The Senior Bowl wrapped up practice on Thursday, leaving just the game to close things out on Saturday. Here’s a look at the defensive players who stood out through the week.
Potential trade-down — or back up into the first round — option Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) had his reps cut on Friday. The far and away star edge rusher at the event, Sweat was regularly pushed to the back of the rotation in individual drills. It could be that Sweat’s impressions through the first two days were enough to coax the coaches into giving him a “break” and getting better looks at the rest of the guys.
A tier below Sweat, Carl Granderson (Wyoming) had a day that fully encapsulated what he is as a pass rusher. In a series of reps versus Elon tackle Oli Udoh, Granderson could win with sheer speed and setting up the tackle to be worked back inside, but he does not bend spectacularly well and does not flash enough creativity in his approach. Granderson is more of a No.2 or high-quality No.3 rusher who can hold the fort down well on run downs.
Oshane Ximines was the opposite of Granderson. Both had decent days to one degree or another, but Ximines showed more natural feel for adjusting on the fly and getting by a tackle by any means necessary. Ximines has the speed, creativity, and ample power to be a really intriguing mid-round pass rushing project.
A more compact linebacker, Deshaun Davis (Auburn) finished off the week with a strong performance. For someone who was questioned by many as a coverage defender, Davis proved he could move around well enough to hold his own. Frankly, there are not very many coverage linebackers who truly ascend the basics of the scheme and simple assignments anyway, so Davis proving he is plenty capable at being a baseline coverage defender is a big plus given his run defense prowess. Davis does not need to be a coverage savant, he just needs to be functional, and he gave teams some ease of mind in that regard this week.
A potential skeleton key off the edge could be Gerri Green (Mississippi State). Green is nowhere near the pass rush threat as his teammate Montez Sweat, but Green can drop comfortably into coverage from a 3-4 outside linebacker position. Green was excellent in coverage and was one of the best linebackers here in terms of keeping up with guys down the sideline. Few outside backers have the athleticism and skill to match up with running backs or tight ends down the sideline, but Green gives a coordinator the flexibility to bake that into the system. Bruce Irvin was that type of player during his last days in Seattle and was sneaky valuable as a piece that the defense could be molded around, but did not have to be molded to.
Press coverage hungry Rock Ya-Sin (Temple) had some trouble keeping clean. Ya-Sin struggled to keep his contact to a minimum and use his athletic ability to make up ground. Instead, Ya-Sin was overly handsy and drew a handful of penalties (yes, there are refs here). The refs down in Mobile are often rather lenient, so for Ya-Sin to get popped a couple of times is especially worrying. Ya-Sin, though plenty good this week, did not end the week quite as well as he had hoped.
Isaiah Johnson, however, batted 3/3 on practices. Physically, Johnson looks like the prototype for the position and moves plenty well for his size. Aside from star wide receiver Deebo Samuel working him once or twice in the red zone, Johnson was sticky and fiesty in coverage. In an environment set up for wide receivers to win, Johnson sure made it difficult for them.
Thursday was a much better day for Juan Thornhill. After mentioning his struggles in man coverage on Tuesday, Thornhill bounced back in red zone drills with a handful of nice reps, including a pass deflection on a “broken” play. Much like Marquise Blair who will be mentioned in the North report, Thornhill proved to be one of the few guys here who will be coveted by teams that want interchangeable safeties. It was encouraging to see Thornhill’s versatility resurface to end the week of practice.
The North’s defensive end crop showed the same issues that they have all week: none of them are true edge rushers, and if they are, they are not very good.
Zach Allen (Boston College), for example, tried his hand at simply beating guys around the edge and bending, but he just could not do it. Allen does not have the consistent bend to work to the edge and turn the corner tight enough to get to the quarterback. He is in a weird spot where he is not really an edge defender and he is not a three-tech. The idea is that he could be Michael Bennett or Joey Bosa in style, but those two players are so unique and set an unrealistic standard for tweeners like Allen.
Charles Omenihu (Texas) might be where the line is on who could work for the 49ers and who could not. At 6-foot-6, 275 pounds, Omenihu is not too heavy for his size to need to be moved inside, but he is not as slippery as many other edge players. Instead, Omenihu is a speed-to-power player and someone who needs to run through tackles fo beat them. He has impressive enough athletic ability to be interested, but Omenihu provides little in terms of pass rush variety. One of Omenihu’s reps versus Washington OL Kaleb Gary summed up Omenihu’s one-trick pass rushing style, in which Gary simply ran Omenihu around the pocket because he could not bend the corner.
As mentioned before, I could highlight this exact issue for just about every North defensive end.
Germaine Pratt (North Carolina State) reminded everyone that he is a former safety and fantastic player in space. According to the Senior Bowl’s Zebra tracking technology, Pratt clocked in with the fast speed of any player on the day with a 20.4 MPH high. Pratt’s mark topped the likes of offensive weapon Tony Pollard and Ohio State speedster Terry McLaurin. He was all around the field and looked more like a “modern” linebacker than his peers.
Once again, Te’Von Coney (Notre Dame) proved to be better in space and coverage than anticipated. For the most part, Senior Bowl week does not provide a good look for linebackers because the run drills are so toned down, while the pass drills are the only thing that really have value. Coney was supposed to struggle there, but showed all through this week, that he could run with the backs and flow nicely across the field in zones during team passing drills and scrimmages. Germaine Pratt certainly had a week (and day) for himself too, but Coney did more for himself in regards to quelling concerns about his overall skill set.
Amani Oruwariye is ending the week on a similar note to Ya-Sin, though for different reasons. Oruwariye had an up and down week, then opened Thursday’s practice by banging up his knee. From then on, Oruwariye never had the opportunity to recover properly and was not able to finish the week he, and many of us, wished he could have.
As far as safeties go, Marquise Blair (Utah) showed the most functional versatility of the group. Nasir Adderley was posed as the versatile, do-it-all type, and while he was okay, it was Blair who showed the best ability to man up with tight ends and frustrate them through their routes. Blair has the body control to get physical with opposing tight ends without losing the freedom of movement to match their route breaks. Blair was great in pass game drills doing just that. If the 49ers want to move toward some more two-high looks and play mix-and-match safeties, Blair can be the guy.
If any guy here wanted to really prove to teams he was a press coverage guy, it was Corey Ballentine. There are a handful of press-savvy cornerbacks here, but Ballentine was the most consistently aggressive and willing to gamble with his physicality. He is the type of player who will always walk the line between good defense and pass interference. Of course Ballentine’s style got him cooked plenty, but it also gave him the opportunity to show some impressive plays in which he bullied his way into the hip pocket and drove a wide receiver to the sideline. Wide receiver Alex Wesley suffered Ballentine’s wrath of press coverage on a couple plays, and Jaylen Smith was shown what Ballentine’s lengthy frame can do in disrupting catch points.