Not being a college football junkie, I've never paid much attention to the Senior Bowl. But the Minnesota Vikings have drafted a player who played at this event in the first round the past two drafts (Christian Ponder is 2011 and Harrison Smith in 2012) and the team also selected linebacker Audie Cole - another Senior Bowl participant - in the seventh round of last year's draft. Considering Vikings general manager Rick Spielman has made it clear he will build this team through the annual college meat market we call the NFL draft, the Senior Bowl is a pretty big deal for the Vikings as management tries to build a championship roster. With a week to poke and prod over 100 senior football players, the Senior Bowl plays a significant role in who the Vikings will pick this April, and also in who they won't.
Which is why I paid way more attention to this year's game than I ever have before. I read daily scouting reports on the practices. I even taped the game on Saturday and watched the whole thing. If you're interested in reading up on who might have shined and who didn't at this year's game, The National Football Post's Russ Lande was all over the event (here is one of his columns.)
I was not at the game, and these players have another two months to get teams to fall in and out of love with them. There are also plenty of college players who finished their junior seasons who have declared for the draft and who the Vikings will be evaluating. But based on the columns I've read, plus watching the game, here is a look at some players who may have piqued Spielman's interest at the Senior Bowl.
Sylvester Williams (North Carolina), Kawaan Short (Purdue), Brandon Williams (Missouri-Southern) Josh Boyd (Mississippi State)
If you read this post in December, most of these names are familiar to you. Purdue's Short had a strong week of practice in Alabama and he followed it up with an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl. He continually pushed blockers into the South's backfield, either making the play himself or allowing his teammates to do it. He got plenty of heat in the pass rush as well. North Carolina's Williams did a lot of the same stuff with maybe a little less pass rush than Short. He also showed the ability to chase down ball carriers beyond the line of scrimmage. The other Williams - Brandon - didn't show as much pass rush ability but held his ground in the trenches. The guy that surprised me was Boyd. He didn't make a bunch of plays, but he was very quick off the snap and consistently walked the guy blocking him back with the bull rush. If the Vikings want either Short or Sylvester Williams, they'll have to take them with the 23rd overall pick, I think. However, a guy like Boyd will probably be there in the fourth round and beyond and could provide some competition for the Vikings current nose tackles - Letroy Guion and Fred Evans.
Datone Jones (UCLA)
The Vikings might not need a defensive end, but they do need some depth at the position. Other than Everson Griffen, the team has no one to give Jared Allen or Brian Robison a break during games, or step in for them if they get hurt for an extended period. D'Aundre Reed was supposed to be that other guy. But he's basically been a game-day inactive for going on two years now. Something tells me he doesn't have a future in Minnesota.
BYU's Ezekial Ansah had a huge Senior Bowl, and he's probably a first-rounder now because of it. But he'd be a luxury pick for the Vikings this year. I don't think they take a DE that high with other needs to address. Jones won't go quite that high, and he also had a strong game at the Senior Bowl. He consistently got pressure on the quarterback and showed good strength defending the run. And he's a stout young lad for a DE - listed at 6'4 and 275 pounds. If he's still available in the 3rd round, the Vikings might bite. Certainly some team will.
Kevin Reddick (North Carolina), Vince Williams (Florida State), Khaseem Greene (Rutgers), Zavier Gooden (Missouri)
Last year Vikings fans thought the Vikings would draft multiple linebackers to replace E.J. Henderson and provide Jasper Brinkley and Erin Henderson some competition. They didn't. This year, Brinkley and Henderson are both unrestricted free agents and coming off so-so years and the thinking is the Vikes will have to address LB early in this draft. If Spielman is thinking along those lines, the four players mentioned above could merit some attention. Reddick was all around the ball in the first half of the Senior Bowl (less so in the second half, it seemed). Williams and Greene are downhill thumpers - Williams trucked at least two North players in the second half that I counted. However, in the Cover Two defense, you need LBs who can cover the deep half of the field in pass coverage. Williams and Greene look more like one or two-down (depending on how often team's force the Vikings to play nickel) players who would be a liability in pass coverage. Missouri's Gooden seems like he's on the opposite end of the LB spectrum - a smaller guy (listed at 230 pounds) who has the speed and athleticism to cover the Jermichael Finley's and Brandon Pettigrew's of the NFC North, but is more a weakside LB and whose tackling abilities I'm unsure of.
Blidi Wreh-Wilson (CB- UConn), Duke Williams (Safety-Nevada), Jonathan Cyprien (Safety-Florida International)
You know the drill here. In a division that has Aaron Rodgers, Matthew Stafford and Jay Cutler throwing the ball and Jordy Nelson, Calvin Johnson and Brandon Marshall catching it, it would be wise for the Vikings to look for able corners and safeties to draft for the next half decade or so. That's especially true when your best corner (Antoine Winfield) will be 36 in 2013, your second-best corner (Chris Cook) can't stay on the field and is a free agent after 2013 and your nickel/dime guy is A.J. Jefferson. Wreh-Wilson had a couple of nice pass breakups in the game. He's tall at 6'1 and has extremely long arms, the kind of physique you want if you're chasing Johnson and Marshall around all game. I did not see enough of his tackling to vouch for his suitability as a Cover Two corner, however. In the Vikings defense, corners must be able to tackle. If they can't, it's a problem (see second regular season game against Green Bay.)
Tackling was not an issue for Nevada's Williams. He threw his body around willingly during the Senior Bowl - the same goes for Cyprien. If the Vikings are looking for another safety to put the fear of God into opposing WRs playing alongside Harrison Smith, Williams or Cyprien would be good fits. The thing is, I don't think the Vikings are going to be looking at safety in April's draft with Jamarca Sanford, Mistral Raymond and Robert Blanton currently on the roster.
Chris Harper (Kansas State), Quinton Patton (Louisiana Tech), Markus Wheaton (Oregon State), Marquis Goodwin (Texas)
Just like the defensive tackles, in November I wrote a post on college wide receivers the Vikings should pay attention to, so some of these names will be familiar ones. Goodwin is not one of those names, but he was the busiest wide receiver during the game. The kid has very good speed, but he is also 5'9 and listed at 177 pounds. He has the height of Percy Harvin and Jarius Wright plays a similar style of game. Hard to see the Vikings having much interest in him if those two are still around in 2013, but anyhow, he had a solid game and flashed. KState's Harper caught just one pass in the game, but had a great week of practice in Alabama and at 6'1 and 228 pounds, he's a physical, athletic WR who would be a nice get in the 3rd or 4th round of the draft. From what I read, Patton was the star of the Senior Bowl practices, yet he didn't even get a ball thrown his way during the game. Strange. (If you're interested in what Patton can do, check out this highlight reel against Texas A&M.) Wheaton was another Senior Bowl practice star, but unlike Patton he had a nice game with three catches. He seems to have good hands and he surprised scouts with his speed and ability to separate from defenders. But he is billed as more of a slot guy, the type of player the Vikings already have in Harvin and Wright - assuming Harvin isn't traded in the offseason. Much like Goodwin, I don't see Wheaton being on the Vikings draft radar. But please remember I don't know shit.
One guy who did not impress me during the Senior Bowl was Baylor's Terrence Williams. He caught one short pass and was used on two end-around runs where he didn't show much quickness or an ability to make tacklers miss. To be fair, the Senior Bowl game is a contest where the Wrs have a tough time looking good. They haven't had much time to work with the QBs - timing and chemistry between the QBs and WRs was non-existent in this game - and the pass protection was pretty lousy, which forced the QBs (who didn't look very good, either) to throw under duress a lot.
Larry Warford (Guard - Kentucky)
Offensive line isn't a huge need for the Vikings. The team could stand to upgrade its guards because 2012 starters Charlie Johnson and Brandon Fusco were merely OK last season, and Johnson's contract expires after the 2013 season. To be honest, the only reason I noticed Warford is because NFL Network analysts Charles Davis and Mike Mayock wouldn't shut up about how good he was playing, and showed multiple replays of Warford blocking North defensive lineman and linebackers to prove their point. Mayock even declared that Warford is "an NFL starting guard" during the telecast. Whatever. I will admit Warford looked good in those replays riding his men out of the play. Listed at 6'3 and 343 pounds, he's got the kind of stout build you like in your interior lineman. But he showed he can move and kick out on his blocks, too. Problem is, all 32 teams saw the same stuff Mayock and Davis saw and Warford probably went from a third-day pick (rounds 3-7) to a second-day pick (round two) with his play at the Senior Bowl. Are the Vikings going to pick a guard in round two when they need a DT, a LB or two and multiple Wrs? I don't think so.