The Reese's Senior Bowl is viewed as the crown jewel of the college all-star season. NFL coaches and scouts scour the tape of this contest to determine which prospects have the skills to emerge as difference makers at the next level. Here are a few guys who caught my eye on Saturday:
Auburn DE Dee Ford was the most dominant pass rusher in one-on-one and team drills throughout the week; he continued to overwhelm blockers with his exceptional first-step quickness and snap count anticipation. Ford racked up two sacks in the game, displaying spectacular disruptive skills off the edge, and earned game MVP honors. He seemingly lived in the backfield on passing plays, and few blockers were able to stay in front of him on speed rushes. With Ford also showing up as a credible run defender on early downs, he is building a strong case to be included in the conversation as a possible first-round selection in the 2014 NFL Draft.
Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo has jumped squarely on the radar of every NFL executive with his solid play over the past two weeks. He killed at the East-West Shrine Game and continued to impress with his consistent play during practices this week. Garoppolo showed exceptional footwork making throws inside the pocket, while also displaying remarkable athleticism and body control tossing the ball on the move. In addition, Garoppolo has made quick, decisive reads with the ball, showing a compact delivery and quick release. Although Garoppolo's play won't vault him into consideration as a franchise quarterback, there are several teams that will view him as an intriguing developmental prospect with starting potential based on his strong showing in Mobile.
Colorado State TE Crockett Gillmore was a late addition to the Senior Bowl roster, but he certainly boosted his draft stock with his standout performance on Saturday. The Rams' star had five catches for 61 yards and a score, displaying strong hands and underrated route skills. He complemented his impressive performance as a pass catcher with a strong showing as a blocker on the edge. He repeatedly sealed the corner on perimeter runs and effectively neutralized his assigned defender on power plays between the tackles. Of course, scouts expected Gillmore to be a stout blocker at the point of attack based on his solid performance during the regular season, but doing it against the top players in the country will enhance his value in the minds of coaches searching for a traditional tight end in the draft.
Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste and Utah CB Keith McGill entered the week viewed as two of the most intriguing cornerback prospects in the draft based on their physically imposing frames. The duo didn't disappoint scouts in attendance with their play, as each showed better than anticipated cover skills and awareness in the Senior Bowl. Jean-Baptiste made a few plays on the ball utilizing "off" technique, which is surprising considering his size suggests he would be better served to play press coverage at the line of scrimmage. McGill also displayed solid cover skills on the perimeter. He quickly exploded out of his pedal to record a knockdown in the third quarter, showcasing his short area burst and anticipation. McGill later added a game-clinching interception in the fourth quarter to seal the deal. With Jean-Baptiste and McGill flashing adequate cover skills in space, teams looking for big, athletic corners with movement skills will take a long, hard look at the duo leading up to the draft.
Princeton DT Caraun Reid had a solid overall week of practice, but his standout performance in the Senior Bowl will earn him a hard look from scouts looking for an interior defender with quickness and rush skills. The 6-foot-2, 270-pound defender racked up a pair of sacks on back-to-back plays that showcased his speed, burst and hand skills. Reid defeated Baylor's Cyril Richardson using a quick arm over at the line of scrimmage to notch a sack. He followed it with a butt-and-jerk maneuver on the subsequent play that showcased his sneaky strength and power on the inside. As more teams utilize quick interior defenders on nickel and sub packages, Reid could be viewed as an enticing option based on his solid play in the game.
The quarterbacks on the North squad (Miami's Stephen Morris; Clemson's Tajh Boyd and Virginia Tech's Logan Thomas) didn't leave a favorable lasting impression on NFL scouts with their play in the Senior Bowl. Each signal caller struggled to find his rhythm within the pocket, and their inconsistencies prevented the North team from moving the ball down the field. Watching Morris, in particular, I was disappointed with his lack of accuracy and ball placement. He repeatedly missed open receivers at intermediate range, and tossed a pair of interceptions in the fourth quarter.
Boyd also delivered an underwhelming performance, with a pair of batted balls raising concerns about his height and ability to find passing lanes between big bodies. Additionally, Boyd tossed an interception on an underthrown deep ball following a double move. The ball was not only woefully off target, but it lacked the kind of velocity and zip that is needed to complete deep tosses against NFL-caliber defenders in the backend.
Thomas didn't have the miscues of his quarterback brethren, but he held onto the ball too long, resulting in a number of sacks for the North. Thomas isn't solely responsible for the negative plays in the backfield, but a quarterback with better awareness and anticipation would find a way to get the ball out of his hands before the rush draws near. Overall, the play of the trio will lead to more questions about the NFL potential of each in draft rooms across the league.