It's game time.
Practice week at the Senior Bowl, college football's top all-star game, was very important to the 100-plus players suiting up in Mobile, Ala. NFL coaches, general managers and scouts not only pay close attention to whether prospects win their one-on-one battles on the field, but also how they interact with teammates and put coaching into action.
But just because most NFL personnel staffs left Mobile after the hard-hitting practices ended Wednesday doesn't mean Saturday afternoon's game at venerable Ladd-Peebles Stadium (NFL Network at 4 p.m. ET) does not have meaning.
Teams will receive video of the game that they can peruse in the office, and they'll be very interested in the ability to execute the plays quickly installed by the coaching staffs of the Minnesota Vikings (North team) and Washington Redskins (South) this week. League general managers must also evaluate the physicality of these talented players, who were held back during practice to prevent injuries.
The following 12 Senior Bowl participants especially piqued the interest of coaches and scouts this week and could use a productive performance Saturday to boost their draft stock.
Injuries, suspensions and general inconsistency hampered Adams throughout his career with the Buckeyes. During most games in 2011, however, this prototypically-sized blind side protector looked to be finally reaching his potential. Though he wasn't perfect this week, he often stoned his man in pass rush drills and controlled the edge on run plays with strong effort and quick feet for his size. He probably has the toughest job of any player on the field this weekend, however, with some very talented South team defensive ends coming off the edge to chase quarterbacks Kirk Cousins, Kellen Moore and Russell Wilson. Meeting that challenge could help Adams lock up a very high draft slot.
Johnson has always had great potential as a big-bodied pass rusher with the versatility to play any scheme, but his production was very uneven in 2011 -- he had four total sacks as a senior and no tackles for loss or sacks in the final three games. But he exploded off the snap this week in drills and team play, and showed counter moves that he didn't display in the fall. Showing more of the same Saturday will make him one of the most valued pass rushers in a class without great depth for players in that role.
It was a bit of a surprise when Senior Bowl officials announced Polk was going to play, since most people thought he received a medical redshirt for a his injury-shortened freshman year. He did not apply for that redshirt, however, which meant his eligibility at Washington was exhausted. Polk rushed for over 4,000 yards in three-plus years and has a great chance to break into the second round with a strong (and healthy) effort Saturday if he uses his power, receiving skills, pass-protection ability and occasional open-field burst to their fullest.
Quick is one of several "small-school" talents in this game -- but he may have the most to gain with a strong performance. He's behind the curve learning a pro-style offense and running NFL-caliber routes, but flashes the hands and foot quickness to succeed and has the size and leaping ability to be an excellent target. Quick has to use his five-inch height advantage over the South team's corners (Furman's Ryan Steed, North Alabama/Florida transfer Janoris Jenkins and Louisiana-Lafayette's Dwight "Bill" Bentley) to gain position on short throws and win jump balls downfield to help scouts see his true playmaking potential.
DT Alameda Ta'amu, Washington, 6-2 1/2, 341 pounds
The importance of stout, active defensive tackles in the NFL often causes prospects at that position to get pushed up draft boards. Ta'amu was not consistently productive during his four years with the Huskies, but it was difficult to ignore his disruptive play during practices. Putting forth that sort of effort during the fourth quarter Saturday, not just in the first quarter or coming out of halftime, may help Ta'amu prove he is capable of being a regular playmaker in the NFL.
Wilson may have come up a bit short on the measuring tape, but coaches and general managers couldn't help but be impressed this week by his intelligence, attitude and athleticism. And more than one NFL observer noted he had a stronger arm than they expected. He struggled at times early in the week, but his accuracy improved as the week went on. Expect Wilson to make plays with his feet when plays break down, but if he can get a rhythm throwing the ball, NFL teams will be more willing to consider him a top 125 value instead of a fifth- or sixth-round prospect not likely to start on Sundays.
CB Dwight "Bill" Bentley, Louisiana-Lafayette, 5-10, 176 pounds
Bentley's slight frame and small hands (7 7/8 inches) did not impress scouts, but he won them over during practices with his quickness, fluidity, physicality and ability to make plays on the ball in the air or as the receiver was trying to secure the catch. If the North quarterbacks stare down a throw, Bentley will make the play and take the ball to the house.
Every year a couple of players are asked to switch positions at the Senior Bowl to see how they adjust on the fly. Teams have plenty of tape of Bequette (pronounced beck-it) at defensive end from his Arkansas days, but his build and surprising straight-line speed could make him an interesting strong-side 3-4 outside linebacker prospect. Handling tight ends on the line of scrimmage, looking agile when dropping into coverage, and playing the run as a second-level defender could be a big boost to his value. And if he somehow ends up bringing down the quarterback despite the rule against blitzes in this all-star game, which has been known to happen from time to time, it wouldn't hurt his cause.
Coaches walked away from this week's practices gushing about the potential of Coples, as he overpowered South team tackles early on in one-on-one drills and flashed the agility to rush the passer and stop the run during team work. Scouts will warn those coaches to wait until they see his senior year film, however, before giving him an elite grade. He'll need a productive, consistent effort on Saturday afternoon to make his final college game tape a valuable final impression.
Before this week, many scouts weren't sure if Glenn could handle playing tackle (left or right) against better defensive ends. After a rough start against Coples and company, Glenn held his own. And when he moved over to guard, defensive linemen could not shed him and he also flashed excellent agility in the open field in front of run plays. Holding up his part of the bargain at tackle on Saturday will undoubtedly cause some team to give him a shot outside as a rookie starter.
It doesn't matter if South coaches use him at defensive end, tackle, or as a stand-up linebacker -- his quick hands, feet, and constantly-running motor should allow him to make plays in Saturday's game as well as in the NFL. He's won the vast majority of battles on the field, as well as winning over any coach or scout he's talked with off the field in interviews.
Ingram and Upshaw are very similar in their stature, but their games are different. Ingram's spin moves and agility help him win battles, while Upshaw will be testing LT Mike Adams' strength and ability to cut off the corner. Though the Redskins may use him as a defensive end in the four-man front used by both teams at the Senior Bowl, they (and all other 3-4 teams) will be looking for clues as to whether he can project to a rush linebacker at the next level.