Stuck between the BCS National Championship and the Senior Bowl is the less publicized East-West Shrine Game, held on Saturday, January 18 in Tampa Bay. 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 RB Zac Stacy, RB Christine Michael, LB Sio Moore, CB Kayvon Webster, CB Melvin White, S Josh Evans, S Earl Wolff, Terron Armstead, DL David Bass, DL Devin Taylor, S Jahleel Addae, CB Micah Hyde, LB DeVonte Holloman, S Shamarko Thomas, LB A.J. Klein and TE Joseph Fauria.
Here is a link for this year’s roster.
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. If a player is not listed under their positional category, they might have made my top ten list at the end of the column. Note that weigh-ins take place on Monday but the media is not allowed to attend.
While there is some debate at the top of the class between Teddy Bridgewater and others, the depth of the senior pool is quite good despite injuries to two of the top passers. I won’t be talking about Jimmy Garoppolo here, and hopefully he sticks with this game rather than accepting the sixth spot in the Senior Bowl (A.J. McCarron is still making up his mind), but check out my top 10 prospects on page two. Cornell’s Jeff Mathews is fairly intriguing in his own right, displaying massive size that will get the NFL their fill on frame-based evaluations. Mathews certainly took a step back this year, specifically in pocket movement and awareness. This was never his strong suit, but Mathews did flash strength in confined space. In 2013, however, Mathews fell away from the rush, exhibited frenetic behavior when moving off his spot and was not helped by a porous offensive line. Drops were an issue as well, but Mathews has to learn to throw form a more balanced base. He will be compared to Garoppolo during practice since the two are on the same squad.
Tommy Rees and Keith Price are bigger names, but Keith Wenning is a top three quarterback at this event. Wenning ran Pete Lembo’s spaced out/spread offense very effectively thanks to good short and intermediate placement and velocity. I do think there is an overreaction to the vertical game right now, specifically velocity. That is not to say these downfield targets are not important, but timing and placement are more vital. Wenning has a chance to stick on a roster, and at the very least he will receive a camp invite.
After producing Zac Stacy, Christine Michael, Bobby Rainey, and Ray Graham in recent years, this year’s group of attending prospects might not stack up. Keep in mind all star events are not made for running backs, since they do not get to show off their ability to break first contact. I am excited to watch Zach Bauman in the open field. In the few exposures I saw, he displayed nice speed and vision to find open areas but a jump in competition is welcomed. Two others, Rajion Neal and Ben Malena, Neal can get skinny through the hole and find creases. Malena took advantage of draws this season, allowing blockers to develop upfield and making cuts with appropriate timing. The Aggie displayed just enough burst and tackle breaking ability to produce when given the opportunity.
Note, Jeremy Gallon, Matt Hazel, and TJ Jones are all featured on page two. One of Garoppolo’s favorite targets, Erik Lora, will generate some buzz. He looked pint sized on the field at times, but Lora has plenty of burst in his breaks to win in the short to intermediate game, namely on routes traditionally designated with slot receivers. Simple slants and whip routes led to success, but Lora also found pockets in coverage when faced with zone.
From his frame alone, Seantavious Jones will generate Alshon Jeffery comparisons. But he can’t catch. That is a problem. Chandler Jones of San Jose State, where Senior Bowl bound David Fales played quarterback, Jones has some yards after catch ability to his game. Toledo’s Bernard Reedy fits in the conversation with D’Anthony Thomas and Dri Archer as “offensive weapon” types. The question is if Reddy wins in any one area. As a runner he loves to bounce to the sideline. He is still not a comfortable receiver in terms of hands and body control. His best projection might be as a returner.
A few of the tight ends set to attend intrigue me. First is Bowling Green’s Alex Bayer, a likely H-back since he does not fit the tight end mold at 6’3” or 6’4”. Bayer does win inline, however, which could lead to a “where he wins” type evaluation in terms of frame not matching play style. I certainly would not call Bayer a threat after the catch, but he can make things happen when in stride. Bayer might be at his best as a blocker. Indiana’s Ted Bolser is somewhat similar, but I like him most when detached from the line of scrimmage and working down the seam or underneath. He certainly does not mind hands catching. Bolser also utilizes head fakes and body control to generate separation. There is a great chance he is the top tight end this week.
Interior offensive linemen are valued highly. As I frequently write, interior disruption is much more successful and causes much more confusion than edge pressure. Not that either is bad, but stepping up into the pocket is a baseline trait now for quarterback prospects. Oklahoma C Gabe Ikard has a chance at being one of the first prospects selected at his position, I just wish he was a bit stronger. Nearly every team in the league incorporates slanting or zone principles at some point during the season. The question is if Ikard can hold on up an island against massive nose tackles or if he has the anchor to redirect momentum against defensive tackles that are quick to jolt their opposition off the snap.
Charles Leno Jr. has the length to play left tackle and seemingly the necessary footwork to mirror. There are real flashes of good hand placement, balance, and extension to control. Len gets jolted on bull rushes and struggles to regain footwork, leading to being kept on skates rather than planting and redirection.
Missouri’s Justin Britt is not flashy in any way, which might be a good thing. His consistency is exactly what is needed at tackle, especially in a reserve role. Belhaven’s Matt Hall is a mammoth of a man at 6’10/320 pounds. His film showed some lower body stiffness, but he was just throwing around defensive linemen.
Pass rushers, Defensive tackles, Linebackers
There is a lot of buzz around Shaquil Barrett, but he finds himself outside of my top ten for the event. I really like that he displays hip flexibility to bend, but many times that is his only move, leading to no ground gained. If that bend was coupled with quickness or hand/arm use to create more separation. There is not much of a difference between many 3-4 and 4-3 looks in today’s NFL, and some teams transition between the two, but I’ve noticed that Barrett has more impact coming from a two point stance.
Colorado edge rusher Chidera Uzo-Diribe is physically impressive, but he needs to sustain flashes. I am sure I sound like a broken record, but many college pass rushers consistently win with one move. So that angle, line, or technique is used over and over again. That won’t work in the NFL (even though the offensive tackle play can be fairly poor). Hand use is so crucial to NFL success.
Syracuse DT Jay Bromley had plenty of production this season (10 sacks), but I did not see the talent to match it. He frequently was stuck at the line of scrimmage when contacted by a face up offensive lineman. There were flashes of firing through gaps and getting upfield disruption.
I was extremely impressed with Phillip Gaines during prep work. The press corner consistently found contact at the line of scrimmage and slowed his opposition. He then was able to stay in their hip pocket and mirror routes. As you will see, I have other CBs ranked over him, but Gaines was fun to watch. Be sure to note how he is lining up in coverage drills, since he seemed to be far more successful in press situations.
San Jose State’s Bene Benwikere has experience in the slot in both man and zone situations. He suffered a pretty significant head injury this year, but he generated a good bit of buzz this offseason.
Arizona State’s Alden Darby reminded me a bit of Duke Ihenacho, in terms of his aggressive angles in space and on the edge. That aggression can get defensive backs in trouble, but if harnessed it is ideal.
Top 10 Heading Into the Week
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois - Jimmy G is still a candidate for the sixth quarterback spot in the Senior Bowl. There’s a lot to like in his game, namely mobility and a quick trigger. he was in complete command of a four or five wide offense and loved to drift around or out of the pocket. He is not afraid to hit receivers at each level of the field. Everyone will be watching Garoppolo’s footwork from center and anticipation throws this week.
2. CB E.J. Gaines, Missouri - I was surprised to not see Gaines in the Senior Bowl. He has length and fluidity to stick with receivers in man coverage and the awareness to be patient and recognize patterns in zone. There are plenty of one on one drills during the week, and Gaines faces the weaker receiver crop during practice.
3. CB Pierre Desir, Linwood - Talk about length, Desir is listed at 6’2/206. We will see if that holds up, but Desir certainly looks big on the field. That is exactly what the NFL needs, corners that can match receivers at the catch point. He displayed sound movement and agility to jump routes or mirror receivers. I would not be surprised if Desir ends up being a top-75 selection.
4. WR Jeremy Gallon, Michigan - I have consistently compared Gallon’s game to Golden Tate, but the Wolverine receiver does not have quite as much explosion to his game. Gallon does work back to his quarterback and is not afraid to leave his feet and attack the ball at the catch point.
5. WR Matt Hazel, Coastal Carolina - Hazel was a nice surprise when preparing for the event. He has a great frame for the position, 6’3/190, but looked fluid and comfortable hands catching at multiple levels of the field. I expect Hazel to have a great week, and potentially be the first receiver selected in the group.
6. DT Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech - For such a massive defensive tackle, 6’2/357, Ellis gets great push up front. In fact, he could improve his anchor against double teams with a wider base and lower pad level. It would be no surprise if Ellis outperforms his peers in individual pass rushing drills. He finds contact through his hands and extends with powerful leg drive.
7. DE Will Clarke, West Virginia - Time will tell if I mis-evaluated Devin Taylor, but I think Will Clarke could be better. He certainly displays more on-field fluidity and bend. Clarke stands at 6’7/273 pounds, and I will be focusing on his hand use this week.
8. S Sean Parker, Washington - The safety class is a bit cluttered behind Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and Lamarcus Joyner. Parker is not quite on their level, but I find him reliable and impressive on each exposure. Hopefully he is matched on against tight ends on occasion this week.
9. WR TJ Jones, Notre Dame - Jones is one of the best route runners in the class, especially among seniors. I was impressed by his improvement after the catch this season.
10. Furman G Dakota Dozier - Dozier is moving from tackle to guard, and I am looking forward to the transition. When he was in tight spaces, Dozer showed a composed nastiness and power to sustain and drive blocks. He then struggled out on an island. He will not have to do that as often at guard.