MOBILE, AL -We finally got a chance to see the South team work out here in Mobile Wednesday, and that meant a chance to see some top flight offensive talent on the South squad. Here are four observations from the second day of practice before the game on Saturday:
1. THE CHALLENGE OF FINDING A QUARTERBACK
It may be the number one topic on the minds of Bills fans. And beefing up the quarterback spot is front and center on the minds of the Bills personnel men as they assemble at the Senior Bowl.
"It's challenging. We're not going to back down," Bills Director of Player Personnel Jim Monos told me Wednesday. "We're going to meet this challenge head on. We're going to bring guys in to compete with EJ (Manuel) and Jeff Tuel and see what happens."
Head Coach Rex Ryan and new QBs coach David Lee have both said good things about getting to work developing Manuel in recent days. But the Bills Player Personnel department is not going to wait. They're here at the Senior Bowl looking at the quarterback talent and trying to figure out if one of the six signal callers in Mobile might beef up the competition at the spot.
""It's great because it gives us up close and personal knowledge of these guys," GM Doug Whaley said Wednesday after watching the North team practice in Mobile." We'll see them in about six practices and see them in a game, and Coach Lee, myself and the scouts will sit down and talk to them and get in that brain and see what motivates them."
The most impressive quarterback play so far has been from Garrett Grayson of Colorado State on the South Team. We watched him Wednesday fire a deep sideline pass to speedy wide out Tyler Lockett of Kansas State that was right on the money. And Grayson had a good hookup with talented WR Sammie Coates from Auburn.
Scouts we've talked to make note of Grayson's unorthodox throwing style. NFLDraftScout.com says he has a "unique windup and delivery." He's considered a 3rd or 4th round prospect and if he continues his good work this week, he may play himself into the 2nd round.
The biggest name QB at the Senior Bowl coming into the week was Baylor's Bryce Petty. But he's been ordinary at best through the first two practices. In the first team session for the North Wednesday, Petty did hit RB Jeremy Langford of Michigan State with a nice pass, and later on he found Ohio State's Devin Smith in traffic for a long gain.
Bills GM Whaley says the true test for the Senior Bowl QBs comes in game action Saturday—not the team practices featuring 7-on-7 and routes-versus-air. For that reason, the Senior Bowl could be must viewing for Buffalo fans looking past the first round for a rookie QB to add to the roster.
2. STANDOUT WIDEOUTS
The Bills don't figure to be in the market for a wide receiver in the 2015 draft, after using four of their top eight picks in the last three years on wide outs. But there's some talent at the position here in Mobile. The top two we've seen after two days: Auburn's Sammie Coates for the South Team and East Carolina's James Hardy for the North.
Coates is a local favorite in Mobile who gets big cheers every time he catches the ball in practice. He's got the rare combination of size and speed that NFL teams look for every year. The aforementioned catch from Garrett Grayson demonstrated Coates' functional speed. His 40-yard dash clocking at the Combine next month will be highly watched. Some thinks Coates could run a 4.3 forty. If so, he'll probably wind up as a first round pick.
Hardy made a sensational sideline snatch of a Shane Carden pass in the Wednesday morning session for the North. He's considered a likely second round selection, thanks in large measure to his ability to pick up yards after the catch.
After the Wednesday practice, Hardy told us he's been working on his Run-After-Catch skills for more than a year.
"I got better and better as my time went on at ECU," he said. "When the ball is in your hands, you're a running back, not a receiver anymore. "
3. HOOP DREAMS TO NFL REALITY
One of the best stories at the Senior Bowl belongs to CB Quinten Rollins of Miami of Ohio. And he's turned in two solid days of work at a first-team starting corner for the North. Rollins played four years of college basketball at Miami. He was the RedHawks starting point guard and when he finished his hoop career, he was second all-time in steals for the basketball team.
Then he came out for football, at the encouragement of a Miami football coach who was told by an NFL scout that Rollins might have a shot. Rollins told us this week his defensive skills at the point guard position are transferable to the CB spot, especially in press-man coverage.
You can't be really physical in basketball, you have to be more of a mirror technique," he said. "Out here you can kinda get physical a little bit. But at the same time, you just mirror a guy and try to get physical with him. It works out pretty well, but I have to sharpen up in that area."
4. ANOTHER POTENTIAL "D-3" BOY?
No one is more proud of his small college roots than veteran Bills RB Fred Jackson. He's started the D-3 Nation website and has "D-III Boy" on his customized license plates, to honor his humble beginnings at tiny Coe College. But Fred may have some company in the ranks of NCAA Division 3 players in the NFL, if Ali Marpet continues his upward trend.
Marpet is a product of Hobart College in the picturesque Finger Lakes town of Geneva, New York. The 6-foot-4, 290-pound offensive linemen is a native of Hastings-on-Hudson in Westchester County, NY.
Just being invited to the Senior Bowl is an accomplishment for Marpet and he knows it.
"There aren't a whole lot of…actually there are no Division-3 guys here, so it's hard not to be appreciative every day when you're playing football with the best in the country," he told me after the North's Wednesday practice.
Marpet played left tackle at Hobart and got started there in the first Senior Bowl workout Tuesday. But by Wednesday, he moved inside to play guard and looked much more comfortable.
"I played left tackle in college, but moving forward I'm probably a left guard," he told us. "I don't really have the length for tackle. But if they put me at left tackle, I'll play left tackle."
Unsolicited, some of the Bills scouts made mention of Marpet's play after the first two North practices in Mobile. He's one to watch as the week goes along.