By Russ Lande
MOBILE, Ala. -- Although the Senior Bowl will not be played until Saturday at 3:30 p.m. Central Time, nearly all NFL personnel have left Mobile, because the practices carry much more weight than the game. It's important to remember that many players, such as offensive tackle Chris Williams, receiver Andre Caldwell and cornerback Alphonso Smith, have shined in Mobile and struggled in the NFL. On the other hand, prospects such as cornerback Richard Sherman, running back Chris Johnson and quarterback Russell Wilson did not have great weeks of practice in Mobile but are now top-flight NFL players. With that said, I held a staff meeting to determine which prospects had the best weeks of practice, and below is our top 10 (listed in alphabetical order).
Jared Abbrederis, WR, Wisconsin
Arriving in Mobile with questions about his size and playing strength, Abbrederis leaves having proven that he has what it takes to be a quality starting slot receiver at the next level. While he lacks premier playing speed, his display of quickness off the ball and out of cuts combined with his sharp route running allowed him to get open with ease. Practicing with passers he had never worked with before, he was consistently able to adjust to catch slightly off-target throws and made highlight reel catches seem routine. He still had some issues fighting through the initial jam to release quickly against press coverage, but once off the line he was able to maintain his stem until the break point while the cornerback played physical trying to disrupt route.
Walt Aikens, CB, Liberty
Of the small school players this week, Aikens proved he has what it takes to handle the huge jump in level of competition. He did not seem in awe of his surroundings and was willing to play physical with all the receivers from the get go. Judging playing speed for small school players is always difficult, which is why these all-star games are so valuable and Aikens exhibited the speed and closing ability to run with any receiver throughout week. Able to ride in the receiver's hip pocket all over the field and react to make plays on the ball, was an excellent example of his body control and ball skills. While I do not believe Aikens will be a first round pick, I believe his performance this week opened eyes and erased doubts so that he will likely be a second day selection.
Chris Borland, ILB, Wisconsin
After winning Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2013, Borland came to the Senior Bowl with questions surrounding if his lack of ideal height would keep him from being a starter in the NFL. While NFL teams generally do not get excited about 5-foot-11 linebackers, there is no question that Borland's play all week had NFL people almost giddy. He was clearly the most athletic and versatile linebacker on either squad and shocked people with how smooth and fluid he was in pass coverage and his dynamic pass rush skills. When you add in that he was constantly the first linebacker moving all week and was making play after play in nearly every drill, Borland's performance should silence any and all past critics and lead to him being selected on day two of the Draft.
Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State
The only quarterback throughout the week whose skill set reminded us of an NFL starter, Carr put himself in position to likely be a first round pick. Flashing an ultra-quick release, strong arm and ability to make strong and accurate throws from different arm angles set Carr apart from the rest of the pack. His natural throwing ability had many NFL scouts saying "wow" after he made impressive throws all over the field. As predicted before this week, Carr's physical skill set stood out when he did not have to deal with a consistent pass rush in his face as he looked comfortable and poised in every practice.
Chris Davis, CB, Auburn
The saying amongst NFL personnel is that short cornerbacks need to possess special athleticism, ball skills and toughness in order to succeed at the next level and Davis comes away from this week having proven that. Unlike many short corners, Davis seems to enjoy jamming receivers at the line to slow release, plays physical throughout route and has the elite speed to stay with the fastest receivers. Most impressive was Davis' aggressive style of attempting to break up passes as he showed no fear going over, through or around receiver to try and do so. Even if he could not break it up, he did a great job of pulling the receiver's arms apart after the ball arrived which led to a number of passes being dropped right after they reached receiver.
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Not well known amongst many in the media and lightly regarded by most draft analysts, Donald made it clear early on in Monday's practice that he was not one to take lightly. Although under-sized at less than 6'1 and 288 pounds, Donald's knack for exploding off the ball while maintaining leverage and using hands aggressively enabled him to jolt and drive pass blockers backwards into the pocket with shocking ease. Not content to be just a power player, his foot quickness and agility made it easy for him to change directions in a flash to beat his man with a variety of pass rush moves. He was consistently able to get behind the line of scrimmage to disrupt/make plays. A strong final season combined with his play this week has Donald on the verge of being a first round pick if he performs well the rest of the spring.
Dee Ford, DE/OLB, Auburn
I do not believe anyone is ever going to consider Ford an elite run defender, but his first step explosiveness off the ball and rare speed helped him beat offensive tackles around the corner with shocking ease. Most edge pass rushers struggle to dip and get low to turn corners sharply while the pass blocker leans on him and tries to ride him by pocket, but Ford has this down pat as he gets great bend and turns the corner with strength and blinding speed. For him to become a starting defensive end in a 43 defense he will need to add weight and improve his play at the point of attack, but for teams that play a 34 defense he has all the traits to be an impact pass rusher off the edge, which is why I believe he will be a second round pick.
Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota
Not one of the big names coming to Mobile, you can be sure everyone is talking about Hageman now after he dominated practice every day. Finding tall defensive linemen with the strength to dominate and the athleticism to defeat blocks is rare and he made it look remarkably easy. Few 6-foot-6 interior defensive tackles succeed as they struggle to play with leverage, but Hageman did so consistently and was able to drive blockers backwards like they were on skates. While Hageman still needs to perform well at the Combine and his pro day and handle the interview process, right now the odds point towards him being a top twenty draft pick.
Zach Martin, OT, Notre Dame
Prior to his performance this week, numerous scouts told me they thought Martin would end up being classified as a guard because they expected him to struggle at offensive tackle when matched against the best pass rushers in the country. However, they could not have been more wrong as Martin displayed better foot quickness and edge pass blocking ability than anyone expected. He was able to maintain outstanding base while sliding out to the corner and did an excellent job of getting a good fit on pass rusher, so that once he engaged man the play was over. In a draft with many good, but not rare, offensive tackles, Martin has put himself in position to be considered in the late first round.
Chris Smith, DE/OLB, Arkansas
One of the most impressive players at Monday's weigh-in, Smith kept things going with a dominant pass rushing performance all week. Able to burst off the ball and get to the turn point fast put Smith in great position to either beat the offensive tackle around the corner or back underneath with an explosive pass rush move inside. Most college pass rushers rely on solely their athleticism to defeat blocks, but Smith's use of hands to chop or rip to keep the pass blockers hands off him let him consistently stay free and pressure the quarterback. After what I saw this week, I have a sneaky feeling that a team like San Diego or New Orleans could use a first round pick on Smith as he fits perfectly as an outside linebacker in their 34 defense.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him@RUSSLANDE.