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When NFL teams begin their initial round of draft meetings next month the “Alabama O vs. Mississippi State D” tape will be one of the most-watched games of the year because it features so much next-level talent on both sides of the ball.
The explosive Crimson Tide skill group is comprised mostly of ultra-talented underclassmen like Heisman Trophy lock QB Tua Tagovailoa and breakout junior TE Irv Smith Jr. but NFL scouts have not forgotten about senior running back Damien Harris.
Harris, who rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, is not on the same pace statistically this year with only 542 yards on 87 carries (6.2 avg) but the good news for Harris is that most scouts care little about stats. Good evaluators trust their eyes and when they watch Harris on film they will see a player with an every-down NFL skill-set.
We have scouted the all Alabama running backs in the Nick Saban era and the player whose overall game resembles Harris the most is New Orleans Saints Pro Bowler Mark Ingram. Harris is a natural runner with good patience, vision, and contact balance. He made a big jump last year as a junior after he shed weight and gained burst. Like Ingram, Harris is an effective inside runner because he feels flow and pinballs off traffic so well, however, now, as a leaner version of his old self, he also has the juice to consistently get to the corner and break off more explosive runs.
For years, Alabama running backs have been underutilized in the passing game and it’s no different this year. We mention this not as a slight to the Crimson Tide coaching staff, which has done a tremendous job of involving all of their quick-strike weapons, but simply to state that Harris is more capable in the passing game than his relatively modest production (16 rec., 166 yards, 0 TD) to this point reflects. Although he is probably not going to provide any slot-type flexibility as a pro, Harris can be productive on screens, swings, and check-downs and he is tough, stout, and smart enough to handle pass pro responsibilities as a rookie.
Unlike a year ago when there were three runners (Saquan Barkley, Rashaad Penny, and Sony Michel) taken in the first round, the consensus opinion among scouts we have spoken with from around the league is that there is not a clear-cut first-rounder this year coming out of the fall evaluation process. Harris will get a weeklong chance to prove to NFL decision-makers in an up-close environment at the Reese’s Senior Bowl that he is worthy of a first-round grade.
While Harris is a guy that decisively hits the hole, his counterpart in this matchup, Abram, is a guy that aggressively plays downhill. Match these two similar play styles against each other and there should be at least a few big collisions in Bryant-Denny Stadium on Saturday.
When watching tape on safeties, there are few things more frustrating than having to search hard for them. Safety is perhaps the most labor-intensive position to evaluate because they are typically involved such fewer plays than front-seven players. On average, it generally takes me 7-8 games to get a good feel for a safety’s true instincts and skill-set. Scheme definitely plays a part in a safety’s involvement but the good ones typically make you notice them with their urgency—and that’s exactly the case with Abram.
One of the most effusive terms you can use to describe a safety is “contact-seeker”. When I type that into a report, it’s usually on a player that will play a long time in the NFL. If I were still scouting for a team, Abram is a player that I would have conviction about and fight for in draft meetings because he will, at minimum, be a very good core special teams player as a pro.
It only takes a couple of snaps during tape study on Abram and he gets your attention with his hustle and physicality. He is an innately aggressive player that triggers without hesitation, accelerates thru contact, and finishes piles.
One knock that some scouts will justifiably have is that Abram has some out-of-control missed tackles. Regardless, coaches would much rather try to throttle back some of the intensity in players than to coach it into them. Despite recent rule changes geared toward player safety, the NFL is still looking for “run-and-hit” guys and Abram might embody that term more than any safety in this year’s draft class. We look forward to seeing Abram flying around the field at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile during Senior Bowl practices.
Clemson OT Mitch Hyatt vs. Boston College DE Zach Allen
Hyatt has been a consistent four-year starter for Clemson and will have one of the toughest tests of his career with the motor and pass rush arsenal of Allen. These two know each other well.
TCU DE Ben Banogu vs. West Virginia OT Yodny Cajuste
Banogu’s length and athleticism has been a challenge for offensive tackles all season but Cajuste has the foot quickness and reactionary athleticism to potentially slow down his pass rush.
Auburn DT Dontavius Russell vs. Georgia OC Lamont Gaillard
Georgia has been successful relying on their run game anchored by the experience of Gaillard at center. Russell will look to use his size and power to neutralize the Bulldogs’ undersized center.
-- Jim Nagy, Reese's Senior Bowl Executive Director