ATLANTA -- Sometimes all you can ask for in life is a chance.
That's what the players participating in the third annual HBCU All-Star Bowl are seeking by suiting up in front of scouts from most NFL teams in Atlanta this week.
The game features student-athletes from historically black colleges and universities, five of whom have been drafted over the past two years. Rookie defensive tackle Frank Kearse from Alabama A&M parlayed a strong performance here last year into a seventh-round pick by the Carolina Panthers, as well as a starting spot when the team's depth inside was ravaged by injuries.
Former Washington Redskins cornerback Darrell Green attended practice Tuesday because his son, Jared, was invited to the game after posting 17 receptions for 307 yards and two scores for Southern University (he spent four years at Virginia before that).
Not surprisingly, the younger Green was one of the fastest players at the event. His mid-4.4 40 time didn't approach the sub-4.3 times of his father, but he performed fairly well on the practice field, getting off press coverage with quickness, showing the footwork to use the entire route tree, and snatching a few balls -- including one thrown at his helmet. Scouts do have concerns with the consistency of his hands, however, and he did let a couple of passes hit the ground. But it was pretty clear some NFL team will give him a chance in training camp because he has the speed and fluid movement you can't teach.
Darrell Green said he has tried to instill a "right-now moment" attitude in his son. "Whether it's the first play of the game, third-and-5 in the second quarter, or sometime in the fourth quarter, you have to be ready for your moment right now."
The following players joined Green in taking advantage of their "right now moment" during the early days of the HBCU All-Star Bowl practice week. And though only one or two may wind up being drafted, all should get a shot to earn a roster or practice squad spot next summer.
Chigbo Annunoby, DT, Morehouse / 6-4, 324, 5.38
Most 324-pound defensive tackles have more weight around their midsection than the rest of their bodies, but Annunoby's proportional build makes him almost look svelte, and gives him the strength to control most of the offensive linemen facing him this week. During inside run drills and team scrimmages, Annunoby showed fair get-off after the snap, usually playing on the other side of the line of scrimmage, and flashed the hands and ball awareness to grab running backs trying to find room inside. At 6-foot-4, he won't be considered a wide-body nose tackle prospect and his pad level will need to be addressed. He also doesn't have the speed to make plays outside the box. He did flash the fluid movement to swim past a guard in one-on-one pass rush drills, though. Tigers' opponents also found out the hard way this year (14 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks), that his ability to control gaps and hold his ground make him a legitimate NFL prospect.
With more NFL teams looking at flexed tight ends as part of their offense, the 6-4, 221-pound Bryant will get looks as a vertical threat after averaging 17.7 yards a catch this season. He certainly impressed scouts with his straight-line speed in Monday workouts, as well as his ability to run the seam during practices Tuesday and Wednesday. Though lacking exceptional short-area agility, he proved able to adjust to low passes as well as run inside-out routes to get away from linebackers. It's not likely teams will have him as a standard in-line tight end, as he was woefully inexperienced as an edge blocker, lacking the bend, base, hand placement, and upper body strength to handle NFL defensive ends.
One of the most productive players in the country (21.5 tackles for loss, 12 sacks, eight forced fumbles) did not disappoint. Though coaches worked him as an undersized defensive tackle to use his quickness on the interior, he still managed to fight his way through traffic into the backfield. He played with leverage against the run. During pass rush drills and individual work with former NFL defensive end Michael Sinclair (currently defensive line coach for the Montreal Alouettes), Davis looked like a potential 3-4 rush linebacker or undersized 4-3 end that some teams bring in on obvious passing situations. He was the only pass rusher who showed a counter move this week, spinning inside in one-on-one drills after taking his man upfield. He'll need to show scouts that he has the overall athleticism to chase NFL skill position players, but the way he took coaching from Sinclair on his upfield rush and hand movement/placement may have piqued their interest.
Charles Deas, DT, Shaw / 6-3, 316, 5.33
The second-team All-CIAA pick has the best combination of size and athleticism in this game. Although Deas gets extra attention inside, he was credited with 18.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks over the past two years. He ran pretty well for his size for scouts on Monday and displayed quick enough feet and hands to win battles during one-on-one drills. Deas is also quite powerful when keeping his pads low, regularly bulling through his man to push to the quarterback, get his arm up into passing lanes, or eat up a gap to disrupt runs. He hesitates after the snap, which would allow veteran linemen to get their hands on him before he could make plays. NFL defensive line coaches could help him improve there, giving him a chance to succeed as a reserve at the next level.
Antonio Dennard, CB, Langston University / 5-10, 184, NA
The most fluid cornerback on the practice field, Dennard played strong enough to challenge any receiver on his side. Dennard used his hands well to prevent receivers from getting into their routes, and closed well on underneath routes to knock away passes or take his man out of bounds for little gain after the catch. Coaches wished he had tried to catch the ball on sideline throws instead of settling for the break-up, and he failed to intercept one pass because he didn't get two hands on the ball. At Langston, however, he did have eight picks over the past two seasons. Scouts will have concerns about his speed, but he could get a look in camp as a zone corner.
LaQuinton Evans, WR, Southern University / 6-1, 198, 4.47
Green's speed will get him NFL looks, but his teammate may be the one who ends up drafted. Evans was as impressive on the field as he was in the weigh-in and testing. His 34 1/2-inch arms and strong build intrigued scouts, and running under 4.5 seconds on one of his 40-yard dashes only increased their interest. Coaches had their cornerbacks try to press Evans to take away that speed during practice, but he beat them consistently off the line with strong hands and a nice shake. He also separated once downfield as none of the corners in this game had NFL speed. Most throws in his direction disappeared into his hands (he didn't let them into his body). Evans was also effective on crossing patterns, taking one after clearing the linebackers and planting to go up the sideline. Though not as agile on those types of routes as Green, Evans showed enough quickness along with his size and vertical route skills to be the top-rated player in this game.
It's easy to peg Johnson as a potential 3-4 rush linebacker because of his tall, lean build, but he was not sent after quarterbacks very often for the Bulldogs (zero sacks in 2011, four career). His lack of rush experience showed at first when he didn't come off the snap quickly with his hand on the ground during drills. Johnson improved, though, and started to bull his man with a strong punch and powerful arm extension. He also displayed some fluidity in space to chase after plays. The most vocal player on either team this week, Johnson constantly tried to pump up his linemates -- as well as get after the offensive linemen trying to stop him in drills. He also has special teams experience, blocking eight kicks in three years. So even if he is a bit raw, there is too much to like here not to bring him into a training camp.
Other potential undrafted free agents to watch next summer:
Justin Babb, CB, Savannah State / 5-8, 179, 4.55
Jarvis Canty, OT/OG, Morehouse / 6-5, 340, 5.46
Willie Carter, WR, Howard / 6-1 1/2, 202, NA
Paul Cox, WR, Mississippi Valley State / 6-4, 195, 4.65
Nate Curry, C, Bethune-Cookman / 6-1, 303, 5.31
Adrian Hamilton, DE, Prairie View A&M / 6-2, 246, 4.75
Derrick Hector, WR, Morehouse / 6-3, 210, 4.63
Jonathan Hollins, DT, Texas Southern / 6-2, 309, NA
Donovan Richard, LB/SS, South Carolina State / 6-0, 220, NA
Zary Stewart, DE, Morgan State / 6-4, 250, 4.88
Casey Therriault, QB, Jackson State / 6-2, 198, 4.69
Dante Thomas, RB, Tennessee State / 5-8 1/2, 198, 4.56