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Who to watch at the Senior Bowl game + realistic targets for 49ers in the Draft

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The 49ers have serious holes to fill on defense, and the Senior Bowl has some intriguing talent at all three levels.

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

The Senior Bowl is not about the game at the end of the week. Instead, the Senior Bowl is a chance for teams to get 1-on-1 time with players and see them in a team environment throughout the week of practice. How players respond to coaching, how they fare in meetings, and how they acclimate to the rise in competition during drills is the foundation of the event. That being said, the week of practices only offers so much, and many of the drills can be set up for one side of the ball to win. Additionally, some positions such as linebacker and running back can have a difficult time standing out given the nature of the practices.

However, the game itself can provide a look at some players that practices either could not give or may have skewed one way or the other. The rules are watered down to make the game more of a simulation than a true scrimmage, but there is value in an 11-on-11 game setting, nonetheless.

Front Four

This is a chance to get a good look at edge rusher’s pure 1-vs-1 ability in a real game environment. Because the rules are so limited, edge rushers pretty much have to attack their opposing tackle and simply beat their man.

In drills throughout the week, edge rushers can get away with longer reps that look like wins, but would have realistically taken too long to generate pressure. In the game, guys will not be able to get away with that.

With that dynamic in mind, look for Montez Sweat (Mississippi State) to steal the show. Sweat has a more well-rounded game than anyone here. Sweat’s long-armed speed to power play style is his calling card, but Sweat can set offensive linemen up and work them back inside. Sweat will be able to adjust on the fly and keep tackles honest, and he will surely show the speed to close if he breaks free from his opposing lineman.

Where this game setting could be interesting is for someone like Charles Omenihu (Texas). Off the snap, Omenihu is a terror. His 6-foot-6, 275 pound frame flies off the ball like a much lighter player would, but after that, Omenihu does not provide a whole lot. It can take Omenihu forever to get around the edge once he’s gotten to the turning point, and he does not really have the ballerina feet to redirect consistently with countermoves. Watching how offensive tackles adjust to Omenihu’s style and keep him in check will be worthwhile.

Conversely, a player such as Jaylon Ferguson (Louisiana Tech) could show out in this setting. With pass protections being fairly simple and edge rushers likely getting a number of clean 1-vs-1 looks, Ferguson’s savvy hand usage and timing could be the right recipe to give some of these tackles the business. With such little time for linemen to prepare for a pass rusher with many approaches, Ferguson could constantly mix up his approach and really throw these offensive tackles for a loop.

Linebackers

Te’Von Coney (Notre Dame) needs to finish the week by proving he can survive in coverage at game speed. A questionable coverage piece at Notre Dame, Coney had a surprisingly good week out in space in Mobile. He could keep up with guys down the boundary and did not surrender too much space in zone coverages. That said, a game speed environment as opposed to practices could pose a different threat to Coney. If he can finish out the week strong with a good coverage showing in Saturday’s game, he may be able to quell concerns about his coverage for some teams.

To mention another star linebacker here, Germaine Pratt (North Carolina State) is worth paying attention to, especially for the 49ers. Fred Warner is more of the hard-nosed, between the tackles player for the 49ers, but Pratt could be the right pairing next to Warner to give the corps some speed. Saturday’s game gives the best run game looks over any of the practice sessions and Pratt needs to shine in those situations to prove he can win between the tackles well enough, even if his real value is in space and in coverage.

David Long (West Virginia) falls into a similar category as Pratt, albeit not nearly the same caliber of player. Long is a fast, space-reliant player who can struggle to win between the tackles and get his hands dirty at times. Throughout the week of practices, Long was not much of a factor versus the run, so a good showing on Saturday could give his reputation a small bump.

Two others to keep an eye on due to their versatility are Gerri Green (Mississippi State) and Ben Banogu (TCU). Both guys will be moved all around the field in the NFL, as they were during this week’s practice, and will need unique roles. They are jack-of-all-trades type players. Unfortunately, a one-off game with limited reps and restrictions on schematic creativity may not be the best environment for these guys. If they can flash anything of note, it will be a good day for them.

Defensive Backs

For whatever reason, Nasir Adderley did not get very many chances during the week of practice to show what he is best at: covering ground in the back end. Adderley is a fantastic athlete as a center-fielding safety, but he was primarily asked to cover down low and play in man coverage during the week. It could be the case that they wanted to see if his ability to do so in the FCS could translate to doing so versus NFL talent, but hardly getting looks at his best traits feels like a missed opportunity for everyone involved. Look for Adderley to get more chances as a deeper safety during the game.

The other versatile guy to keep an eye on is Darnell Savage (Maryland). The 49ers are in desperate need of a new nickel and Savage is really one of the only capable guys in Mobile who can play that role. Tracking how many snaps he gets there and how well he handles it versus the likes of Andy Isabella, Deebo Samuel, and others could be of value.

As far as cornerbacks go, the usual suspects of Isaiah Johnson (Houston) and Rock Ya-Sin (Temple) will likely have impressive showings on the outside, but some of the more unheralded guys from the week of practice need to have a good day. The likes of Sheldrick Redwine (Miami, FL) and Jordan Brown (South Dakota State) need to make up for their up and down week of practice.

The sneaky performer to watch is Jimmy Moreland (James Madison). Moreland was not quite as impressive as some of his peers throughout the week, but flashed more than enough closing speed and length to contest catch points that he boosted his status. Outside of the aforementioned Johnson and Ya-Sin, it should be Moreland who makes a name for himself on Saturday and puts up a battle with some of the larger receivers at the event.

Which Senior Bowl Players Can The 49ers Go After

As far as the first round goes, Sweat is really the only option. The 49ers should not want to take Sweat at second overall, but if they can trade out of the position toward the 8-12 range, possibly with the Denver Broncos or Cincinnati Bengals, Sweat could be the move. If Leonard Floyd can go in that range, it would be no surprise if Sweat did the same. If Robert Saleh’s interview with Tom Pelissero is any indication, moving back and grabbing Sweat is absolutely on the table.

Day Two is where the 49ers really have their options. Ferguson is likely their best bet at the top of the second round in regards to pass rushers, but they could also target someone like Carl Granderson (Wyoming) in the third round if they want to pair him with a true pass rusher like Sweat. The 49ers do not want to go after any of these 280-or-so pound players such as Zach Allen or LJ Collier, even if they may be fine players. That just is not the type of player they need or should be going for.

The secondary is where everything opens up for the 49ers on Day 2. Given how high the 49ers are picking in the first round and the likelihood of available pass rushers in that spot, the second and third rounds are where the 49ers need to retool the secondary. Lengthier cornerbacks such as Johnson and Ya-Sin should be the targets. Both players can bump-and-run and command the boundary the way Saleh seems to want to do. Though guys like Ballentine and Boyd can play that style, it is more likely that Saleh favors the taller, more defined cornerbacks who will be available earlier.

However, the conundrum the 49ers may have is that Pratt is their best Day Two fit as a linebacker next to Warner, but if they go after him, fixing the secondary might be trickier than they are hoping for. In all honesty, for as good as Pratt may be, cornerbacks are more valuable than linebackers. The 49ers have proven before that they will prioritize great linebacker play, but this secondary needs so much help that they may need to be disciplined in fixing the secondary this spring.

Day Three of the draft should be the “just take athletes” day. With only two Day Three picks, the 49ers do not really have the volume of picks to try to pinpoint players and take specific chances. They may be best off taking good athletes at positions of need, especially on the edge. As Justis Mosqueda’s Force Players model has proven, plus-athlete pass rushers typically outproduce their less athletic peers, and given Day Three picks are mostly a shot in the dark anyway, teams are better off just taking the guys who test well athletically. Once the NFL Combine is wrapped up, the 49ers will get a better idea of exactly who those athletes are.