I left my hotel, the Admiral Semmes, at 8:55 AM and walked two blocks to the Riverview Plaza Hotel, home base for the Senior Bowl and where all the NFL personnel are staying. I walked by the valet station and passed numerous men outfitted in an array of official team apparel. As I entered the main hotel plaza, Raiders GM Reggie McKenzie was exiting. On my way up the escalator to the second floor to retrieve my media credentials, Drew Rosenhaus -- on his cell phone, of course -- was on his way down. Oh, right, this is what life is like covering the NFL.
I arrived at Ladd-Peebles Stadium at 9:27 AM, three minutes before practice officially started. I took a seat next to Jimmy Kempski and Tommy Lawlor on the unforgiving bleacher seats a few rows up from the field, right on the 50-yard line. It was chilly, and a cool breeze swept through the stadium on more than a few occasions. I thought the south was supposed to be warm? No matter, it was time to evaluate some of the best senior draft prospects in the country.
Be advised that the the quarterbacks, running backs and receivers faced the secondary on one end of the field, while the offensive line faced the defensive line and linebackers on the other. As you might imagine, it was impossible to watch both groups at the same time. For that reason, I tried to focus more on players with whom I wasn't already familiar. It just so happens that given where I was sitting, the quarterbacks, running backs, receivers and secondary were closest.
Here are my notes on the North Roster, which practiced from 9:30 - 11:30 AM.
Marquise Goodwin - WR - Texas - 5087 / 179: You can tell on tape that Goodwin is a true 4.3 guy with equally devastating quickness. The same was true watching him practice. Goodwin looked fantastic running routes and catching the ball, and defensive backs couldn't stay with him. He broke a number of ankles and was a YAC monster. A few drops, but for the most part I liked what I saw.
Aaron Mellette - WR - Elon - 6024 / 216: Yeah, the Aaron Mellette I saw abuse Vanderbilt's Casey Hayward in the 2011 season opener is definitely the real Aaron Mellette. This guy (copyright Jon Gruden) is a damn good wide receiver and an NFL talent. He's got long limbs, soft hands, high points the ball, exhibits tremendous body control and makes difficult catches look easy. Watching Mellette live was eye-opening, and I expect him to be a starting WR at the next level.
Kyle Juszczyk - FB - Harvard - 6013 / 248: Haaahhhhvahd. Aside from the built-in fondness for Ivy Leaguers trying to make it to the NFL, Juszczyk -- no, I don't know how to pronounce his name -- looked legit to me. This is one tough dude who doesn't mind doing the dirty work. He stonewalled a couple linebackers in pass blocking drills, standing his ground and popping the oncoming rusher; the clack of helmets smashing into one another reverberated around the stadium. In the very next drill Juszcyk flashed nice hands out of the backfield, turned upfield and then bowled over a would-be tackler who dared to get in his way.
Denard Robinson - WR - Michigan - 5104 / 196: Hands were a bit suspect and he ran a few sloppy routes, but Robinson surprised me by showing some natural pass catching ability. Much better than I expected, actually. He's a natural athlete with the speed and quickness to take it to the house every time he touches the ball. Some NFL coach is going to make him into a multi-threat weapon.
Markus Wheaton - WR - Oregon State - 5110 / 183: I watched Wheaton live against Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl, where he had a pedestrian receiving performance (3 for 37, including a drop) and four rushes for 26 yards. I'd seen overwhelming praise for him on Twitter, so I went back and reviewed his performances against UCLA and BYU. Wheaton is an impressive player who displays an understanding of the nuances of the position perhaps better than any other WR in this draft class. In addition to sideline awareness (see: toe tapping), his ability to track the ball in the air and make over-the-shoulder catches is an elite skill, which was on display in this morning's practice. Wheaton also has speed, quickness and great hands. Me gusta.
Ty Powell - LB - Harding - 6023 / 245: I didn't know who Ty Powell was this morning. Neither did Jimmy Kempski and Tommy Lawlor. Yet when it was time for the running backs to do pass protection, #5 on defense kept cleanly beating his blocker. Whether it was a power move, rip, swim or just pure speed and quickness, Powell couldn't be stopped. "Who the hell is this guy?" all three of us wondered aloud. Powell is big, strong, athletic, uses his hands hell and can really move. He was officially added to the roster an hour before practice began. Consider my interest piqued.
Jonathan Cyprien - S - Florida International - 6002 / 209: He is one wow-inducing physical specimen. A man's body, for sure. Dude's jacked. Watching Cyprien at practice reaffirmed most of what I'd seen on tape. It's tough to get a feel for how a player tackles since only the "thud drill" is run in practice, but Cyprien stood out to me. I'll be shocked if he lasts past the second round.
Dwayne Gratz - CB - Connecticut - 5111 / 200: I came into the day wanting to get a closer look at Gratz's teammate, Blidi Wreh-Wilson. Hell, Gratz wasn't even on my radar after watching some UConn game tape. Yet as practice unfolded, Wreh-Wilson struggled immensely, and Gratz kept making a positive impression. He had a number of strong moments in coverage, culminating with a really nice interception where he showed strong hands and won a jump ball with Aaron Mellette.
Phillip Thomas - S - Fresno State - 6005 / 210: The potential to be a superstar is apparent, as there are few secondary prospects who combine Thomas's length, athleticism, recognition and ball skills. The inconsistency in his effort is the number one concern. If he lands with the right coach in the NFL, watch out.
Eric Fisher - LT - Central Michigan - 6072 / 305: Didn't focus on Fisher as much as I would've liked given that he was at the other end of the field, but when I did watch him he dominated all the guys who went up against him -- except Datone Jones, who also might be making himself quite a bit of money with his performance this week. Fisher has the feet of a dancer and, despite being at a disadvantage leverage-wise because of his height, did a solid job of anchoring in pass protection drills.
I'll be honest: None of the North's QBs wowed me. Nassib and Dysert underwhelmed on the whole, and Glennon, true to form, was up and down, interspersing moments of brilliance (deep ball) with moments of indecision and poor throws.
HALFTIME: Lunch with Tommy Lawlor at Saucy Q Bar B Q. That man is a library of sports knowledge, both useful and useless, but always entertaining.
Here are my notes on the South Roster, which practiced from 1:30 - 3:30 PM.
E.J. Manuel - QB - Florida State - 6043 / 237: Freakish physical specimen with downright silly measurables (third longest wingspan on the South roster at 83+", behind two offensive tackles), but he's not doing anything for me as a passer. Just didn't look natural and comfortable throwing the ball in drills.
Vance McDonald - TE - Rice - 6041 / 262: Here's a guy who has made himself as much money as any prospect in Mobile. He's a WR in a TE's body and a smooth runner who flashes NFL athleticism and receiving ability. Made an awesome, incredibly difficult over-the-shoulder catch on a deep throw by extending his arms and snagging the ball out of the air -- this play went for a touchdown. Had a number of other nice catches as well, even when matched up on CBs.
Leon McFadden - CB - San Diego State - 5096 / 193. Oh my. In a deep group of cornerbacks, McFadden stood out above the rest of his peers fairly easily -- and that's saying something because there were a number of CBs who looked good. Tight and physical in coverage, timing and break on the ball were both exceptional. Active hands, recorded his third interception in two days, was responsible for another that he deflected.
Quinton Patton - WR - Louisiana Tech - 6000 / 202: Soft hands, made some difficult catches while battling tight coverage, got popped going over the middle on one play but jumped right back up, displayed speed and quickness to beat CBs on his routes and gain yards after the catch. Really liked what I saw out of Patton.
Terrance Williams - WR - Baylor - 6017 / 201: Has a tremendous physical skill set and pure speed to beat CBs deep, but his concentration is inconsistent and his hands are suspect. Didn't seem smooth on any route that wasn't a go. Rough day for Williams.
Robert Alford - CB - Southeast Louisiana - 5097 / 186: Tight coverage, stayed with WRs well, loved to get physical and use his hands to jam at the line, showed good speed and kick return ability. Made it a habit to stand out every time it was his turn to run a drill.
Lane Johnson - LT - Oklahoma - 6062 / 302: Always kept his feet moving, strong hands (once he got into the pass rusher's chest, he man-handled him), displayed the nasty streak from tape study and continuously finished the play. When it's all said and done, Johnson's going to be a top-20 pick. Potential franchise LT, no question about it.
Tavarres King - WR - Georgia - 6002 / 192: Ran great routes and sold fakes beautifully, explosive speed to beat CBs deep, and showed sticky hands and concentration to snatch balls out of the air. Another player I really liked.
Ezekiel Ansah - DE - 6052 / 274: Had some moments of brilliance (including a spin move to blow by the OT) and is a rare athlete for the position -- coordination and balance are off the charts. Effort was a little inconsistent and got blocked easier than I anticipated at times. Will watch him even closer today.