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2011 Senior Bowl: Observations On Top NFL Draft Prospects

The first chapter of the 2011 NFL Draft process is complete, with Senior Bowl week complete. Fellow draftniks around the country likely recorded the event for breakdown and analysis, and this story records my thoughts on the week's practices and the game. I'm not recapping the following players' Senior Bowl performances, but rather updating my assessment on certain players, and forecasting the future based on current performance.

For brevity and focus, I only include players that had noteworthy weeks, and are players in positions of obvious need for the Buffalo Bills. Six big names await your perusal and commentary after the jump.

Christian Ponder, QB, Florida State
After a 2010 season filled with injury, Ponder needed a huge Senior Bowl, and he didn't disappoint. During his junior year, Ponder displayed tremendous accuracy (see the North Carolina game), poise in the pocket, timing, and decision making. His only questions coming into the 2010 season were arm strength and ability to operate outside of a rhythm offense. The injuries did not allow him to answer those questions, and raised durability questions.

If nothing else, Ponder re-established himself as a Day 2 prospect with all the traits mentioned above. His natural leadership ability and athleticism were on display as well. What we didn't get answers to are the questions of arm strength and rhythm. Unlike accuracy, which needs to be evaluated over time, arm strength can be displayed in small amounts and still be graded. A pitcher only needs to throw in the 90s a few times to grade velocity. Ponder still hasn't shown the ability to stick a tough throw with RPMs. His pro day, likes Jimmy Clausen's last year, will be crucial.

Ponder also has to show that he's more than a rhythm quarterback. Ponder gets the ball out on time, but most of the routes he throws well are those where he begins throwing at the end of his drop. Whether he can drop back, have his rhythm disrupted, and still complete passes, will have a big effect on his pro future.

Christian Ponder's current grade: Round 2, fifth-best QB in 2011 class

Jake Locker, QB, Washington
I don't think Locker did anything to hurt himself during the week, but he didn't help himself. He missed high in the strike zone a lot. Locker's footwork is not as clean as I once thought. After watching reps in passing drills, I don't think Locker transitions weight to his forward leg well, and his foot placement is inconsistent - and he's missing high because of it.

Locker can’t come in and play right away. He’s only had two years in a pro style offense, and he’s too raw. Locker is still uncomfortable playing in the pocket with his mechanics while bodies are flying around him. He’s a cross between Matt Cassel (inexperienced) and Tim Tebow (talent-wise). I think Locker can still be a Pro Bowl QB. He reminds me of Donovan McNabb a lot coming out of Syracuse - all the talent in the world, but uncomfortable playing in the pocket.

A team that picks Locker MUST have two things:

- They need a QB in place. Guys like Matt Hasselbeck, Ryan Fitzpatrick, Kyle Orton, David Garrard, etc. are perfect. They don’t represent the future of the team, but they are the present. Locker wouldn’t have to play immediately.

- The team needs to take New England's QB developmental program and implement it. Under Bill Belichick, the Pats never throw QBs to the wolves. Both Tom Brady and Cassel started out on the bench, with no intentions of having them play anytime soon. Once they we’re in the game (both unexpectedly due to injury), the Pats reeled in the offense. All the play calls were manageable: screens, short passes, roll-outs, waggles, easy play action, half-field reads. Once Brady and then Cassel were ready and had more confidence, they opened a little bit more up. Brady started playing in a spread, but it was almost always a run or play action deep to Bethel Johnson, or a bubble screen. Then, after each was ready, the Pats opened up the playbook.

If Locker is taken by a team with patience, a coaching staff that will stay in place for a while, and meets these two criteria, then he’ll be fine. If not, then he’s going to end up like every other QB that got thrown into the fire too soon and got crushed (David Carr, Joey Harrington, Alex Smith, et al). Unfortunately, I think too many fans and coaches want greatness too soon, and the history doesn't support that desire.

Jake Locker's current grade: Round 1 (15-25 overall range), second-best QB in 2011 class

Colin Kaepernick, QB, Nevada
Let the debate begin! Kaepernick has become this year's Tim Tebow lightning rod of discussion boards. He had a good week. He moves well, but everyone already knew that. Kaeperick's long arm acts as a whip of sorts, and the velocity he gets on the football is unreal. Surpisingly, Kaepernick was more accurate than most would expect coming from a spread option quarterback that ran as much as he did.

Now here's the downer: just like Tebow, he's going to take years to develop. Kaepernick has absolutely no experience reading a defense, and it shows. In practice, he was fairly decent. As soon as the game began, it was evident that he was uncomfortable reading a defense. Even on roll-outs, Kaepernick wouldn't read high-to-low and instead tucked and ran, despite open receivers.

Kaepernick is the second most physically talented quarterback in the class after Cam Newton, but his lack of experience as a pro style quarterback is going to limit him to practice and pre-season reps for two, maybe three years. While I completely advocate sitting a quarterback for that long, the team that drafts him needs to have a starter in place and a stable coaching situation that can last the duration of his development.

Colin Kaepernick's current grade: Round 2, sixth-best QB in 2011 class

Nate Solder, OT, Colorado
Solder was everything advertised. He's easily the most athletic offensive tackle to come out in years. The former tight end still moves well. To see a player as big and tall as Solder moving as fast as he moves must be a sight for defensive backs and linebackers on the second level. However, I don't think Solder is a glass eater. He's too soft in terms of engaging the defender, and often over-sets instead of under-setting, something that avoids a bit of contact. Solder could be a fantastic blind side pass protector for years, but he's never going to grind anyone into pulp. The team that takes Solder has to accept that.

Nate Solder's current grade: Round 1 (Top 15 overall range), best OT in 2011 class

Luke Stocker, TE, Tennessee
Stocker could be be a Brandon Pettigrew do-over for teams that passed on him. He's tall, built for his height, and blocks well as a base in-line tight end. He's never going to be the new-rage flex tight end, but he can work the short zones and intermediate seam routes a la another volunteer, Jason Witten. Stocker is the kind of player that every quarterback wants: the short security blanket that can fight for poorly thrown balls. With Stocker's height and wingspan, his strike zone is large enough that passers shouldn't miss. This combo package puts Stocker near the top of the class, and maybe drafted higher than his grade.

Luke Stocker's current grade: Round 2, second-best TE in 2011 class

Von Miller, OLB, Texas A&M
Von Miller is the only player that I can currently accept Buffalo drafting in the first round over a quarterback. All 3-4 OLBs don’t need to be 6'4", 255 pounds and able to compress the play from the edge. Miller is almost exactly the same size as Lawrence Taylor. I’m not saying Miller is anywhere close to Taylor, but the Giants redesigned their Bullough-Fairbanks 3-4 defense to fit Taylor’s talents, which was running around blockers.

No argument on Miller's size: he isn't big like Robert Quinn or Ryan Kerrigan. What Miller has is what can’t be taught: his burst and his innate sense of leverage. Chan Gailey admitted as much during an interview with Mike Mayock. Miller completely went away from his strength, rushing the passer, and played read-and-react linebacker in a 4-3 defense. And he didn't disappoint. He used speed to contain the edge, once on a reverse, and twice bringing down the elusive Kaepernick, no easy task.

He’s a difference-maker that must be accounted for on every play. He cannot be left unblocked on the backside. He can't be blocked with backs or tight ends. Teams that play against Miller are going to have to block him with an offensive tackle, and depending on the footspeed of the tackle, with chip help. Miller is about as disruptive as it gets coming into the professional ranks, and he carries himself like a professional already. Miller is the combo of talent and desire that could result in Clay Matthews type production.

Von Miller's current grade: Round 1 (Top 10 overall), best OLB in 2011 class