MOBILE, Ala. — After spending a few days with most of the NFL world at the Senior Bowl, here are a few thoughts as the offseason gets started:
1. We’ll see what ultimately happens in the draft, but the prevailing opinion among scouts and executives was that this is the weakest crop of first-round talent at the Senior Bowl ever. The benchmark is 2012, when Quinton Coples was the first of eight first-round selections to participate in the Senior Bowl, taken by the Jets 16th overall. It would be a surprise to see any player out of this group taken that high, and there’s probably just a small group of possible first-round prospects: QB Derek Carr (Fresno State), DE Dee Ford (Auburn) and DT Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh). One personnel executive saw just three in the conversation: Notre Dame OT Zack Martin, Ohio State OT Jack Mewhort and Minnesota DE Ra’Shede Hageman. The reason for the dropoff? Under the new CBA, which bars a contract renegotiation until after a player’s third year, more and more underclassmen (a record 98 this year) have the idea to start the free agency clock as soon as possible to get to the big money in their second contract. The more underclassmen that declare, the more watered down the senior class—nevermind the standouts that skip the game entirely (we’ll have more on this tomorrow).
2. The most impressive player in person was Pittsburgh DT Aaron Donald. He measured in at 6-1 and 288 pounds—short and light typically for NFL interior linemen—but the production is undeniable. He absolutely dominated one-on-one drills, and did it with a blend of power and speed. There are obvious comparisons to Bengals All-Pro DT Geno Atkins, who similarly dominated the Senior Bowl in 2010 at 6-1½ and 293 pounds. He wasn’t drafted until the fourth round, which was an obvious mistake in hindsight. We’ll have more on Donald soon.
3. Every NFL executive raves about the depth of the receiver position in this draft, so expect teams to load up often at the position. There are all different types of receivers to be had, as you could see from the Senior Bowl. From BYU’s Cody Hoffman (6-4, 218) to Wyoming’s Robert Herron (5-9, 193) it’s kind of pick your flavor at the receiver position, which has undeniably been enhanced over the years with the rise in the passing game on the college level.
4. While the Browns’ head coaching situation was talked about in negative terms, I kind of cast that aside because the feeling I got is most people don’t know team president Joe Banner and general manager Mike Lombardi that well. Both kind of stick to their past associates, and aren’t really the most personable guys. I don’t view that as a positive or negative. Both are smart and have a track record for being associated with success. Everyone knows what the deal is in Cleveland: the structure is already set, so the direction is clear.
5. That stands in stark contrast to the Dolphins’ general manager search. Not even the candidates have a clear idea what the structure is going to be, especially what executive vice president Dawn Aponte’s role is and what the extent of her power will be. Until that happens, no one has any idea what kind of job that is.
6. I fell in love with Clemson T/G Brandon Thomas when he handled South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney largely one-on-one this season. That continued this week. His smart, savvy and tough play reminds me a bit of future Hall of Fame guard Brian Waters. Thomas just knows how to play.
7. Speaking of Clowney, it was a very smart move on his part to come to Mobile this week and meet face-to-face with NFL teams. They have a lot of questions for him, and it at least shows he’s not afraid of answering them.
8. At 6-7, 331 pounds and with quick feet, Miami OT Seantrel Henderson has always looked the part of a franchise left tackle, but he’s never put it altogether. NFL teams have their doubts whether he ever will, but it’s hard to overlook the natural talent.
9. Virginia Tech QB Logan Thomas can really spin the ball. Yeah, he’s been wildly inconsistent in his career, but he’s the perfect guy for a team to develop down the road.
10. Wisconsin WR Jared Abbrederis (6-1, 189) was very productive in college and seems to be popular among the draftniks, but I have a hard time seeing him at the NFL level as anything better than a No. 3 receiver.
11. Carr was, by far, the best quarterback prospect in Mobile. Not sure if he’s a franchise quarterback, but his compact delivery and background both under center and in the shotgun make him intriguing.
12. Nebraska CB Stanley Jean-Baptiste (6-3, 220) should certainly be helped by the recent rage about bigger NFL defensive backs (Seahawks) but he’s got a long way to go with his footwork. He looked similar to Patriots bust Ras-I Dowling.
13. Clemson QB Tajh Boyd would be a perfect developmental player for a team like the Eagles, who will probably need to keep a stable of passers in that offense. He’s a great athlete and has a good arm. Accuracy will always be the thing he needs to overcome, and that’s tough.
14. It’s too bad Oklahoma CB Aaron Colvin tore his ACL this week, because he was definitely standing out for his man coverage ability. Looked like a first-rounder.
15. Looking for a WR who has a natural ability to high point the ball in the air? Take a look at Alabama’s Kevin Norwood.
16. Absolutely love Wisconsin RB James White. He’s just 5-9 and 206, but he’s built thickly in the lower body and has great balance. He reminded me a lot of Bucs RB Doug Martin (5-9, 215).
17. Keep an eye on Washington State safety Deone Bucannon. He’s built like a physical safety and plays with a nasty edge.
18. Lotta buzz about Wisconsin LB Chris Borland being the next Zach Thomas (Dolphins) as an undersized linebacker. I just don’t think Borland has the playing speed that made Thomas great, but Borland does always seem to be around the ball.
19. Any teams looking for a top-flight receivers coach should be calling former Packers and Cowboys assistant Jimmy Robinson. He was in Mobile looking for a chance to get back into the game after a year off for personal reasons. Robinson was instrumental in the development of Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, James Jones and Dez Bryant. The new Browns offensive coordinator should be calling Robinson after his success with Bryant.
20. Senior Bowl executive director Phil Savage, the former Browns general manager and longtime personnel executive with the Ravens, has done an excellent job bringing the event to another level. It’s now a first-class event, and scouts raved about how subtle changes made it much easier for them to do their jobs.