2019 Senior Bowl: Defensive line review

By | January 28, 2019

After a great week of practice, NFL scouts were anxious to see whether Mississippi State DE Montez Sweat could build on the momentum and perhaps lock up a top-10 spot in the upcoming draft with a dominating performance in Saturday’s actual game. Instead, Sweat came up just a little bit flat; he did a nice job shedding blockers to record a couple of tackles for loss, but never got any sustained pressure rushing the passer. Indeed, it looked at times on Saturday that Sweat was kind of taking it easy. He actually didn’t play all that many snaps Saturday and didn’t do much more than put his hands into the chest of the OT in front and bull-rushed which isn’t his strength. In fact, speaking of his strength, Sweat has really long arms – over 35.5 inches – but he doesn’t look like he has a lot of muscle in the upper arm and shoulders.

While Sweat may not have a whole lot to prove on Saturday, Boston College’s Zach Allen did; unfortunately he didn’t! In fact, Allen really struggled just to get off the line of scrimmage much less get any real pressure on the pocket. He was basically standing up off the snap and did a lot of head-faking and hand slapping and wasn’t moving his feet. Of course, Allen has never been a speed rusher per se, but it has to be of concern that he also got almost no separation even when he moved inside in passing situations. All that has to concern pro teams that Allen is something of a tweener who was able to bully smaller offensive linemen in college, but may not be able to do so against bigger, stronger pro OL, while he just doesn’t have the speed to run around anyone.

There was a similar story for Jaylon Ferguson of Louisiana, who led all of college football in sacks this past fall, but still wasn’t getting much love from pro scouts because of the level of competition he faced. Needless to say he was hoping to get a bounce out of the Senior Bowl, but never really took off. Like BC’s Allen, Ferguson looked to be a tweener who just doesn’t have the speed to run around people or the strength to bully them and ended up doing a lot of hand fighting and head faking that didn’t result in much headway.

In contrast, a couple of DEs in Charles Omenihu of Texas and Iowa’s Anthony Nelson that play a similar style of game as Allen were simply better at it. Neither guy is going to run around anyone, but Omenihu has a long, quick first step and used it effectively to get into the pads of the OT assigned to him and then used his long arms to bull his way to the QB. In fact, he was able to generate 3-4 clear pressures against Andre Dillard, arguably the top-rated OT in the 2019 draft class. Omenihu also did a nice job shedding blocks at the point of attack and flowing to the ball in the run defense. For his part, Nelson was able to beat Dillard off the snap for a strip-sack. Despite being 6-7, Nelson also played with nice pad level; he was able to dip his shoulder, get into the pads of the OL, and use his length to find the shortest route to the QB. Meanwhile, a number of other edge rushers impressed with their energy and work rate including L J Collier of TCU, Jonathan Ledbetter of Georgia, and Oshane Ximines of Old Dominion. They are basically great-circle route guys whose only real move is to try and run around the OT, but each showed enough speed and the motor to do so. Collier may have been the most impressive of the three as he’s a low-built 280-pounder who was also really tough to block once he got leverage.

Unarguably, the best story in Mobile this week was Western Illinois DT Khalen Saunders, whose fiance gave birth to their child literally while daddy was practicing on Thursday. Saunders raced home on Friday to meet his daughter and then returned in time for the game on Saturday. And Saunders was able to earn some serious coin for baby Kambridge with a spirited performance in Saturday’s game. He’s a squat 320-pounder with real quickness, strength and lateral agility; plus he appears to have a great motor as he was consistently able to jump into gaps and force his way into the backfield; he also did a nice job stacking the point of attack and finding the ball up and down the line of scrimmage.

Texas A&M’s Kingsley Keke also had a terrific game; he’s not the biggest DT out there, but he is very quick with excellent lateral agility and a nice swim move; indeed, at times he looked more like a DE working inside rather than a tackle. He also showed nice range up and down the line of scrimmage. Meanwhile, Keke’s A&M linemate Daylon Mack wasn’t as disruptive upfield, but proved almost impossible to move off the line of scrimmage. Same for Washington’s Greg Gaines, another fire hydrant type who wouldn’t be rooted off the line of scrimmage and showed nice range between the tackles, although he didn’t get much upfield penetration. In fact, the DTs generally all played well in the Senior Bowl as Isaiah Buggs of Alabama, Demarcus Christmas of Florida State and Byron Cowart of Maryland also made plays upfield, while Auburn’s Dontavious Russell and Renell Wren of Arizona State were solid enough holding the point of attack.