The South team’s first practice of the 2020 Senior Bowl has wrapped up. The top upperclassmen across the country, coached by the Cincinnati Bengals, get one last chance to put the pads before the NFL draft, and several players showcased their talent Tuesday.
I’m a defensive-minded guy at heart, so it’s not a surprise that my attention was quickly drawn to the one-on-one matchups featuring the edge rushers, linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties. I highlighted two players from each of those positional groups that stood out in practice, and why their performance could be a sign of things to come.
Best player: Marlon Davidson, Auburn
Many will label Marlon Davidson as a tweener of sorts, but his value stems from that kind of position flexibility. At 6-foot-3, 297 pounds with 33-inch arms, Davidson can play 3 technique and shoot the gap as an interior pass rusher and can play 5 technique as a two-gap run defender. He has also shown flashes from the outside as a 4-3 defensive end. His quickness in the one-on-one drills Tuesday was too much to handle for the South offensive line, whether he was aligned inside or outside. He has a lot more juice and burst to his game than I initially gave him credit for, and the power and explosion in his lower half is noticeable each time at the point of attack.
Davidson told me after practice that most scouts want to see him move inside as a one-gap penetrating pass rusher at the next level, and after weighing in at nearly 300 pounds Tuesday morning, the vision of him becoming one of this draft’s top 3 techniques will soon become a reality.
Flash reps: Trevis Gipson, Tulsa
Tulsa’s Trevis Gipson was one of Tuesday’s early winners at the weigh-in, measuring in at 6-foot-3, 259 pounds with 34-inch arms. He certainly looks the part, and if you have seen his tape, you know that his natural gifts have consistently translated into production. With 12 sacks and seven forced fumbles the past two seasons, Gipson carried over that same kind of relentlessness and speed-to-power combination as a pass rusher on Day 1. He had a couple of great reps using his length to overwhelm and get into the chest of offensive tackles driving them back several yards.
The biggest thing that shows up on Gipson’s senior film is his motor, and you saw that aggressiveness in his playstyle. He’s not as flexible or bendy as some of the other edge defenders here. But with his strength against the run and vast array of counter moves in his toolbox as an unpredictable rusher, I’m not going to bet against him.
Best player: Akeem Davis-Gaither, Appalachian State
A safety-linebacker hybrid, Akeem Davis-Gaither was flying all over the field in the South team drills Tuesday. His speed and range in space immediately stood out, and he quickly asserted himself as the top cover linebacker on the South squad in the one-on-one drills against tight ends and running backs. In team drills, Davis-Gaither played everything from inside linebacker to slot defender, aligned across several spots in the defense, and looked incredibly poised handling these various roles. Whether it was quickly chasing down a screen play or running vertically with TEs in man coverage, Davis-Gaither showed people the traits he displayed on tape and why he is worthy of becoming a top-100 selection.
Flash reps: Cameron Brown, Penn State
The South defensive player that impressed me the most Tuesday was Cameron Brown. With his length and athleticism at 6-foot-5, you would be hard-pressed to find many linebackers with his physical profile. He played edge rusher, inside linebacker and outside linebacker for the Bengals’ staff; and he consistently looked like the most physically imposing player on the field.
Brown is still incredibly raw and will need plenty of refinement before developing into an every-down starter. But his combination of size, speed and playmaking ability at multiple spots could make him a legitimate matchup neutralizer at the next level.
Best player: Darnay Holmes, UCLA
After practice, I talked to Darnay Holmes about his competitive mentality because he was in a wide receiver’s face after each man coverage rep in the one-on-one drills. Confidence is half the battle of the cornerback position, and Holmes does not lack any of it – talking smack to anyone and everyone he went up against. He played aggressively and efficiently making several plays on the ball in press man alignment throughout the practice. Holmes’ speed allows him to comfortably stay on top of vertical routes, and his margin for error is much wider than other cornerbacks because of his ability to recover so quickly.
The Bengals’ coaching staff had Holmes out there as the South’s starting nickelback, and he fully embraced it. With his quickness and physicality, there is not a more equipped defensive back prospect at the Senior Bowl for that role at the next level.
Flash reps: Dane Jackson, Pittsburgh
The most comfortable looking press-man cornerback in practice was Dane Jackson. He doesn’t necessarily have the size that fits an NFL press cornerback on the boundary, but he has great eye discipline, timing and footwork at the line of scrimmage — that was on full display in the one-on-one drills. He tallied up multiple pass deflections and was the stickiest cover corner from the group. I worry about Jackson’s play strength and length which makes me think he will move inside at the next level. But if he continues to show what he did on Tuesday with his quick twitch in man coverage, I think he could thrive in that role.
Best player: Kyle Dugger, Lenoir-Rhyne
Kyle Dugger came into this year’s Senior Bowl with a lot of questions. The first was how he would adjust to the speed of higher-level competition. The second was uncertainty surrounding his role and position for an NFL defense. We got a glimpse of the answers to both on Day 1. He performed extraordinarily well in man coverage against the South tight ends and as a deep safety in his zone drops. Some analysts previously believed Dugger would have to move to an off-ball linebacker role at the next level, but he put away any concerns about his ability to move and cover in space at this first practice.
Flash reps: Antoine Brooks Jr., Maryland
Coming into Mobile at 5-foot-10, 213 pounds, Antoine Brooks Jr. is as good as advertised. His film shows a player who is a heat-seeking missile coming downhill — attacking ball carriers with no fear or hesitation. He showed flashes of that physicality in this first practice, but it was his man coverage skills that really caught my eye. He looked explosive breaking on routes and was fairly comfortable turning and running with tight ends and running backs out of the backfield. Brooks’ physical presence commands attention on the defensive side of the ball. If he continues to prove his worth in coverage, he will continue to gain plenty of fans in the draft community.