NFL scouts, media and agents filed onto the practice field in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Monday for the 2014 East-West Shrine Game, hoping to get a glimpse of one of the greatest classes of talent we've seen in this game in some time.
This year, as is typically the case, the Shrine Game hosts the second tier of senior NFL draft prospects—those who did not get an invite to the Senior Bowl. The Shriner organization also tends to focus on "high-character" athletes, although that is more of a general rule than specifically applied across the board.
Practices, which are open to the public, take place between Monday and Wednesday. Teams hold a walk-through on Thursday in preparation for the game on Saturday. Bleacher Report will be here in Tampa to bring you all the latest from the practices as we look ahead to the NFL draft.
A Great Class of Passers at the Shrine Game
|Shrine Game Passers On the First Day|
|Day 1 Rank||Name||School||Team|
|1||Jimmy Garoppolo||Eastern Illinois||East|
|3||Keith Wenning||Ball State||West|
|4||Jordan Lynch||Northern Illinois||East|
|5||Tommy Rees||Notre Dame||West|
The top passer of the day, in my estimation, was Eastern Illinois' Jimmy Garoppolo. Though he did not live up to his listed height of 6'3" nor look to have as much accuracy as he does on film, he displayed more-than-adequate zip on passes to every level of the field and was able to consistently throw tight spirals with little wobble at the top of their arc.
My opinion was not shared by many, however, who instead preferred the work of Cornell quarterback Jeff Mathews. Mathews has a chance to be the top QB drafted from this class, mostly because of his size. A good head taller than Garoppolo and Northern Illinois signal-caller Jordan Lynch, Mathews also has nice bulk. Mathews struggled on a couple of deep passes, but looked very comfortable in the short-to-intermediate game.
I spoke to Lynch after practice and asked him what he had done since the end of the season. He's been working out with Donovan Dooley at St. Vincent Prep School in Indianapolis. At practice, Lynch looked as relaxed throwing the ball as I've seen. Though he still has lots of work to do, it's clear that he's putting in the work.
Those passers are all on the East team, which represents one of the best groups of quarterbacks this game has ever seen. All three are draftable prospects, which is hardly the case in most years—let alone on one of the two teams.
This is offset, however, by the lack of certifiable quarterback talent on the West team.
Ball State's Keith Wenning was the top quarterback of the first practice. A fellow media member turned me on to his footwork, and I was immediately impressed with Wenning's overall mechanics. He lacks elite velocity on some intermediate perimeter passes, but his consistency is worth the price of the admission. He is the only quarterback on the West roster who looked like a draftable player Monday.
Scouts are torn on Notre Dame quarterback Tommy Rees. The physical tools are there, but his inconsistency was in stark contrast to Wenning, and the ball sailed on him because of poor footwork. His father, Bill Rees, works for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a college scout, so there is a good chance he ends up there following the draft.
The final quarterback is another undraftable prospect in Washington's Keith Price. Bleacher Report's Cecil Lammey joked, "Who's that little kid in the Price jersey?" In fact, it was Price's inaccuracy that led to a number of acrobatic catches by his West targets as they made up for his shortcomings.
Small Running Back Looking to Make a Big Impact
The most intriguing player on Day 1 was Northern Arizona running back Zachary Bauman. Listed at 5'10", 200 pounds, he doesn't look nearly that big. Yet, sometimes good things come in small packages and Bauman flashed incredible speed, vision and balance to a bunch of onlookers who have made it their goal to go home at the end of the week and find out much more about him.
Time and again, Bauman found creases that were impossible to see and burst through them. Once he got to the open field, he flashed the speed to take it the distance. He didn't just do this once or twice, but almost every time he got the ball.
During a poorly run West practice in the late afternoon, most in the media were still discussing Bauman's early-afternoon performance. Typically, the backs in this game are one-speed backs, but Bauman has legitimate NFL running ability. His size is a concern, but in today's multiple-back systems, some team is going to find a spot for him.
"Move" Tight Ends Are All the Rage
Two tight ends were impressive Monday, and both are from the "new" breed of taller tight ends who move around the field as "chess pieces" rather than traditional "On-the-Y" tight ends.
For the East, Colorado State's Crockett Gillmore combines a good blend of size with catching ability. Though he lacks the speed to consistently create matchup problems on seam routes, he can be a red-zone threat and took some reps out of the backfield.
In the later practice, the West's Jordan Najvar leaves Baylor with a similar profile. He had a couple of pristine catches, both over the head and away from the body, that drew some oohs and aahs from the gathered crowd. He was a frequent target of Price and hauled in a number of passes most tight ends would have problems catching.
Although the two were not side by side, Najvar appeared to have slightly better speed, but both look like they're able to contribute at the NFL level.
Odds and Ends
—Penn State offensive guard John Urschel appeared completely overmatched to start the first practice session. He repeatedly jumped offsides and was berated by coach Jerry Glanville. Following the verbal lashing, he jumped again and held on the same play.
—A number of scouts, personnel men, media and other onlookers spent the practice sessions discussing what is happening with Miami's general-manager search. Rumors persist that potential candidates for the job are even turning down the opportunity to interview over concerns about Dawn Aponte and who will truly have the final say in organizational matters.
—Both practices were slow at the onset, but the East's practice ramped up and found a good rhythm. Glanville is a regular in situations like this, and his staff does a good job. Romeo Crennel, however, coached the West squad, and the practice was one of the most poorly run I have ever seen. This doesn't exactly bode well for the Houston Texans defense.
—NFL personnel were upset with Crennel for running practice without pads. It's a waste of their time to fly down here and spend an afternoon watching non-contact drills.
—Glanville spent an inordinate amount of time working on direct snaps to the running back. It was an odd point of emphasis, and the centers struggled with it. If you're interested in the game on Saturday, take a look and see if they use it in game situations.
—Lynch also told me that he expects Glanville to mostly run shotgun during the week. NFL teams want to see these prospects under center, but Glanville has a game to win. It's an interesting storyline, as many of these passers are raw from under center, and it might actually be in their best interest to wait until the combine to advertise their skills in that regard.
—Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough was suspended for the Rose Bowl and showed up heavy (265 pounds) and out of shape for this game. I'm not one to talk about carrying excess weight, but I'm not expecting NFL teams to take a look at me. At his size, Bullough shouldn't, either.
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