From Mobile to Naptown

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From Mobile to Naptown
by Warren DeLuca

As the focus of the pre-draft season shifts from the all-star games to the annual scouting combine, chats with Neil Stratton of Inside the League. Stratton was in Mobile for Senior Bowl week and shares his impressions of what he saw there and how the draft is shaping up as the combine opens up later this week at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

HPF: Any word on what players the Texans may have been especially interested at the Senior Bowl?

Stratton: Unlike in 2002, when everyone knew who was going No. 1 to Houston when David Carr’s agent showed up for Wednesday’s workout wearing a spanking new Texans hat, it was a lot harder to read the tea leaves this year. Like most coaches, Gary Kubiak kept things under wraps pretty well as to what direction he planned on taking, if he even had his mind made up.

HPF: With the Carr era in Houston appearing to be nearing an end, the Texans should be in the market for a young quarterback. Was Ohio State’s Troy Smith able to put the brakes on the slide that his stock seems to have taken since the BCS Championship Game? How was Kevin Kolb of Houston able to adjust to a pro style offense? Did they or any of the other quarterbacks in Mobile show the potential to eventually develop into an NFL starter?

Stratton: I didn’t attend Monday’s North workout – there is only one day when the teams practice head-to-head, and that’s on Monday – but on Tuesday and Wednesday, Smith was anything but impressive. In fact, after Wednesday’s workout (the last one in pads, that’s attended by all the teams), it would be hard to make a case for him as a first-day draftee. He’s definitely in need of a big weekend in Indianapolis. I didn’t think Kolb, or any quarterbacks in Mobile, did anything to distinguish himself. All in all, I think the general consensus was that JaMarcus Russell and Brady Quinn made a lot of money without throwing a pass.

HPF: Kubiak has said that his offense needs to become more explosive. Which backs and receivers flashed that kind of big-play potential?

Stratton: I didn’t think the running backs were much more impressive than the quarterbacks in Mobile. If anyone impressed, I’d have to say it was Penn State’s Tony Hunt, who really looked like he was focused on making his mark; he reminded me of the performance by Notre Dame’s Julius Jones two seasons ago, running hard and showing power and speed. Among receivers, I thought Virginia Tech’s Aaron Rouse was the most impressive player. He’s not especially instinctive despite having big-time tools and made-to-order size, but he made some nice hands-only catches and used his body well at the sideline to make the physical grabs. Florida State’s Chris Davis and Washington State’s Jason Hill were also sharp. LSU’s Dwayne Bowe got a lot of acclaim in some circles, but I guess I would have to cast a dissenting vote.

HPF: Due to the uncertain status of Charles Spencer, the Texans may be looking once again for a left tackle. Did Levi Brown of Penn State, Tony Ugoh of Arkansas, Joe Staley of Central Michigan, or Arron Sears of Tennessee appear capable of filling that role?

Stratton: I was a little surprised by how uncomfortable and off-kilter Brown looked all week; I liked him but he didn’t play like he wanted to be there. I thought Ugoh was solid but not spectacular, and Sears was best inside when he got reps at guard. Of this group. Staley was the clear star. He entered the week as a guy who had all the measurables but came off as slightly mechanical, but he was a sterling guy all week. For what it’s worth, I think the answer to the Texans’ LOT problems lies with a player who was stellar at last year’s Senior Bowl, Eric Winston.

HPF: Kubiak has also stated that the Texans need to put more pressure on opposing quarterbacks. At one point, many considered Georgia defensive end Quentin Moses the top pass rusher in the draft. Has he held on to that status, or does it belong to someone else, like Jamaal Anderson of Arkansas or Gaines Adams of Clemson?

Stratton: I thought Moses had a very solid week; he could use a little more sand in the bucket but he has excellent explosiveness, and he’s a good fit in a 4-3. That said, he’s no better than the No. 3 defensive end in this draft. I think Anderson goes higher than Adams, but it could go either way. Adams is a great athlete and a high-character guy, and Anderson is a demon off the edge who can burn.

HPF: Louisville defensive tackle Amobi Okoye had a strong week by all accounts. What is your assessment of his strengths and weaknesses?

Stratton: Okoye is an exceptional athlete who loves to play. I thought he had a solid week, but as with Bowe, I didn’t think he was worthy of a standing ovation. He’s exceptionally athletic, but wasn’t as explosive coming off the ball all week, and that’s his real strength – getting the jump on his man and getting separation before the lineman can get his hands on him. If he has a weakness, he could be a tad bit stronger. I thought he was very impressive in his lower quarters, but his upper-body strength could be better. If he can churn out 30-plus reps in Indianapolis this weekend, he’s a lock top-10 pick.

HPF: Miami free safety Brandon Meriweather clearly has the talent to excel at the NFL level, but his character has become a major concern after he stomped and kicked a player on the ground in the Canes’ riot with Florida International. Was he able to use the interviews and other contact with the scouts, GMs, and coaches to rehabilitate his image?

Stratton: I think we’ll know more after the combine. One of the interesting things about Meriweather was that he was one of just a handful of players who arrived in Mobile without an agent. For a scout, that’s a delight. It means he is more prone to answer questions honestly and less likely to have a whitewashed, rote answer to every question. He will face a lot of the same questions at the intensive interview sessions at Indy; if his story hasn’t changed, and he’s candid and forthright, he’ll be just fine.

HPF: Michigan cornerback Leon Hall struggled against Ohio State and Ted Ginn Jr. but seems to be the top corner in a weak year for that position. What do you think of his potential as a pro?

Stratton: He’s still No. 1, but a couple of corners closed the gap. Fresno State’s Marcus McCauley was outstanding after a sluggish season; he was very “sudden” in his movements and had excellent body control along with quick hands. Maryland’s Josh Wilson was also nails all week, but the biggest riser was Auburn’s David Irons. He stepped out of the shadows of his running back brother, Kenny. He was tough at the line of scrimmage, had great hips and was physical downfield. If he runs a low 4.3 at the combine, as he’s been running in training, he could elevate into the second round.

HPF: Last year, three of the Texans’ four first-day picks (DeMeco Ryans, Spencer, and Winston) had played in the Senior Bowl, but that was pre-Rick Smith. Do you have any sense as to how great an emphasis the new Houston regime puts on these all-star games?

Stratton: I really think Gary Kubiak swings the biggest bat on draft day, and Smith’s not necessarily going to create a sea change in the way the Texans do things. The Texans have traditionally drawn heavily on the work done in Mobile (the one year they coached the game, they picked several who played that January), and it wouldn’t surprise me if that continues.

HPF: What players need to have a particularly strong showing at the combine in the upcoming days?

Stratton: Akron OG Andy Alleman skipped out on the all-star process altogether; he’s a solid player who could be the second or third guard taken, but he’ll need to make sure his Indy work reflects all his gym time. San Diego State DE Antwan Applewhite, like many juniors, needs to run well to really create a buzz. To mention one player at Mobile who needs a good showing, Kenny Irons has been completely overshadowed since Cal’s Marshawn Lynch and Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson declared; a good weekend puts him back in the discussion among the best rushers.

Inside the League is an information service for football professionals and fans alike, tracking the players through the season, all-star games, workouts, and the draft. Neil Stratton is president of Inside the League. He began the service after four years as senior writer for Lone Star Football, a now-defunct NFL draft publication. Stratton has appeared on radio shows all over the nation, contributed to numerous publications, and is the draft expert for

Thanks to Neil for his time and thoughts.

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