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.