Stuck between the CFB Playoff and the Senior Bowl is the less publicized East-West Shrine Game, held on Saturday, January 23 in St. Petersburg, FL. Although the highest profile NFL-bound senior prospects attend the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine annually graduates solid mid-round talents that produce early in their rookie seasons. Last year's alumni include: Tre McBride, Damian Swann, Justin Coleman, Craig Mager, Jake Ryan, Deiontrez Mount, Mark Glowinski, John Miller, Jamon Brown, Za’Darius Smith, Anthony Chickillo, Josh Shaw, Bobby McCain, Bryce Callahan, Jordan Richards, Zach Zenner, Ben Heeney, Kyle Emanuel, David Parry, MyCole Pruitt and Tyeler Davison.
Here is a link for this year’s roster. As always, expect injuries and replacements.
Throughout the game's week of practices, I will be posting articles here, tweeting observations from the field, and giving input on every player on the roster, so follow me @JoshNorris. For now, here are some of the top prospects sorted by position. Note that weigh-ins take place on Monday but the media is not allowed to attend.
Not In Attendance
I know it is odd to open a piece like this singling out prospects who are not in attendance, but some of the names who were forced out due to injury might have been among the top prospects at the event. Most notably is DL Ronald Blair out of Appalachian State, who would have been my top prospect at the Shrine Game. Blair pulled out with a minor injury, but he is explosive and long, winning from multiple alignments. Colorado WR Nelson Spruce, a super productive player in the Pac-12, suffered a minor foot injury while running routes in preparation for the event. Grand Valley State edge rusher Matt Judon looks to be the part athletically, but he is also out.
At one point Jacoby Brissett and Brandon Allen were scheduled to attend. Then the Senior Bowl came calling. Still, this is the best group the Shrine Game has showcased since Jimmy Garoppolo’s year. WKU’s Brandon Doughty likely receives the most attention. The Hilltoppers certainly spread the ball around this season, and Doughty made nice throws at every level of the field. I’d be shocked to see him drafted before the third day, however.
Vernon Adams dealt with a broken finger early in the season and when the Ducks were on national TV. That means far fewer people saw Adams play well once returning and healing. Wisconsin’s Joel Stave will fit the “upside” or “developmental” type, but outside of a few teams does that label even exist? Most No. 3 quarterbacks are now on practice squads, and many teams do not have the patience to stick with them due to injuries and other roster circumstances.
Easily the weakest position at this year’s event. Tyler Ervin would have clearly topped this list. Now? Illinois’ Josh Ferguson could be an interesting receiving specific back, but only really as a pass catcher. And so few teams can afford to roster, or dress, that specific of a role. Navy’s Keenan Reynolds will be an interesting story, as he converts from quarterback to running back. It can be difficult for running backs to stand out at these events, since practice tackles end after first contact. Maryland’s Brandon Ross has real speed in the open field.
This list should start with UMass’ Tajae Sharpe. The super productive, 6’3/190 lbs receiver made a living this season on routes over the middle in the shorter area of the field. 38 percent of his catches this season were made in this area of the field. Slants, crossing routes, soft areas of the zone; this is where Sharpe will make his future money. He also can adjust and contort for difficult passes downfield.
Robby Anderson out of Temple is another interesting prospect. Smooth is the best way to describe his game. His performance against Houston is one of the best you will see from a receiver prospect this season. Difficult catches, separation, body contortion and yards after catch. He’s another 6’3/175 lbs receiver who seemingly had success at every level of the field in college.
Tulsa’s Keyarris Garrett has size at 6’4/208 lbs, and was target 53 times (!) 20-plus yards downfield this season. He was only thrown to four times on the left side of the field... out of 161 total targets. What does that tell us? Tulsa likely wanted him to focus on one spot and “master” releases, routes and spacing. I’ll be watching his success in practice when lining up on the left side. Notre Dame’s Chris Brown and Utah State’s Hunter Sharp are also intriguing.
This could be the surprise position of the week. Kyle Carter has always interested me, despite most of his highlights coming from 2013. He reminds me of Mychal Rivera, a former sixth-round pick who can be used in a receiving tight end role. Darion Griswold and Kivon Cartwright could also fit that receiving tight end mold, but Griswold is huge at 6’5/265 lbs. A poor man’s Jared Cook might be the comparison. David Morgan and Steven Scheu could both serve as tight end depth on NFL rosters, looking comfortable as receivers and blockers, without shining in either area.
A number of Shrine Game players seem to play immediate minutes for NFL teams during their rookie years. There is a mix of “what you see is what you get” and “project/upside” talent here in St. Petersburg. The first is Joe Thuney from NC State. It is not an exaggeration to say that Thuney could see practice time at all five spots this week. I discuss it every week but even if an offensive lineman is not a starter, he can still be valuable due to position versatility (G/C or G/T). I have heard that a number of scouts like what they see in Thuney. Jim Harbaugh called Graham Glasgow, his C, a future NFL player, and I agree.
Colorado’s Stephane Nembot is fascinating. You might see some Bruce Campbell comparisons this week or later in the process, and it would not surprise me to see Nembot test among the top offensive lineman. He can be extremely powerful and is a huge strider, but when he’s off balance it seems impossible to recover. Before redshirting as a freshman, Nembot was a defensive end.
Typically at these events true edge players (DEs and pass rushing LBs) are split between the two positions. The East’s group seems to be listed under DE, but the West hosts a number of “tweeners”. One stands above the rest, and that is Stony Brook’s Victor Ochi. It is common for collegiate pass rushers to attempt to win around blockers. Over and over, even if it fails. Ochi wins with powerful hands, pressing and shedding his opponent to create space. Jason Taylor once told me that pass rushing on the outside isn’t a wrestling match. “Get on your block and get off of it.” Ochi follows this mantra. His workout later in the process will be worth watching.
Dean Lowry is listed as a DE, but I think his future in the NFL is with a team that utilizes an odd man front, and he will likely be covered by an edge player in those situations. Travis Feeney out of Washington saw plenty of time on the edge in college. I think he makes the transition to off ball linebacker in the pros.
One of the two most stacked positions in the 2016 draft class. This means talent will be on display during Shrine week. Athleticism matters along the defensive line. It can help a player at the position who lacks refinement compensate when facing off against a less athletic blocker. South Carolina State’s Javon Hargrave possesses this natural athleticism and explosion. His go-to move is an arm over swim, which I saw him use repeatedly. Maybe his Shrine counterparts will catch on. FAU’s Trevon Coley is another natural disruptor who seems slippery for his size, weaving around blocks after gaining the balance and positioning advantage.
Players who returned for their senior season do not always improve their evaluations. Penn State’s Anthony Zettel is an example of this. Despite playing next to two teammates who produced career years (Carl Nassib and Anthony Johnson), Zettel seemingly took a step back. When he is at his best, Zettel looks like a rotational interior lineman in the NFL. Luther Maddy also failed to elevate his play. Maddy dealt with a number of injuries in 2014, but when healthy looked like one of the better interior defensive linemen in the ACC. Not this season. I don’t think Maddy’s talent disappeared, and perhaps it will emerge this week. Finally, Virginia’s David Dean can be a rotational run defender who is not satisfied with being blocked in one on one situations.
Complete players are tough to find at any all star event. Especially this one. Therefore prioritizing traits and finding prospects who offer them is one way to approach this week. Georgia Southern’s Antoine Williams is athletic and can cover some ground. Minnesota’s De’Vondre Campbell and Travis Feeney might fit that same model. Michigan State’s Darien Harris is long and was asked to cover slot receivers in some situations. He did not seem uncomfortable. Florida S Brian Poole played very close to the line of scrimmage and could be used as a big third safety in some packages.
Last year’s class, and ones before it, produced NFL starting defensive backs. It can be fun to try and predict those each season. Boston College’s Justin Simmons looks the part at safety, closing in on ball carriers in alleys or disrupting the catch point after anticipating passes. NC State’s Juston Burris might be the best corner here, and I frequently saw him give ACC receivers fits on the outside. Mike Jordan from Missouri Western State is the small schooler to watch in the defensive backfield.
1. N.C. State OL Joe Thuney
2. UMass WR Tajae Sharpe
3. Boston College S Justin Simmons
4. NC State CB Juston Burris
5. Virginia Tech DL Luther Maddy
6. Northwestern DL Dean Lowry
6. SC State DL Javon Hargrave
8. Michigan C Graham Glasgow
9. Temple WR Robby Anderson
10. FAU DL Trevon Coley