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2017 Senior Bowl: SEC defenders, Michigan's Lewis shine in Tuesday drills

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  • 2017 Senior Bowl: SEC defenders, Michigan's Lewis shine in Tuesday drills

    2017 Senior Bowl: SEC defenders, Michigan's Lewis shine in Tuesday drills
    But no player looks like a better NFL prospect than Bama TE O.J. Howard
    by Dane Brugler & Rob Rang Jan 25, 2017 8 min read

    The first practice of the 2017 Senior Bowl started a tad slow as expected with the Cleveland Browns coaching staff walking the players through numerous positional and team drills. By the second hour, the pace of practice picked up, especially during one-on-one drills. And several of the SEC defenders in attendance this week stood out.

    The "other" pass rusher at Texas A&M, Daeshon Hall (6-5, 265, 35-inch arms) was unblockable for most of the day, using lateral quickness and body control to cross the face of blockers and knife through gaps. He is able to generate terrific momentum from his initial get-off to convert his speed to power and uses various spin moves to make it tough on blockers to land punches.

    A basketball player growing up, Hall is still developing his technical skills as an edge rusher and doesn't have eye-popping production. With Garrett commanding so much attention at right end, Hall should have been the beneficiary at left defensive end, but he managed only 4.5 sacks in 2016 and is still figuring out how to efficiently use his gifts to consistently disrupt the pocket.

    Even though he requires some maintenance, Hall showed in practice what he also flashed on tape -- the explosive traits to pester the pocket in the NFL.

    In the secondary, it was impossible not to notice LSU cornerback Tre'Davious White. When Browns defensive backs coach DeWayne Walker taught different drills to the cornerback group, he used the former LSU Tiger on the first rep each time because he knew he would only have to say the instructions once. A four-year starter in Baton Rouge, White carries himself like a seasoned veteran off the field and that maturity also translates to the field.

    In one-on-one drills vs. receivers, White showed terrific anticipation and balance in off-coverage, staying on top of routes and not allowing much separation. Although he might not be the best athlete on the roster, his experience (47 starts in the SEC) is definitely paying off for him.

    While watching the cornerback drills up close, I caught up with a defensive backs coach for an AFC team and asked his opinion on the group.

    "Honestly, I haven't seen a lick of these kids yet. But LSU (White) is making a real nice first impression."

    More observations on the South practice
    Alabama tight end O.J. Howard (6-6, 249, 34-inch arms) entered the week as my top-rated player in Mobile and he didn't disappoint on Day 1. He was a mismatch waiting to happen with his combination of speed, fluidity and receiving skills, including several one-handed grabs. There might be a player or two who will challenge him, but it's tough to think Howard won't leave Mobile as the top prospect in attendance.

    One of the few players who will push Howard for the top spot is Western Kentucky offensive lineman Forrest Lamp (6-4, 305, 31 1/8-inch arms). A four-year starter at left tackle, he took snaps outside at tackle during practice to mixed results, including one rep when he found himself off-balance and was tossed by Villanova's Tanoh Kpassagnon. But when Lamp moved inside to guard, it was a different story as he was routinely dominant in one-on-one's, anchoring and controlling the point of attack vs. talented interior rushers like Clemson's Carlos Watkins. Lamp has very impressive tape at left tackle, but with his square-blocking style and 31 1/8-inch arms, he is a NFL guard and Tuesday's practice only backed up that idea.

    A prospect who entered the week with considerable buzz, Troy offensive tackle Antonio Garcia (6-6, 293, 33-inch arms) had an up-and-down practice. On a positive note, he showed the hand strength to halt and control edge rushers in one-on-ones. But he also struggled with speed, lunging and getting off balance mid-shuffle. Garcia showed several of the concerns that also show on his game film -- concerns that won't keep him from being a future pro, but issues with his core strength and technique that need addressed before he is ready for consistent NFL snaps.

    There are several notable wide receiver prospects on the South squad, but it was a late addition and little-known pass-catcher who impressed the most: Grambling State's Chad Williams (6-1, 204, 32-inch arms). He didn't get much separation at the top of patterns and it was telling that his development as a route runner will be the key to his next level success. But he is a good-sized athlete with strong hands to secure contested grabs and also track over his shoulder to finish downfield. Williams has some off-field baggage and is raw in areas, but it didn't take long for him to show he belongs on this field with the other Senior Bowl receivers.

    Michigan's Jourdan Lewis steals the spotlight
    It is already clear that the most gifted positions at the 2017 Senior Bowl are cornerback and tight end.

    After LSU's Tre'Davious White and Tennessee's Cameron Sutton stood out during the South practice earlier in the day, it was a pair of former Big Ten stars who stood out in the afternoon with Michigan's Jourdan Lewis and Iowa's Desmond King each turning heads -- though for very different reasons.

    Lewis used light feet, loose hips and excellent acceleration to blanket receivers throughout the practice. Eastern Washington's Cooper Kupp (more on him later) was one of the few receivers to gain even a sliver of space on Lewis Tuesday and though he managed to catch one pass on the Wolverines' star, Lewis was there immediately to eliminate any possible yardage after the grab.
    Lewis' agility and acceleration stood out in the afternoon but during the weigh-ins Tuesday morning it was his surprising length that proved a pleasant surprise. Though possessing just "average" height for the position at 5-foot-10 and 188 pounds, Lewis has disproportionately long arms (31 inches), which make him that much better suited to handling the massive receivers he'll face on the outside in the NFL.

    While Lewis wowed with his raw athleticism, it was the physicality of King that stood out.

    After winning the Thorpe Award as a junior in 2015 with eight interceptions, King developed a well-earned reputation as a ball hawk. Tuesday, however, King instead used his hands to corral receivers as they attempted to gain separation and to quickly shuck them as they tried to block him in the running game. At one point, King fought through one block and even forcibly pushed a Chicago Bears' assistant coach out of bounds who was playing the part of an opposing running back on the play.

    King's feisty play (and lack of elite speed) is among the reasons why some scouts are projecting the cornerback to switch to safety in the NFL.

    More observations on the North practice
    Eastern Washington's Kupp was the most impressive and consistent receiver during the North practice. While there are questions about his straight-line speed, Kupp accelerates smoothly and changes directions efficiently, showing terrific balance and burst to create separation. He also uses his 6-foot-1 , 198-pound frame well to shield defensive backs from the ball. Perhaps most important, Kupp possesses excellent hands. He extends his hands to snatch the ball out of the air, not allowing a single pass to get his chest plate -- though he did drop one pass early during drills. Kupp's strong showing was all the more impressive given that he saw a lot of action against the ultra-smooth Lewis and West Virginia's Rasul Douglas, who at 6-foot-2, 204 pounds, is the biggest cornerback on the North squad. Kupp was not as impressive when asked to block defensive backs in the running game but his polish as a receiver -- especially for an FCS player -- left a positive impression on the scouts I spoke to Tuesday.

    Several other pass-catchers on the North squad had flashy moments, though inconsistency from the quarterbacks made it difficult for any of them to achieve the same kind of consistency as Kupp. Pittsburgh's Nate Peterman was the most accurate of the bunch but he does not possess ideal velocity. C.J. Beathard has the quickest delivery but sprayed passes, forcing receivers to make tough adjustments and too often opted for check-downs. Colorado's Sefo Liufau is the most physically impressive quarterback on the North roster at 6-foot-3 and 3/8 and 240 pounds but he will occasionally air-mail passes high over the heads of his receivers and struggled when the pocket collapsed around, dumping off short (and too often inaccurate) passes to teammates in part because quarterbacks were being asked not to scramble during these drills -- which is one of Liafau's relative strengths.

    One player to take advantage of the inaccuracy from the quarterbacks was Lindenwood linebacker Connor Harris, who stepped in front of a late throw to the left sideline from Liufau to intercept a pass and return it for a pick-six. Frankly, Harris needed to remind skeptical scouts in the stands of his instincts and playmaking ability after he looked out of place alongside the imposing athletes from Power Five schools during the weigh-ins. Harris measured in at a blocky 5-foot-11, 241 pounds, drawing some raised eye-brows from scouts. Making plays is something that Harris has certainly shown throughout his spectacular career for the Division II Eagles, as his NCAA record 633 career tackles can attest.

    The tight ends on the North squad may not be as gifted as those on the South (highlighted by Alabama's O.J. Howard, who was simply the best player on the field Tuesday), but the three-headed monster of Jonnu Smith (Florida International), Michael Roberts (Toledo) and Jeremy Sprinkle (Arkansas) held their own. Smith opened eyes during the weigh-in with a chiseled 6-foot-3, 245 pound frame and showed good agility, speed and hands Tuesday. Roberts is not as polished but possesses intriguing traits, including the biggest hands (11 5/8) of any player invited to this year's game. Sprinkle is a polar opposite of Smith, lumbering off the ball and showing limited burst out of his breaks but he is one of the few tight ends with the length and strength to move people at the line of scrimmage as a run blocker. The trio each project as Day 3 picks but only reinforce the growing belief among scouts that the 2017 class of tight ends may be as deep.