Senior Bowl week has become the perfect buffer for the NFL between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl. The entire NFL goes to Mobile, Ala. to get one last glimpse of game action for the nation’s top seniors before the workout portion of the draft process commences.
At PFF, we are once again going to be heavily involved in the Senior Bowl’s evaluation process, while also adding the same layer of detail to every practice rep that we add to every play during the FBS season.
Here’s a look at the top defensive players to watch during Senior Bowl week:
We’re expecting a strong week from Kansas State’s Jordan Willis after he dominated Big 12 right tackles this season on his way to the top overall grade among the nation’s edge defenders at 94.3. He also led the nation with 87 total pressures while playing strong run defense, so look for Willis to make a name for himself in Mobile. Alabama’s Ryan Anderson doesn’t get the same hype as his more dynamic teammate, Tim Williams, but he’s more technically sound on the edge, capable of destroying blocks in the run game and getting after the quarterback at a high rate.
Dawuane Smoot of Illinois has first-round potential, but his best games have come in bunches the last two years, and we’re looking for consistency throughout practice and into the game. Wisconsin’s Vince Biegel picked up right where teammate Joe Schobert left off last year with a strong year in all phases and a Senior Bowl invite. He may dabble in some work at off-the-ball linebacker, but he knows how to play on the edge in the run game and he’s pressured the quarterback among the best in the country the last two seasons.
Michigan’s defensive line was loaded this year, and Ryan Glasgow was a disruptive presence against both the run and as a pass-rusher. He created pressure on 15.2 percent of his rushes, highest of all Senior Bowl interior defensive linemen. Auburn’s Montravius Adams flashed his former five-star ability quite a bit during his career, but it’s a matter of bringing it on a week-to-week basis after finishing at a respectable 83.6 overall this season.
Charlotte’s Larry Ogunjobi has caught our eye with strong play against the run the last two years and it’s a similar story for USC’s Stevie Tu’ikolavatu, who transferred from Utah to destroy blockers and post the nation’s No. 2 grade against the run at 90.9, but he provides little as a pass-rusher (54.9 grade). The biggest name in Mobile among interior D-linemen is Eddie Vanderdoes, who bounced back from missing nearly all of 2015 to start 2016 with a bang both in the run game and as a pass-rusher. His quick hands should lead to plenty of one-on-one wins during practice, but his performance tapered off as the season progressed and that may put his first-round potential in jeopardy.
Many of the players we have classified as edge defenders will be going through linebacker drills during the week, so this list is a little thin in terms of players who played traditional linebacker in college. Clemson’s Ben Boulware did his best work in coverage where he graded at 80.7 while Michigan’s Ben Gedeon had a strong year against the run.
The draft class is loaded with strong options at cornerback, and the Senior Bowl roster is a proper reflection of its depth. Iowa’s Desmond King, Michigan’s Jourdan Lewis, and LSU’s Tre’Davious White all rank in the top 32 on PFF’s draft board, and there are a number of names warranting consideration in the next 32.
King has been outstanding in our three years of grading, playing excellent in zone coverage and showing great ball skills — the one-on-one matchups will be big for him this week. Lewis has allowed only 36.6 percent of passes to be completed into his coverage the last three years, and he played more press coverage than any cornerback in the game, but he still has questions to answer against bigger receivers. White had two excellent years sandwiched around an average 2015 campaign, and he brings the versatility to line up either outside or in the slot.
Colorado’s Chidobe Awuzie is similar with his ability to line up in both spots, and he’s put together three strong years of grading. The talent doesn’t stop there, as West Virginia’s Rasul Douglas had the nation’s eighth-best grade among corners at 86.9, while Miami’s Corn Elder finished 21st at 85.5. We’ll be spending extra time watching this group of cornerbacks, as the talent level is both strong at the top, but also deep this year.
With the nation’s No. 2 coverage grade at 90.6, Nebraska’s Nate Gerry does a nice job of diagnosing plays and quickly breaking on the ball, leading to an impressive 13 interceptions and 11 pass breakups over the last three years. Gerry had some tackling issues, missing 25 between 2014 and 2015, but he cut that total down to only seven last season.
Texas A&M’s Justin Evans has had tackling woes of his own, as only two safeties had more than his 23 this season, but he still managed to grade at 90.2 in coverage, third-best in the nation. UConn’s Obi Melifonwu had a well-rounded season with a 76.6 grade against the run and an 81.7 grade in coverage, and he tied with Gerry for the lowest percentage of missed tackles among Senior Bowl safeties.