MOBILE, Ala. (Jan. 27, 2005) -- All winter and spring leading up to the NFL draft, we are going to be talking about Reggie Bush, D'Brickashaw Ferguson (who did participate at the Senior Bowl), Matt Leinart and Vince Young -- which is only natural. But as I pack up and leave Mobile, Ala., after watching practice from field level, reporting for NFL Network and doing a three-hour radio show every morning for Sirius Radio, there are a number of "other" players who caught my eye. At this point, it isn't important to decide where they will go in the draft, but they did enough at practice that they have to be considered better than advertised headed into the Senior Bowl on Jan. 28. As NFL people like to say, "They helped themselves this week."
For the most part, more work has to be done on the players in this draft class, but the practice tapes from Mobile aren't going to hurt the following 10 players. One or two of them were thought to be lazy, a few more were considered late-round picks, and one or two had no position for the NFL. But now I know one thing about these guys: I would like them on my team, based off what I witnessed at practice this week.
1. ANTHONY SMITH, safety, Syracuse. I got a chance to talk with Smith on Jan. 23, and he was an impressive young man who convinced me he has a passion for the game. As I watched him practice, it became evident that he has a very good ability to key and diagnose plays and react quickly. He likes to mix it up, he can come "downhill" at the running game and gets an above-average jump on pass plays. I spoke with Titans head coach Jeff Fisher, who is coaching the North squad, and he concurred with me about the talent of the Orange safety. Smith kind of reminded me of former Syracuse great Donovin Darius. The Jan. 25 afternoon practice is where he jumped out at me the most during the week.
2. SKYLER GREEN, wide receiver, LSU. Green tweaked a hamstring during the Jan. 24 practice -- I saw him do it running a slant route in the individual period. I asked him why he kept practicing when we got together after practice, and he said he felt he just had to push through the pain. It's a typical reaction from a young man trying to prove he belongs in the NFL. He didn't practice on Jan. 25 or 26, so being smart is something he has to learn. When I asked a few of the South team defensive backs who were the difficult receivers to cover, they all mentioned Green. It's already a given that he's a terrific return man for special teams, but what was interesting to me was what one NFL coach said about Green. He thought the best way to get production out of Green was to train him to be a "Dave Meggett third-down running back." I agree, and even though he's short, he is strong and has some toughness to pick up a blitz.
3. MAURICE STOVALL, wide receiver, Notre Dame. Stovall is a well-known receiver who caught 69 passes during the season but came to Mobile as a mid-round prospect. As I watched him practice, it was obvious he has a big target area and is moving up the draft boards. A big target area means that as he runs a route and the ball is thrown, his "bullseye" is just bigger than the other receivers. He can leap for an overthrow, he can reach behind for an underthrow, and he can extend for a ball away. Those are all pluses for quarterbacks in the NFL. Stovall will be a red-zone threat and a matchup problem for small corners.
4. GABE WATSON, defensive tackle, Michigan. Watson came to Mobile with a reputation as an underachiever and a guy with a "boom or bust" label. That label still exists, but his effort and performance in the live drills early in the week flashed the top end of what he could be at the pro level. It will be crucial for him in the interview process to convince teams that money, fame and all the other distractions of pro football aren't going to have him slip back into his old habits. Big men who can be disruptive inside on the defensive line are very hard to find, and although the yellow caution flag is out on Watson, the motor was running in Mobile.
5. BRODIE CROYLE, quarterback, Alabama. Like every quarterback in every draft, there are split opinions on Croyle. I heard one offensive coordinator say, '"He'll never be more than a backup." Another coach said, "He has the intangibles and the arm strength ... is better than advertised. I like the guy." I share the opinion of the second observation. There were a number of people who said Jake Delhomme, Tom Brady and Matt Hasselbeck were never going to be more than backups. I'm not saying Croyle is in their class, but I do know there's something special about this kid, and if he's drafted lower than the second round, I might consider him a steal.
6. GARRETT MILLS, tweener (FB/H-BACK/RB), Tulsa. I want this guy on my team. Versatility is critical in this era of the salary cap, late-season injuries and changing offenses. Garrett jumped out at me twice on Jan. 25 -- once as a blocker and once as a receiver. He's a good athlete, and with all the special teams plays in pro football, I'm fairly confident he would be on the field for 25-35 plays per game.
7. CHARLES SPENCER, guard, Pittsburgh. The talk of the week when it came to interior offensive linemen was about center Nick Mangold and guards Max Jean-Gilles, "Deuce" Lutui and Davin Joseph -- which is understandable because they are all very good players. Spencer, a former defensive lineman, flashed two qualities I like to see in a football player: He was tough and he could recover when the defender was beating him on a move. In the NFL, you will get beat, but how you handle it and how competitive you are will help you survive until you develop. Spencer will survive in the NFL until he develops his trade. He could play for me.
8. MICHAEL ROBINSON, athlete, Penn State. On Jan. 25 after requests from a number of NFL teams, Robinson split time between his first love, quarterback, and receiver. The best thing he did as he auditioned as an athlete rather than just a signal-caller was when he lined up as an offset running back in third-down situations during drills. When he came out of the backfield and worked routes against a linebacker, he won most of the time. The Steelers play with three quarterbacks in their huddle: Ben Roethlisberger, Hines Ward and Antwaan Randle El. Robinson needs time to develop, but he could be a third quarterback on an active roster while still helping as a return specialist, a third-down back, a fifth wide receiver and maybe even a dime defensive back. Once again, I would want this versatile athlete on my roster.
9. PAT WATKINS, defensive back, Florida State. Watkins is close to 6-foot-4, and for a safety or corner, that size is rare. During the Jan. 25 practice, I witnessed him demonstrating the ability to close on a receiver. When I was first with Marcus Coleman as a rookie at the Jets, he struggled in coverage but he could close on a receiver and was so tall he broke up passes. With offenses in the red zone trying to throw fade routes to tall, leaping receivers, it looked like a red-zone package for Watkins would be a good place to start his career.
10. DOMINIQUE BYRD, tight end, USC. Byrd did not impress at the weigh-in on Jan. 22. As one scout said, "He looked soft." Byrd was having an average week until the morning of Jan. 26 when he caught six passes. They included a vertical seam route over the wrong shoulder, a crossing route where he burst away from the defender after the catch, and a few red-zone touchdowns. A lot of coaches left Mobile the night of Jan. 25 and didn't see the receiving skills session, but when they watch the practice tapes, they may worry less about the soft look he showed up with in Alabama -- or they may wonder if he has the discipline to take care of himself at the next level. The interview process for the tight end should be tough, and they should drill down into his work habits. I guarantee there is a tight end coach and an offensive coordinator who will go with what they see on videotape if the answers he gives are half right.