2008 Senior Bowl Review

By Lloyd Vance, BIGPLAY Football “Draft Guru”/Analyst and Senior NFL Writer

(Mobile, AL) — Every year the best place for Scouts and NFL Talent Evaluators to view players “in pads” is at the Senior Bowl (remember football is not played in t-shirts and shorts).  The weeklong event is the real first leg on the road to the NFL Draft for many prospects.  Many draft experts that I talk to put more credence in this All Star game, because usually top players choose to participate (sorry agents), there is “live” competitive in one on one drills, and NFL coaching staffs are in charge of the teams (Oakland Raiders had the North team and the San Francisco 49ers coached the South).   You can have the lesser All star games (East-West Shrine, Hula Bowl, “Flavor of the Year” All Star game) and the combine, because the Senior Bowl is the place where “football” players get to show their skills off in front of scouts, coaches, and general managers who can all be spotted in the stands.  

Overall this year’s group was talented, but with a large majority of this year’s top players being juniors (ex. Arkansas RB Darren McFadden) or seniors choosing not to participate (ex. Virginia defensive lineman Chris Long and Michigan offensive tackle Jake Long), there were some units that were not as good as in year’s past – Quarterback, Running back, or Defensive End to name a few.  Several scouts have indicated that this year’s senior group is a little lower in talent than last year’s solid group (Patrick Willis, Adam Carriker, Dwayne Bowe and others) or the 2006 can’t miss group that produced 14 first-round picks including Jets offensive tackle D’Brickshaw Ferguson, Broncos quarterback Jay Cutler, and others. Whatever talent that was at the event, the USC Trojans led the way sending an amazing 9 players including the unquestionable number one player in Mobile, stout defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis and athletic monster linebacker Keith “Shark” Rivers. 

As for the game, well 40,000 fans filled Ladd-Peebles Stadium and they saw a snoozer with the South winning 17-16.  But at least it ended dramatically as SEC rivals Florida receiver Andre Caldwell and Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge — a last second replacement for Louisville quarterback Brian Brohm (leg injury) had passing numbers of 13-21 for 159 yards passing all coming in the second half — led the way to the winning score for the South.  Caldwell scored on a 2-yard end around off a handoff from Ainge on the final play of the game to finish a 14-play, 86-yard final drive.  Caldwell, who had one of the better weeks at the Senior Bowl said of the game-winner, “I knew I was going to get hit, I just lowered my head to get in the end zone was a great feeling.”

The two had hooked up earlier too on a crucial play in the game-winning drive as Ainge completed an 18-yarder to Caldwell on fourth-and-10 from the South’s 14.  The tall Tennessee quarterback, who had an up and down career in college also found Houston speedster receiver Donnie Avery for a 22-yarder across the middle on the drive.  South coach Mike Nolan of the San Francisco 49ers said of the last play, “On that last play, you have a chance to call anything because it’s the last play”. He added “Whereas the ones prior, he just had to keep it alive and not use up all the clock. A play like that you call it the first or second play and we never get another play off. It was a great call and it worked.”

Ainge was named the South offensive MVP, but it was Tulane running back Matt Forte who ran for a game-high 59 yards and had 38 receiving that landed the overall MVP award.  Big Michigan quarterback Chad Henne (five of nine passes for 64 yards with two passing touchdowns) was the North offensive MVP.  North Defensive MVP Ellis didn’t disappoint when he sacked Andre’ Woodson of Kentucky to record a safety.

Now that the weighing, practicing, questioning, and playing is over for the Senior Bowl, we have some observations, news, and notes from the 2008 Event.

Event Risers – These were players that we believe increased their value in at the Senior Bowl.

  • USC DT Sedrick Ellis – By far the most dominant player in Mobile. Ellis (6-1, 295) came to the event rated below LSU’s Glenn Dorsey and Virginia’s Chris Long, but he vaulted to the top group with his showing this week. Though UF’s Derrick Harvey, Dorsey, and Long skipped the event, it was their loss as Ellis dominated in one on one drills against all of the O-Lineman — unblockable at times. Much like last year’s standout Adam Carriker, Ellis was difficult to block. Displayed a good combination of strength and intelligence and also came across well during interviews. He and teammate Keith Rivers showed at the Senior Bowl why USC was dominant defensively in 2007.
  • Tennessee State CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie – One of my favorite stories from the week. He came to the Senior Bowl looking for an opportunity and he seized it. The rangy defensive back (6-1, 181) showed that HBCU schools still produce several diamonds in the rough as he shined in coverage drills against bigger school receivers. The unheralded defensive back actually worked out at FS most of the week, but his future seems to lie at corner. Was right with Leodis McKelvin as the top DB prospect at the event.
  • Florida WR Andre Caldwell – With a underwhelming overall group of receivers at the Senior Bowl, Caldwell and Cal’s Lavelle Hawkins (catch everything) enhanced their draft status. Caldwell is not huge at 6’0 and 207 pounds, but he showed the best hands and route running of all of the receivers at the event. Besides scoring the game-winning TD, Caldwell showed he is a natural hand catcher and his toughness showed in his ability to get off the line.
  • Troy CB Leodis McKelvin – Another small school corner that shined at the event. Had a great week of practice where he showed a good ability to locate passes and play physical. Receivers did not catch many passes on him in practice and he showed that he is a fluid athlete. Look for the former Troy State star (5-11 190) to continue moving up draft boards as he has the speed, coverage ability and instincts to be a top flight corner plus he showed in Mobile that he is a capable kick returner.
  • Delaware QB Joe Flacco – It looks like UD alum Rich Gannon will have company in NFL circles as Flacco impressed at the event. The Blue Hen signaler caller took advantage of BC quarterback Matt Ryan pulling out of the game. Though the big pocket passer (6-5, 230) threw for only 2-of-7 for 22 yards and an interception in the game, it was during the week in practice that he shined. The one-time Pitt recruit showed a very strong arm, an ability to make all the throws out performing some of his BCS counterparts and surprising mobility.

Event Maintainers – These were players that we believe were solid and did not hurt their value at the Senior Bowl.

  • Arizona State Center Mike Pollak – Might have been the best O-Lineman in Mobile. Even though he is just under 300 pounds, Pollak is a battler that showed good feet and strength in practice and in the game. He truly was the North team’s anchor all week.
  • Notre Dame DT Trevor Laws – Trying to shake off one of the worst years in Notre Dame’s proud history will not be easy, but Laws (6-1, 297) impressed in Mobile. The dread-locked senior, who played mostly on the outside in college moved inside and dominated. Though not as athletic as Ellis, Laws showed a good burst, was always around the ball (recovered a fumble in the game), and good instincts in practice drills. Watch for him to be a sure first day pick.
  • Penn State LB Dan Connor – This PSU high-character player – led the Big Ten in tackles (145) as a senior — did not disappoint in Mobile winning the North team’s MVP award. Connor (6’3, 233) showed that he may not have the athleticism of USC’s Keith “Shark” Rivers, but he has the “football” instincts and intelligence that shined in practice. In the game, the two-time All American, who can play inside or outside, produced with by leading both teams in tackles (9) and intercepting a Colt Brennan pass.
  • Vanderbilt LT Chris Williams – Seems like another great left tackle prospect out of the SEC. Had a solid week of give and take with the D-Linemen, but probably did not elevate himself to the top 15 of the draft. Has the size (6’6, 320) and feet to be a top-flight left tackle, but will need to watch his tendency to play too high at times. Also needs to work more against the speed-rush.

Event Crashers – These were players that we believe hurt their value at the Combine and will need to make up ground going into the draft.

  • Texas A&M Center Cody Wallace – After coming into the event with a good resume, the Aggies pivot man really struggled. He had difficulty in individual line drills and defensive tackles were licking their chops for a shot at him. Wallace will need to rebound at the combine and on Texas A&M’s Pro Day to show he is worth a pick.
  • Oklahoma State WR Adarius Bowman – One of the bigger disappointments at the event. Bowman did well on underneath routes, but struggled with consistency (dropping passes and having difficulty with routes) as Caldwell, Hawkins, Houston’s Donnie Avery, and others had better practices. The big (6-3, 220) OSU receiver will need to do better at the combine to move up.
  • Hawaii QB Colt Brennan – After being destroyed by Georgia in the Sugar Bowl, the quarterback with all of the NCAA records needed to impress. Well he didn’t… first he magically was not his listed measurements (6-3, 190) instead coming in at 6-2, 185 pounds, then he showed an odd throwing motion in practice with difficulty on outs and deep balls. In the game he didn’t fair much better throwing for numbers 2-of-6 for 29 yards with an interception.
  •  USC O-Lineman Sam Baker – This maybe knit picky but we expected Baker to be the mammoth road grader as advertised. He weighed in smaller than expected at 6-4 1/2 and 308 pounds and one scout I talked to said he looked soft. Had good hand use and great arm extension, but did not look like a can’t miss left tackle.

Miscellaneous Notes

DB’s show why they are the best group – The scouts that I talked to could not have been more impressed with this group.  One guy I talked to said that at least eight to ten DB’s should go in the first round.  We already touched on Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Leodis McKelvin, but other players shined as well in the back four of the North and South units including CB Tracy Porter of Indiana, CB Chris Godfrey of Iowa, CB Patrick Lee of Auburn and CB DeJuan Tribble of Boston College.

Where are all of the running backs?? – With so many juniors dominating the rankings of this position, you could clearly see that the top guys were not in Mobile (No Darren McFadden and Felix Jones of Arkansas, Rashard Mendenhall of Illinois, Oregon’s Jonathan Stewart or Texas’ Jamaal Charles). Of the backs that were here Justin Forsett of California, Chris Johnson of East Carolina, and Tashard Choice of Georgia Tech performed well, but they all seem to me to be Day 2 guys. I however did like the play of fullbacks Owen Schmitt of West Virginia, Peyton Hillis of Arkansas and LSU’s Jacob Hester.  All three showed their toughness and a willingness to help out anywhere.

Strong Linebacking Crew – This group impressed me, because they jelled in such a short period of time.  Hall of Fame linebacker and San Francisco coach Mike Singletary spoke glowingly about this group’s work ethic and athleticism. In drills you could see the quickness and athleticism of players like USC LB Keith Rivers, Virginia Tech LB Xavier Adibi, Penn State’s Dan Connor, LSU LB Ali Highsmith and Colorado’s Jordon Dizon. Rivers drew a lot of praise from Raiders defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, but some guys that have work to do are DE conversion candidates Shawn Crable of Michigan and Bruce Davis of UCLA.

That is a wrap and BIGPLAY will definitely be there next year to cover the Senior Bowl again, which is now the place to be to seen.

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