With the 2011 Senior Bowl in the books, it's time to look back and evaluate the players who stood out in relation to the needs of the Atlanta Falcons.
Earlier this week, I wrote an article naming some players the Falcons should take a look at based on their positional needs (wide receiver, running back, cornerback, defensive end and offensive line).
A number of readers also made the observation that tight end was one that should have been mentioned.
The point is well taken.
Atlanta has no viable replacement for Tony Gonzalez after the 2011 season, which will surely be his last. They can quickly remedy this by drafting a player with potential whom Gonzalez and the coaching staff can groom. Gonzalez has been a true professional his entire career and would undoubtedly embrace the role as mentor—something he has already done with the receivers.
With all that in mind, I've removed offensive line help as a major need. Left tackle Sam Baker's play left much to be desired this year and three linemen (right guard Harvey Dahl, left guard Justin Blalock and right tackle Tyson Clabo) are all free agents, but general manager Thomas Dimitroff has basically said he already knows what he's doing on that front.
The team has selected a number of O-linemen in the past few drafts and we'll have to take him on his word that he will re-sign the guys he needs to and replace the ones he lets go with equally capable players.
In this Saturday's game, there were players from each of the positions listed in my previous article who stood out and improved their draft stock. Some of the players listed on there did absolutely nothing as well.
While those who did make an impact will certainly show up on the radars of others picking ahead of Atlanta, we can't worry about that and can only look at how their performances relate to the Falcons.
Let's start with receivers.
Miami's Leonard Hankerson stood out more than any other player at the Senior Bowl, catching five passes for 100 yards and a touchdown, including a 48-yarder to start the game. He showed the ability to catch balls deep, short and everywhere in between.
Hankerson improved his stock more than anyone else on the field.
Dane Sanzenbacher from Ohio State was also quite impressive with five receptions for 62 yards. He seemed to be open on every play.
Other notable receivers include Titus Young (Boise State), Vincent Brown (San Diego State) and Jeremy Kerley (TCU).
Young didn't make a huge impact on the game, but he impressed scouts and coaches all week in practice. If he can have a good combine, he could go relatively high in the draft.
Brown did not show the downfield explosiveness he is known for, but was still able to make a number of plays and is someone to keep in mind.
Kerley would not fit the bill as an explosive receiver, as he is more of a possession guy. Michael Jenkins will be a free agent after the 2011 season, however, so the Falcons may as well start thinking about drafting someone to replace him.
The TCU product showed great route running skills and the ability to catch in traffic on a touchdown grab late in the game. Guys like that are never bad to have.
Cornerbacks Kendric Burney (North Carolina) and Curtis Brown (Texas) also had very nice games.
They didn't come away with any interceptions, but showed good cover skills and were able to break up a great deal of passes.
Curtis Brown made a spectacular play when he prevented receiver Vincent Brown from making a catch on a quick slant.
Corners are not allowed to press receivers in the Senior Bowl and are forced to play off of them to start plays. Brown, the corner, instantly recognized that a short pass was being thrown and exploded towards the ball to break up what looked to be a sure completion.
The play caught everyone's attention.
Atlanta got a good look at three defensive ends who could be very good players in the NFL.
Ryan Kerrigan out of Purdue was easily the most impressive, notching a sack and proving to be too much for any offensive lineman on the field to handle. He'll likely be one of the first defensive ends taken in the draft.
Allen Bailey (Miami) is able to play both tackle and end. He didn't record any sacks during the Senior Bowl, but was able to put pressure on quarterbacks and had to deal with double-teams. Someone who can take advantage of all the attention John Abraham draws for the Falcons is desperately needed, and Bailey could be that guy.
Arizona's Brooks Reed also had a good game at defensive end, showing a non-stop motor, recording a sack and putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
Reed is looked at as a player who is best suited to play as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 defense. During the Senior Bowl, however, he often played with his hand on the ground in a traditional 4-3, which is what the Falcons run.
Reed could end up being a steal in the draft.
Two running backs were on display who could be the answer for the Falcons in the search for a change-of-pace guy.
Bilal Powell of Louisville totaled 50 yards on 10 carries, showing his ability to make cuts in small spaces and explode down the field. He's also a very good receiver out of the backfield.
Being that the Falcons also have Jason Snelling on the roster, using the two in a set could create havoc for a defense since Snelling is also a great receiver for a running back. Clever play design in such a situation would create a mismatch somewhere on the field.
Kentucky's Derrick Locke put on a nice show, although his total numbers (11 carries for 37 yards) were dampened by his being used to simply run out the clock at the end of the game, causing him to lose some yards.
Locke showed good explosiveness and was able to gain at least five-to-six yards a carry early in the game. It is believed he will be strictly a change-of-pace back in the NFL, which is perfect for what the Falcons need.
Last but not least, that burning question about tight end.
The only player at the position to make a big impact on the game was Wisconsin's Lance Kendricks.
Kendricks gained 39 yards on two catches. He was open much more often than that and showed a knack for finding the soft spot in defenses and making himself available to his quarterback.
He caught 43 passes for 663 yards and five touchdowns in his senior year, and is someone the Falcons should think about as the eventual successor to Gonzalez.
One more thing to think about is that linebackers Mike Peterson and Stephen Nicholas are both free agents. Even if the Falcons re-sign both of them, Peterson is nearing the end of his career and the team needs to have someone ready to step in when he calls it quits.
Colin McCarthy out of Miami is someone the Falcons should think about taking. He'll be available in the mid-to-late rounds. He's said to be a sub-par athlete, although he was all over the field for the Hurricanes throughout this season and made plays on running backs and receivers during the Senior Bowl.
He should be a great value pick for whoever selects him.
Much more about draft position and which players are the best will be determined during the NFL Combine and in team interviews.
The players listed here are a good start for the Falcons, and would fill needs if they are available.
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