By: Chris Kouffman
Every year there seems to be one team’s roster I feel that I can sort out quickly and easily. This year, that roster belongs to the East team, coached by Minnesota Vikings Defensive Coordinator George Edwards.
-From the wide receivers group, Alabama’s Gehrig Dieter immediately looked the part of a quick and technically sound slot receiver that does not possess the speed or size to do damage out in open seas. But it was Purdue’s Deangelo Yancey who stood out for the combination of his length, thickness, and the ease with which he ran his routes and caught the football. He was very active catching the football during the competitive portions of practice, particularly in Day 1. He looked professional; it was as if running routes, getting open, and catching the football are the things he is here to do, so why would you be surprised by him doing those things so well?
-At tight end, Drake’s Eric Saubert stood out within a few reps even during individual drills. He is a very fluid athlete with real speed and a nice frame at 6045 & 247 lbs, with a 6’8.5″ wingspan. He caught the football with ease and was near impossible to cover in team portions. I particularly liked the variety in the ways that he could get open. He could use his pure speed when allowed spacing, or he could beat a linebacker with his cutting ability, or he could use his physicality to get through a defensive back’s physical man coverage.
-Linebacker Richie Brown of Mississippi State also stood out during individual drills because of his easy movement skills, solid build, and technical quality. His communication with coaches and even other players was good, and it seemed as if he knew the drills so well he could potentially teach the other players. He had the immediate eyeball test look of a linebacker with potential in coverage. When he got into team portions, there were one or two pass reps that could have been better, but there were also one or two pass reps that looked exceptional.
-Among the defensive backs, while Miami’s Jamal Carter clearly wins awards for his exceptional abs, he did play the victim in some coverage drills. Michigan corner Channing Stribling stood out for his overall movement skills, but that much should have been expected heading into the practices. A player who has me wanting to see more is Wake Forest’s Brad Watson. He measured well at just over six foot, and he had genuine corner movement skills and balance.
-North Carolina State’s Jack Tocho also had a well-balanced look on a slightly more impressive frame as he came in with a 6’4.5″ wingspan. I do not know if he is quite as fast as some other corners, but I would be willing to try him out as a more physical version of a slot corner.
-The defensive line featured a few standouts, but none quite so popular as Florida Atlantic’s Trey Hendrickson. Rumors of him being a potentially high maintenance character type aside, he came in at 6’4″ and 255 lbs, and was clearly the fastest and most agile pass rusher among the East defensive line unit. His superior physical abilities gave him the confidence to try a variety of moves to get to the quarterback in 1-on-1 drills, and they all seemed to work. Many practice observers will argue that he has been the best player on either squad during the first couple of days.
-Florida defensive end Bryan Cox truly looked the part during individual drills. He was fast, explosive, flowed quickly through his steps, and showed some hand skills. But that was all against practice dummies. When he got into the 1-on-1 drills versus offensive linemen, he pulled a disappearing act. He truly has the ability. There is both disappointment and opportunity in him as a prospect.
-His teammate at Florida, defensive tackle Joey Ivie, may well have been his diametric opposite. Joey does not necessarily look like much as you watch him moving around in individuals, but when he got to the 1-on-1’s he consistently did well. Not necessarily great, but well.
-Louisville defensive tackle DeAngelo Brown has a uniquely squat frame at 312 lbs on just over six feet of height, with respectable 33″ arms and a 6’7″ wingspan. With a reputation for being a monster in the weight room, I wanted to see Brown really forklift some offensive linemen in 1-on-1’s. His hand placement just was not sharp enough on the first day, and thus he had to get by on pure strength. By the second day, he cleaned up his hands and was doing very well for himself.
-The East offensive line has a surprising amount of talent this year. Vanderbilt’s offensive tackle William Holden was a late addition to the roster, but a good one nonetheless. He, Michigan’s Erik Magnuson and Virginia Tech’s Jonathan McLaughlin, have all done well for themselves during the first couple of days of practice.
-It is always difficult to sort out the running back position in a practice setting. You need to get a sense for how consistently backs can break tackles and make tacklers miss, and that is hard in a setting where tackling is not allowed. That said, Middle Tennessee’s I’Tavius Mathers has looked the part of a fast back that can catch a lot of balls out of the backfield.
As I said before, every year there is a roster that seems relatively easy to sort out, which means every year there is also a roster that seems a little bit more challenging. This year, that roster is the West squad, coached by Kansas City assistant Brentson Buckner.
-The first day of practice was a good one for Washington State wide receiver Gabe Marks. He played with a high level of speed, urgency, consistency, and balance. He caught the ball cleanly and showed consistent technical skills. The problem is that his Day 1 triumphs turned into Day 2 struggles, as a few early drops combined with a little bit of delinquent quarterback play to hand him a rough day. He still played with urgency and speed, which will have been noticed by the scouts.
-The most enigmatic wide receiver at West practice is clearly Shepherd’s Billy Brown, who measured in at a ridiculous 6’3.5″ and 254 lbs. He had 33.5″ arms, 10.5″ hands, and a 6’8″ wingspan. The ball continually found him during team drills as it seemed the defensive backs waffled between being too aggressive with him, or not aggressive enough. He catches the football very well, and considering the fact he is bigger than many tight end prospects, he moved around very well, too. But he had a number of issues with route depth, selling his fakes, and cutting. He cut about as sharply as a paddle steamer during his post-corner routes, and coaches had to coach him very hard on his depth, planting his foot, or selling his routes. With as much running as he’s been asked to do the last couple of days, relative to his humongous size, he also looked a bit tired at times.
-The purely best receiver in attendance, probably on either squad, is Air Force Academy’s Jalen Robinette. At a full 6’3″ and 215 lbs, he has catcher’s mitts for hands, measuring in at 10.75″. He also has 33″ arms and a 6’7″ wingspan. What makes him so dangerous as a receiver is his combination of hands, physicality, and fluid body language while running routes. He ran an out route to the left sideline on Day 1 and casually stabbed and secured a poorly placed throw with just his left hand before going out of bounds. He had another impressive physically contested catch against tight coverage from the best corner on the West squad, UCLA’s Fabian Moreau. Robinette had one team waiting for him after Day 1 practice, and that bumped up to three teams (including the same one from Day 1 having a second go) patiently awaiting their turn after Day 2 practice.
-USC tight end Taylor McNamara got in a ton of work on both days of practice, catching the eye of several scouts in attendance who could be overheard talking about their need to look more deeply at him. He measured well at about 6’4.5″ and 253 lbs. He used his size to finish plays, and he ran with speed and fluidity. He also displayed a very nice set of hands.
-The West offensive line has no shortage of size, but unfortunately they have lacked anchor in their 1-on-1 drills with defensive linemen. The exception was consistently North Dakota State’s Zach Johnson, who measured in at 6’4″ and 346 lbs. Where other blockers struggled to drop down and stand up defensive linemen before they could push them into the cone that represented the quarterback, Johnson made it look easy at times. As I overheard one observer describe it, he has “hold my tractor” strength.
-Rightly or wrongly, the defensive linemen who continuously pulled your attention his way was Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise. He came in at 6’5″ and 275 lbs with 35″ arms and a massive 7’1″ wingspan. He had a nice combination of speed and power, and was among the players pushing around offensive linemen with ease during 1-on-1 drills.
-Among the defensive backs, UCLA’s Fabian Moreau and Oregon State’s Treston DeCoud stood out as perhaps the best corners on the squad. DeCoud measured in just under 6’2″ in height but does not play like a corner who is too tall to move around with receivers. There were times he got caught being too conservative in his spacing, but there were other times he got right up on the receiver and physically contested the catch, as he did against Shepherd’s massive Billy Brown during an 11-on-11 drill in Day 2. DeCoud also got an interception that day, as one of the quarterbacks overthrew Jalen Robinette. Moreau consistently struck a good balance between aggressiveness and discipline in his coverage, and looked like a very smooth and very well built played at six feet height to go with 205 lbs of weight.
-All that said, I have to give Missouri corner Aarion Penton some credit for pulling down the most impressive looking interception of either day of practice. During an 11-on-11 in Day 2, he beautifully covered Northwestern slot extraordinaire Austin Carr up the seam. Cincinnati QB Gunner Kiel threw the ball anyway, and Penton made an athletic move on the football, undercutting Carr.