his ability to make contested catches in traffic. All in all, he has the game to be a quality No. 2 wide receiver at the next level, and he has proved in Mobile why he belongs as a top-50 draft selection.
Zack Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Coming into the week, Zack Martin was already considered to be a top-five prospect at this year’s Senior Bowl by many evaluators. He still seemed to help his draft stock considerably by establishing himself as the best offensive lineman in Mobile this week.
Some might point to his weigh-in at the start of the week as evidence he should kick inside to guard. His hand width (9-3/4”), arm length (32-1/4”) and wingspan (76-7/8”) are all considered small for an offensive tackle.
His performance on the field throughout practices, however, was strong evidence that he will be successful wherever he ends up playing along an NFL offensive line.
He demonstrated a clear understanding of hand placement throughout the week’s first three practices. He showed strength in holding his leverages to consistently win battles in one-on-one situations while playing almost exclusively at left tackle throughout the week.
He excels in technical prowess and has quick feet for an offensive lineman. If teams overscrutinize his lack of size, they might just miss out on a terrific NFL player.
Martin should almost certainly be a top-50 draft selection, and as long as he can continue to play well in Saturday’s game, he will leave Mobile expected to be a first-round selection.
Seantrel Henderson, OT, Miami (Fla.)
Ranked as the No. 1 recruit in the high school class of 2010 by Scout.com, Seantrel Henderson never came close to living up to the hype at Miami.
He was suspended three times during his career for the Hurricanes, which he admitted earlier this week was due to marijuana usage, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel. He had flashes of brilliance when he was on the field but never consistently held down a starting job due to underwhelming play and his off-field problems.
Still, Henderson’s potential is among the highest of all offensive linemen in the 2014 draft class. A 6’7”, 331-pound tackle with 34-1/4” arms and an 84-inch wingspan, he has ideal measurables for the position and is also a quick-footed athlete.
While his off-field troubles will likely take him completely off some draft boards, he showed upside during practice this week that shouldn’t be ignored.
He was beaten by some speed-rushers off the edge in pass-rushing drills that gave those rushers a clear advantage. However, he showed good power and strength and rarely lost any battles when he got his hands on his opponents.
His draft stock is very difficult to predict, as his potential could push him as high as the second round yet his character red flags could knock him out of the draft altogether. He needs to impress teams in the interview room and make hard work pay off at the NFL Scouting Combine, but he can keep his stock moving in a positive direction if he can stand out at right tackle on Saturday.
Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
With arguably the top five centers in the draft class all playing in this week’s Senior Bowl, the opportunity was on the line for any one of them to stand out and make a push to be the first player selected at the position this year.
That’s exactly what Colorado State center Weston Richburg has done.
Though Arkansas center Travis Swanson came into the week as the consensus favorite to be the first player selected to start in the middle of an offensive line, he had a disappointing week of South practice. Though he has great size for the position, his height actually looked like a negative as he often played too high and lost battles of leverage against inside rushers.
Richburg, on the other hand, looked as good as he ever has in the North squad’s practice. He consistently handled his opponents in one-on-ones for the most part by demonstrating a strong punch off the snap, continuing to hold leverage and not allowing his opponents to win with bull rushes or pass-rushing moves.
His intelligence stood out both on the field and in post-practice interviews. Combining his smarts with quick feet and good syncopation between his upper and lower body, he does a great job of switching blocks within plays and doing so effectively.
He isn’t likely to overpower many defensive linemen at the next level, but he has the all-around skill set needed to be an NFL starter at the position. One week of practices isn’t going to make him the top center in the draft class, but he can continue to strengthen his position as a likely Day 2 draft selection by playing well in Saturday’s game.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
The star pass-rusher of the SEC champion and BCS National Championship Game runners-up Auburn Tigers, Dee Ford already had plenty of name recognition going into the Senior Bowl. Even so, the practice week has legitimized his skill set.
No pass-rusher in this week’s practices showed more explosiveness off the snap than Ford. While he had the advantage in pass-rushing drills of not needing to anticipate or read the play, his quick acceleration off the line of scrimmage consistently showed up in game action during his time at Auburn.
Ford’s bread-and-butter is his speed rush, which he used to consistently expose offensive linemen like Billy Turner and Vanderbilt’s Wesley Johnson, who struggled to kick out quickly enough to block him.
On top of his athleticism, Ford also showed solid pass-rushing moves and an ability to drive opponents back.
Still, the weigh-in all but assured that he will need to make the move to outside linebacker at the next level, ideally in a 3-4 defensive scheme where his outside rushing ability still has a natural fit. At 6’2” and 243 pounds, he does not have the size and strength to hold up as a defensive end against the run at the next level.
Even so, he has done enough this week to secure his standing as a Day 2 draft selection. He is one of the most explosive edge-rushers in the draft class and should make an immediate impact in that capacity, including quite probably in Saturday’s game.
Caraun Reid, DT, Princeton
While the dominance of Pittsburgh’s Aaron Donald and Minnesota’s Ra’Shede Hageman came as little surprise in this week’s North practices, another unheralded defensive tackle made a huge impression in the South team’s sessions.
The Ivy League is no football powerhouse, but it seems to produce at least one quality NFL prospect each year, and it has a strong offering this year in Princeton’s Caraun Reid. With a demonstrative performance in Mobile, he is substantiating himself as a quality mid-round draft selection.
Combining explosive quickness off the snap with strong hands and violent rip moves, he tormented his opponents in one-on-one pass-rushing drills this week.
At 6’2” and 301 pounds, he does not have great size for a defensive tackle, but he projects well as a penetrating 3-technique defensive tackle.
Reid displays the burst and athleticism to consistently shoot gaps and bring pressure into the backfield, but on game day, he will have an opportunity to answer questions about his strength as a run defender.
Concerns about how he will hold up against the power of NFL offensive linemen could hurt his draft stock. Nonetheless, his impressive validation against top competition this week has put him in the conversation to be a Day 2 draft pick.
Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin
The 2013 Big Ten defensive player of the year, Wisconsin inside linebacker Chris Borland was already well-known going into Senior Bowl week. Yet as Tyler Dunne of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote earlier this week, concerns about Borland's height have often dominated the conversation among scouts.
After a fantastic week of practices in Mobile, it’s time to avert the conversation away from one physical limitation and instead spotlight the many things he has consistently done well against top competition this week.
Borland’s 5’11” stature did not seem to limit him at all in the practices. With a great combination of instincts, athleticism and effort, he was consistently around the ball in team drills and made as many big plays as anyone this week.
He was consistently able to drive through pickup blocks or work off them with his hands, so the problems with getting off blocks that can come with a lack of height did not show up in his game this week. He also came into the week needing to prove himself in coverage, yet he looked fluid in that capacity.
Borland might not wow with his measurables, but that did not stop him from standing out on the field this week. As he is simply a playmaker, the game should play right into him continuing to stand out on Saturday.
He has demonstrated this week that he is well worth a second-round draft selection, and he could end up being one of the first two inside linebackers off the board.
Pierre Desir, CB, Lindenwood
Pierre Desir made a name for himself as a Division II All-American and as the inaugural winner of the Cliff Harris Award, but the Lindenwood cornerback is legitimizing himself as a mid-round draft selection by continuing to perform well against top competition this week.
As the NFL prototype continues to shift toward larger cornerbacks like Richard Sherman, Desir’s 6’1” height is luring evaluators to dig deep on the small-schooler. It was easy to like what he brought to the field this week in practice.
He had an up-and-down week overall and suffered some beats in one-on-one situations, but he showed up very well in the final fully-padded practice on Wednesday, when he got his hands on at least four or five passes. He showed impressive quickness in breaking back to the ball and ball skills in knocking passes out of the air.
There are still many technical issues in his game, but his ability to step in and make plays against some of college football’s best wide receivers made a statement this week. While the other small-school cornerbacks in Mobile looked overmatched by increased competition, Desir demonstrated that he belonged.
Although he needs to be more consistently physical, his size and ability to play press man coverage could boost his stock into Day 2 of the draft, especially if he can get on the board with a big play on Saturday.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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