Bowl season begins with the unheralded and unranked, but features several tight pre-Christmas matchups.
09 Feb 2011
by Doug Farrar
One of the more interesting things about the Senior Bowl -- both the game and the week of practice -- is watching offensive linemen play up and down the line. We saw the potential negative effects of this last year, when Idaho left guard Mike Iupati racked up penalties and bad blocks when out of position. Iupati was able to transcend that because his skill set popped off the game tape, but it's always interesting to see which guys come into this week having played one position and may walk out with a different set of concepts to learn.
The two most impressive interior linemen of the 2011 Senior Bowl week will most likely be doing different things at the NFL level, and it's time to find out how and why. Once again, expert analysis is provided by NFLDraftScout.com Senior Analyst Rob Rang.
Having spent five years writing about the Seattle Seahawks when Tim Ruskell made most of the personnel decisions (some good, most bad), I have a good feel for the kinds of players that get Ruskell's heart racing. Ruskell, now the Chicago Bears' Director of Player Personnel, tends to prefer seniors with 40-plus starts from major colleges. He also looks for undersized, try-hard players, as he believes they are bargains in the skill set vs. draft pick equation. Problem was, Ruskell had almost no feel for the concept of athletic upside, and he whiffed a lot, both in the draft and in free agency, when he tried to pinpoint those athletes who would develop into stars based on pure physical potential.
I think that Ruskell understood this weakness and tried to compensate by picking the most "ready-made" players in any draft class. And the problem with that strategy is the high probability that you'll pick players who hit their ceilings in college and are about to get pushed down in the NFL (Lawrence Jackson, Darryl Tapp, Josh Wilson, and Kelly Jennings, take a bow). The reason I'm forcing Seahawks fans to relive this particular nightmare is that when I looked at Florida State guard Rodney Hudson during Senior Bowl week, I kept thinking, "This guy screams, 'Ruskell Pick' -- they might as well put a Bears uniform on him right now."
But before I file Hudson away with a term that doesn't really define him, I should explain myself. Undersized for his position (6-2, 291 pounds), with 47 college starts, the two-time Jacobs' Blocking Trophy winner as the ACC's best lineman, Hudson has made up for a few obvious deficits with two impressive skills that will transfer well to the NFL level.
First, he blocks with the force of a guy 20 pounds heavier, because he gets so low in his stance and explodes under the pads of any defender. Football is frequently said to be a sport in which the low man wins, and Hudson's got that all the way down. On tape and during Senior Bowl practices, he set the tone and gained the advantage off the snap. I really like the way he redirects after initial contact, as well -- he's highly aware of what's going on around him. He's also surprisingly agile around the edge in pass protection; he actually fans out from left guard like an above average left tackle.
But that agility doesn't transfer into consistency at the second level, and that's what concerns me about Rodney Hudson, Potential NFL Guard. He gets to linebacker depth quickly enough, but he has a bewildering inability to block anyone when he gets there. Instead, he lunges and loses targets almost immediately, making him a liability on screens and zone combos in which he'd be asked to chip a tackle and blast a weakside linebacker on a stretch play. As good as he is in short areas, I think Hudson could be an elite center in the NFL, and it seems that he's being projected there more and more. At guard, he's just the wrong kind of 'tweener. He's dynamic off the snap but lacks the sheer size to establish and keep ground at the line. He has nice side-to-side agility but is a real mystery upfield.
Take enough of those low-ceiling 'tweeners and put them in the wrong places, and that's how you'll go from Team President to watching college tape for a living. Hudson actually reminds me of Max Unger, the Oregon zone guard Ruskell took for the Seahawks in 2009, who is still trying to find his place at guard or center after missing his second season with a foot injury. Both players have interesting skill sets that probably project best for the center position.
Rob Rang: With back to back Jacobs' Blocking Trophies under his belt, Hudson entered the Senior Bowl as accomplished as any lineman in the country but still needing to answer questions about his ability to compete against NFL-caliber talent. The reason for scouts' concern was Hudson's lack of ideal size. Hudson weighed in a bit heavier than he had at Florida State, helping his cause. He then demonstrated the same excellent lateral agility and quick, explosive hands that had helped him develop his sterling reputation with the Seminoles.
Shorter and lighter than what most teams want in a traditional guard, Hudson probably projects as a pro center. Zone-blocking teams will consider keeping him outside. Unlike most linemen his size, Hudson is surprisingly effective in anchoring against big defensive tackles, so there is a possibility he'll remain outside. However, his intelligence, agility and technique make him an ideal at the pivot for clubs not operating out of a zone-blocking scheme. Regardless of where he's placed on the interior, Hudson rates as one of the surer prospects of the entire 2011 draft -- especially among the offensive linemen.
You're going to hear a lot about Danny Watkins in the pre-draft process, and most of it won't have anything to do with what he does in the field -- the guy has a very interesting story. The British Columbia native played hockey and rugby growing up, and didn't start playing football until he went to Butte College in northern California (the same place Aaron Rodgers got his start) because he liked the school's fire science program. Before he ever put on the pads, Watkins was a part-time firefighter. Watkins played two years of left tackle at Butte before Baylor gave him a look and brought him on board to replace Jason Smith.
As well as he did at Baylor, Watkins had people talking about him as an NFL guard even before Senior Bowl week. While Smith is a more fluid player with good form out of a two-point stance, Watkins is more of an earth dog. He told me that even though he succeeded in Baylor's spread offense, he prefers putting his hands on the ground and knocking people back. Whereas Hudson is built like a three-technique defensive linemen, Watkins tends to think like one.
At the Senior Bowl, the one thing that stood out about Watkins -- especially in comparison to Hudson, who also has estimable upper-body strength -- was how well he was able to handle bull-rushes standing straight off the snap. He'll get bent back, but because his lower body is thicker and stronger, he's more resistant to pressure when he sets his feet.
With Hudson, you occasionally get the feeling that he's using the burst off the snap to make up for a relative lack of a lower-body base. With Watkins, that isn't a concern. Like all great guards in any scheme, once the second foot goes down, a defender will have to switch to outside moves to beat him. That strategy presents its own set of problems, because Watkins is nimble enough with his feet to have taken snaps at center through the week, and he told me that he felt very comfortable there.
People talk about his nasty streak, but I've seen "nasty" guys with subpar technique, and they usually wind up lunging themselves right out of the NFL. Watkins presents a formidable challenge because he has such an impressive grasp of the fundamentals, and a natural ability to transition from position to position.
I don't see the kind of second-level speed and agility you'd want from a pure zone or combo lineman (that attribute was in short supply during this week's game-tape time), but it's less of a concern for Watkins, because he possesses the appealing ability to stand up and refuse to give ground, even when people are coming right at him. And I don't put it past Watkins to put a more zone-friendly skill set together over time. Again, it's important to remember that he's only been playing football for four years.
Mike Mayock said on the NFL Network's telecast of Wednesday practice that Watkins and Wisconsin's Jonathan Moffitt were basically the same type of player. That may be the case overall, but it certainly wasn't so at the Senior Bowl. Moffitt was getting beaten on the edge and inside, and he struggled to hold the point when a defender took him on directly. Watkins seems to have a natural affinity for the interior line, and I think he could be a similar NFL player to Green Bay's Josh Sitton, whom Ndamukong Suh rates as the toughest guard he's yet faced.
The major concern about Watkins may be his age -- he'll turn 27 on November 6.Although there are guards and centers who play into their late 30s, that may put some people off. But if I were the general manager of a power-blocking team in need of a guard with huge raw potential, I'd zero in on Danny Watkins.
Watkins will light up ESPN and the NFL Network with his good humor and gregarious nature as people get a hold of his story over the next few months, but don't mistake him for a "Rudy," or this year's draft mascot. He's a good player, the kind I'd expect to get even better over time, and a better guard than center. At 6-foot-4 and 312 pounds, Watkins seems genetically engineered to make defensive tackles look silly.
Rob Rang: Scouts didn't really know what to expect when Danny Watkins was moved inside to left guard at the Senior Bowl. Not only was he being asked to switch positions, but there were also questions about his ability to compete against talent of this caliber: He'd only played two seasons at the FBS level and only four years of football, total.
Watkins looked like he'd played left guard all of his life, however, bringing the same nasty, physical style of play inside that he'd shown outside as Baylor's left tackle. Watkins' heavy hands jolt the defender and allow him to control his opponent despite the fact that he is still learning technique. Athletic and balanced, he has the agility to handle quicker pass rushers and the combination of strength and size to anchor against power, making him an ideal fit inside.
Certainly there were flashier prospects in Mobile this year, but with the possible exception of Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder, no player entered the Senior Bowl week of practice with more questions -- and provided more resounding answers -- than Watkins. Some teams I've spoken to now rank Watkins as every bit the interior line prospect as the two most hyped players at the position -- Hudson and Florida's Mike Pouncey.
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