The 2011 Senior Bowl lacks the star power of Tim Tebow but boasts a deep collection of senior talent looking to boost their stock. At first glance of the confirmed attendees, it appears fewer top seniors are opting out of this year's game in large part due to lack of seniors with high first-round grades. With fewer prospects solidly in the top of the first round, opportunity abounds for players to boost their stocks. The end result should be some excellent position battles and one of the most competitive Senior Bowl weeks in recent memory.
Here are six stories to watch during the 2011 Senior Bowl:
1. How well will the small school players perform? One of the things I love about the Senior Bowl is how they appear to go out of their way to give the top small school players in the country a chance to showcase their wares and answer the inevitable "Didn't play against top competition" question.
Last year's strong small school class featured three day two performers: Vladimir Ducasse (2nd round Jets), Alex Carrington (3rd Bills) and Andre Roberts (3rd Arizona). G/T Ben Ijalana was a late scratch diminishing this year's non-FBS class shifting the focus to speedy WR Edmund Gates of Abilene Christian who will look to make his mark in a wide open receiver field.
Other non FBS invitees include C Brandon Fusco (Slippery Rock), DT Cedric Thornton (Southern Arkansas), and WR Courtney Smith (South Alabama). Keep an eye on Fusco, as he has a tremendous opportunity to raise their profile at one of the leanest position groups.
2. Jake Locker - No player will be under the microscope more this week than Locker. After entering the season as a potential number one overall pick, his stock has slid after a disappointing senior season. Blessed with excellent athleticism and physical tools, Locker will look to answer questions about accuracy and comfort in the pocket this week. The quarterback rankings remain fluid entering the draft workouts as four players battle for positioning. Of the four, Locker is the only senior providing him a Senior Bowl stage in which to shine. A strong week could vault him back into the top 10 picks in the draft.
3. The offensive tackle battle - The 2011 tackle class lacks an elite top 10 caliber prospect but rather features a collection of late first-to-second round talent looking to distinguish itself. Seven of the top eight tackles in the NFLDraft101 rankings will be competing in Mobile with Nate Solder, Derek Sherrod, Gabe Carimi, and Anthony Castonzo each taking aim for the pole position in a tightly contested battle. The next tier of DeMarcus Love, Lee Ziemba, James Brewer, and Danny Watkins are battling for day two spots. Of all the position battles this week, this is the one to watch.
4. Inside Linebackers looking to distinguish themselves - Serving as the undercard for the offensive tackle battle is an intriguing battle at the inside linebacker position, where four of the top five prospects are expected to compete with major draft implications. Greg Jones will look to display the athleticism and versatility to play inside and out while Nate Irving, Casey Matthews, and Kelvin Sheppard provide chase (Quan Sturdivant was a late scratch). Nate Irving in particular is a player who has stood out in my recent film study and a player who could rise into round two if he has a strong week and gets a clean bill of health at the combine.
5. Like last year, the strength of the 2011 NFL Draft is along the defensive front line and several top performers will be challenging to improve their stock this week. At defensive end, fast riser Cameron Jordan will look to show why is one of the best defensive players most people did not see this past season. Ditto Ryan Kerrigan.
Jeremy Beal will also look to flash the athleticism to shift to rush linebacker at the next level. Don't be surprised if Nebraska's Pierre Allen has a strong week as well. At defensive tackle, two to keep an eye on are Stephen Paea and Phil Taylor where each will hope to flash nose tackle potential.
6. Will a skill position player emerge? Underclassmen have seized the limelight at the top of the wide receiver, running back, and tight end rankings this year but this week, the senior class will look to step up and make themselves known. Of all the positions, the skills positions may have the highest potential for a breakout star this year. Think Mike Wallace in 2009 or Dexter McCluster in 2010. A few to keep an eye include speed backs Noel Devine and Kendall Hunter, the Boise State receiving duo of Titus Young and Austin Pettis, and versatile tight end DJ Williams.
Players I am most excited to see (not necessarily because they are the best at their position):
- QB: Colin Kaepernick - Will he be able to translate his pistol success to a pro-style offense?
- RB: DeMarco Murray - Does he have the power and wiggle to match his speed and receiving ability?
- WR: Vincent Brown - The NFLDraft101 sleeper was a late addition who has a chance for a breakout week?
- TE: Lance Kendricks, Luke Stocker and Lee Smith - A thin tight end class has presented this trio with an excellent opportunity
- OT: All of them - Most competitive position at the 2011 Senior Bowl
- OG: Rodney Hudson - How much will his lack of ideal bulk hurt him? Does he have the skills to shift to center?
- C: Kristopher O'Dowd - A thin class provides him an opportunity to shine
- DT: Marvin Austin, Terrell McClain or Martin Parker - Ok, none of them have been invited to Mobile at least not yet but here's to hoping one or more gets a late invite. Of those here, I am looking forward to seeing if Ian Williams can flash the talent to be a sleeper nose tackles
- DE: Sam Acho and Pernell McPhee - Have flown under the radar in a deep and talented class
- LB: Mark Herzlich - His return was one of the best stories of the 2010 season, here's to hoping his draft story is a strong sequel
- CB: Ras-I Dowling - After an injury plagued senior season, he looks to remind scouts why he was once considered a first round prospect
- S: Ahmad Black - Lacks ideal size and measurables but will look to show he has the instincts, awareness and intangibles to succeed at the next level.
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