Stuck between the BCS National Championship and the Senior Bowl is the less publicized East-West Shrine Game, held on Saturday, January 21 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 Giants DT Marvin Austin (52nd overall), Panthers DT Terrell McClain (65th), Bengals DE/OLB Dontay Moch (66th), Jaguars G Will Rackley (76th), Ravens OT Jah Reid (85th), and Titans DT Karl Klug (142nd), just to list a few.
The 2012 roster is made of former transfers that left larger schools for starting opportunities, Canadian or Division II and III stars with physical tools, players that had down senior seasons due to injury/production, or top performers that find themselves playing a deep position in the '12 draft class (RB, WR, CB). The full roster can be found here.
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. All heights, weights, and forty times are projected until weigh-ins take place on Monday.
With San Diego State QB Ryan Lindley called up to replace Texas A&M's Ryan Tannehill (foot) at the Senior Bowl, focus shifts to Florida QB John Brantley (6-3/220/4.89), who never performed to expectations in college. Despite his underwhelming play, Brantley is one of the few college players comfortable from under center with fluid footwork that stays in the pocket -- even too long at times despite above average mobility. Brantley's arm talent does not match his poise, starting with a windup release that drops below his shoulder and ending with inconsistent accuracy. A below the radar quarterback to watch is University of Chattanooga's B.J. Coleman (6-3/220/4.93). A Tennessee transfer, Coleman holds the ball in ideal position for a quick release with little wasted movement. Practices will be crucial to see if he has NFL-level arm talent against stiffer competition. Southern Mississippi's Austin Davis (6-1/221/4.78), the Burlsworth Trophy winner as the nation's top former walk-on, also has scouts wondering if he has enough strength to consistently make sideline throws 12-15 yards down the field but is ahead of others when reading coverages pre-snap.
Temple’s Evan Rodriguez has a large fullback’s frame (6-2/250/4.67) but led the Owls in receiving yards in 2011. Versatility is great, but it will be interesting to see if Rodriguez's lack of a dedicated position limits him in practice this week. He needs to show encouraging blocking or receiving skills to be more than a utility H-Back. Tennessee's Tauren Poole (5-10/215/4.56) is a balanced runner with average athleticism whose physical, but technical style picks up large chunks of yardage. Poole's former teammate, Lennon Creer (6-0/215/4.57), transferred to Louisiana Tech and projects as an inside zone blocking scheme runner with the ability to hit cutback lanes.
Wide Receiver/Tight Ends
A deep squad is led by Arkansas' Jarius Wright (5-10/180/4.34), a slot prospect that played outside frequently in a speedy Razorbacks receiver group. Wright is a true vertical threat that creates distance on crossing routes but needs to show he has the footwork to run NFL caliber inside routes while making catches in traffic. Michigan's Sugar Bowl star Junior Hemingway (6-1/222/4.54) is great at working back towards the QB when plays break down and catching passes at their highest point in traffic, but needs to prove he is a consistent receiver that can create separation on short to intermediate routes. Michigan State's B.J. Cunningham (6-2/216/4.59) has strong hands and always seems to make catches away from his body. He is one of the nation's most underrated receivers but is limited in his straight line speed. Despite receiving only a handful of targets at Michigan, TE Kevin Koger (6-4/258/4.78) could shine in practice. Koger is a comfortable blocker and was held back as a receiver due to the Wolverines' offensive style; his best football might be ahead of him.
Preseason national media favorite Matt Reynolds (6-4/305/5.28) played left tackle in college but may be moved inside if he struggles against top outside pass rushers. After drop stepping into a nearly straight-up posture, Reynolds allows quick rushers to beat him around the edge or physical rushers to beat him with a counter move. However, his reaction timing and active hands project well when shifting to guard. Colorado's Ryan Miller (6-7/298/5.32) may be doing the opposite, as he has the size to shift to right tackle after playing guard in his senior year. Miller has issues with flexibility and bends at the waist too often, but his long arms will help his ability to anchor. Ole Miss transfer G Rishaw Johnson (6-4/308/5.18), who finished his career at California (PA), offers much more in the running game with quickness off the snap and looks fluid getting to the second level. UConn's Moe Petrus (6-1/302/5.04) has a squatty build, but rarely gets beaten from the center position after a swift initial punch and is constantly readjusting his hand placement.
The defensive tackles have the edge in terms of talent, with USC's DaJohn Harris (6-4/310/5.16) leading the way. His first contact is low and powerful but occasionally is pushed back on second and third efforts. Harris plays the run well, always looking for contact through his hands but needs help shedding with proper timing. He lacks closing speed and ability to quickly change direction when closing on the quarterback. Miami's Micanor Regis (6-2/305/5.20) is a bit overlooked, mainly due to an inconsistent ability to anchor and hold his lane. Regis is best when penetrating, shedding quickly with strong hands and splitting a gap. He has experience at both nose tackle and 3-technique. Dependable West Virginia DE Julian Miller (6-3/268/4.76) sticks to his assignment and holds the point of attack well with length and upper body strength. His sacks come from hustle and persistence more than pass rush skills but he projects as a mid-round high motor left defensive end.
3-4 defenses will be intrigued by Pittsburgh's Brandon Lindsey (6-2/250/4.68). He has a great get off and always looks to slap the blocker's hands away. He gets sacks just from his quick first step, but if his upfield momentum is stopped, Lindsey has little success with a counter move and seems satisfied staying outside the tackle's reach. Much has been made about Vontaze Burfict's recklessness on the field, but Canadian prospect Shawn Loiseau (6-2/238/4.68) is a wild man himself. He lays out for every tackle and is a punishing hitter; however, he tends to overrun plays and get out of position even against lower competition. Tank Carder (6-2/237/4.67) played in a 4-2-5 scheme at TCU and always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. He is a sure tackler in open lanes but has poor technique when fighting off blocks, leading to difficulty when disengaging. Carder lacks some upper body bulk but should not put on much weight as his cover skills are more than adequate.
Very few corners can play both inside and out, therefore scouts will be looking at specific qualities that help a CB fit either spot. Notre Dame's Robert Blanton (6-0/200/4.53) is best on the outside versus the run or screens, beating blocks with his length and wrapping up on tackles. At times he has stiff hips in off coverage, but Blanton watches the passer well and drives underneath for breakups. UNC's Charles Brown (5-9/205/4.49) was part of the group that was suspended for the entire 2010 season, and despite his shorter build Brown does not shy away from getting physical at the catch point. He's shown he can shadow receivers sideline to sideline as well as climb the ladder to disrupt catches. Brown has zone coverage experience, which is always necessary for a slot corner. Duke safety Matt Daniels (6-0/210/4.53) is fluid in open areas and interchangeable as a free or strong safety, but needs to win every one-on-one tackling situation as well as respect play-action fakes.
Top Ten Players at the East-West Shrine:
1. WR Jarius Wright (5-10/180/4.34) Arkansas - It is easy to go vertical from the slot, but other than crossing patterns, Wright has little experience with quick-step routes. He needs to flash ability after the catch to possibly move into the draft's second day.
2. S Aaron Henry (6-0/210/4.52) Wisconsin - In a shallow safety class, Henry may have the most to gain. Speed is not an issue for the former cornerback, but Henry needs to be more aware of deeper routes to not allow big plays over top.
3. CB Shaun Prater (5-10/185/4.49) Iowa - Prater predominately lined up in off coverage at Iowa, but will be asked to play closer to the line in Tampa. He is fluid in a zone scheme and has the ability to turn his hips and run in the pocket of a receiver. One-on-ones in practice will be telling.
4. WR B.J. Cunningham (6-2/216/4.59) Michigan State - Always seemed to be the go-to guy in crunch time at Michigan State. Cunningham is a deceivingly solid downfield target that should out-physical smaller defensive backs.
5. LB Josh Kaddu (6-3/236/4.67) Oregon - The versatile linebacker could be in for a rise during the draft season. Kaddu has a very athletic frame and has had success rushing the passer to go along with consistent run defense.
6. C Quentin Saulsberry (6-2/300/5.16) Mississippi State - Saulsberry played right tackle, guard, and center in college. He held his own against LSU's stud front seven, giving up little ground thanks to a thick lower body and violent hands.
7. DE Julian Miller (6-3/268/4.76) West Virginia - A rotational LDE at the next level that will improve pass rush by learning leverage techniques. Consistent play versus the run makes Miller a safer mid-round pick with expectations in check.
8. QB B.J. Coleman (6-3/220/4.93) UT-Chattanooga - Has a similar story to Joe Flacco, transferring from a large school in search of more playing time. His completion percentage is not where it should be (60.9 % this year), but Coleman already seems destined for coaching after his playing days are over.
9. S Duke Ihenacho (6-0/205/4.60) San Jose State - Once Ihenacho makes a decision he plants in one step and closes quickly. Ihenacho makes tackles at full speed, not waiting for the running back to hit the second level. However, these aggressive angles leave him susceptible to quick lateral moves and cutbacks.
10. G/T Markus Zusevics (6-5/300/5.08) Iowa - Overshadowed by likely top-10 pick Riley Reiff, Zusevics is a self-made player (has added over 75 pounds) that shows versatility as a guard or right tackle. He’s comfortable in his big frame but needs to refine his technique a bit. NFL teams love players that come from Iowa. They never lack physicality and are responsive to coaching.