Senior Bowl 2011: 20 Players to Watch on January 29
The Senior Bowl will be played Jan. 29 in Mobile, Alabama as a showcase for some of the nation's most noteworthy draftees.
NFL scouts will litter the stands. Speed will be timed, technique evaluated and decisions judged.
But who will stand out amongst the crowd?
There's already a laundry list of names expected to crack the first 32 picks of the draft, but who among those on the Senior Bowl roster will use the game as a springboard to bettering their prospects come April?
Here are 20 names to look out for.
Andy Dalton, QB, TCU
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Despite finishing second in the Mountain West in passing yards (2,857) and fifth nationally in passer rating (166.5), Dalton remains at best a fringe second-round pick in the draft.
But that could change with a solid Senior Bowl performance, which would only justify his impressionable showing against Wisconsin in the Rose Bowl.
Roy Helu Jr., RB, Nebraska
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A common misperception about Helu is that at 223 pounds, he lacks the quickness to get to and around the edge, which isn’t the case.
At just a shade under six feet, Helu, who had nearly 1,300 yards rushing his senior season at Nebraska, has a low center of gravity and deceptive speed for his build, albeit not in the burner category.
Helu may not go until the second day of the draft, but a good Senior Bowl may enable him to sneak ahead of some of the many underclassman backs currently regarded as higher picks.
Nate Irving, ILB, North Carolina State
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Other than Michigan State’s Greg Jones, Irving may be the best among a somewhat shallow pool of prospects at the inside linebacker position.
Irving led the Wolfpack in sacks (7) and finished the season second on the team in tackles (92), and his sideline-to-sideline speed belies a build that is atypical for his position.
More than anything else, Irving will have to prove he’s durable enough for the NFL, having missed the entire 2009 season with a broken leg, collapsed lung and separated shoulder suffered in a single-car accident.
Jerrel Jernigan, WR, Troy
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You could make a strong case that Jernigan has more to gain from an impressive Senior Bowl performance than any other participant.
Currently ranked below only A.J. Green, Julio Jones, Jonathan Baldwin and Torrey Smith among receivers, Jernigan didn’t get much press this season playing at Troy, but his 81 receptions ranked 20th nationally, and his overall athleticism and ability to play in space are off the charts.
He could easily be a first-round selection.
In case you’re curious, here’s some tape on Jernigan.
Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada
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I’d be shocked to see Kaepernick play as a quarterback at the next level. His size (6’4”, 220) fits the description, but his accuracy is nowhere near some of the draft’s other prospects.
Plus, his athleticism and agility may ultimately project better in a receiving role, perhaps as a flexed-out tight end.
Kaepernick is a hard prospect to peg in terms of how his skills will translate to the NFL. That said, he may spend the Senior Bowl and ensuing scouting combine auditioning for a position entirely different from the one he manned for four years in college.
Greg McElroy, QB, Alabama
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Everyone knows McElroy as one of the driving forces behind Alabama’s national title run in 2009, but he’ll be faced with disassociating himself from the stigma that follows smaller quarterbacks who are perceived to have thrived primarily out of a shotgun formation.
He’s shown against top-level competition that he can make all the throws and make plays on the run, but will that be enough to slide upward on draft boards?
DeMarco Murray, RB, Oklahoma
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Durability is a serious issue with Murray, who missed significant time in three of his four seasons at Oklahoma, but raw talent is not up for debate.
Murray is an above-average runner and displays very good hands, but his challenge will be establishing himself as an anything more than a third-down back or viable second-string option at the NFL level.
Titus Young, WR, Boise State
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Young was about as productive as you could be at the collegiate level, catching 204 balls for more than 3,000 yards and 25 touchdowns at Boise State, but some scouts wonder how much the Broncos' subpar competition in the WAC was a factor in his overall success.
Between now and draft day, plenty of questions will swirl around Young’s character issues, which led to a 10-game suspension in 2008, but a strong set of combine interviews, along with a solid Senior Bowl, will provide some answers.
Ben Ijalana, OT, Villanova
Ijalana, an offensive tackle, was recently named Tri-State Athlete of the Year for being the best collegiate player in the Delaware Valley, a distinction his Villanova teammate, Matt Szczur, earned in 2009.
Listed below 6’2” and 317 pounds, Ijalana doesn’t project well as an NFL tackle, but his quick feet and above-average pass-blocking ability may earn him a spot as a guard at the next level.
Already rated as one of the top overall linemen in the draft, Ijalana could become a late first-rounder with a good effort in Mobile.
Mark Herzlich, OLB, Boston College
Herzlich’s victory over a life-threatening plight is well-documented: Diagnosed in May 2009 with Ewing’s sarcoma, a form of cancer that creates tumors in bone or soft tissue, Herzlich was forced to sit out the entire following season at Boston College.
Now cancer-free, Herzlich played in all 13 games for the Eagles in 2010, recording 65 tackles, four interceptions and two forced fumbles as the inspirational leader on defense.
The ACC Defensive Player of the Year in 2008, Herzlich has tremendous size (6’4”, 247) and carries his frame well in pursuit of the ball-carrier. But more than anything else, NFL officials will covet his intangibles, mainly his character and work ethic, both of which could land him in the third or fourth round.
John Moffitt, OG, Wisconsin
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Occupying the guard spot next to his Outland Trophy-winning teammate, tackle Gabe Carimi, Moffitt was overshadowed on Wisconsin’s line last season, though some argue he was the best of the bunch.
A devastating run-blocker, Moffitt is very nimble for his size (6’5”, 323) and has the overall athleticism to warrant an early-round selection.
Daniel Thomas, RB, Kansas State
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The Big 12’s leading rusher each of the past two seasons, Thomas has transitioned from a junior college standout to possibly one of the draft’s biggest steals.
There are still some concerns about his straight-line speed, but if he can show in the Senior Bowl that he is consistently able to run behind his large frame (6’2”, 228), an NFL suitor will come calling sooner rather than later.
Matt Szczur, WR, Villanova
I wrote glowingly of the Villanova receiver several weeks ago, and my evaluation was based on one game. But that was enough.
In the Wildcats’ FCS quarterfinals win over Appalachian State, the Wes Welker clone accounted for five touchdowns—three rushing, one passing and one receiving.
Recently signed to a $1.4 million deal by the Chicago Cubs, who selected him in the fifth round of last year’s MLB draft, Szczur certainly could opt for the diamond, but his versatility on the gridiron will garner some looks toward the later rounds.
Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State
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Though this draft class is not laden with superstar names at quarterback, Ponder almost feels like the forgotten man.
A three-year starter at Florida State, Ponder threw for more than 2,000 yards for the third straight season while eclipsing 20 touchdowns for the first time.
Per pre-draft evaluations, scouts like Ponder’s pocket presence and leadership but feel he has a long way to go to become a complete quarterback. His best-case scenario may be going somewhere in the fourth or fifth round as a candidate for a backup role.
Kendall Hunter, RB, Oklahoma State
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If you’re not familiar with Hunter, think of a considerably bulkier Darren Sproles with less breakaway speed but better running ability between the tackles.
That should give you an adequate description of the Oklahoma State back, who finished 2010 second in the Big 12 in rushing yards.
A mid-round selection solely because of his size (5’8”, 197), Hunter, like Sproles, provides an NFL offensive coordinator with an array of options with which to utilize his skills. In addition to his 1,548 yards on the ground, he caught 20 balls for 101 yards last season in the Cowboys’ pass-oriented offense.
Christian Ballard, DT, Iowa
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Hopefully for his sake, Ballard is able to take some snaps in the Senior Bowl without the companionship of his Iowa teammate, defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who some may suggest was partially responsible for Ballard’s success at tackle this season by taking on double teams from opposing offensive lines.
At 6’5” and 297 pounds, Ballard (No. 46 at left) is not of prototypical size for an NFL defensive tackle, nor is he fast enough to rush off the edge as a defensive end in a 3-4 scheme.
However, he showed a good motor and quickness in the nationally televised Insight Bowl against Missouri and even outperformed Clayborn in that game, recording three tackles and a sack.
Austin Pettis, WR, Boise State
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The other half of Boise State’s dynamic receiving duo, Pettis is a lean, fluid athlete who projects as a late-round selection in the draft.
Like Young, playing in the WAC may have veiled some of Pettis’ deficiencies, but scouts still finger his inability to separate from corners and display initial quickness off the line of scrimmage.
Jeremy Beal, DE, Oklahoma
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The fifth-rated outside linebacker prospect according to ESPN, Beal enjoyed a fitting finish to his career at Oklahoma, leading the Sooners with 8.5 sacks among his 19 tackles for loss.
A solid tackler, Beal could be of value to a team looking to solidify the outside of its 4-3 defense, but he needs to show scouts that he’s capable of holding his ground against the run and turning his hips and running in pass coverage.
Phil Taylor, DT, Baylor
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Even though LSU’s Drake Nevis is the only defensive tackle currently ranked above him playing in the Senior Bowl, Taylor could ride a strong game in Mobile to some much-improved draft positioning.
Just how far he’ll rise is the question, especially considering Nevis, Nick Fairley, Marcell Dareus and Marvin Austin all figure to be selected ahead of Taylor.
The humongous 6’3”, 350-pound Taylor is tailor-made as a nose guard in a 3-4 scheme, so it’s imperative that he dispels concerns about his ability to shed blocks and disengage from double teams.
If he can also display good stamina, he may be selected by a team looking for a solid part-time option along the interior of the defensive line.
Jeremy Kerley, WR, TCU
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Like Dalton, Kerley was a main catalyst in TCU’s perfect season in 2010. Undersized according to NFL receiver standards, Kerley (5’10”, 192) could land a roster spot in the pros due to his coveted versatility.
In addition to his 12 touchdowns receiving and rushing, Kerley was a fixture on the Horned Frogs’ kickoff and punt return teams.