I spent all of Thursday traveling from Mobile to Dallas to Washington, DC. I know, why am I going out of my way to connect in Dallas? Well, the American Airlines flight was the cheapest I could find, and one of its hubs is in Dallas. So, yeah, money talks. You've likely read everyone else's notes on Wednesday's afternoon practice by now, but I'll briefly post my observations.
Vance McDonald (TE, Rice) again showed off remarkable, natural pass catching ability. There was one play where pure instinct took over and had the crowd buzzing. McDonald ran a quick five-yard route and turned around to face the quarterback -- the ball had already been released, a bullet that was on him immediately (think Donovan McNabb to a receiver a few yards away). Without any time to think, McDonald shot his right arm out, snagged the football with his palm and brought it into his body. The feat elicited an audible reaction from the crowd and a smattering of "wow" murmurs. Of course, McDonald just had to have a bad drop on the 11-on-11 drills.
Quinton Patton (WR, Louisiana Tech) once again built upon the momentum he'd generated from the first two days of practice. On one play in particular, he used his body and positioning to create enough separation so that he could box out the CB, contort his body, jump up and make the grab. On another, Patton tracked the ball beautifully and made a sweet TD grab in the back corner of the endzone. The only criticism I had was he once peaked at an oncoming DB, who was closing on the quick out route, instead of looking the ball into his hands. Patton was simultaneously thinking about turning upfield and self preservation, which forced him to double catch the ball and eliminated any chance he had of gaining YAC before being tackled.
If you go back and watch Patton's tape, you'll be very impressed as well. He had no problem tearing up BCS conference secondaries, going for a preposterous 21 catches, 233 yards and 4 touchdowns in a 59-57 shootout loss to Texas A&M. Patton had his way with Utah State CB Will Davis (who had himself a tough week of practice at the Senior Bowl) in the de facto WAC Championship game, recording 11 catches for 181 yards. A plug-and-play type.
Larry Warford (OG, Kentucky) and John Jenkins (NT, Georgia) went up against each other in the one-on-one pass protection blocking drills. With the former at 333 pounds and latter at a mammoth 359, that's nearly 700 pounds of man smashing into one another. Warford got the best of Jenkins in one instance, anchoring and standing his ground well against the bull rush. On another, Jenkins showed rare agility for his size and the quick feet that make him such an interesting prospect; he set up Warford by feigning a power move and then deftly skirted by him. A dancing bear, that's John Jenkins. Problem is, for a player who's 359 pounds, he didn't consistently flash the brute strength one would expect -- and when he did, it wasn't necessarily overwhelming. A few of the times when Jenkins was double-teamed, he got too high in his stance and was easily pushed off his spot immediately to open up a huge hole for the RB.
Stepfan Taylor (RB, Stanford) was excellent both days. Decisive runner with vision, power and deceptive burst through the hole. Not a speed guy, but an efficient workhorse type who also caught everything thrown his way out of the backfield.
Lane Johnson should probably end up going in the top-10. I mean that. He matched the North's Eric Fisher, stonewalling whatever pass rushers were thrown his way; showed off the ability to set, mirror, engage with those strong hands and finish his blocks. The talent gap between Johnson, Eric Fisher and Luke Joeckel is not by any means significant. In fact, it wouldn't surprise me if Johnson ends up the best pro of the three since he's newest to the position and has shown incredible improvement over such a short period of time.
Another offensive tackle worthy of praise was Jordan Mills (Louisiana Tech), who was added as an injury replacement on Tuesday. At least twice on Tuesday, Jimmy Kempski remarked, "That was a nice block there by #78."
Me, leafing through the updated roster provided that morning: "There is no #78 on here."
Jimmy: "Oh, maybe it's #73 then. Pretty sure that's #78, though."
Me: "If it's #73, that's Florida's Xavier Nixon. Check his helmet."
Turns out Jimmy might indeed be getting older, but his eyesight hasn't gone yet. We found out on Wednesday that #78 was Jordan Mills (6'5", 318 lbs). Massive blocker who battled with and handled Lavar Edwards (DE, LSU) all Wednesday afternoon. Played nasty, even got into a little tiff. Mills showed he could engulf a pass rusher and stand strong against the bull rush (success versus Ezekiel Ansah). Had trouble with guys who were quick and varied their pass rush moves. I'm going to go back and focus on him in game tapes.
Vince Williams (ILB, Florida State) had a number of impressive plays in the two days of practice I watched. His reaction time was second-to-none, and he consistently used his awareness and speed to get in position to make a play. On one running play, Williams anticipated the timing perfectly, blew by a pulling OG and stuffed the RB in the backfield a split second after receiving the handoff.
Sean Porter (OLB, Texas A&M) flashed seek-and-destroy mode when he exploded forward out of his back-pedal and made a particularly devastating de-cleater of a hit on Miami (FL) RB Mike James.
Chase Thomas (OLB, Stanford) is a player I liked on film, but he struggled mightily on Tuesday and Wednesday. In Stanford's 3-4, he was tasked a lot with rushing the the passer. Down in Mobile, he was tried out more as a traditional 4-3 OLB. Thomas had trouble disengaging from blocks, looked woefully lost in space and stiff in coverage. Very rigid in his movements, nothing seemed natural, just didn't appear comfortable.
Ezekiel Ansah (DE, BYU), who had his share of struggles in the South practices due to a lack of pass rush moves -- punching your hands into the tackle's numbers and trying to drive him backward isn't going to work every time -- still managed to flash the raw talent that makes him such an attractive prospect, including dipping his shoulder to get around Oday Aboushi (OT, Virgina). On one play in particular, Ansah realized he wasn't going to beat the tackle, so he slid back inside as the QB went through his reads. In an example of skill integration, Ansah combined keen anticipation and explosive athleticism by leaping with his hands in the air as the QB released the ball, deflecting the pass up and into the waiting arms of Missouri LB Zaviar Gooden for an INT. Speaking of Zaviar Gooden, he had to be the fastest LB on either team. He made plays all over the field and showed tremendous range against the run and pass. I look for highlight moments that stand out above the rest, ones you can point to and say "right there is why this prospect can be a legit NFL player." For Gooden, it was when he proved he could ably play in space and cover the South's most dangerous wide receiver, Quinton Patton, by sticking with him over the middle and diving to break up an on-target intended pass.
Marc Anthony (CB, California) flashed a bit on Tuesday and then stood out again on Wednesday, so I felt the need to mention him. Prior to the Senior Bowl, Anthony's name is one I'd seen on prospect lists and took note of for obvious reasons, but I had never seen him in action. Physical in coverage with recognition skills and the ability to close and break up passes as they arrived to the receiver. I plan on going back and closely watching his Cal tape.
The quarterbacks simply didn't do much for me. Tyler Wilson was the best of the bunch, showing natural mobility and precise on-the-move throws. I wasn't impressed with his throws over 15 yards on Tuesday, but he looked much better on Wednesday, even at one point effortlessly launching a 50-plus-yard pass that landed just out of the receiver's reach. Wilson looked smooth and compact, stepped into throws from the pocket and had more zip on the ball. He was by far the best QB on the South roster. Speaking of which, Landy Jones sucks. I remember hearing all the hype in 2011 and tuning in for his game against Texas A&M to chart his throws. The Sooners won the game, but, no joke, "Landry Jones sucks" is something I wrote down on three separate occasions. Yes, he had a few nice throws here and there during the practices (including a beautiful 45-yard spiral to the back corner of the end zone on Wednesday), but there was a startling lack of anything even resembling consistency. Jones would follow up one pretty ball with three straight ducks, was late with his decision making and threw a couple passes that should've been pick-sixes. E.J. Manuel was robotic and unnatural in his throwing motion, topped by a troubling penchant for dipping his shoulder and creating a low release point that enabled his passes to get deflected at the line. And this was in a controlled, non-game speed environment without defenders breathing down his neck.
On the whole, my time in Mobile, which totalled under 65 hours, was a wonderful and eye-opening experience. I got to meet, spend time and talk football with Tommy Lawlor for the first time. He and Jimmy Kempski were gracious enough to take me under their wing for the two days. I sat with them in the stands during practices, I ate lunch and dinner with them (and heard all kinds of stories), I even tagged along as they met up with Eagles Television Network members and Eagles beat writers for drinks on Tuesday evening. I also met fellow draft nerds who had previously only existed to me on Twitter. On my ride to the Mobile airport Thursday morning, I shared a cab with a gentleman in his mid-60s. He spiked his silver gray hair, wore a leather jacked and had a pair of sunglasses on top of his regular glasses. The cab driver asked about Mobile native JaMarcus Russell's comeback attempt.
Driver: "Ain't nobody gonna sign his fat ass, right?"
Elderly gentleman: "He's out of shape, and his reputation around the league will be a major obstacle."
Me: "If he loses 40-50 pounds and does well in his workout, I bet there's a team out there that takes a flier on him. It's a low cost, low risk move, and quarterback play in the NFL is pretty lackluster. If he isn't good at camp, you cut him. No muss, no fuss."
Elderly gentleman, turning back to look at me: "You work for a team?"
Me, sheepishly: "Ha, I wish. Maybe someday. For now, I'm a writer. Well, blogger."
Turns out this elderly -- yet unmistakably sharp and stylishly dressed -- gentleman is a long-time NFL agent ("been coming to the Senior Bowl for 30 years"). Just so happened he represents Jordan Mills and relayed he was told by the Lions OL coach that his client had made himself a a fair amount of money on Tuesday and Wednesday. We shot the shit, talked football. He then told me about the time before the 2007 draft that he called Al Davis's office ("I knew Al personally, we were friends"), spoke to his assistant and implored the Raiders not to select JaMarcus Russell because of his "sizable posse, lack of work ethic and general apathy towards football as a passion. You give this kid $30 million, that'll be it. I should've demanded to be put through directly to Al." Turns out we were on the same flight. As we exited the plane in Dallas, he looked over at me, smiled and said, "See you on the road," before scurrying up the tunnel.
Good people, good football, good times. See you next year, Mobile.