MOBILE, Ala. -- Good senior college players gather here every year for the Under Armour Senior Bowl, which is their last opportunity to put on the pads and show the NFL general managers and coaches in attendance why teams should look at them in the April draft. In my opinion, it's an invaluable experience that any senior lucky enough to be invited should grab.
Of course, there always are some guys who turn down the invitation because they're fearful of injury or, in some cases, don't want to hurt their draft status by playing poorly in the week of practice or in the game. This year is no exception, as highly rated players such as linebacker Aaron Curry of Wake Forest, offensive tackle Eugene Monroe of Virginia, defensive end Michael Johnson of Georgia Tech and guard Duke Robinson of Oklahoma dropped out of the game. But other seniors were added to the roster, and they're here to make names for themselves.
I have watched a number of practices and interviewed players here for the past three days. Here are some of my early impressions:
Good-looking defensive tackles
Raji is a classic "three-technique" player who has first-step quickness to penetrate into the backfield and disrupt an offense. He's only 6-foot-1, but he's 334 pounds and is so powerful in the lower body that he looks unblockable at times. He's putting on the same kind of show we saw last year from Sedrick Ellis (now with the Saints), but Raji is 30 pounds heavier. There are some solid guards and centers here, but Raji is having no problem beating them in one-on-one drills and in the team period of practice.
For all the excitement surrounding Raji, there might even be more for Jerry. He, too, is a powerful one-gap penetrator, perfectly suited for a 4-3 defense -- but he's a little taller (6-2) and also has teams with 3-4 defenses interested. Jerry can penetrate a gap with ease, shed a blocker and make it look like the guy in front of him never found the weight room.
For teams with 3-4 defenses, USC's Fili Moala looks like a perfect "five-technique" player. He has room for growth in his big frame (6-4, 303) and the long arms to lock up on an offensive tackle and control the line of scrimmage. He's the cousin of Haloti Ngata, who lines up at nose tackle, or five technique, for the Ravens. Moala is versatile and brings the height that teams such as the Dolphins, Browns, Patriots, Steelers and now the Packers are looking for with their defense.
3-4 outside linebacker candidates
Personnel people always must do some projecting when trying to find outside linebackers for a 3-4 defense. They spend their time wondering if an undersized defensive end can stand up and play, or if an inside linebacker from a 4-3 defense can step outside. A couple of players at the Senior Bowl have started to intrigue the people who must make those decisions.
Larry English, an undersized defensive end (6-3, 255) from Northern Illinois, had good sack production in college. He also has a good motor and is a target of 3-4 teams.
Clint Sintim played the position at Virginia and, as one scout said, "What you see is what you get. He's been well-coached but may be better suited inside than out."
USC has two guys who jumped out during Tuesday's outside linebacker blitz period. Brian Cushing played defensive end, inside linebacker, outside linebacker and even some safety in the Trojans' hybrid defense. He reminds me of Mike Vrabel and fits the bill as a ready-to-play candidate in a 3-4 defense. His teammate, Clay Mathews, is smart, gives great effort and has sound technique, but he might need more physical development.
Examining White's ability at QB
Pat White, the West Virginia quarterback who measured just under 6 foot, has been labeled an "athlete", which translates into wide receiver/kick returner in the Antwaan Randle El mold. But White is turning some heads with his passing skills.
I talked with White on Tuesday, after a swirling wind led to a tough practice for all the quarterbacks. He has a quiet confidence about his throwing, and he just wants to help a team any way he can. He might be the best athlete on the Senior Bowl field.
People will say White was never under center at West Virginia, but he had no trouble with the center exchange in practice and told me he worked on it every day in college, even though the Mountaineers rarely used it in games. White has a better arm than Ravens backup QB Troy Smith when he came out of Ohio State and must be closely looked at in the months leading up to the draft.
Other players to watch
The guy I'm really interested in seeing at outside linebacker is Connor Barwin from Cincinnati. He's one of four players who caught my eye the first day here, and he continues to pique my curiosity each day.
Early in the week, Barwin worked at tight end -- his designated position on the Senior Bowl roster -- but he also rushed the passer in college and was productive. Not only can Barwin line up on either side of the ball, he also played college basketball. Combine that athletic ability with everything he learned about releasing on routes in football, understanding coverages in front of him and his Big East Conference-leading 11 sacks as a senior, and he might be the perfect 3-4 outside linebacker.
Ramses Barden, a 6-6, 227-pound wide receiver from Cal Poly, was a man among boys in small-college football, but at Senior Bowl practices, he looks like he belongs. For teams in need of a red-zone threat, this could be the guy to target. Barden demonstrates more playing speed than advertised and, in a couple of practices, reminded me of Saints wide receiver Marques Colston, who also came from a small school (Hofstra).
Rashard Jennings, a 6-1, 234-pound running back from Liberty College, is a young man who transferred from Pittsburgh to be closer to his sick father. He fits right back in with the big boys and has demonstrated all week that he can catch the ball, run with power and would fit in a rotation at the next level.