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Breaking down all three levels of defense at Day 1 of the Senior Bowl

The 49ers have needs along the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary. We look at prospects for all three levels.

NCAA Football: Senior Bowl Practice John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

First impressions go a long way. Players on both squads had to make do through windy, drizzly conditions, immediately putting them on the spot for what is the biggest stage in many of their young careers. Some rose to the challenge, other left more to be desired throughout the week.


Defensive line

Let’s start from the ground up.

Off the edge, Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) was a terror in 1-on-1 drills. Sporting a lanky 6-foot-6, 250 pound frame with 35 and 5/8 inch arms, Sweat looks like a stretched-out cartoon character, but plays like a controlled beast. Sweat showed a number of times in drills the ability to set up offensive linemen to expose their chest, then fire forward to blow them off the ball. His combination of raw power mixed with just the right amount of craftiness lead to a great first day for Sweat.

Though not quite as impressive as the monstrous Sweat, is fellow edge rusher Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech). Ferguson is a thicker, less explosive rusher, but showed a number of times throughout the day that he could keep offensive tackles off balance with his hand placement and strength.

Carl Granderson (Wyoming) may also be of note, but not necessarily for the 49ers. Granderson put up a few great reps in run drills, which complements his tackle for loss numbers in college, but looked a smidge stiff as a pass rusher. He did not look to thrive in getting around the edge comfortably. If teams want a Michael Johnson type, they could keep an eye on him.

The standout interior lineman on the day was Daylon Mack (Texas A&M). A former high school and college freshman standout, Mack never finished his college career the way many hoped. Regardless, Mack made a knockout first impression in Mobile, blowing just about every lineman he faced off the ball with ease. His low center of gravity and natural power proved to be too much for many OL to handle.


Moving to linebacker, maybe the clearest picture of a player painted during Day One was of Terrill Hanks (New Mexico State). Linebacker drills are largely useless in Mobile, and may be the toughest guys to evaluate during the practices, but their 1-on-1 coverage drills can be useful. Hanks showed the duality of a cover linebacker. On one rep, Hanks got dusted by a running back on an out route, but followed it up on his next rep by crushing his opponent trying to run a drag route. Thankfully Hanks made up some ground from his out-route-fiasco with great work in the team run drills.

David Long Jr (West Virginia), to nobody’s surprise, appeared to be the most fluid guy in space. His ability to pass off zones and collapse to ball carrier’s in the quick game was impressive, but also the exact type of play to be expected of a small linebacker such as himself.


The South cornerbacks as a whole had issues sticking to their opponents. With a slew of talented wide receivers on the South roster, a Day One practice can favor the wide receivers, so the hope is that the group bounces back Day Two and provides more competition. If anyone, the primary standout would be Isaiah Johnson (Houston). Johnson is the Legion of Boom style cornerback that Robert Saleh could be looking for opposite Richard Sherman. More so than his peers, Johnson was able to stick to opposing receivers and remain in position to work for the ball when it came time.


At safety, the Kentucky duo of Mike Edwards and Darius West made it clear they should be zone corners. Now, plenty of teams can make that work just fine, but neither Edwards or West looked great in mirroring in 1-on-1s or breaking with the tight ends. They appeared more capable as players who could play from their heels and approach what is laid out in front of them.

Juan Thornhill (Virginia) had a disappointing day given his draft stock. Thornhill is viewed by many as a versatile, safety-cornerback hybrid, but Thornhill too looked slow in keeping up with opposing tight ends. It may have been the conditions, but Thornhill just did not have the best time in matching his opposition athletically. Hopefully he can recover in Day Two because he is a clearly capable player on film.


Defensive line

The North’s defensive line roster is … peculiar. The interior defensive line group is no less mixed than in previous years, but there is hardly any true edge talent for the North to display. Zach Allen (Boston College), for example, is a quality prospect who showed out in his first day in Mobile, but weighed in at 280 pounds. In essence, Allen is Solomon Thomas size, which is not what the 49ers are looking for. Guys like LJ Collier (TCU), Anthony Nelson (Iowa), and Charles Omenihu (Texas) fall into a similar category.

However, a few interior defensive linemen were of interest, if the 49ers so choose to bolster that position. Renell Wren (Arizona State) was a wrecking ball in 1-on-1 reps. Wren blasted a number of different offensive linemen off the ball, primarily from the nose position, and created absolute terror from the middle of the defense. It is not a flashy job, but having a standout nose can go a long way in the NFL. On the other hand, Byron Cowart (Maryland) reminded of a familiar, ever-repeating draft story: supreme athlete who does not really know what to do with his athleticism. Cowart is not a Robert Nkemdiche-level prospect, but he suffers from the same mishaps and inconsistency.


Germaine Pratt (North Carolina State) was more or less the player he was assumed to be. In coverage, Pratt showed plenty of range and movement skills to keep up with all kinds of skill players. He showed the ability to collapse on check down options as well as follow guys in space. And lucky for Pratt, the 11-on-11 drills do not really incentivize offensive linemen to crush linebackers, so Pratt may scoot by without that being much of a problem for him this week. Just behind Pratt, Te’von Coney (Notre Dame) had a solid day through drills and 11-on-11s save for a passing drill in which he completely left a defender free in the flats. Still, he overall had a good showing.


Maybe the most frustrating player on the day was Amani Oruwariye (Penn State). Among all cornerbacks on the day, Oruwariye was the best in keeping pace with opposing receivers and sticking right to their hip pockets, not giving them an inch. However, Oruwariye could not find the ball at all, be it on curl routes or down the field. It was a conflicting day for the heralded cornerback, but at least you would rather he constantly be in position so many times than blatantly being cooked.

The other standout cornerback was Kris Boyd (Texas), not for being outstanding, but playing true to his identity so perfectly. Boyd excelled in press and had no restraint in trying to scrap with players throughout routes. Conversely, Boyd showed a tendency to open his hips a tad early and get beat with some crafty early route running. It is on him to show some more versatility moving forward.


Arguably the most disappointing performance of the day was Nasir Adderley (Deleware). A wildly versatile player in college, Adderley struggled to play in short zones and in man-to-man during practice. Adderely simply did not seem ready for the challenge of quicker, bigger, stronger players than he may have been used to. Granted, this does not take away from Adderley’s excellent range as a one-high safety, but it does partly dispel the notion of him being an all-around versatile safety.

Darnell Savage (Maryland), on the other hand, was the only player out there who could deal with wide receiver Andy Isabella in any capacity. Isabella gave almost everyone the work with his shifty route running, but Savage showed patience against Isabella and was able to contest catch points against him. Most other defensive backs out there were lucky to be within five yards by the time the ball got to Isabella.