Senior Bowl: Five Studs (and duds) from week of practice

MOBILE, Ala. -- They say first impressions are the most important ones. But with this week's Senior Bowl the last time scouts will see players in pads and helmets before the draft, the final impressions made can be critical.

North squad quarterback Carson Wentz of North Dakota State stretches during Senior Bowl practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium on Jan. 27, 2016 in Mobile, Ala. (Glenn Andrews-USA TODAY Sports)

MOBILE, Ala. -- They say first impressions are the most important ones. But with this week's Senior Bowl the last time scouts will see players in pads and helmets before the draft, the final impressions made can be critical.

While it seems counter-intuitive, the practices are considered much more valuable to scouts than the all-star game, itself. That's because the Senior Bowl, like any other all-star game, is designed with the fans, rather than scouts, in mind. There were hundreds of NFL personnel in Mobile throughout the week of practice but only a fraction of them remain for the game.

The players who showed talent and poise in responding to that pressure will inspire some of the more interesting debates as scouts dive into draft meetings over the next few weeks.

Unfortunately, the players who failed to answer key questions in Mobile have opened their stock up for debate, as well.

Here are the Five Studs (and duds) so far of the 2016 Senior Bowl:



1. Carson Wentz, QB, North Dakota State: No player came to the Senior Bowl with a brighter spotlight than Wentz, who needed to answer concerns about his level of competition after facing just one FBS opponent over his career. Physically-speaking, the 6-foot-5, 233-poundWentz quickly and consistently distanced himself from the other quarterbacks competing this week in Mobile, showing a combination of velocity, accuracy and functional athleticism to justify all of the attention he has received. Where Wentz really helped himself, however, was with the intangibles he showed, including the leadership to win over his new teammates and impress teams in interviews, as well.

2. Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Eastern Kentucky: The value of the quarterback position pushesWentz atop this list but Spence was the most dynamic player competing this week at the Senior Bowl. Whether lining up as a traditional hand-in-the-dirt defensive end or out of the two-point stance, the 6-3, 254-pound Spence was unstoppable, at times, exploding upfield and around tackles to harass the South Team's quarterbacks. The former five-star recruit and Ohio State standout comes with a checkered past and must continue the positive momentum he's created this year all the way to April 28. If he does so, it is hard to imagine too many club's passing on the draft's most explosive pass rusher.

3. Sheldon Rankins, DT, Louisville: For as disruptive as Spence was on the perimeter, Rankins was very nearly as effective from the inside -- though the fact that he suffered a sprained knee on Thursday which will sideline him for Saturday's game pushes him down a peg. The 6-2, 304-pounder was the proverbial bowling ball of butcher knives, slicing through would-be blockers with his initial burst, strength and coordinated hand play to disrupt runs and passes, alike.

4. Braxton Miller, WR, Ohio State: The Senior Bowl has a rich history of producing early round wide receivers but few of them -- and certainly none of this year's class -- can match Miller's remarkable body control. The 6-1, 204-pound Miller is simply a different level of athlete than the other receivers attending this year's Senior Bowl, showing great quickness, balance and reaction time to generate separation and make eye-popping receptions appear routine. Just one year removed from playing quarterback, Miller remains raw and he has struggled with durability in the past but no player drew more wows from the crowd this week.

5. Vernon Butler, DT, Louisiana Tech: Despite measuring in two inches taller and 21 pounds heavier than Rankins, the 6-4, 325 pound Butler proved very nearly as disruptive, beating would-be blockers with his initial quickness and a textbook swim move. Naturally large with a well-distributed frame and strength to complement his athleticism, Butler will draw interest from 4-3 and 3-4 teams alike and may just prove this year's "surprise" first-round pick.


Given the consistency in games required to earn an invitation to the Senior Bowl (or any other all-star game), players rarely actually harm their stock over the course of a few practices. That said, these players failed to answer some key questions so far this week, making it all the more important that they respond during the game, itself, at the Combine or during Pro Day workouts.


1. The Rest of the Quarterbacks: The credit goes to Wentz for distancing himself from the pack but scouts had hoped that someone would step up among the other seven quarterbacks in Mobile as the clear second-best player at the position. Michigan State's Connor Cook could have been that player but he declined to participate, according to Senior Bowl director Phil Savage. Southern Cal's Cody Kessler, Mississippi State's Dak Prescott and Alabama's Jake Coker are the bigger names but Arkansas' Brandon Allen was the steadiest.

2. Shawn Oakman, DE, Baylor: There could be a picture of Oakman in the football dictionary under the old scouting cliche, "Looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane." There isn't a more imposing player in this draft but the 6-7, 269-pounder may have a higher upside in professional wrestling or body building than football as he shows limited awareness and use of leverage, negating some of his undeniable power and athleticism.

3. Kenyan Drake, RB, Alabama: An explosive athlete relegated to backup duty throughout much of his career with the Crimson Tide, Drake was viewed by some as a potential breakout candidate this week. While the 6-1, 210-pounder possesses the agility and acceleration to break big plays as a runner, receiver and returner, Drake had more than his share of hiccups throughout the week of practice, dropping passes and getting blown up by linebackers during pass-blocking drills.

4. Jordan Payton, WR, UCLA: The 6-1, 216 pound Payton proved a polar opposite of Drake, catching the ball well and showing effort as a blocker but simply lacking the juice to scare defenders. Payton struggled to generate much separation from the North's cornerbacks, in part because he lacks ideal speed. He and his trainers will surely work hard in the coming weeks to fare better during the 40-yard dash testing in Indianapolis and at UCLA's Pro Day.

5. John Theus, OT, Georgia: Starting four years in the SEC theoretically prepared Theus for the speed and power he would face this week at the Senior Bowl but his athletic limitations were exposed a bit this week, making it likely that he will need to switch back to right tackle in the NFL. The nearly 6-7, 317-pound Theus simply doesn't have ideal fluidity to handle speed rushers and he can get walked into the backfield by bull rushers when he allows his pad level to rise.

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