The 89th annual East-West Shrine Game takes place on Saturday at 4 p.m. ET. This is a showcase for a lot of later-round draft prospects and small-school guys trying to make a name for themselves.
I was fortunate to attend all the practice sessions throughout the week and scout the talent in person. There are a lot of players in the practice fields in St. Petersburg for the Detroit Lions to consider in the upcoming draft.
Here are a few of the players to watch during the game who should interest general manager Martin Mayhew and his staff as the draft process moves onward.
*All measurement information is courtesy of Kyle Crabbs at NFL Draft Tracker.
With the status of starting safety Louis Delmas up in the air, Detroit could be in the market for a safety who can contribute right away.
North Carolina's Tre Boston was the most NFL-ready safety on either squad. In many ways, he draws comparisons to Delmas.
Both are packed with lean muscle and sport long dreads. They both like to talk and exude boundless positive energy. Like Delmas, Boston has shown he can be a missile to the pigskin.
As Tony Pauline of Draft Insider noted:
Tre Boston/S/North Carolina really having a nice day. Making a lot of plays on the ball in coverage.— Tony Pauline (@TonyPauline) January 15, 2014
During his Tar Heels career, he often guessed and jumped routes. While that produces big plays, it can also leave corners exposed to big plays for the offense. Again, the similarity to Delmas persists.
Boston projects as a third- or fourth-round pick at this point. His leadership is a nice bonus.
After one underwhelming season with veteran David Akers, the Lions are in the market for a new franchise kicker.
The team takes this position seriously; prior to Akers in 2013, the Lions had employed just two kickers since 1980.
Texas leg man Anthony Fera will be the West kicker, while Arkansas' Zach Hocker will boot for the East. Both offer late-round draft intrigue.
Fera is a Penn State transfer who also happened to be an above-average punter for the Longhorns. That adds some value, as the Lions experienced having the kicker become the punter when Sam Martin left a game with an injury in 2013.
Hocker made quite an impression during Wednesday's practice session, as noted by Greg Auman of the Tampa Bay Times:
East coach Jerry Glanville said his kicker this year, Arkansas' Zach Hocker, connected on a 60-yard field goal in Wednesday's morning practice. Hocker went 3 for 4 beyond 50 yards this season with a long of 54 yards.
During Thursday's sparsely attended session, he nailed three consecutive kickoffs through the uprights and had to be told to stop kicking to allow the return men to practice fielding balls.
The Shrine Game is played indoors, which will give the Lions a good indication of how well either Fera or Hocker can handle the Ford Field turf.
Local Lions fans know Jeremy Gallon well from his days in Ann Arbor. The diminutive dynamo produced many big plays for the Wolverines, notably against Ohio State in his Big Ten finale.
If the practice sessions are any indication, expect more of the same in the Shrine Game.
Playing for the East, Gallon was the primary target for the quarterbacks quite often during Monday's practice. His quickness was way too much for any of the defenders, particularly the linebackers who had to try and carry him on crossing routes.
Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting noted that Gallon offered more than just being a short-range slot receiver:
Jeremy Gallon continues to separate today on shorter an deep-middle routes. One of the concerns I had on him. Answering them today.— Eric Galko (@OptimumScouting) January 15, 2014
The main issue with him is his size. He was the smallest player on either roster (with Northern Arizona RB Zach Bauman) at just 5'7", with an arm length of just 28.75 inches.
The latter is just as big of a problem as the former, and it showed during Wednesday's practice session when he was matched up against Tre Boston. I remarked in my practice notes at Detroit Lions Draft: "He showed great burst in breaking up a pass to Gallon, reaching around the Michigan wideout to break up the pass. Gallon did not attack the ball, and Boston took advantage."
During the game, look for Gallon to see a lot of action on crosses and working the deep middle of the field. He needs to show he can finish the play beyond just running the route and getting separation.
South Dakota linebacker Tyler Starr was one of the stars of West practices all week long.
He offers versatility at outside linebacker, a position where the Lions are quite thin. Starr flashed his ability to do multiple things well on one series in particular:
Tyler Starr dropped an INT on one rep then picked Price next rep, blew up run next. Blowing it up today #shrinegame— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) January 15, 2014
The hirsute backer is thickly built but moves with surprising agility. He consistently showed he could drop in coverage and handle running with tight ends.
In Detroit, Starr would be the third linebacker, taking over the Ashlee Palmer role. His ability to cover, quickly sniff out the run and attack the quarterback around the edge all look to be at a legit NFL level.
If he performs well during the Shrine Game, Starr could play his way into the conversation for Detroit's fourth-round pick. Pay special attention to his coverage work.
One of the fun parts of watching the practice sessions is seeing small-school talents compete with the big boys. Some sink in the bigger pond, some tread water, and others swim out in front.
Matt Hazel did a Michael Phelps impression throughout the week. The Coastal Carolina wideout (No. 84) consistently demonstrated he was the top receiving talent at the Shrine Game.
While he measured in almost three inches shorter than his listed height, Hazel is still an impressive physical presence. His economy of movement is refreshing in practice sessions with way too much superfluity.
He made several catches that drew oohs and aahs from the crowd, as noted by CBS' Dane Brugler:
CC WR Matt Hazel just put a pretty double move on CB Pierre Desir and finished with a diving catch 40 yards downfield— Dane Brugler (@dpbrugler) January 15, 2014
His route running is very advanced for a small-school prospect, and that gives him a chance to contribute right away in the NFL. His game drew comparisons to Greg Jennings and Eric Decker from scouts in attendance.
Those guys are very good complementary receivers, and that's exactly what the Lions need across from Calvin Johnson. While his size doesn't come as advertised, he still earned himself a lot of money in St. Petersburg. That money could come from Detroit.
Some people scratched their heads when the Shrine Game announced it had invited Baylor tight end Jordan Najvar to compete. After all, he caught just 10 passes in 2013.
Perhaps Baylor should have thrown to him a few more times because he displayed a lot of potential as a downfield target during the practices. As Bleacher Report's Michael Schottey observed:
Great grab in traffic by Jordan Najvar (TE Baylor). He's got a great move-TE build and is taking some reps at RB too— Michael Schottey (@Schottey) January 13, 2014
Najvar is an accomplished blocker, which he also showed during the practice sessions. His draft stock is undervalued at this point because of his lack of experience as a receiver, but he has the potential to be an eventual starter.
He's likely to see a lot of action during the Shrine Game, as the West wide receivers are not very impressive.
Should the Lions opt to let free agent Brandon Pettigrew depart, they will need another big-bodied tight end. Najvar could be that guy in the sixth or seventh round.
One of the lesser-noted offseason needs for the Lions is depth at defensive tackle. While not a priority, the team should add a third-day draft prospect to help provide depth and a little more stoutness along the defensive front.
Three players on the rosters are all worthy of consideration. When watching the game, keep a little scorecard handy and list these three names:
- Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis (pictured)
- Wisconsin's Beau Allen
- Delaware's Zach Kerr
Ellis and Allen will play for the West, while Kerr will man the middle for the East.
All three tip the scales at more than 330 pounds. That sort of beef is something the Lions lacked in 2013. In order to make NFL rosters, they must prove they are more than just massive space-eaters.
During the practice sessions, all three demonstrated some ability to make plays. Ellis in particular flashed surprising agility for such a big man, inspiring this poetic waxing:
These behemoths look to be fifth- or sixth-round picks. One of them could very well be coming to Detroit.