clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Looking for the NFL's next great defensive lineman at the Senior Bowl

New, comments

Several defensive linemen stood out on Day 2 of the Senior Bowl.

Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports

MOBILE. Ala. -- This year's Senior Bowl is starting to become a showcase for big men. On Day 2 of practices Wednesday, several defensive linemen stood out.

One of the headliners again was Sheldon Rankins of Louisville. Rankins is an athletic 304 pounds and it showed plenty during South team practices. Against single blockers, he used his strength to overpower offensive linemen. Against double team blocks he used his athleticism to split the gap. Rankins also showed off a variety of moves to keep blockers guessing.

As mentioned after Day 1, Rankins is similar in skill set to Aaron Donald of the Los Angeles Rams. Now he's starting to generate the same type of buzz Donald did at the 2014 Senior Bowl. One NFL personnel member remarked following practices that Rankins might not slide out of the first 20 picks in the draft.

It's not just Rankins standing out along the defensive line. Clemson's D.J. Reader continues to expertly play the part of powerhouse nose tackle, and was difficult to move off his spot. Lawrence Thomas of Michigan State is an often overlooked defensive lineman, but he put in a good day, as well. He was in the backfield on a few occasions, most notably on one play where he used a spin move to beat Harvard's Cole Toner.

Illinois defensive lineman Jihad Ward had another good showing during North practice. He's being used as an end a lot, despite being 6'5 1/8 and 296 pounds. He's held up well, using power and quickness to disrupt the play. Fellow North defensive lineman Vernon Butler of Louisiana Tech showed surprising quickness for a 325-pounder. On one play he used a swim move to slide between two blockers to help stop a run play.

If you judge the quality of an interior defensive linemen by how many blockers he can occupy, Jarran Reed is your man. The Alabama product may not have popped on a lot of plays, but it looked like he faced more double teams than anyone else.

The talent at defensive line at the Senior Bowl this year is impressive, and there are just as many good ones not here. That means in this year's draft, someone is going to get a steal up front.

Braxton Miller continues to impress

At North practices, Braxton Miller continues to look good. He's often been the best player on his team. Now the question becomes how high he'll get drafted. If one AFC general manager's reaction is any indication, it will be quite high. As Miller effortlessly ran routes and got himself open, the GM couldn't help but blurt out his excitement.

"Oh shit, did you see that one? This kid can get after it," the GM said shaking his head in disbelief.

The reactions being elicited were like he was hearing a great diss track for the first time. But when the microphones and cameras are turned off, those are the sort of reactions you get. That's what makes coming down to the Senior Bowl so fun. That and the barbecue.

More notes:

Miller told reporters after practice that he wants to run a 4.28 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine in Indianapolis next month.

As good as Miller has been, the best pure wide receiver in Mobile looks like Sterling Shepard of Oklahoma. Whether it was lining up in the slot or outside, Shepard consistently made plays using his quickness and speed. Shepard is good at getting off the line, so he can be hard to jam. One notable play came when Shepard was working the slot. The defensive back against him bit on a subtle hip fake, which allowed Shepard to speed by him and pull in a nice catch.

With most of the quarterbacks having uneven performances thus far, Kevin Hogan of Stanford quietly put together a solid day on Wednesday. Hogan has been touted as the smartest quarterback in attendance, and not just because of where he attended school. Hogan knows blocking assignments better than most quarterbacks at this stage and can make adjustments pre-snap. On the second day of practices he had a few really impressive completions. Hogan's release is long, and that's a major issue, but he has the makings of a good backup in the NFL.

There's a fascinating human element to the practices at the Senior Bowl, with players literally competing with one another to improve their NFL Draft status, which ultimately means more money. It's doubly fascinating when it's two teammates going head-to-head. One really notable play from Wednesday was Baylor offensive tackle Spencer Drango tossing teammate Shawn Oakman aside with relative ease. Immediately, you think stock up for Drango because he made it look flawless. Then on the next play Drango was beaten by Eastern Kentucky pass rusher Noah Spence on a speed move.

One of the few players who could hold up against Reader during South practice was Kansas State guard Cody Whitehair. He continued a strong week of play, and could be picked high on the second day of the draft. Whitehair is technically proficient, so it's safe to pencil him as a rookie starter at guard. He can handle big defensive like Reader because he stays low and keeps a wide base. He may not be as good as Zack Martin when he came out of Notre Dame a couple years ago, but he's similar in ways to Joel Bitonio of the Cleveland Browns.

Another good guard on Wednesday was Sebastian Tretola of Arkansas. While some of his South teammates struggled to bend and get low leverage, Tretola excelled. He can really get down for someone who is 6'5, but he's not just a mauler. On Day 2 he showed he can get out on the move and pick off defenders.

Alabama's Kenyan Drake may not be an every-down back in the NFL, but he can do some exciting things thanks to his speed. On Wednesday he showed the speed to pull away from defenders to get open on catches, and has a nice extra gear in the open field.

Massachusetts wide receiver Tajae Sharpe had a couple really good routes and catches, which impressed the swearing general manager. Unfortunately he was injured on Wednesday and his week may be over. Rutgers wide receiver Leonte Carroo might be finished, as well.