The Senior Bowl is now complete, after a week of practices some players NFL Draft stock rose and others fell. For a lot of NFL teams the most important part of the Senior Bowl is getting a chance to sit down and meet with the players. This affords the teams an opportunity to talk with the players and learn a little more about their background and have them answer specific question.
Throughout the week each player will only have a few opportunities to impress scouts. Some players will be asked to play a different position than they traditionally are accustomed to, such as a defensive end asked to play outside linebacker. With each challenge, scouts are not looking if a player was successful but if he can learn from his initial mistakes or if he possesses the athleticism to play in a different role.
It is important to remember that players are really given just three, one and half hour practices to showcase their skill sets. All great players make their mistakes in practice, they learn and get better each day. Young players asked to try new techniques will struggle, the great ones will show over time they can master and continue to grow as a player.
Below are six players who showed a great deal of promise and whose level of play at the Senior Bowl reflected their career statistical marks. A lot of these players dominated at the college level and continued that dominance as they make their way towards the NFL Draft.
We still have a lot of time before the NFL Draft. With the NFL Combine coming up in about a month, followed by Pro Days and team interviews, a lot still can happen to alter a players draft positions with each 32 NFL teams.
For now here are the six standout performances from this year's Senior Bowl
Sterling Shepard (WR, Oklahoma):
At 5'10” and 193 pounds, Shepard isn't the biggest or fastest wide receiver on the field. Most likely a future slot wide receiver in the NFL, it is his quickness and sudden changes in direction or coming back to the football that leaves defensive backs scratching their heads.
Throughout practice all week, Shepard was leaving the corners on the South Team in his dust, quickly getting in and out of his breaks and securing the catch. He was by far the most consistent receiver throughout the week.
I heard a number of scouts compare Shepard to current Seattle Seahawk's rookie wide receiver, Tyler Lockett. Both players are in similar in stature, but I believe that Lockett is a little quicker than Shepard, though not by much.
With 233 career receptions for 3,482 yards and 26 TD's during his time at Oklahoma, don't be surprised to see Shepard's name get called early in the second round. He is the best slot receiver in the draft and teams won't want to risk losing him.
Malcom Mitchell (WR, Georgia):
There are a handful of prospects who are invited to these bowl games whose names are often overlooked when scanning the roster list. I made the mistake of passing over Mitchell's name without putting too much thought into the player. He came out to the first practice for the South and made one incredible catch after another.
By my count, he didn't have a drop through the first couple of days and he was consistently able to get separation against the defensive backs using both speed and technique. At 6'1” and 196 pounds, he has the speed to get that separation and stretch the defense.
For his career, Mitchell finished with 174 receptions for 2,350 yards, a 13.5 YPC average, and 16 touchdowns. He improved his catching ability throughout his career by minimizing the number of drops. According to Pro Football Focus, Mitchell had three dropped passes for the 2015 season.
Though he still might be a late round prospect, Mitchell surely climbed a round or two with his performance throughout the Senior Bowl week.
Cody Whitehair (OG, Kansas State):
A versatile lineman who played at almost every position along the offensive line for the Kansas State Wildcats, Whitehair has seen just about everything, starting in over 50 games during his college career. Though he played left tackle in college, most NFL scouts believe he is suited to slide on inside and play the guard position.
At the Senior Bowl weigh-in, Whitehair measured in at 6'4” and 300 pounds. He has the long arms that scouts are typically looking for in a prototypical left tackle. The coaching staff for the South had Whitehair playing at the guard position throughout the week.
Whitehair has the strength to dominate interior rushers, once he gets his hands inside he can toss away just about anyone. He was able to put his back foot down and hold on, not giving up space and keeping a clean pocket throughout most of the pass protection drills.
Because he doesn't check off all the measurables boxes, some teams will cross Whitehair off their draft boards. The team that does select him will be happy, he showed he can dominate at the college level, all but eliminating opponent's top pass rushers throughout his career. He continued that level of play into the Senior Bowl with an excellent week of practice.
Noah Spence (DE, Eastern Kentucky):
After watching all of the practices throughout the week, it goes without saying that the best performance was by Noah Spence. He flat out dominated and destroyed just about anyone he went up against. Linemen couldn't block him and he showed a full arsenal of pass rushing moves and techniques that left most scouts just smiling and shaking their heads in amazement.
Those in the stands shouldn't have been surprised by Spence's performance as he did finish his career with 19.5 sacks in three seasons, with 8.5 sacks coming when he played at Ohio State. He is a three down lineman capable of causing havoc against opposing quarterbacks.
When speaking with scouts, I got the feeling that most of them were impressed with Spence's ability to own up to the mistakes made at Ohio State. He was kicked out of school for failing multiple drug tests. At Eastern Kentucky, he asked the administration to drug test him weekly and anytime they wanted. Spence wanted to prove that he had matured and moved past his partying and wild days.
At 6'3” and 261 pounds, Spence might not be perfectly suited for a 4-3 defense end. Regardless of scheme, he can attack opposing quarterbacks and that is why I believe that Spence will be a top-15 pick in this year's draft.
Sheldon Rankins (DT, Louisville):
The only player who could compete with Noah Spence for player-of-the-week honors in my book was Sheldon Rankins. The interior offensive lineman of the South team couldn't handle the pass rushing moves by Rankins.
Rankins dominated, displaying both power and speed rush moves rarely seen by defensive tackles. Many scouts commented on Rankins' similarity to Aaron Donald at this stage of his career. As good as Rankins was this week and throughout his career at Louisville, he is not on the same level as Aaron Donald in my opinion.
Donald finished his career at Pitt, with 29.5 sacks and 66 TFL in 52 games. Rankins finished his career with 18 sacks and 31.5 TFL in 45 games. Donald is a once in a generation type of player. Rankins is a quality pass rusher whose talents compare most favorably to current Carolina Panthers defensive tackle, Kawann Short.
Rankins has cemented his spot as one of the best interior pass rushers in this draft class. He was widely viewed as a late first rounder, but with his performance last week, he could rise to be a mid-first rounder.
Jonathan Jones (CB, Auburn):
Short in stature, Jonathan Jones played with an aggressive style and didn't back down all week during Senior Bowl practices. At 5'10” and 180 pounds, Jones isn't the biggest defensive back, in fact only four defensive backs invited to the Senior Bowl were under six feet. The league has put an emphasis on bigger, longer corners.
Jones was a four year starting cornerback for the Auburn Tigers and he finished last season with 69 tackles, 1.5 TFL, 13 PB, one FF, and one INT. Throughout his college career, Jones showed that he isn't afraid to get come down into the box and wrap up a running back in the backfield.
All week long, Jones stuck to wide receivers and disrupted their timing and was able to knock down a number of passes. He could break down a receiver's route pattern and in the latter half of the week, it seemed like Jones knew what route each receiver was going to run.
Viewed by some scouts as a late round prospect, don't be surprised if Jones catapults himself up a few team's draft boards with a solid performance at the NFL Combine.