Vikings Boast Top-Ranked Special Teams Group

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 29, 2013 – 3:09 pm

Well-respected Dallas Morning News sports columnist Rick Gosselin has come out with his annual special teams rankings, and the Vikings came out on top. Gosselin, who covers all sports in his columns but is an especially astute football observer, ranks the NFL special teams groups each season and does so by ranking all 32 units in 22 categories and assigning points according to their standing – 1 for the best, 32 for the worst.

“Minnesota booted the most field goals, committed the fewest turnovers and allowed the fewest points in the NFL this season on special teams,” Gosselin wrote. Gosselin also noted that the Vikings finished in the top five in seven other categories and the top 10 in four more. Blair Walsh was the standout performer for the Vikings special teams group this season, converting 35 of 38 FG tries and hitting 10 of 10 attempts from 50+ yards. Walsh also set a team record for touchbacks and he finished the regular season with 141 points, the second-highest scoring season in team history.

Gosselin also credited Vikings Special Teams Coordinator Mike Priefer for the team’s improvement in this area, nothing that Priefer is a seccond generation special teams coach (his father, Chuck, coached 17 years in the NFL for Detroit and San Diego). Under Priefer’s direction, the Vikings special teams group vaulted from 29th in 2011 to 1st this year, which represents the best single-season improvement in the 33-year history of the rankings. The Vikings finshed with 253.5 points, and the next closest team in the rankings was the Cincinnait Bengals at 276.

Here’s a link to the full rankings, but the content is behind a paywall so you’ll have to pony up some coin in order to see the entire piece. Here’s a list of the 22 categories Gosselin uses in his rankings: kickoff return, punt return, kickoff coverage, punt coverage, average starting field position after kickoff, opponent’s average starting field position after kickoff, punting, net punting, inside-the-20 punts, opponent’s punting, opponent’s net punting, field goals, field goal percentage, opponent’s field goal percentage, extra point percentage, points scored, points allowed, blocked kicks, blocked kicks allowed, takeaways, giveaways and penalties.

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MVP! Rudolph Wins Pro Bowl MVP Honors

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 27, 2013 – 9:49 pm

Vikings RB Adrian Peterson could well win NFL MVP honors in less than a week.

But the Vikings already have another MVP on their roster.

TE Kyle Rudolph took home Pro Bowl MVP honors on Sunday night after hauling in 5 receptions for 122 yards and 1 TD. It was the first Pro Bowl appearance in the 2-year pro’s career, and he came ready to play. The majority of Rudolph’s contributions came early in the game as the NFC built an insurmountable lead. Rudolph’s 3-yard TD grab from NY Giants QB Eli Manning came late in the 2nd quarter and gave the NFC a 31-14 lead at halftime. Also, Rudolph’s 122 receiving yards was a game high.

In the regular season, Rudolph had 9 TDs, which was tied for 1st (Jimmy Graham) in the NFC and tied for 2nd in the NFL (Rob Gronkowski).

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Rudolph, Walsh And Teammates Help NFC 62-35 Route AFC

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 27, 2013 – 9:37 pm

Kyle Rudolph had a 3-yard TD reception and led the NFC with 122 receiving yards on 5 receptions. Blair Walsh hit FGs of 48 and 26 yards to go along with 8 PATs. Chad Greenway had a fumble recovery. Jerome Felton had a 4th quarter TD run. It was a good night for Vikings at the Pro Bowl.

Those contributions plus many others from the rest of the NFC squad led to a 62-35 victory over the AFC in the Pro Bowl. Rudolph’s TD came from NY Giants QB Eli Manning and it gave the NFC a commanding 31-14 lead as the squads went into the locker rooms at halftime. Felton’s TD came midway through the 4th quarter, with the game out of hand, and it gave the NFC its 62nd point and a 34-point lead.

Matt Kalil played much of the game while rotating between LT and RT, while Jared Allen also played much of the game and emphasized the importance of players participating in the game when voted in by their peers during a sideline interview during the 4th quarter. It’s notable that Allen made the statement because he’s played through a shoulder injury all season and did so once again during the Pro Bowl.

Adrian Peterson, who won Pro Bowl MVP honors after the 2007 season, had 5 carries for 13 yards and made a quick exit.

The NFC’s victory this year marks their 4th in the last 6 games.

Other standouts from the game included:

– Packers C Jeff Saturday snapping the ball to Broncos QB Peyton Manning. Saturday played for the NFC and Manning for the AFC, but the snap was a special moment because the two were long-time teammates with the Indianapolis Colts, and Saturday is set to retire this year.

– NY Giants DE Jason Pierre-Paul intercepting a pass intended for Houston DE JJ Watt and thrown by Indianapolis QB Andrew Luck.

– Bengals WR AJ Green grabbing 7 receptions for 119 yards and 3 TDs.

– NY Giants QB Eli Manning going 16 of 23 for 191 yards and 2 TDs.

– Seattle QB Russell Wilson going 8 of 10 for 98 yards and 3 TDs.

– Buccaneers WR Vincent Jackson and NY Giants WR Victor Cruz combining for 16 receptions for 187 yards and 3 TDs.

– Saints QB Drew Brees throwing for 131 yards and 1 TD on 8 of 11 passing.

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Putting The Senior Bowl In Proper Perspective

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 24, 2013 – 4:54 am

A busy few days of covering the Senior Bowl concludes on Thursday and I’ll make the trek from Alabama back home to Minnesota. Heading into Senior Bowl week we put together a list of 10 players to watch during the week. It’s only appropriate, then, that when the festivities subside in Mobile after Saturday night’s game we craft a list of 10 players who indeed impressed during the week. Look for that on Sunday.

But I also wanted to take a moment to put the Senior Bowl and the days of practices leading up to the game on Saturday night into perspective. It’s important to remember – for coaches and scouts, observers such as myself and fans – that this week is one part of the process. It’s tempting to write final judgments and draw conclusions on some of these players after having a laser focus on them for a few straight days. But the more prudent course of action in evaluating these players is to weight what’s happened over the past few days appropriately compared to the body of work these players have put together over their college careers.

Did Sylvester Williams dominate at times this week? Absolutely. But does that mean he’ll dominate in a similar way each week in the NFL? Not necessarily. Coaches and scouts must add what’s happened down here in Mobile to their catalogue of information on this year’s draft prospects, and that catalogue is large at this stage in the game.

The Senior Bowl almost serves as a kickoff to the pre-draft season for many of us who’ve concentrated on the NFL over the past 6+ months. But to the dedicated scouts who’ve been analyzing and studying these players for years, the Senior Bowl is just one piece to the puzzle, and it’s closer to the end of the process than the beginning.

My point is not to diminish what happens at the Senior Bowl – not at all. This is an important part of the process of evaluating players, especially given the record number of underclassmen set to come out in this year’s draft. But it’s also important to keep things in perspective and not hyper-analyze what we’ve seen over the last 4+ days and let it out weight what these players have done and the hard-working scouts have seen over the last several years.

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RB Duel Emerges, TE Rivera Shines During South’s Wednesday Practice

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2013 – 6:24 pm

The dog days of Senior Bowl week are here, as both the North and South teams are 4 days and 3 practices into their week in Mobile. But that didn’t stop new developments from emerging on Wednesday afternoon at Ladd-Peebles Stadium, with the South team practicing for roughly 2 hours in a near perfect football climate.

One of the more entertaining developments was the emergence of a duel at RB. Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor is perhaps the most well-known runner on the South squad, having logged 3 straight 1,000-yard rushing and double-digit TD seasons. He was clearly his team’s best RB in Tuesday’s practice and has the kind of build you see in bell cow runners at the NFL level. But on Wednesday it was Florida’s Mike Gillislee who starred for the South. Gillislee broke free on the first play of 9-on-7 drills and then later in the practice he carried the ball on a draw play, burst up the middle and made a sweet cut to the right that allowed him to outrun the angle by pursuing LB Sean Porter. On that play, Gillislee’s burst was on display and it drew a reaction from the bleachers full of coaches and scouts.

I didn’t see Monday’ practice. On Tuesday it was Taylor who was better. On Wednesday it was Gillislee who was better. It’s an interesting duel between those two runners – a pair of runners with similar styles.

Rivera tops the TEs
I noted on Tuesday that the South team had an intriguing group of TEs and that I’d take a closer look at the group to try and discern among them. On Wednesday, a close look was not required in order to discern the talent. Tennessee’s Mychal Rivera was the standout. Granted, Rivera is the better pass-catcher of the group, and it can be easier to notice a pass-catching TE than one that excels in blocking. But, the bottom line is that on Wednesday Rivera solidified his standing as the group’s best pass-catcher. He didn’t drop a pass while I was watching him – both Vance McDonald and Michael Williams did – and he was constantly open. His best play came on a post route he ran while starting down the left seam. Arkansas QB Tyler Wilson stepped up into the pocket and fired a laser at Rivera, who leaped and hauled in the catch on a route that took him over the dropping linebacker and under a charging safety.

Rivera measures in at just over 6-3 and at 237 pounds. He appears to have a frame that he could build on, but that takes dedication and discipline, so teams interested in him will have to gauge his commitment. He did labor quite a bit in the late stages of a few periods on Wednesday, but you can hardly blame him considering how many routes he ran. Also, some offenses would prefer a TE with his build because they essentially use TEs as WRs. Regardless, Rivera clearly has pass-catching talent and has been one of the South’s most productive receivers this week.

3 CBs, 3 LBs stand out
The South defense had a spirited practice on Wednesday, and 6 individuals from the back end of that defense stood out. We’ll start with the CBs. The Detroit Lions coaching staff had the entire group of DBs go through drills that required them to sink and turn their hips quickly, and San Diego State’s Leon McFadden and Southeast Louisiana’s Robert Alford looked the most fluid during those drills. Williams & Mary’s BW Webb also looked good in this setting. A guy who flashed a bit on Tuesday – Cal CB Marc Anthony – flashed a bit once again on Wednesday. It should also be noted that Alford and Webb both took turns returning punts on Wednesday, and both fielded all punts cleanly.

For the LBs, Alabama’s Nico Johnson was all over the field, constantly in the middle of a play or the area of an incomplete pass. He lost a one-on-one every now and then during a pass coverage drill, but he was nearly flawless when pass rushing vs. the RBs/FB and he was solid during both 9-on-7 and 11-on-11 work. On one play, in fact, Johnson dropped into zone coverage and reached his depth quick enough to force a high incompletion on a pass from Oklahoma QB Landry Jones to Rivera – one of the few incompletions intended for Rivera on the day. Johnson was playing the MIKE (middle) LB in the South’s defense.

Playing one of the outside LB spots was Texas A&M’s Sean Porter, a 6-1, 231-pound defender who can run well and isn’t afraid to lay a big hit. While Gillislee did run away from Porter on one occasion, one must keep in mind that the Florida RB would run away from most defenders on the field. Porter is an athletic LB, and he made one of the better hits I saw of the week during an 11-on-11 period when he came downhill and blasted a ball-carrier on a good, clean hit.

Speaking of athletic LBs who can run, that’s exactly how one should describe Missouri’s Zaviar Gooden. He’s listed at just under 6-1 and at 233 pounds, and he can fly around the football field. At first glance, it’s even easy to mistake him for a safety. I’m not sure if it’s fair to categorize him as a tweener (that’s usually not a flattering description for a player), but I would categorize him as a LB who plays and looks like a safety.

– It would be fun to see a DT tandem that consisted of Georgia’s Jonathan Jenkins and North Carolina’s Sylvester Williams. Jenkins measures in at just under 6-4, 369 pounds, while Williams tips the scales at 6-2½, 313. Williams strikes me as being more capable of developing into a 3-down DT, but if a team had a Jenkins-Williams tandem at DT, something tells me they’d have success defending the run.
— The South offense tried a creative play near the end of practice, but a pair of South defenders were not fooled. The play was a fake handoff to the FB going through the A gap and then a pitch to the HB wide left. Clemson DE Malliciah Goodman and Alabama S Robert Lester were not fooled, though, as Goodman strung the play wide toward the sideline and Lester came downhill and finished off the ball carrier. Both players showed good athleticism and discipline on the play.
Louisiana Tech P Ryan Allen got 4 punts off to close practice on Wednesday. On the 4 punts he had a gross average of 49.3 yards, with 3 of the 40 kicks going at least 50 yards. I didn’t clock the get-off time or the hang time, so perhaps Allen took a few liberties in those areas because there was no rush, which would result in better distances. But the numbers on their own were pretty impressive.

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North WRs Dazzle On Wednesday; Other Practice Notes

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2013 – 12:55 pm

I came to Mobile on Monday excited to see North WR Aaron Dobson (Marshall) perform at the Senior Bowl. After Tuesday’s practices, though, I came away from Ladd-Peebles Stadium impressed with what the South WRs showed.

After Wednesday morning’s practice, however, it’s going to be hard for the South receivers group to be the most impressive of the day.

The North WRs, led by Dobson but including several others who stood out, performed well in the morning practice. Dobson and Elon’s Aaron Mellette were at the head of the class, as expected. But I also saw Texas WR Marquise Goodwin and Kansas State WR Chris Harper jump up, too. Here are a few standout plays from this group…

– During one-on-ones, Dobson got off the line on press coverage beautifully using his hands and quick feet to beat Texas S Kenny Vaccaro on a go route. Later in the drill, Washington CB Desmond Trufant tried to get physical with Dobson, but the Marshall playmaker eventually won the battle and uncovered himself for another reception.

– Mellette displayed the same ability to beat press coverage and uncover for a reception when he beat Florida International S Jonathan Cyprien on an intermediate route. Mellette showed his ability downfield as well, sprinting past Nevada DB Duke Williams and Utah State DB Will Davis to haul in a long reception down the right sideline during 11-on-11 work.

– Goodwin was good all day on comeback routes, displaying an ability to drive a defender backwards and then stick his foot in the ground and come back to the QB to uncover. He did exactly this late in the practice, made a diving catch to the outside, and got to his feet in time to sprint past the defense down the sideline. Harper was solid all day, especially in routes over the middle. He actually ended the 11-on-11 period while catching a beautifully thrown pass from Miami (OH) QB Zac Dysert that would’ve resulted in a TD.

What’s the story with LB Arthur Brown, S TJ McDonald?
Kansas State LB Arthur Brown
and USC S TJ McDonald are great looking athletes who appear to be among the better players at their position here in Mobile. But as you watch practice, you just don’t see them making any sensational plays. They seem to make the routine plays routinely, but there hasn’t been much splash to their game.

Perhaps that’s a good thing, though. Brown rarely is out of position and he’s around the ball frequently. McDonald read a draw perfectly during 11-on-11 work Wednesday and in fact was the only defender who did, displaying natural instincts and discipline. Also with McDonald, whether it’s during full team work or 7-on-7 drills, the football is rarely thrown in his direction, which tells me he’s in the right place at the right time quite a bit, forcing the QB to go another direction.

It’ll be interesting to see how the stock of both Brown and McDonald changes in the build-up to the draft. My guess is that both of them see their stars become brighter as the draft approaches.

A couple solid CBs
Speaking of being in the right place at the right time, that’s exactly how I’d describe the performance of a pair of North CBs on Wednesday – Oregon State’s Jordan Poyer and Boise State’s Jamar Taylor. Neither player made any spectacular impression today, but both were often in the right place at the right time, forcing incompletions and forcing ball carriers to alter their path. Taylor’s best play may have come on the first play of 11-on-11 work, when he was in perfect position to shadow a receiver running a deep crossing route after a play-action fake by the QB.

Poyer measures in at just under 6-0 and 182 pounds, while Taylor tips the scale at 192 and measured in at 5-10½. Not great size for their position, but poor size, either.

Barner in the passing game
Oregon RB Kenjon Barner is an intriguing prospect to me. He comes from that up-tempo, high-scoring offensive system that Chip Kelly ran. Those players, historically, didn’t always translate well into the NFL. But as I wrote earlier in the week, the success the San Francisco 49ers have had with LaMichael James makes me think Barner can fulfill a similar role with an NFL team. There’s a big discrepancy in the speed of the game from college to the pros, but Barner has the kind of speed that really marginalizes that speed margin.

Barner has work to do, though. He was not very good going against LBs and DBs in pass protection drills today. He was bull rushed by Washington DB Desmond Trufant early in the drill and then Rutgers LB Steve Beauharnais got the best of him a bit later with a nice outside-to-inside move.

Later in the period, though, when the defenders were charged with covering the backs out of the backfield, Barner impressed. He beat Vaccaro with an inside move easily and then used an outside release to explode past Rutgers LB Khaseem Greene.

North Carolina DT Sylvester “Sly” Williams followed up an absolutely dominant day on Tuesday with another excellent day on Wednesday. He was in the backfield frequently disrupting both QBs and RBs.
— I’ve mentioned Illinois LB Michael Buchanon a couple of times this week. On Tuesday he recovered a fumble and returned it for a TD. And on Monday I included him in the “10 players to watch” entry just because he played LB at Illinois, just as Vikings Director of College Scouting Scott Studwell did. But I’m not sure if Buchanon will be a LB in the NFL. Perhaps he’ll be a DE. Or perhaps a team that employs the 3-4 defense will take him and put him at that pass-rushing outside LB spot. With his size-athleticism combo and ability to flash as a pass rusher off the edge, I think he may be best served rushing the passer more than dropping into coverage as frequently as a LB does.

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Rudolph Becomes 6th Vikings Pro Bowler

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 23, 2013 – 8:04 am

The Vikings already had 5 Pro Bowlers. But a reinforcement is coming for good measure.

TE Kyle Rudolph has been named to his first Pro Bowl, as he replaces Tony Gonzalez for the NFC squad.

“When I first heard, I was surprised,” Rudolph said. “I’m just so excited and honored to be playing in the Pro Bowl. It is a dream come true, a dream I had since I was a little kid.

“Having six guys in the Pro Bowl says a lot about our team. All offseason we had the mindset and the mentality that the sky was the limit. We kept that to ourselves within the locker room and worked hard all off season. It paid off during the regular season.”

Rudolph tied for 1st in the NFC among TEs with a career-high 9 TD receptions during the regular season, which was good for 2nd in the NFL behind only New England’s Rob Gronkowski. The second-year product out of Notre Dame also recorded career-highs receptions (53) and receiving yards (493) in 2012.

Rudolph, who started all 16 games in 2012 and the team’s Wild Card playoff game, becomes the first Vikings TE to make the Pro Bowl since Byron Chamberlain did so in 2001. He joins fellow Vikings Jared Allen, Jerome Felton, Chad Greenway, Adrian Peterson and Blair Walsh in Hawaii.

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South Practice Notes: Trio Of WRs, One DE Impress

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 22, 2013 – 6:40 pm

The South team took the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium for an afternoon practice at 1:30 on Tuesday, and I assumed the same position for their practice as I did for the North team’s practice in the morning. So the notes below will focus on the drill work and 11-on-11 action that happened right in front of me.

For Wednesday’s South team practice, I’ll be sure to spot myself in an area that will give me good vision to positions that are not covered in Tuesday’s notes…

WRs fun to watch
The South team has three WRs that caught my eye throughout Tuesday’s practice. We’ll go alphabetically and briefly address each one…

– The Vikings selected two WRs from Arkansas in last year’s draft – Greg Childs and Jarius Wright. And now there’s another one who will be eligible in this year’s NFL draft who may make some NFL team very happy. His name is Cobi Hamilton and he had a good day on Tuesday. Hamilton measured in at just under 6-2 and at 199 pounds, a frame that would suggest he’d play the X (outside) receiver spot in the Vikings offense. But I think he has the agility and skill set to play Z (inside/slot) receiver in an offense, as well. Granted I didn’t watch all of his snaps and I haven’t watched a second of film on him, but Hamilton appears to be a smooth route runner who makes catches look easy.

– You might not think of Louisiana Tech as a program that churns out talented players regularly, but they’re about to churn out an extremely talented receiver named Quinton Patton. A quick look at his highlights will get you excited to see what he can do at the NFL level. He appears to have a great burst and great long speed, and I also thought he ran clean routes and caught the ball smoothly. Patton lined up all over the field on Tuesday and on some of his film I’ve seen him line up wide, but I wonder if he wouldn’t be a tremendous slot receiver in the NFL.

Baylor’s Terrance Williams has gotten a lot of pub in this space the past few weeks because he’s been placed with the Vikings on many initial mock drafts. Of all the receivers – for both teams – on the field today, Williams appeared to me to be the most fluid and “pro ready.” Again, what I saw today is a blip on the radar screen when you consider these players’ body of work, and my designation of “pro ready” is something with which you should carry a grain of salt (I once said there would be no way Jimmy Clausen would slip from the 1st round). But for what it’s worth, Williams looked sharp today and I have little doubt he’ll be an impact player as a rookie in the NFL.

On the edge
In much the same way “Sly” Williams dominated the North team’s practice in the morning, Georgia DE Cornelius Washington displayed flashes of dominance during the South’s practice. He was easily the most impressive defensive lineman on the field, and he did it with a variety of pass-rushing moves.

The move that caused the biggest stir in the bleachers full of coaches and scouts was a bull rush he put on a player I couldn’t identify – it was as if he was shot out of a cannon. Washington also exploded past Virginia OT Oday Aboushi during one-on-ones and it was an impressive, quick move.

Washington did show a propensity to jump offsides, however. I counted 3 times in which he jumped, and it drove Detroit’s defensive line coach nuts. Each time Washington jumped offsides during a one-on-one drill, the coaches would take him from the drill and replace him with LSU DE Lavar Edwards, who had an up-and-down day. On one occasion when Washington was replaced with Edwards, it was Aboushi who benefited because he stepped up and stonewalled Edwards.

Offensive line dominant early, defensive line recovered late
The impressive performance from Washington notwithstanding, it was the South’s offensive line that looked dominant for much of the practice. I particularly noticed the South’s interior linemen performing well. Georgia DT Jonathan Jenkins entered this week’s Senior Bowl has the most-hyped defensive lineman on the South team, but the performance of the South interior line shut Jenkins down for most of the early part of practice. I was also impressed with Oklahoma OT Lane Johnson, who on back-to-back plays shutout Clemson DE Malliciah Goodman.

As the practice wore on, though, the defensive line turned it around. Washington started to dominate, Jenkins began to overpower the interior, and even fellow DTs Everett Dawkins (Florida State) and Cory Grissom (South Florida) eventually got in on the action and flashed ability.

Tight ends are intriguing
The South team has 3 TEs listed on the roster – Vance McDonald (Rice), Mychal Rivera (Tennessee) and Michael Williams (Alabama). Rivera looked the most fluid catching the ball today. He looks to me like a player who, if he reaches his potential, will be better than the NY Jets Dustin Keller but not quite as good as New England’s Aaron Hernandez. I’ll try to get a better look at McDonald and Williams during Wednesday’s practice. Williams was one of our 10 players to watch from earlier in the week.

Cal CB Marc Anthony was impressive in the late stages of Tuesday’s practice. He had a back-to-back sequence of plays where he angled off a RB from across the field and prevented a would-be TD and then followed that up by jumping a quick slant route and recording a PBU (pass break up). Then at the very end of practice, Anthony deflected a ball that was intercepted and returned for a TD by Florida State LB Vince Williams.
— Returning kickoffs for the South on Tuesday were: SE Louisiana CB Robert Alford, Georgia Southern DB JJ Wilcox and Williams & Mary CB BW Webb.

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North Practice Notes: DT Sylvester Williams Dominates

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 22, 2013 – 5:40 pm

The North squad took the field for practice at Ladd-Peebles Stadium at 9:30 a.m. on Tuesday and worked for roughly 2 hours under the direction of Dennis Allen’s Oakland Raiders staff. I sat in the bleachers behind one of the end zones, so my observations for Tuesday’s action will focus on the drill work and 11-on-11 action that happened right in front of me.

For Wednesday’s North team practice, I’ll be sure to spot myself in an area that will give me good vision to positions that are not covered in Tuesday’s notes…

Dominant DT
The star of the show for the North team on Tuesday was clearly North Carolina DT Sylvester Williams. He displayed a combination of size, strength and quickness that could make him a dominant player in the NFL. In a one-on-one drill with Kent State G Brian Winters, Williams used a quick rip move to get past the blocker and find the QB. Then moments later in a drill where the defensive linemen were working against double-teams, Williams split the two players blocking him with ease to make a play.

Williams, who goes by “Sly” instead of Sylvester, measured in at the Senior Bowl a touch over 6-2 and at 313 pounds. He has a solid base and good upper body strength, which allows him to anchor well and also fend off blockers with his arms so he can penetrate the backfield to make a play or force a play the wrong direction so a teammate can make a play. There were a couple of times when Oregon RB Kenjon Barner was able to dance around Williams in the backfield, but I think you have to give the defense a break there because players don’t tackle to the ground in these practices and because Barner is a great player in his own right.

Another impressive part of Williams’ game is his ability to anticipate snap counts. I’m not sure if this was a strength of his during actual games in college, but during practice on Tuesday he was able to anticipate a few snap counts, which made his already explosive first step even more explosive and his already dominant performance even more impressive.

One to watch
One of the first players I noticed at practice on Tuesday morning was Texas DE Alex Okafor. Maybe it was because he’s the 1st string left DT. Maybe it’s because of his build – 6-4½ , 261 pounds. I’m not exactly sure, but you can see the potential this player has as an edge rusher for a 4-3 defense.

Okafor’s best season at Texas was his last, when he registered 12.5 tackles for loss and 7.0 sacks along the way to being named 1st-Team All-Big 12 and an AFCA All-American selection. Also, his best game at Texas may have been his last game, as he collected 4.5 sacks in his team’s bowl game.

I like Okafor a lot as a left DE in a 4-3 because he appears stout enough to hold his own in the run game as well as be a productive pass rusher. He didn’t win every matchup on Tuesday – Central Michigan OT Eric Fisher stonewalled him twice in a row during one-on-one drills – but he displayed a nice combination of brute strength and pass-rushing ability.

Before we move on to another position, it should also be noted that Penn State DT Jordan Hill flashed some ability on Tuesday by using a bull-rushing technique to overpower both Notre Dame C Braxston Cave and West Virginia OL Joe Madsen.

A few offensive linemen were good, too
It wasn’t all defensive line for the North team on Tuesday. A few of the offensive linemen stood out, too.

I already mentioned Fisher from Central Michigan. The 6-7, 305-pound OT looked good a couple times against Okafor, and overall had a solid practice. I noticed on several occasions great hand placement and hand fighting by San Jose State G David Quessenberry. And finally, I heard before practice that Illinois G Hugh Thornton had an up-and-down day on Monday, and then I saw him have an up-and-down day on Tuesday. Thornton dominated an opponent in one-on-ones, but then lost badly his next time around to UCLA DE Datone Jones.

Denard doesn’t steal the show
So often during his career at Michigan, Denard Robinson stole the show. He hasn’t been able to do that at Senior Bowl practices. But you can hardly blame him.

After playing QB at Michigan, Robinson is at the Senior Bowl as a WR. He did have a nice up-and-out pattern today that resulted in a TD, but overall he looks like just a face in the crowd. I’m sure he’ll become much more than a face in crowd if he can ever adjust to the intricacies of playing the position. He is too athletic and too good with the ball in his hands to not have a place in the NFL.

The Raiders coaching staff also had Robinson back to catch punts today, and it wasn’t a great display. As he does with the details of playing the WR position, Robinson has much to work on when it comes to fielding punts. I think he’ll get there, though.

– The LB from Illinois that we put on the “10 Players To Watch” list earlier in the week – Michael Buchanon – recovered a fumble on Tuesday and returned it for a TD. Sweet.
— I counted 5 fumbled center-quarterback exchanges for the North team on Tuesday. Those are to be expected early in the week of an all-star game, but 5 seems a little over the top. That will be a point of frustration and discussion in meetings tonight, I bet.
— There were a couple of times when UCONN DE Trevardo Williams impressed me on Tuesday with his movement skills in space. He contained a screen pass and a swing pass – both to RBs – nicely during Tuesday’s practice and it was all because of his discipline to stay home and his ability to react quickly in the open field.
— Tuesday’s practice concluded on a play that saw Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib connect with Cincinnati TE Travis Kelce for a deep pass down the left seam.

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Who Is Aaron Mellette? Plus Other First Impressions In Mobile

Posted by Mike Wobschall on January 22, 2013 – 12:08 am

I hadn’t been in Mobile more than an hour and hadn’t even sniffed a practice field, and yet I could already fill up a notebook of first impressions from the 2013 Senior Bowl. Before the Blog becomes consumed by my practice reports and observations, let’s empty out the notebook from Monday as made the trek from Minneapolis to Mobile, by way of Atlanta…

– Before I get in to a few notes about my time traveling to – and in – Mobile so far, I want to mention a player down here at the Senior Bowl who has captured the attention of some already. His name is Aaron Mellette, and he is a wide receiver for the North team. Mellette measures in a 6-4, 215 pounds, so it sounds as if he has a prototypical build for an NFL WR. He played collegiately at Elon University, a school located in Elon, North Carolina and a program that competes in the Southern Conference. In his senior season, Mallette hauled in 97 receptions for 1,398 yards and 18 TDs. The reason I became aware of him is because I saw NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock upon my arrival in downtown Mobile on Monday night and before our conversation ended I had to ask him about Aaron “Mitts” Dobson. Mayock gave me a positive response on Dobson, but while he was doing that, Charles Davis, also of NFL Network, made a comment about Mellette’s performance on Day 1 of Senior Bowl week. Not sure what to make of it all yet, but it’s another name to add to the list of players to watch this week.

– I couldn’t help but pay attention to the temperature outside as I drove toward the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport to board my flight. One bank marquee listed the temperature as -3 degrees. The temperature here in Mobile isn’t anything incredible – 57 degrees when I landed – but it beats the heck out of -9. The weather in general is supposed to be pleasant here in Mobile for the week, with temps tomorrow of around 57 and increasing to 61 on Wednesday, 67 on Thursday and 68 on Friday. Last year inclement weather forced Leslie Frazier to move one of his practices indoors, a major bummer for the players and for NFL teams trying to scout the players.

– It’s awesome when pilots get on the PA system and declare to the passengers what route the plane will take to arrive at its destination. It’s frustrating to look down from your window and not know what’s below you. The pilot on our flight from Minneapolis to Atlanta extended the courtesy of informing us of our flight path. I appreciated it.

– The first thing I noticed when I got off the plane and entered the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport was the amount of San Francisco 49ers-clad travelers were scurrying around the building. The 49ers had of course just defeated the Falcons in the Georgia Dome the day prior, so the many 49ers fans who traveled to see their team play were on their way home.

– It was fun running into Chad O’Shea at the airport in Atlanta. He was an offensive assistant coach on Brad Childress’ staff with the Vikings from 2006-08, but took a promotion with the New England Patriots and joined Bill Belichick’s staff in 2009. Talk about a quick turnaround – O’Shea and the Patriots had lost the AFC title game less than 24 hours before I saw him in the Atlanta airport connecting to a flight for Mobile.

– It’s a different vibe down here this year compared to last year. Remember, last year Vikings Head Coach Leslie Frazier and his staff were in charge of the North squad. This year, Frazier and his staff are just like the other teams who aren’t coaching one of the teams. So it makes for a different environment all together, but it will still be productive for the coaches and scouts, and for the Vikings Entertainment Network (VEN).

– One thing is unmistakable – the people down here in Mobile love their college football. I sat next to a woman on the flight from Atlanta to Mobile, and she had so much to say about how much the Senior Bowl means to the Mobile community and she had so much to say about many of the players who’ve played in the Senior Bowl itself in years past, from current players such as Andy Dalton, Clay Matthews, Tim Tebow and Russell Wilson, to throwbacks such as Tee Martin (a Mobile native).

– Speaking of Mobile natives, there is a Mobile native who will be a senior next year and who, if he plays in the Senior Bowl, will be a bigger sensation than even Tebow. University of Alabama QB AJ McCarron. Yes, the back-to-back national champion who is looking to be a back-to-back-to-back national champion with head coach Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. If McCarron does that, and if he chooses to come back to Mobile and play in the Senior Bowl, the scene down here next year could be nuts.

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