I couldn’t even see downtown Mobile out my hotel window Wednesday morning at 7:30 AM when I woke up. That’s some pretty dense fog, considering I was looking out a 17th floor window to a downtown less than 5 miles away. Oh well, it was lifted to another gray, cloudy day by the time I headed for practice at about 10:30. But hey, no rain.
The National Team, coached by the Dolphins staff, was out putting the troops through their paces a few minutes before 11:30. Let’s start with the injury updates. CB RODARIUS WILLIAMS was without pads, and DeVONTA SMITH was missing from my vision. A few minutes later, I noticed that my big star from Day One, LEVI ONWUZURIKE, DT #95, was on the field, but without his helmet or shoulder pads. Oh well, it’s football, and like it or not, injuries are a regular part of the game. Later in drills, WR BEN SKOWRONEK, #81 of Notre Dame, limped off the field and went to the locker room with a couple of trainers, not to return.
People are starting to create a buzz about the guy from the lowest Division of NCAA Football competition, D3. His name is QUINN MEINERZ, #71, from UW/Whitewater. He’s a 6’3/320 former OG that is working at OC this week. He isn’t pretty to look at with a midriff, which looks like a 6 month baby-bump, but he’s country strong and something beyond intense on the field in pads. He’s lost a few 1-on-1 battles, but he’s won his fair share and is a ‘play to the whistle’ punisher that opponents don’t like facing in these gladiatorial battles. Quite frankly, his goal is to get himself in a position to be drafted in April. He’s gaining attention and fans right now.
The majority of NFL teams no longer feature a FB as a starting position, and many of those don’t really even have a true FB on their roster, most using an H-B type TE to fill that role when it is called for. However, for those who do want a quality, versatile FB, the very best in several years is in this venue. His name is BEN MASON, #42, who is a 6’2/256 bone crusher of a player that blocks like hell, but can also run in short yardage situations and has shown his varied skills this week, including very nice pattern running and pass catching, with more of the same today. For NFL teams that fail to run well in red zone and goal line situations, I say the answer is simple… get a real FB. MASON is the best in this draft class and should be drafted early on Day 3.
There are some real highly ranked TE prospects this Draft process, but many of them are really big WR types that are not going to realistically play inline much, if at all, like KYLE PITTS, BREVIN JORDAN and KENNY YEBOAH. The two top ranked inline guys are PAT FREIERMUTH of Penn State, who likes to catch more than block, and the legit inline guy that is here this week, HUNTER LONG from Boston College. LONG has been showing his skills at route running and receiving so far. He has nice soft hands and runs good routes. He appears to have the speed to get open in coverage against LB’s and some S’s.
I mentioned Arizona State WR FRANK DARBY yesterday for his leaping and hands catching. He’s showing his hands off again today. He also made a couple of dazzling footwork catches on the sidelines today in practice. The Senior Bowl is working this year with a firm called SlantsAl, which is using practice tape to time the speed at which players are covering ground while they run pass routes or sprint down the field. Well guess who ran the third fastest time in Tuesday’s practice sessions? None other than Mr. DARBY, #84, who clocked at a peak speed of 18.49 mph at one point.
The fastest player timed yesterday was a guy I did not mention, but one I eyeballed closely today by the name of DEMETRIC FELTON, #10 from UCLA. FELTON is listed in the WR group on our rosters this week, but he played RB at UCLA and did return work for HC Chip Kelly in Pasadena. FELTON peaked out at 19.78 mph on Tuesday, and looked quite explosive today at times. FELTON is a short guy that measured in at 5’8/189 Tuesday morning. He has good sized hands at 9 3/8″. He is a fast and quick player that is basically a “weapon”, and he’s showing that this week against some heavy competition.
Watching some passing drills, as well as some run drill work, I gained a new level of respect for RB MICHAEL CARTER, #7, from the UNC program of MACK BROWN. He’s another short guy (5’8) with a solid 202 lbs. on his frame. He has shown quicks and good balance, as well as very soft hands as a receiver, but what has really struck me again today is just how flat out-fast he is, and how quickly he can accelerate. If he gets past the first line of defenders, no one is catching up to him. He is another explosive weapon and a TD threat whenever he touches the ball.
By and large, the most talented and deep position groups for both teams may be the receiving corps. But be that as it may, the DB group has had its moments. At the beginning of this practice session we witnessed one of those moments when THOMAS GRAHAM, CB #4, stuck like glue on a down and out pattern and jumped in front of his receiver and cleanly picked off an ever so slightly under thrown ball. GRAHAM is considered to be a Day 2 Draftee, but we did not get to see him develop his craft one more year in 2020 because he opted out of the season. He would still be only a junior next season, because of the eligibility waiver the NCAA put in place, but he wants in and one can see why. He’s a solidly built guy that measured in at 5’104/193 lbs. He shows good quickness, including quick twitch reaction to a ball in the air. He’s the real deal and will likely be a Day Two Draft Pick.
I developed an appreciation for the play of Ohio State LB BARON BROWNING (#55) during the abbreviated Buckeyes 2020 season. WERNER and BORLAND got more attention last season, but BROWNING may be the more versatile, flash play LB from the Ohio State stable. BROWNING is the impact play man with good bend and some nice pass-rush moves, but we won’t see much of that in a venue where blitzing is verboten. However, what we are seeing already in practices is BROWNING’s ability to run with potential receivers in the middle of the field. TE HUNTER LONG is making a big impression here, as mentioned earlier, but BROWNING showed nice tight coverage on him in crossing route situations. He is already making a case for himself as a flash play guy and a serious pro prospect.
Let’s move on to the American Team practice. MATT RHULE and his coaching staff may be the most high energy and hyperactive coaching staff in the NFL. And they are exhibiting it here each and every minute of each and every day. My take is that if you are very much of a laid back player, this group from Carolina may not be the coaching crew for you.
I am now referring to the American squad as the SMITH Team. There are 4 players with the last name of SMITH on the field right now for practice. Not sure I can remember seeing a coincidence like that in past years.
If Saturday’s game comes down to a kicking contest, I will put my money on American having a distinct edge in the Place Kicking game, with the presence of #30, JOSE BORREGALES from Miami, as their kicker. BORREGALES had a very solid season in Miami, after transferring there from FIU. He does not have a power leg that booms the ball upon contact, but his mechanics are very consistent. We don’t spend much time worrying about size a lot with Kickers in general, but JOSE is a solidly built guy that is dependable under 50 yards. Edge American, IMO. He should be the first K taken in the 2021 Draft.
A guy with Round 1 physical traits, but who likely gets drafted on Day Two of the Draft, is CB AARON ROBINSON (#31) from UCF. ROBINSON was recruited to Alabama originally, and was a RB. With guys like NAJEE in the Tide stable, ROBINSON transferred to UCF, where the staff eventually moved him to CB. And he has been moving upward ever since. He’s a solid 5’11/190, has good speed, and just luvs to man-up on receivers. He believes in delivering the blow to receivers, and plays run game support with all he’s got. He has delivered some big hits here, and shows some basic cover skills that may still have additional upside to them. The UCF Defense was abysmal in the years ROBINSON was in those units. He will need to play for a team with a hands-on teaching approach, like this one, if he is to continue his growth as a Corner. In general, pro personnel folks are getting on his bandwagon. DANIEL JEREMIAH currently has him in his Top 50 prospect rankings.
It has been hard to miss the energy and strength of DT MARLON TUIPULOTU, (#95), from Southern Cal. He’s 6’1/308, with big (10 3/8″) and strong hands. He has demonstrated the ability to stand in against any of the big-boy blockers here this week. And if his first blow stuns the blocker, which has happened, he is by him for a clear trip to the pocket and a one-on-one victory. The only clear issue with his inside game is a tendency to stop moving his feet if his blocker locks onto him, and to try to just push his way clear: stalemate. The DL coach has been on him about keeping his feet moving at all times. But for a team needing a DL anchor, MARLON has shown that he has the goods this week.
I have not really searched out WILLIAM BRADLEY-KING from Baylor to watch this week. He seems like a tweener, size wise, but in each of the first two practices, he has caught my eye with some flashes of real athleticism in one-on-one, which I never expected to be a forte for him. He’s an in-between size, at 6’033/254, but he cannot be ignored, and is more than just an Edge Rusher from what I have seen so far. Every time they have one-on-one blocking time, he surprises me with functional strength and quickness to get into the pocket against bigger guys. To quote the King of Siam… “Tis a puzzlement”. But he clearly is a high level performer that will be on a Training Camp roster battling for an NFL job. Perhaps he is destined to be a flexible defender handling different roles in a pro defense. He’s gotten my attention as more than just an edge-rusher.
One of the fun sights during one-on-one pass pro segments of practice has been the occasional match up between MARVIN WILSON #21 and DAVID MOORE #61. These are two big bodies (319/350 respectively) that can move a bit, but against each other, seem to lock on and grapple like a couple of Sumo wrestlers. I have yet to determine a clear cut winner in their overall competition. But it has been enjoyable to watch.
Swinging back to the receivers group here, I would be less than candid if I didn’t admit that I came into this expecting to place WR JOSH PALMER, #85, near the bottom of the wideout ranking list. Surprise again. He has been one of the most productive wideouts each practice, and has shown more speed and separation than I anticipated. He has looked like more than a ‘move the sticks’ possession guy, getting open deep and then running away from DB’s after said catch. He has good sized hands (9 3/8″) and the longest arms for wideouts at 33″. Pro Day numbers on him may loom as very important in his final draft spot. The kid from Canada has really helped himself in Mobile this week so far.
I don’t know if one of my faves, ALARIC JACKSON/OL Iowa, (#78), is angry because of some talk by scouts about having to view him as an interior OL after his arms measured only 32 1/2″, despite his 6’055″ length, but he clearly showed some intensity and nasty yesterday in 1-on-1 work. He started at LT for most of his career for the Hawkeyes, but his arm length set off alarm buzzers after the weigh-in. I will be curious to see where, not just how well, he plays on Saturday.
Getting ready to head out for the final practices. Time for old Pigskin to size up the QB group after they have had some time to learn all of their playbook and get an idea what these, mostly stranger, receivers are doing in their pattern running.
Adios for now from Mobile.