Before next week's Senior Bowl, a second tier of NFL prospects will have descended upon Tampa, Fla.(along with media, NFL team scouts, agents, etc) for the 88th Annual East-West Shrine Game.
While recently the Senior Bowl has typically featured a higher level of talent, that wasn't always the case. Mean Joe Greene and Dick Butkus are in the Shrine Game Hall of Fame. Gale Sayers is in there as well. There's even a TV star (Merlin Olsen) and a U.S. president (Gerald Ford).
However, even now, there are diamonds in the rough to be unearthed. While the game has moved from California over to Texas and now to Florida (first to Orlando, then to Tampa—its current location) the gems have followed along with the event.
Last year's Shrine Game produced a number of NFL rookie standouts, including Josh Norman (CB Carolina Panthers), Josh LeRibeus (OL Washington Redskins), Jarius Wright (WR Minnesota Vikings), Blair Walsh (K Minnesota Vikings) and Alfred Morris (RB Washington Redskins).
Whoever the Vikings and Redskins sent down to scout the Shrine Game last year deserves a raise.
I'm also in Tampa this week, taking in some of the practices and schmoozing with all the NFL types. Before I head out to the fields, I thought I'd take a moment and let you in on the players I'll be paying special attention to.
Emory Blake was at the wrong place in the wrong time.
The wrong place? Anywhere near the Auburn's offense. The wrong time? Anytime after Cam Newton left town. The Tigers were terrible this past season, and Blake failed to rise above the muck and establish himself as a sure-fire NFL prospect.
He'll get a chance in Tampa—on a level playing field—to show he has what it takes.
Typically, receivers get first crack at making a good impression as practices heat up toward the end of the week and embolden defenders to make bigger plays. If Blake can earn the trust of his team's coaches and quarterbacks early on, he could reestablish himself as a late-round draft pick.
Blake lacks the size and tools to be a No. 1 in the NFL, but he can catch and track the ball nicely. He'd make a great depth wide receiver on a team looking to spread the field. He just has to remind teams he exists this week in Tampa.
Will Campbell was a 5-star recruit out of Cass Technical High School in Detroit. When he picked the Wolverines, it was seen a a bit of a coup even though Cass has been a feeder school for Michigan in the past. Anytime a recruit turns down schools like Alabama, Florida, LSU and Notre Dame, it's a big deal.
While he was the fifth-ranked defensive tackle in the country out of high school (via Rivals), it's possible he won't even get drafted out of college.
In many respects, he's still the same player—enormous and immensely gifted, but a giant potential waste of God-given talent if he doesn't do anything to develop.
He's in a completely different situation, but he reminds me of Akiem Hicks (DL New Orleans Saints) who was at the Shrine Game last season. Coaches salivate over raw prospects they can mold. If Campbell makes some waves here, he'll see his stock skyrocket.
Doege is a high-volume passer with questionable decision-making skills.
That, my friends, is almost always a one-way ticket to the Arena League. However, Doege has a solid chance to thrive in a pressure-free atmosphere of an all-star game where he won't have to worry about blitzing, and he'll have some nice weapons to throw to.
With spread offenses and multiple-receiver sets not going anywhere as far as the NFL is concerned, Doege could appeal to teams who see enough arm strength to master the intermediate throws to go along with decent footwork and a solid command of the game.
He has some rough edges and bad tendencies that need to be rooted out, but a good week here could give him priority free-agent status and a spot as the No. 3 QB on someone's roster.
Motta is a free safety for the Irish, but he'll get looks at both safety positions as well as outside linebacker for NFL teams. Motta has always been known for his ability to lay the wood and will likely step in right away as a special teams player at the next level.
That said, if Motta wants to make an impression this week and beyond, he has to keep the play in front of him. He tends to get lost in the middle of the field and will need plenty of coaching once he leaves South Bend.
Most of all, he needs to show that he can make impactful plays. Ball skills have never been his forte, but as one of the smartest players at this game, he would be wise to take advantage of early offensive hiccups and pick off a couple of errant passes.
Pough was the 2012 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year and became the FCS record holder with 83 tackles for loss over his illustrious Howard career.
He is extremely active around the line of scrimmage and can rush the passer as well as shed blocks to get to the ball-carrier. He hasn't faced tremendous competition at the FCS level, so he'll need to prove that the bigger and more athletic linemen won't give him fits.
At worst, Pough should be a late-round pick, special teams standout and developmental player. However, with a good weekend here, teams could look at Pough and envision him starting at weak-side linebacker for them sooner rather than later.
Out of high school, Ferentz didn't attract much attention. Well, once his lone scholarship offer came from his daddy, he actually got a lot of unwanted attention. All he did to follow that up was start 38 games over the last three years of his Hawkeye career and finish as a second-team All-Big Ten player.
No big deal.
A former wrestling champ, Ferentz will be undersized in the NFL and will need to prove he can out-leverage more talented defensive linemen than he typically faced in the Big Ten.
As long as teams are running the 3-4 and nose tackles are tipping the scales at 350 or higher, he may never be a starter. But for the right team in the right situation, he could be a capable backup and have a long NFL career.
If not, I'm sure his dad could use an assistant.
Alex Carder has every tool scouts look for in an NFL quarterback.
No, seriously, every single tool. I know that phrase can take on a lot of meanings and end up being a descriptor for lots of guys who end up selling insurance out of college, but Carder is a legitimate prospect with fantastic size (6'2", 215), a live arm and tremendous athleticism for a pocket passer.
He'll need coaching (lots of it), but there is little reason Carder can't be in a team's long-term plans as a high-level backup. If Carder is starting NFL games down the road after he's paired with one of the league's quarterback gurus, he'll look back to this week as a pivotal moment that kept him off the used-car lot.
There are two kinds of tight ends in the NFL: "on the line" guys who create mismatches with linebackers and are able to block pass-rushers and "off the line" (or "move") tight ends who create mismatches with everybody and typically just get in the defender's way rather than actually blocking them.
Fauria is the latter, and he has the potential to be very good at it.
He's not as hyped up as he was out of high school when he signed with (and subsequently transferred from) Notre Dame, but he proved he was a legitimate pass target during his senior season at UCLA and has incredible size and a ridiculous catch radius (look at those long arms!).
Oh, and it helps that his uncle is Christian Fauria—NFL teams love pedigree.
He'll play at the next level. This week, he can prove that he deserves a mid-round pick and an immediate role in someone's passing game. If he falls flat, he'll go much later and be viewed as a one-trick pony, which will make his uphill climb that much harder as a pro.
Frankly, in an all-star atmosphere, I expect Fauria to rise above.
With NFL teams looking less and less to the top rounds of the draft for running back help, a back like Zac Stacy will appeal to many with his dynamic running ability and prototypical size. At 5'9", 210 lbs, Stacy can be a load to bring down as he has both the muscle and the leverage to put defenders on their backsides.
Stacy also has solid vision, and I love the way he runs to contact but has the body control to glance off defenders and get extra yards rather than simply trying to run over them. It's a nuanced skill, and it will serve Stacy well as an NFL back.
If he can set himself apart in Tampa, he'll be picked by the fifth round in April.
Klein was a finalist for the Heisman Trophy, but his inability as a passer kept him off of the Senior Bowl roster behind some prospects with better pro potential.
That means Klein will have a chance to shine at the Shrine.
While the game itself may be won on Klein's running ability and could feature him working out of Wildcat/pistol formations that are all the rage in the NFL, scouts (along with myself) will be closely monitoring his throwing motion here, at the combine and at his pro day to see if he is putting in the work necessary to take his game to the next level.
Klein will be on an NFL roster next season, but if he wants to contribute, he'll have to throw. His road to the pros starts here at the Shrine Game.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.