This past Saturday, the 64th annual Senior Bowl took place in Mobile, Alabama. It provided NFL coaches, scouts, executives, and fans alike to get a live in-game look at some of the top prospects in the 2013 NFL Draft, as well as some names that you might not know as well. Playing in the Senior Bowl is a tremendous opportunity for any player, as it provides them with a platform to establish themselves and get their name out in the public consciousness if necessary. The team that wins and the team that loses isn't too terribly important, at least not so much as evaluating the individual players themselves. In this article we'll take a look at some of the players who improved their stock the most not only during the game, but throughout the preceding week of practices as well.
Ezekiel Ansah - DE - Brigham Young:
The Ghana native profiles as an athletic specimen along the lines of Jason Pierre-Paul when he came out of South Florida in 2010. Ansah chose to attend BYU as a member of the track and basketball teams, eventually hoping to make his way into the NBA. But he was cut from the basketball team twice, and so his track coach urged him to try out for the football team. Ansah made the squad, and entered the 2012 season with no starts and ten career tackles on his résumé. So it seems pretty fitting to call him perhaps the most unlikely first-round prospect in the Draft this year. Scouts salivate over Ansah's combination of size and athleticism, and he has shown a surprising knack for batting down passes at the line of scrimmage too, showing that he has some real football instincts in him. After a middling week of practice, Ansah shined brightly at the Senior Bowl where he notched 1.5 sacks and left a lasting impression on everybody watching. There is a high risk involved with selecting Ansah though, as there would be with any prospect with so little experience. He currently profiles as a late first-round selection, not helped by the fact that this draft class is extremely deep on the defensive line.
E.J. Manuel - QB - Florida State:
The dual-threat Seminole successor to Christian Ponder took home MVP hardware this past Saturday after his rather impressive showing leading the South team to a victory. He didn't jump off the tape, but he showed poise and promise on the field, and in a year with the largest dearth of quarterback prospects since 2000 (When Chad Pennington was the first QB taken, at #18 overall) that's more than enough to get you noticed. Manuel entered 2012 viewed as a potential second-round pick, but inconsistency plagued him most of the year. He could look like a future star one week, the home game against Clemson serving as the finest example, but games like the one against Florida towards the end of the year showed how badly he could struggle as well. None of Manuel's physical tools are in question. He has the arm strength to make every NFL throw and he has shown himself to be a capable dual-threat runner too. The questions that come with Manuel are largely mental, and he has to convince teams that he can be more consistent on a week-to-week basis. Showing the ability to diagnose and read defenses in private interviews with teams would go a long way too.
Lane Johnson - OT - Oklahoma:
By now everybody is aware that this year's Senior Bowl darling was Eric Fisher; offensive tackle out of Central Michigan. Johnson, however, made quite a name for himself as well during this past week. The surprising decision of Michigan's Taylor Lewan to return to school for his senior season opened up the door for some senior offensive tackles to step into the spotlight. Johnson and Fisher both have have proven to be up to that task. Focusing on Johnson in particular, he's a player who's still coming into his own at the position after previously playing as a quarterback, tight end, and defensive end at Oklahoma. He's been on the offensive line since 2011, where his natural strength and agility serve him very well. He has quick feet and an explosive burst off the line, allowing him to lock down a sizable area of turf. The issues that Johnson has are all things that can be attributed to his lack of long-term experience at the position, and can be hopefully fixed with further coaching at the next level. While his feet are quick, his footwork is inconsistent and when he gets beat, it's typically because he stopped moving his feet and then can't recover in time. Johnson currently grades out as a late first-rounder in my book, but based on his potential he could go earlier than that.
CB - Desmond Trufant - Washington:
With Johnthan Banks of Mississippi State having to decline an invitation to the Senior Bowl due to injury, scouts' eyes fell on the rest of the cornerback crop to see who would stand out and shine. Enter Trufant, who stood out among a strong group and assertively through his hat into the ring as a possible first-round selection. He came into the week being viewed by most as a Day Two pick, but after his impressive showing in a week of practices and the game itself, people are raving about his inherent athleticism and coverage skills. During one-on-one drills Trufant consistently looked impressive and stuck to the hip of most of the receivers he was matched up against. This kind of play continued into the game where Trufant played well in coverage both downfield and close to the line of scrimmage, and showed off his impressive ball skills by tracking the ball through the air and breaking up several passes. If scouts have one concern about Trufant, it's his perceived lack of physicality. He is not a great open-field tackler and is viewed by some as a liability in run defense. With as good as he is in coverage though, it's a deficiency you can live with, and it wouldn't be surprising in the least if within a few years we were viewing Desmond as more of a star than his older brother Marcus (10 years with the Seattle Seahawks) ever was.
WR - Quinton Patton - Louisiana Tech:
People had questions about Patton coming into Senior Bowl week, mostly relating to how he would transition from a small-school, high-octane, spread offense to a more pro-style scheme. By the end of the game on Saturday though, Patton was being talked about by nearly everyone as one of the big winners who improved their stock the most. He more than held his own against top defensive backs from major programs across the country, and at times made them look like the ones who were supposed to be out of their league. Patton is about as reliable as they come with rather crisp route-running and very soft hands, traits that would have made him a featured weapon in any sort of offense. He'll never be mistaken for a guy that can scorch a trail downfield, but he's quick to accelerate and creates separation from his defender when going to catch the ball. When you watch Patton play, it's quite obvious that he's a natural receiver with they way he uses his hands and catches the ball away from his body. He also provides added value as a punt returner. Despite his lack of speed, he's agile and quick, and he sets up and follows blocks nicely. Patton's weaknesses get exploited on deep passes, where his lack of elite speed can allow defenders to keep him in check. His strong showing over the past week has made him a mid-second-round pick if nothing else, and in a largely unsettled class of wide receivers, some teams may very well have him rated a lot higher than that.
RB - Johnathan Franklin - UCLA, Brandon Williams - DT - Missouri Southern State - Jonathan Cyprien - S - FIU, Larry Warford - G - Kentucky, Brian Schwenke - C - California, Kyle Juszczyk - FB - Harvard