Mobile, Ala.: While it doesn't totally lack merit, a week of four practices at the Senior Bowl far outweigh what will happen during Saturday's game. In front of crowds of NFL personnel executives and scouts, players had a chance to raise their NFL Draft stock in a completely new setting.
Several players helped themselves, but others struggled to stand out. For many players, especially the quarterbacks in attendance, the practices affirmed what we already knew about them. The Senior Bowl is a good way to gauge and get an understanding for the exact skill set a player possesses. For some, that was beneficial. For others, not as much.
Dumping everything out of my notebook, here is a breakdown of players who looked the best, helped themselves the most and some general news, notes and observations.
The week's top players
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Each and every North team practice in Mobile, Donald turned the Senior Bowl into the Aaron Donald Bowl. He's a player where you throw any size issues out the window. The Geno Atkins comparisons are real because Donald likes to use his quickness to get under offensive linemen, turn them and split the gap. Where he goes in the draft should start with the Chicago Bears and the No. 14 pick.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
No quarterback in Mobile was as good as Carr, and it's not even all that close. Throughout the week Carr was throwing accurate passes into tight spots. If there were any questions about Carr's arm strength, he answered them. Even in high winds during Tuesday's practice, Carr was effortlessly delivering the ball. The issue with Carr will continue to be how he plays in the face of pressure. This setting didn't test that often. It is worth noting, though, that in Thursday's walk through, Carr was pressured on the last two plays of the day and he looked flustered.
Zach Martin, OT, Notre Dame
The overarching opinion about Martin is that, at worst, he's a good offensive tackle in the NFL. The other end of that scale is that he's an All-Pro guard. Martin was used all week as the North team's left tackle, partly because of the players in attendance. Even at tackle Martin looked good driving defenders into the ground. If there's a discussion about which Senior Bowl participant gets taken first in the draft, Martin should be a part of it.
Dee Ford, DE, Auburn
Coming into the week, some wondered what Ford's best position was going forward. If the Senior Bowl is any indication, he can hang as a defensive end. On the first day of practices, a coach got after him for going too wide around the corner. For the rest of the week, that never happened. Ford is lightning quick off the edge and violent with his hands to shed blocks.
Jimmie Ward, S, Northern Illinois
A practice setting isn't the best place for a safety to look good, especially when the Senior Bowl rules require a single high safety during the game. But Ward still managed to stick out compared to the other safeties this week. He's a smooth athlete and can man up against receivers. It wouldn't be a surprise if some teams look at Ward as a cornerback.
Chris Borland, MLB, Wisconsin
If people can look past Borland's height (he's short, not small), they'll see an active linebacker capable of making plays near the line of scrimmage. Borland looked fine in coverage drills where he was asked to backpedal, shuffle the right and then to the left. Borland has a lot to gain at the NFL Scouting Combine next month. Test poorly, and what he did this week could be negated. The issue with Borland is speed.
Charles Sims, RB, West Virginia
Sims entered Senior Bowl week as the best running back and he leaves in the same spot. He is a cut above just about every running back in the draft this year in regard to his pass catching and blocking. At the Senior Bowl he showed elusiveness and a nice initial burst after his cut move.
Weston Richburg, C, Colorado State
No center looked better this week than Richburg. That's impressive considering the group featured Travis Swanson of Arkansas and Gabe Ikard of Oklahoma. Richburg flashed the speed to snap the ball and get into his stance in a hurry. Richburg was virtually the only player to give Donald trouble this week.
Robert Herron, WR, Wyoming
There was no receiver in Mobile craftier than Herron. In drills and full team practices he showed quick feet to get open and speed to beat defensive backs over the top. Herron will get knocked because of his size (just under 5-foot-9) but looks and plays just like Marvin Jones of the Cincinnati Bengals.
Mike Davis, WR, Texas
Davis does not lack in natural ability, and he showed it every day of practice. He was cutting quicker than the other receivers on the South team and runs tight, crisp routes. Davis looked more varied in his route running than he often did at Texas. He did in Mobile what every player should try to do. The lone question that Davis left was his hands. On Thursday he dropped a couple easy catches, and that stands out.
Brandon Thomas, OT/G, Clemson
There is almost no flash to Thomas' game. He's not the biggest, longest or the quickest. He's just a solid mauler who should transition nicely to guard in the NFL. This week he showed good hand work and aggressiveness and earned the praise of Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice on a few occasions.
From under the radar
Arthur Lynch, TE, Georgia
No single player helped himself more this week than Lynch. He started the week looking excellent in blocking drills. He finished things out by catching almost everything thrown his direction. Lynch is a physical tight end with enough athleticism to go up and high point the ball over safeties. Lynch isn't a dynamic tight end, but in the third or fourth round he'll be a nice draft choice.
Nevin Lawson, CB, Utah State
Lawson was a star in man coverage drills throughout the week. He has quick feet that allowed him to turn and move with a receiver's every motion. For a player who measured in at just under 5'10 and 184 pounds, Lawson was exceedingly physical. Lawson struggled some in off-man coverage because he waits too long to turn his hips and get down field. His style is similar to Antoine Winfield, a physical slot corner. He definitely made some money this week.
Kain Colter, WR, Northwestern
Northwestern's former quarterback transitioned smoothly to wide receiver this week – especially if you compare him to what Denard Robinson a year ago. Colter was running crisp routes and craftily getting open in short areas. Unfortunately, Colter will be undergoing ankle surgery and dropped out of Saturday's game.
News, notes, observations
• One of the thing I wanted to monitor closely this week during South practice was the defensive ends. The Jaguars, coaches of the South team, may be considering a Leo end in the draft this year. Going into the week, the best candidate in the draft for that position looked like Georgia Tech's Jeremiah Attaochu. But Attaochu spent the week switching back and forth at linebacker positions and didn't get to show off his ability as an edge rusher. A pessimist might think the Jaguars coaches did that to hide Attaochu from other teams.
• When I asked Ford about playing Leo for the Jaguars, he got a big smile on his face and said the coaches like him there. He's a definite candidate at the top of the second round for Jacksonville.
• If teams are looking for bigger cornerbacks like those the Seattle Seahawks use, the Senior Bowl had several of them. The biggest was Utah's Keith McGill, who came in at 6-foot-3. The potential is there with McGill, but he needs coaching up. A few times he mistimed his jump and was beaten in coverage. He's good at jamming at the line of scrimmage, but had some issues in off coverage.
• Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir was a hot commodity coming into the week after excelling at the Shrine Game. He didn't do a lot to standout, but he wasn't beat that often either. Liberty's Walt Aikens was praised by coaches several times for his closing speed. For teams wanting a bigger off-man corner, Aikens could be a solid player. Nebraska's Stanley Jean-Baptiste had a decent week. He's used to playing man coverage, so he might be a little behind in zone principles.
• From a physical standpoint, no players were more imposing that Minnesota defensive tackle Ra'Shede Hageman and Virginia offensive tackle Morgan Moses. Hageman has a future either as a traditional 4-3 defensive tackle or as a five technique end in a 3-4. The Pittsburgh Steelers could be a nice fit if they don't bring Ziggy Hood back. Moses – who's arm length is as impressive as his beard – should have a solid career in the NFL. He's not a top-level blocker, but looks like someone who will be dependable for a long time. His play is reminiscent of King Dunlap of the San Diego Chargers.
• The three quarterbacks on the North team – Tajh Boyd, Stephen Morris and Logan Thomas – had a real chance to improve their draft stock this week and didn't. Of the three, Thomas remains the most intriguing because of his physical upside. But he'll have to get paired with a good coaching staff to make the most of his natural talent.
• On the South team, obviously Carr is the star at quarterback. Jimmy Garoppolo of Eastern Illinois had himself a fine week as well. Everything said about him at the Shrine Game – quick release, athletic, smart with the football – was true in Mobile. He doesn't have an overly strong arm, but it's good enough. The second or third round talk with Garoppolo is real. David Fales of San Jose State looks like a quarterback who will have to be in the right system to succeed. He just doesn't have the arm strength to make all of the difficult throws he'll have to in the NFL.
• Washington State safety Deone Bucannon is a player who looks like he's better in games than practice situations. That's not a bad thing. Bucannon had to hold back a few times, and that's just not his game.
• If Herron's speed is worth noting, so is Oregon's Josh Huff. He looked like the fastest wide receiver in Mobile. He should find a spot as a vertical receiver and special teams player in the NFL. The same can be said for Oklahoma's Jalen Saunders, but there are some concerns about his slight frame.
• Alabama's Kevin Norwood had a nice finish to the week after getting chewed out pretty good by Jaguars wide receivers coach Jerry Sullivan on Monday. Norwood routinely caught the ball and could go up and get contested catches. Tulane wide receiver Ryan Grant closed the week out nicely on Thursday showing he could out-leap defensive backs to make difficult grabs.
• Coming down late as an injury replacement, Colorado State tight end Crockett Gilmore helped himself considerably. He's not a fast player. He plods up the field and builds up speed. But he has soft hands, and he made several difficult catches. As a blocker, he's nearly at Lynch's level. Iowa tight end C.J. Fiedorowicz certainly looks the part, but he had issues this week dropping the ball.
• The most unfortunate thing that happened during practice week was Oklahoma cornerback Aaron Colvin tearing his ACL. Unquestionably this will drop him in the draft. Before he was injured, though, Colvin looked good in position drills. He could be faster to recognize plays, but every other tool is there. A team might get a steal in Colvin by drafting him late and stashing him for the year.
• One of the best parts of coming down to the Senior Bowl was meeting several of my favorite NFL Draft writers. Covering the NFL Draft is a weird, strange niche so it was fun to be wholly surrounded by people you read and respect.
• Josh Norris of Rotoworld is one of those people, and he posed an interesting question about who was the best 4-3 outside linebacker in Mobile. Immediately Iowa's Christian Kirksey came to mind. In North drills, he looked considerably more comfortable moving in space and stopping and moving forward than the other outside linebackers.
• Of course that group consisted of players like Michael Sam of Missouri, who is switching from defensive end. Sam struggled this week. He's a thick 260 pounds, especially in his legs. This week Sam didn't get to show off his best asset, which is rushing the passer. In space, he looked uncomfortable. A team that drafts him as a linebacker will have to put in a lot of work.
• Another player moving positions this week was Michigan's Michael Schofield. A right tackle for the Wolverines, Schofield was steady moving inside to right guard. He's a solid depth piece for an offensive line.
• Baylor's Cyril Richardson had as bad of a week as you've read about. For a 343-pound player, he got pushed around too much by opposing linemen. Richardson's issue is his stance. He's too narrow off the snap, negating any power advantage he may have. If he can fix that, and drop some weight, he should be fine.
• Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton is a player who is in the process of dropping some pounds. He had an up-and-down week, but flashed quick, violent hands. After Thursday's practice, in which Sutton pulled in an interception, he told me his game is built around his hands first and then his power and foot quickness. If he can get in shape, he could do a lot for a team what Donald will do.
• It would have been nice to see North Carolina defensive end Kareem Martin play more physical. He definitely passes the eye test and has a nice first step. But against strong offensive tackles, he can get stonewalled. Looking at Martin, you expect him to play like Cincinnati Bengals free agent Michael Johnson, but he doesn't always.
• Miami offensive tackle Seantrel Henderson started the week strong and sort of leveled off during Wednesday's practice. Despite his size, don't consider him a left tackle prospect. He played mostly on the right side for the Hurricanes in 2013 (when he did play) and spent the whole week on the right side with Ohio State's Jack Mewhort. Think of Henderson as a late-career Bryant McKinnie. Mewhort was solid at right tackle after playing on the left side at Ohio State.
• Stanford outside linebacker / defensive end Trent Murphy had a rough week at times. He was working out with the defensive ends the whole week and needs to add more power to stick there. Alabama's Adrian Hubbard is another player who needs to get stronger at the point of attack. Neither did much to help their cause in Mobile.
• NFL teams may like Virginia defensive end Brent Urban because of his size and style playing as a five tech end. But he didn't do a lot this week before suffering a sprained ankle. His versatility being able to play inside and outside is his best asset. The same can be said for California's Deandre Coleman, who should latch on as a solid depth piece for a 3-4 team.
• Versatility is what will get Georgia Tech safety Jemea Thomas drafted. He's shown he can play deep safety, but is just as comfortable lined up in the slot. He reminds me of Mike Adams of the Denver Broncos.
• Among offensive linemen at the Senior Bowl, none are more versatile than Vanderbilt's Wesley Johnson. He can line up anywhere along the line. That will make him a valuable commodity, though some were turned off when he came in weighing just 290 pounds.
* In these type of practices, contact is supposed to be light, but that didn't stop Georgia Southern running back Jerick McKinnon. During Monday's first practice at Fairhope Stadium, McKinnon bowled over Terrence Brooks when the Florida State safety stepped in front of the squat and powerful McKinnon.
"Represent that shit boy, let's go," Seminoles teammate Telvin Smith shouted at Brooks after play.
• Speaking of Smith, he didn't take too kindly to me saying some NFL teams view him as a safety. It's true, though. It's impossible to look past him being 218 pounds. That virtually eliminates him from some teams as a linebacker. In Smith's defense, though, he has all the good intangible stuff. He was a leader on the field every day and very vocal. Maybe more important is his closing speed. He was quick to decipher where a play was developing and closes in a hurry.
• Smith's teammate, Christian Jones, came alive as the week went along. He was at his best this season when Florida State moved him down to defensive end, but he should have a career as an outside linebacker in the NFL. He's quick to get off blocks, natural in space and just generally a playmaker. He's probably a second-round choice, but a 3-4 team should pounce on him.
• Mobile does not suck. If you ever make the trip, go to The Brick Pit. It's the best BBQ I've ever eaten. The pulled pork is smoked for 30 hours. It's incredible.
• This is New Orleans Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan. In person, his hair is enchanting:
• Look for more coverage next week from the Senior Bowl, including some player profiles and interviews.