The Senior Bowl has traditionally given senior-level players their first, best chance to impress the steely-eyed NFL scouts, and this year, five Crimson Tide players were invited to the annual NFL job interview. While many seniors (and declared juniors) use the upcoming NFL Combine to make a lasting impression on their potential future employers, the Senior Bowl provides players with their best opportunity to demonstrate “real-time” football skills during the live-fire game and the week of practices leading up to it.
The Crimson Tide in the Saban era has been blessed with an embarrassment of riches when it comes to NFL-caliber talent. Former Tide players such as LT James Carpenter have used the Senior Bowl game as a springboard to improved draft placement. Several Bama players came into this year’s game with that same goal in mind, though with varying degrees of success.
This year’s Bama invites were LS Carson Tinker, S Robert Lester, LB Nico Johnson, TE Michael Williams and RT DJ Fluker. Fluker’s invitation marked the first time a junior was invited to the Senior Bowl game, making his inclusion on the South roster historic, even though he did not practice or play in the game due to lingering injuries. Other invitees included C Barrett Jones, NT Jesse Williams and RG Chance Warmack. Jones accepted the invitation but declined to make the trip to Mobile, choosing instead to focus on rehabbing his still-wounded foot. Williams and Warmack, for obvious reasons, declined to join their teammates in Mobile, as they had little left to prove to NFL scouts. Both are considered first round picks in this year’s draft.
Throughout the week, NFL scouts watched players practice, giving prospective NFL talent a chance to show off intangibles, such as game speed and football IQ. This experience, combined with the weigh-in and actual game, give scouts a holistic view of each player’s skill set.
The week was more productive for some than others, as Crimson Tide players saw their stock rise and fall throughout the course of the experience.
- RT DJ Fluker: Trending Up
Many had expected Fluker to make the jump to the draft following the Crimson Tide’s third championship in four years, as his run blocking abilities and monolithic size make him an attractive target for many teams that run the pro-style offense. While Fluker did not play or practice during Senior Bowl week, he did ultimately “win” the weigh-in, wowing even the most jaded scouts with his sheer physicality. Bama fans have known of Fluker’s freakish physical attributes for years, but even the closest followers of Bama football were shocked by Fluker’s presence. His specs didn’t quite match his media guide hyperbole, as he graded out an inch shorter at the weigh-in at 6’5”. However, he had the longest arms in this year’s Senior Bowl class, measuring in at an amazing 36.38 inches, and his 87 inch wingspan was second only to that of Clemson’s Malliciah Goodman. Fluker stood 6’5” (give or take a tenth of an inch). His 355 pound heft was topped only by UGA’s John Jenkins at 359 pounds. Luckily for Fluker, in the NFL, big body + long arms = big paycheck. Senior Bowl players strip down to their shorts for the weigh-in, and despite Fluker’s mass, he looked well-fit and athletic. That, in and of itself, should terrify every defensive end in the game.
Though he didn’t play in the game, Fluker’s stock is soaring, as his physical attributes only back up a solid year of improvement for the junior. Always a weapon in the running game, his pass blocking improved steadily throughout the year, and he handled fellow draft prospects such as Barkevious Mingo quite well. Expect to see him on the draft board no later than the second round, as he is projected as a possible first round-early second round pick.
- TE Michael Williams: Trending Up
Alabama’s unheralded TE Michael Williams had, by far, the most impressive week of work at the Senior Bowl event. His physical specs definitely match the NFL trend towards taller tight ends, as he measured in at 6’6”, 269 pounds with a wingspan of 81.83 inches.
Throughout his career at UA, Williams has been known as a force in the running game, often pulling from the TE position to seal gaps and keeping opposing linebackers from clogging up the running lanes. Williams had the occasional clutch third down grab throughout his career at the Capstone, culminating with his touchdown catch over the head of Manti Te’o in the BCS National Championship Game. However, for most of his career, he was under-utilized as a receiver simply because the Tide had so many other weapons with which to attack opposing defenses.
William’s assignment for Senior Bowl week was to impress scouts with not only his physical presence, but his receiving ability. The modern NFL tight end has blocking responsibility to be sure, but teams such as the New Orleans Saints and New England Patriots have used the tight end as an explosive offensive weapon, creating mismatches with slower linebackers and defensive ends in zone defenses. Williams has the size to go up and get every pass thrown his way, and he largely proved that throughout the week of practice leading up to the game.
In the game, Williams took little time to make his mark. On the initial drive, set up by a long kick return, Williams showed his blocking ability, sealing the outside edge for the all-star backfield. However, when his number was called on a 3rd down fade from 20 yards out, Williams made one of his more athletic catches, going up over the safety in coverage and plucking the well-timed EJ Manuel pass for a touchdown.
Williams finished the day with 2 catches for 39 yards, eclipsing his 2012 season high of 38. While Williams is primarily a blocking tight end, he is a perfect fit for pro teams that run a physical, run-based offense but still need the versatility of a receiving tight end. A team like the Houston Texans or Green Bay Packers could do worse than Williams in the draft, and thanks to his performance at the Senior Bowl, there are likely more teams that are giving him a look.
- LS Carson Tinker: Status Quo
Though he does not play a position that gets much, if any, fanfare, Carson Tinker captured the hearts of the Bama Nation with his fortitude, spirit and leadership. We won’t rehash Tinker’s story again here, but needless to say, the young man is the definition of a player with “intangibles” in a football sense. If it’s possible to lead from the long snapper position, then Tinker is the man for the job.
Tinker’s physical size is nothing to write home about, but his position is not one that demands a behemoth. Consistency is the currency of the long snapper position, and Tinker has that trait in droves. During his career at UA, he was automatic, nearly flawless in snapping the ball. Few long snappers have been invited to the Senior Bowl in the game’s history, but Tinker’s combination of perfect execution and character made him a lock for the game. Tinker was perfect in the actual game, and he got a good bit of repetition as the only long snapper on the roster.
Let’s face it. Long snappers simply don’t get drafted very often. Yes, there’s a critical need for consistent long snappers, but teams rarely squander precious draft picks on such a mundane position. Tinker will likely find his way onto an NFL roster, but his chances of being drafted are quite low. However, Tinker’s Senior Bowl experience was less about the draft and more about the closing of the circle for one of Bama’s most inspirational young men in recent memory.
- LB Nico Johnson: Status Quo
Nico Johnson, a stalwart of some of Alabama’s best defenses in history, has been known for his run-stopping ability throughout his career. Though he does not possess the All-American skill set of fellow linebacker CJ Moseley, Johnson has been one of Bama’s steadiest defenders on a team of steady defenders. NFL scouts have no doubt that as a pupil of Nick Saban, Johnson’s ability to read and defend running plays is well above average. However, the knock against Nico has always been his ability to drop into coverage, and this week’s Senior Bowl experience did little to allay those concerns among NFL scouts.
Johnson’s measurables are excellent for a NFL level linebacker. He measured in at 6’2”, 249 pounds with a wingspan of 32.78 inches. He has the build of a run-stopping linebacker, broad and with a low center of gravity.
Throughout practice, Johnson made solid plays, then missed assignments on others. His ability to drop into coverage was tested early in practice with the Detroit Lions coaching staff, and the reviews were mixed at best. In the game, while there were noticeable technique improvements and more aggressive coverage by Johnson on short routes in the middle of the field, routes that stretched more than 7 yards continued to give him fits in coverage. He quite simply lacks the speed and “burst” to hang with elite receiving talent, even at the tight end position. That flaw likely won’t bar him from the draft per se, but it is likely to give plenty of teams pause when considering this year’s linebacking class.
Johnson started at one of the linebacker positions and acquitted himself quite well in stopping the run. His pass coverage was decent, but there were several plays on which he whiffed on his assignment, and only poor quarterbacking prevented him from being exposed in the game on a couple of occasions. Granted, not many linebackers can run with a slot wide receiver, and Johnson is average in this regard. He is a player with some upside, and his 4 tackles in the game (3 solo, 1 assist) were among the best defensive stats tallied.
At best, Johnson reaffirmed the suspicions of many NFL minds, namely, that he would be a first and second down linebacker in a pro defense. The fact that he learned from one of the college game’s best defensive minds will benefit him, as will his physicality in run defense. Can Nico Johnson develop into a well-rounded NFL linebacker? The jury is still out. Fortunately for Johnson, he will have another chance to define his skill set in the Combine in a few months.
- S Robert Lester: Trending Down
Robert Lester’s Senior Bowl week mirrored much of what scouts saw out of him in his senior season: problems in coverage and poor tackling at times. Many have criticized Lester’s performance in 2012, as his fundamentals seemed to suffer in his senior campaign. Missed tackles and missed assignments created a less-than-favorable impression of Lester’s abilities during the season, and his Senior Bowl performance did nothing to quiet those fears.
Lester’s measurables were as expected, weighing in at 212 pounds and 6’2”. Throughout the week, Lester’s coverage skills were exposed by the South’s roster of receivers in practice. He struggled when called upon in man coverage, and in many parts of the game, he looked as though he was not familiar with his assignments enough to “play fast.” That can be expected to some degree given the relatively short prep time for the game, but Lester appeared to struggle more than others at the safety position.
He recorded one tackle in the game, but could also be credited with missing at least one tackle in which he was involved. It was not the best week for Lester, and unfortunately, many of the weaknesses attributed to him prior to the game were only reaffirmed by his play.
Lester had the worst week of anyone in the Alabama contingent, and now must dazzle in the Combine if he expects to get a serious look from NFL teams with needs at safety. While he has shown promise at times in his Alabama career, as of late, he has done nothing to define himself as the kind of difference-making former Bama safety that Tampa Bay drafted in Mark Barron.
One footnote: Former Bama 5 star recruit BJ Scott also participated in the Senior Bowl, and he definitely looked the part of an NFL caliber cornerback. Unlike in his time at Bama, where Scott’s promise was lost near the bottom of the depth chart, the Mobile native who finished his career at South Alabama showed the scouts that he has the skills to get on the field at the next level. Physically, he definitely looks the part, and some mystery remains as to why the highly-heralded recruit out of Vigor High School in Prichard, AL never made the intended splash at UA. However, his play throughout the week in practice and in the game re-affirmed his ability, and Bama fans are left wondering what could have been had Scott been able to garner significant playing time in his 3 years in Tuscaloosa.
As a whole, this year’s Bama Senior Bowl class may not be as star-studded as those in recent memory. However, expect to see Fluker get a look as a first rounder, and he certainly won’t fall below the second round. Williams will get a chance to build on his UA career due to his physical prowess, solid blocking ability and surprisingly good hands. The jury is still out for the rest of the Bama contingent, but most of them will get a chance to once again show their mettle in a few weeks in the NFL Combine.