NFL Draft 2016: Which prospects impressed at the Senior Bowl

By Dane Brugler, The Sports Xchange  |  Updated Feb. 1, 2016 at 9:09 PM
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NFL Draft 2016: Takeaways from the Senior Bowl game

For scouts and evaluators, the Senior Bowl is more about the practices during the week, but the actual game does have value as players perform in live action. And just like all week in practice, the story of the 2016 Senior Bowl game was the dominant defensive lines as the South defeated the North 27-10 at Ladd Peebles Stadium in Mobile, Ala., on Saturday.

Eastern Kentucky defensive end Noah Spence entered the week as the top prospect in Mobile, and he'll leave with that same distinction. Standing up off the edge, he showed a variety of rush moves due to his natural athleticism, beating the North offensive tackles with speed around the corner and quickness inside.

Spence used his natural acceleration and contact balance against Indiana left tackle Jason Spriggs, shaving the corner with momentum and finishing at the quarterback. Right tackles Kyle Murphy (Stanford) and Cole Toner (Harvard) were no match for Spence's agility and burst off the snap as the Eastern Kentucky rush end used space to easily cut inside and infiltrate the pocket.

Spence is inconsistent against the run and needs hand refinement, but rushing the passer is his bread and butter, and what makes him one of the top defensive prospects in the 2016 draft class. Obviously his off-field situation will be the determining factor to where he is ultimately drafted, but Spence solidified himself as a top-10 talent.

While Spence was the clear-cut best edge rusher during Senior Bowl practices and the game, the top interior defensive lineman is a race too close to call. The defensive tackle position is the deepest on the Senior Bowl roster and the draft overall, and several stood out during the game.

Louisiana Tech defensive tackle Vernon Butler made his presence known during practices but saved his best for the game. He showed off his fluid lower body and powerful upper half in unison, peppering blockers with his 34 1/8-inch arms. Butler has a draft arrow pointing north.

Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day is a tad undersized and can struggle in congestion, but give him any type of space and blockers don't have an answer for his athleticism and active hands. And that's why Dallas Cowboys coach Jason Garrett and his staff often kicked him outside to defensive end where he could work one-on-one vs. tackles. Day has the first step explosion, low pad level and body control to create havoc.

Similar to his game film, Alabama defensive tackle Jarran Reed wasn't flashy during the game, but he was stout and bullied blockers most of the game. He used his powerful hands to stack-and-shed at the point of attack and keep the middle of the field clogged up. Whichever team drafts Reed won't sell a lot of jerseys with his name on the back, but all 32 clubs wish they had a player like him in the rotation.

Here are nine more takeaways from the 2016 Senior Bowl game:

2. Black and blue Cardinal: The most impressive defensive tackle in Mobile this week was Louisville's Sheldon Rankins but he was unable to play on Saturday due to injury. Originally called a "knee sprain" by the training staff, Rankins told sideline reporter Alex Flanagan that he aggravated a previous injury to his upper calf.

3. Belle of the Ball: North Dakota State quarterback Carson Wentz is clearly the top quarterback prospect in Mobile, and although he didn't dominate the box score, he showed the traits that will land him in the top half of the first round. Wentz finished 6-for-10 for 50 yards in his one quarter of action, but several of his throws were dropped, including one by Cincinnati wide receiver Chris Moore. On that throw, Wentz surveyed the field and fired a rope with perfect placement to the opposite sideline, which should have been a first down and extended the drive. He escaped the pocket prematurely on a few snaps and looked to run too quickly, but Wentz handled himself well.

4. Dak attack in Mobile: Wentz was the top quarterback prospect on display, but it was Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott who took home the game's Most Outstanding Player Award. He finished 7-for-10 passing and orchestrated a 10-play, 80-yard scoring drive, ending in a five-yard touchdown pass to Southeast Missouri wide receiver Paul McRoberts. Prescott grew into a much more consistent passer during his senior season and has a chance to develop into a consistent backup in the NFL.

5. Measuring tape or game tape?: Only one quarterback on the South squad threw for 100-plus yards on Saturday and that was Arkansas' Brandon Allen, who completed seven of his 10 passes. He is underwhelming from a physical standpoint but showed off his vision and quick decision-making to scan and deliver down the field. For Allen, it was a great way to end his week after a not-so-great start, measuring in with 8 1/2-inch hands on Tuesday. That number alone will eliminate him from several draft boards as many have a 9-inch (or larger) threshold for quarterbacks.

6. Quiet day for Braxton: After an impressive week of practice, Ohio State wide receiver Braxton Miller was quiet in the game with only two catches for eight yards. He was targeted often, but dropped a screen pass and had his signals crossed on several other plays. Miller did draw a defensive pass interference penalty in the end zone and showed well as a return man, including a 31-yard kickoff return. He is clearly still very raw as a route-runner, but his special athleticism and upside will likely land him somewhere in the top 40 picks.

7. Rising draft stock: A prospect who made money this week was Boise State safety Darian Thompson, who stretched his positive week to game action on Saturday, standing out on defense and special teams. He was very inconsistent on tape this season and showed some of that on Saturday, misjudging angles and leaving production on the field. But there was more good than bad with his plant-and-drive quickness, trusting his eyes and reacting decisively to make plays.

8. If you can cover, you can play in the NFL: LSU is a football factory for the NFL, and a pair of former Tigers impressed on defense, specifically in coverage. A cornerback, safety and nickelback in college, Jalen Mills lined up exclusively as a corner during practice and stayed outside for the game, impressing with his quickness and ability to disrupt up the catch point. He anticipates well and runs the route before the wide receiver at times, breaking up a throw in the end zone during the game. Linebacker Deion Jones lacks an ideal frame for the position in the NFL, but his instincts and athleticism on special teams and in coverage will get him on an NFL field. He impressed in both areas on Saturday.

9. A player who won't give NFL coaches white hair: Kansas State offensive guard Cody Whitehair drew barely any praise during the telecast, but it was business as usual for the former college left tackle, winning almost every snap he took on Saturday. Whitehair was quick to set up off the snap, with the balance to stay square to defenders and control the point of attack. Not many guards wind up in the first round, but Whitehair is NFL-ready right now, and his performance this week only cemented my belief that he's one of the top 25 players in this draft.

10. And the game's top receiver was...: Although it's a very underwhelming tight end class this year, Ohio State's Nick Vannett impressed during practice and had a game-best 58 yards receiving on three catches. While not quite as athletically gifted as former Buckeye Jeff Heuerman, who was a third-round pick of the Denver Broncos last year, Vannett was the top tight end in Mobile with his toughness as a blocker and ability to finish as a receiver. Baylor's Jay Lee was the most productive wideout on Saturday, finishing with four catches for 49 yards, capping off a very strong week for the former Bear.

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