Senior Bowl game report: Defensive linemen

January 27, 2015

by Colin Lindsay

Defensive line: Nobody is going to make a tape of the defensive line play at this year’s Senior Bowl as a teaching guide as, with some notable exceptions, the unit really struggled against their offensive counterparts. One of those notable exceptions was Washington DT Danny Shelton, who didn’t make many real impact plays, but wasn’t blocked all that many times either. Part of the problem for Shelton in the Senior Bowl itself was that it appeared that the South team was ready for him; indeed, he was either chipped or outright double-teamed on just about every snap on which he was in the game. For the most part, though, what one saw on Saturday was what one saw from big #95 all week in Mobile. Shelton really jumped off the line on the snap, stayed low and just bounced off blocks; he also showed outstanding lateral agility for a 340-plus pounder as he chased down a couple of outside runs right to the sidelines. Shelton also managed to collapse the pocket on occasion and his motor never stopped, but he really wasn’t able to answer the question whether he’s more than just a run-stuffer who can also contribute as pass rusher. (Yeah, Shelton had 9 sacks in 2014, but 4 came in one game against an FCS opponent, while he only had two total in the Huskies’ Pac-12 schedule). Part of the issue was that Shelton was forced to fight through double teams on just about every play, but at the same time, one didn’t see much in terms of pass-rush spin moves.

At least in terms of impact plays, Shelton was probably outplayed by Carl Davis of Iowa, the game’s other top-ranked DT, who managed to knife into the backfield on 4-5 play when he literally exploded off the snap and was able to really disrupt things. What was a tad disconcerting regarding Davis, though, was that he didn’t do much on plays when his initial surge didn’t get him into the backfield; he struggled at times to hold the point of attack, especially when double-team and didn’t always find the ball. And while he was able to walk his man back into the pocket on several pass rushes, like Shelton didn’t show much in the way of effective pass-rush moves. Auburn’s Gabe Wright also made a couple of plays in the backfield, although he wasn’t really blocked on either, while Louis Trinca-Pasat, Davis’ Iowa teammate, did a nice job spinning out of blocks on occasion, but for the most part, though, it was a long afternoon for this year’s DT group.

There was also something of a mixed bag at DE. Nate Orchard of Utah, for example, had a pretty solid game and didn’t do anything to hurt his grade. Despite being only a tad over 250 pounds, Orchard did a nice job getting off blocks and showed excellent range and effort in pursuit; he also appeared to be a smart player with good instincts and did a nice job reading plays and maintaining gap responsibility. Orchard also displayed strong hands and a heavy punch, along with very good lateral agility including the ability to plant and change direction with losing much in the way in the momentum. Overall, Orchard did a nice job working his way into the pocket and finished the game with a couple of QB pressures. What scouts are not going to see, however, from Orchard when they review the game tapes is that extra gear to just blow past OTs to the outside. In fact, he did get to the edge a couple of times, but the opposing DTs were able to recover just enough to reach out and push him past the QB.

There was a similar story for Preston Smith of Mississippi State, who like Orchard, didn’t appear quick enough to run past anyone, but did show a nice array of swim moves and crossover steps and also was impressive enough working his way to the pocket and in the end was the only DL on the day to be credited with a sack, which for the record also resulted in a forced fumble. Stanford 5-tech DE Henry Anderson also had a quietly impressive day despite being miscast as a 4-3 DE in the Senior Bowl. Anderson worked hard and showed some solid technique as he was able to get into a craese and force his way to the QB on several occasions.

In the end, though, the most impressive pass-rushing DE in the Senior Bowl may been Deion Barnes of Penn State, who showed a nice burst, more than a little wiggle, and the dip and strength to maintain leverage when crashing the edge. For the record, several of the hybrid DE/OLBs in Mobile who lined up mostly at LB, including Missouri’s Markus Golden, Hau’oil Kikaha of Washington and Lynden Trail of Norfolk State, all looked much better when given a few snaps as a down DE and given the opportunity to just attack the pocket.

At the same time, there were a several DEs that maybe shoudda just stood in bed. UCLA’s Owamagbe Odighizuwa, for example, looked like he was literally shot out of a cannon coming off the snap, but then looked like he’d run into a brick wall whenever he was engaged by an opposing offensive lineman. Same story for Trey Flowers of Arkansas who still hasn’t gotten off a block in the actual Senior Bowl game, while Kentucky’s Za’Darius Smith did get into the backfield on a couple of plays, but only when he was able to beat the block of a TE or wasn’t covered at all.