The Senior Bowl is the last opportunity to see draft-eligible seniors in pads playing real football as opposed to workouts in shorts, which will consume the rest of the evaluation process leading up to the draft.
It is also the first opportunity for NFL coaches to study the new talent. Bengals and North team coach Marvin Lewis told me, "This is my real first look at this year's crop of players and I like what I see so far."
Senior Bowl on NFL Network:
!(http://www.nfl.com/seniorbowl) On Saturday, Jan. 29, top senior college football players compete in front of NFL talent evaluators at the 2011 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. Coverage begins on NFL Network at 3:30 p.m. ET.
The Senior Bowl group this year will probably produce 8-10 first-round selections, 12-15 second-round players and close to 17 third-round picks.
The first thing to jump out at me after watching the North squad practice twice was the quality of the offensive tackles. Three North tackles came into the week with a first-round grade and so far, and they are passing the eye-ball test. The Bengals' coaches are moving them around from the right side to the left side and even giving them a little work at guard.
Wisconsin's Gabe Carimi is close to 6-foot-7 and will play in the 325-pound range in the NFL, and the first trait that surfaced was his competitive attitude. He served notice in the first practice that he will play to the whistle on every play and you are in for a rough day if you line up opposite him. He is very capable of establishing the point of attack in a power running game and could be more of a right tackle than a left tackle. He has the technique to play the left side, but after two practices I like the mauler part of his game the most. During the Tuesday practice he also showed the feet to pull and fold block.
Boston College's Anthony Castonzo impressed me with his feet and pass protection skills. He has patient hands and a timely punch. He was beat in a one-on-one session by California's Cameron Jordan, but quickly recovered and dominated the next opportunity. Castonzo has natural knee and ankle bend, and looks better suited for the left side. He will have to do a good job against the bull rush the rest of the week to erase some doubts about his lower body strength. He demonstrated enough bend, however, to win with leverage. He also flashed the athletic ability to handle athletic rushers like Purdue's Ryan Kerrigan. I also really liked how he sustained his run blocks. He's not a power type, but has the feet to lock on and stay on the defender. He is quick out of his stance and gains leverage and position on the defender. He made the defensive tackle look slow out of his stance with his initial quickness a few times during Tuesday's team drills. The former tight end has above average athletic ability for his position.
Photo gallery: Solder, Carimi and more in action
Colorado's Nate Solder is a massive man close to 6-9 and more than 300 pounds, but he could stand to add some bulk as he matures. On Monday, he struggled a little with rushers getting to his chest and knocking his hands down, but he quickly recovered and finished a few blocks it appeared he might lose. That is what NFL line play is all about. The ability to recover is a necessary trait for pro offensive linemen. Solder impresses me with his mobility and athleticism for a big man. Often guys this tall struggle with their ankle and knee bend, but he has it. He is advertised as an NFL left tackle, but after two practices I'm not so sure that's his best position. I will report back on him later in the week. He had a few waist-bend situations when the defender used a spin move or converted speed to power. I would like to see some more explosive pop from him, especially when they ask him to pull and trap.
There might not be enough quality pass rushers on the North squad to evaluate these three fine tackles well enough during Senior Bowl week. Two rushers that did catch my attention, however, were Kerrigan and Jordan. Kerrigan has pass-rush technique and very good quickness, but he could be undersized as a down lineman, which could affect his status as a first-round hopeful.
Jordan is a 280-pounder working outside and inside and he knows how to knock the blockers' hands down and get the edge. Cameron is a one-gap penetrator, who is stout enough to two-gap and appears ideal in a 3-4 move front. He has been around the football constantly in the team, nine-on-nine and seven-on-seven periods this week. On Tuesday morning, I was impressed with his discipline to read the bootleg, rather than play recklessly in pursuit of the ball.
I have spent the first two North practices evaluating players who play with their hand on the ground. That's always a good place to start at the Senior Bowl. The centers and guards will be next, but they don't appear to be as good as the tackles.