One of the largest events of the offseason is the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama. Between the North and South squads, there were over 100 departing college players in practices going head-to-head before last Saturday's game in Ladd-Peebles Stadium.
For many, including NFL scouts, this was an opportunity to come away with some information for individual evaluations of prospects, many of whom will be drafted into the league next April. Throughout the week, you heard about who was rising and falling, both at the weigh-in and at the practices. There's a question that sticks out about the process, though: Why does it take some players until the Senior Bowl to break out?
Going back to the broadcasts of four of the top risers of the week, we'll adventure into if their practice performances back their tape, or what caused their late bloom.
Noah Spence, EDGE, Eastern Kentucky
Chances are, if you followed the Senior Bowl for more than five minutes last week, you stumbled across Noah Spence's name. The former Ohio State Buckeye was considered the top talent heading into the week's events, and he proved his value in Mobile once fully-padded practices were off.
He even did enough to have CBS Sports' Pete Prisco called the pass-rusher a potential top-five pick.
If Noah Spence checks out, he should be a top-5 pick. Kid was really good at Ohio State too— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) January 30, 2016
Spence was suspended from Big Ten play after multiple failed drug tests, which led to his departure from Columbus. Since the 2013 Big Ten championship, he's only played two FBS teams: North Carolina State and Kentucky, both of which he faced while suiting up for the Colonels.
On film, he backs up what we saw from him at the Senior Bowl. In one-on-one situations, he's nearly unstoppable. He has loose hips that remind many of Von Miller, while his overall playing style is similar to Elvis Dumervil, the undersized pass-rushing specialist who just came back from his fifth trip to the Pro Bowl.
Against Kentucky, he looked like the best player on the field. When that statement can clearly be said about someone going up against an SEC opponent, it's important to remember the player's name. He was no scrub when facing the Wolfpack, either.
1st play of the game vs NC State. Noah Spence is a handful coming off the edge. https://t.co/mylT4e8pGg— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) January 16, 2016
Overall, Spence's edge-bending ability checks out with the top-10 hype. The main concerns for him are his run-stopping ability and if he's clean off of the field. Teams like Dallas, set to let their starter Greg Hardy hit free agency, Jacksonville, needing all the defensive help they can get, Tampa Bay, who need "the guy" at defensive end, and the Giants, who don't have a top pass-rusher without a fully healthy Jason Pierre-Paul, all make sense as landing spots for Spence early on in Day 1.
Jihad Ward, DL, Illinois
Behind Noah Spence, the most impressive defensive end at the Senior Bowl was Jihad Ward of Illinois. The event was set up in a way for a virtual unknown to blow up like Ward did, as the majority of the top players at the position were either underclassmen, like Ohio State's Joey Bosa or Clemson's Shaq Lawson, or they were seniors who didn't make the trip to Mobile, like DeForest Buckner of Oregon and Shilique Calhoun of Michigan State.
He's good. https://t.co/n14GCGOtVr— Justis Mosqueda (@JuMosq) January 28, 2016
In bag work with Dallas Cowboys defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli, who turned a former Illini defensive end into an All-Pro player in Simeon Rice, Ward was by far the player with the most violent hands, knocking over dummies with force that could be heard more than half of the distance of the stadium away.
Ward had to leave after Day 3's practice when he suffered a wrist issue, but his performance prior to that begged the question: Why in the world wasn't he on everyone's top-100 radar heading into the week?
Going back and watching several games from his senior season, it was clear why he was a hidden gem: He had been playing out of position at Illinois. At the Senior Bowl practices, he was lining up as a 6-technique defensive end, the typical 4-3 standard where the lineman is on the outside shade of an offensive tackle. For stretches in 2015, he was asked to play 3-technique undertackle, the smaller, more explosive defensive tackle role in a 4-3 defense.
To put it simply, the Illini defensive staff put a long man in a quick man's role, essentially making someone with Mario Williams' size play Aaron Donald's post. The result? Playing out of position against strong offensive lines like Ohio State led to him being driven off the ball by five to seven yards consistently.
When he was able to play defensive end, though, like against the Iowa Hawkeyes, he looked like a more natural player and was able to use his one-arm pass-rushing move, which was invisible in his film as a 3-technique but present in Mobile. At the end of the day, with his size at over 6'5" and 296 pounds, he's a great candidate to play a two-gapping 3-4 style defensive end role at the next level.
He may not have the longest arms, registering in at the Senior Bowl weigh-in under 34", according to Optimum Scouting, but he's also not explosive enough to be a one-gap penetrator at the next level. Even his teammates, Dawuane Smoot and Chunky Clements, seem to consistently have more burst in their legs than Ward. Assume he goes between the 50th and 120th picks in the draft, a big range which will be easier to narrow down after the combine.
Deion Jones, LB, LSU
When a linebacker weighs less than 220 pounds, he'll have red flag immediately risen, but Deion Jones of LSU did enough throughout the week to have most scouts thinking about overlooking his size. A long-time special teams player for the Tigers, Jones finally got to prove what he had on defense in his last year in Baton Rouge.
Playing special teams at LSU isn't a knock for an individual player necessarily, as the depth chart is deep and talented at that program. For example, James Wright was the third receiver drafted out of the school in 2014, behind Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. He was viewed as a special-teamer first and a pass-catcher second. He's about to head into his third year as a professional with the Cincinnati Bengals.
Um, linebackers aren't supposed to be able to do that. Tremendous recovery and closing speed here by Deion Jones. pic.twitter.com/V7cNexUfuY— Ethan Young (@NFLDrafter) January 31, 2016
The main attribute that both helped Jones on special teams and will make him an NFL prospect despite his weight is his speed. No offensive lineman is going to be scared of the size of a linebacker, be it 210 pounds or 250 pounds. Either way, by NFL standards, the trench player is going to have at least 60 pounds on the defender. What they might be scared of is a linebacker's feet, and, boy, does Jones have some feet.
At times, he looked like he was covering ground with Earl Thomas-type closing ability in Mobile. At the end of the Day 3 practice, he stuffed the offense in a goal-line situation. In the actual game, he was all over the broadcast, both on defense and special teams. His momentum went from being nearly cast off at the weigh-in to flirting with the top 75 or top 100 in a matter of days.
Going back and watching his senior year, you see about what you'd expect. There are times when he's able to beat blocks with his speed and completely blow up a play, and there are times when an offensive lineman gets his hands on the linebacker and buries him. The worst play that comes to mind is still when Alabama's quarterback, Jake Coker, trucked Jones in the red zone.
He's a similar player to Telvin Smith, who was drafted in the fifth round by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2014. I think Jones is a bit better of an athlete than Smith, and because of his special teams contributions, teams will see a player with a higher upside and someone who can make an immediate impact. If I had to guess, Jones goes on Day 2 of the draft to a team that has the big bodies up front to keep the LSU product clean, a must if he's going to succeed in the NFL.
Darian Thompson, S, Boise State
The biggest riser of Senior Bowl week in the secondary was either Harlan Miller of Southeastern Louisiana, who looked like the most talented jumbo cornerback at the event, or Darian Thompson, who looked like the most talented safety.
Thompson was a back-to-back All-Mountain West safety for Boise State, but when the Broncos have a three-loss season and don't even finish as the top team in their division in their conference, not many eyes are going to be fixated on a team that often plays when the eastern portion of the country has droopy eyes.
Long gone are the days of Kellen Moore's Broncos teasing the idea of a national championship bid, but don't be surprised if Thompson is the first first-round pick Boise State will produce since the Chicago Bears drafted Shea McClellin 19th overall in 2012. Tony Pauline, who has been a long-standing rock in the draft community, noted Thompson as one of six "buzz" players from the Senior Bowl week on PhiladelphiaEagles.com.
Safety Darian Thompson is another prospect who leaves Senior Bowl week as a winner. Thompson met with 15 general managers in Mobile and had a one-on-one sit-down with a head coach. One team that is not in the market for a safety graded Thompson as a late first-round pick. The one criticism the safety heard during the week centered on the occasional missed tackle last season. One person familiar with the Boise State program said it was more a symptom of Thompson trying to do too much to make up for the lack of playmakers on the Broncos' defense.
Going back through his senior performances, he checks out as what looks to be the second-best safety in the class, only behind Jalen Ramsey, the Florida State product who may be a top-five talent. Thompson played mostly zone defense as a field safety in Boise State's two-high system.
Many fans want a true free safety or strong safety, giving their defense a one-high system they've seen succeed in Seattle, but most don't understand one-high safety systems are typically built around masking the flaws of either the low safety's coverage ability or the top safety's run-pass conflict awareness. Thompson can really do it all, giving a team the flexibility to give out two-high looks pre-snap, then dropping him down in the box or back as a center-fielder just before the play starts.
He has ball skills, quality closing speed, length, the nose to find the ball and is good in coverage. He works well enough in space that it's not out of the question that he moves to cornerback like Damarious Randall, a safety at Arizona State, did this year as a rookie for the Green Bay Packers after being drafted in the first round. Thompson's one issue seems to be the angles in which he takes to make downfield tackles, as he's very aggressive, but he makes up for those paths with his speed.
According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, the Los Angeles Rams are candidates to trade up in this draft class. If a team like the San Diego Chargers, who draft third overall and need safety help with Eric Weddle seemingly walking out of the door, were able to close the deal, I don't think it's out of line for Thompson to be a candidate to be a top-15 pick.
The Senior Bowl is incredibly important in the draft evaluation process. First, you get the weigh-in results to chart the progress of players headed to the combine. Second, you get to see hidden gems and small-school prospects go head-to-head with talents from the SEC, Big Ten and all of the other major conferences in America.
It needs to be put into context, though. Just because players look great in one-on-one drills, which don't totally translate to in-game situations in the NFL, doesn't mean they should automatically be first-round picks.
By all accounts, Darian Thompson, the safety from Boise State, and Noah Spence, the pass-rusher from Ohio State, look to be the real deal. Both in Alabama and throughout their final seasons in college football, they look like top-20 selections.
On the flip side, it gets a little fuzzy with the projections of Jihad Ward, the defensive lineman from Illinois, and Deion Jones, the linebacker and special teams ace from LSU. They aren't bad prospects, facades or mirages. They are players who need to play in specific roles as their flaws will limit them in certain schemes at the next level.
With the East-West Shrine Game and the Senior Bowl in the books, there's only one major event before the physical draft: the combine. Indianapolis' bump in the road of the draft cycle will give all four of these players the opportunity to move up or down boards one last time before teams start to finalize what their approach to draft day will be.