First up is the great tradition that is the East-West Shrine Game.
The Shrine Game gets its name from an old fraternity in San Francisco aptly named the Shriners, according to the game’s official website. Oddly enough, the Shriners used to play a baseball game against the Elks each year, with all proceeds being given to Shriners Hospitals for Children.
From the site:
As the idea of turning this game into a larger event blossomed, a group of Shriners decided to switch the game to football because of its wider appeal. The original idea was to pit local Shriners against all comers, but that idea was rejected as the founders considered the potential for injury to non-athletes entering the game.
With the help of San Francisco football field developer E. Jack Spaulding, the Shrine Game became the nation’s first all-star game, and in 1925, the first East-West Shrine Game was played before 25,000 fans in San Francisco.
Since then, 71 alumni of the game have made it to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, including John Elway, Roger Staubach, Dick Butkus, Gayle Sayers and Walter Payton.
This year’s roster includes many good players—most of whom you probably have not heard of before. Which players should have the Cardinals’ focus?
Let’s take a look.
Alden Darby, Safety, Arizona State (West)
Many Cardinals fans should already know Alden Darby for the simple fact that he played his college ball at Arizona State. By that same token, it should come as no surprise to see his name here.
A hard-hitting strong safety, Darby was voted first-team All-Pac-12 by coaches for his play in 2013. He was second on the team in tackles and interceptions, and he led the team in pass breakups.
He is mainly an in-the-box safety, but he does have the ability to cover deep. He is not astute in man coverage, but as the free safety in a zone, he can get to the intermediate and deep routes to defend a pass.
Watch Darby react to screen passes and dump-offs during the Shrine Game. He is quick to read and react to plays behind the line of scrimmage, and the speed at which he closes is fun to watch. He doesn’t exhibit much wasted movement when he knows something is coming.
Whereas some college players—even in this game—will hesitate to break on a ball, Darby will not. He will not wait for the ball-carrier to come to him; he will go and get the ball-carrier.
Jimmy Garoppolo, Quarterback, Eastern Illinois (East)
It’s not that Jimmy Garoppolo is a great downfield passer who fits head coach Bruce Arians’ system perfectly—he’s not, and he doesn’t. But he is a heady quarterback who moves well in the pocket and has a lightning-quick release.
On paper, Cornell signal-caller Jeff Mathews is probably a better fit for Arians. But there’s something intriguing about Garoppolo playing in Arizona.
It could be that he resembles Kurt Warner in the way he plays (no, that’s not a direct comparison). He’s not “mobile” by definition, but he can escape a tight pocket and deliver accurate passes with plenty of zip behind them—much like Warner did for a decade.
As mentioned, he does not possess the big, rocket arm. But he gets the ball out so quickly that often the ball gets where it needs to be on deep routes.
You will see many quarterbacks throw perfect spiral after perfect spiral during the Shrine Game. Garoppolo will not be one of them. Much like Peyton Manning (neither is that a direct comparison), this guy throws up one of the ugliest balls you’ve ever seen.
But also like Manning, his passes get where they need to be more often than not.
Khalil Wilkes, Center, Stanford (West)
Arians and his offensive coaches love versatile linemen; most on the current roster can play multiple positions on the line. Stanford center Khalil Wilkes started 12 games at left guard in 2012 before becoming the full-time center in 2013.
He was part of one of the best offensive lines in the country this season. Of the 12 regular-season games that Stanford played, opposing defenses sacked quarterback Kevin Hogan once or not at all eight times and never more than twice.
Like Cardinals starting center Lyle Sendlein, Wilkes is not an overpowering blocker, relying mainly on technique to keep his quarterback clean. He still has a bit of a nasty streak to him, though, and he will maul a defensive lineman or linebacker on occasion.
While Sendlein is under contract through the 2015 season and will make roughly $8.4 million over that time, according to Spotrac (not bad for a solid center), he will be 30 years old just after the 2014 league year begins in early March. How many more years of beatings in the trenches can he withstand?
It’s about time the Cardinals address the central piece of the offensive line. Wilkes should be a good one at the next level.
Shaquil Barrett, Outside Linebacker, Colorado State (West)
Another versatile player, Shaquil Barrett played outside linebacker, defensive end and defensive tackle at Colorado State. He is not a very athletic-looking player; in fact, he looks as though he’s never been inside a weight room in his life.
But that makes him such an attractive prospect. Well, that and the fact that he mauls offensive linemen in his pursuit of quarterbacks and running backs.
Of all the prospects at the Shrine Game, Barrett could be the most intriguing because of his high production and low recognition. Did you know he was one of two players this season with at least 10 sacks, 20 tackles for loss and 80 total tackles? The other was North Carolina senior defensive end Kareem Martin, who finished with 11.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for loss and 82 total tackles.
Barrett is a bit raw as a pass-rusher, but as a football player, he has natural instincts similar to Tyrann Mathieu. He has a nose for seeking out the ball-carrier and does not shy away from contact.
Here's a fun fact: As a high school senior, Barrett won a Nebraska state wrestling championship at 215 pounds (which explains his willingness to hit people).
Here are a few plays showing his natural instinct and athletic ability:
First up is his pursuit against the run. As you can see, Colorado receiver Paul Richardson puts a good block on him initially, but Barrett simply drives the wideout back five yards and sheds him in time to make the tackle for no gain.
Sticking with run defense, we see here how naturally strong Barrett is. Fullback Jordan Murphy initially has good leverage on Barrett, but in an instant that leverage swings to the defender, and Barrett again sheds the blocker and stops the running back for no gain.
Once more with run defense, this play shows his brute strength from the interior defensive line. Colorado left guard Gus Handler outweighs Barrett by 40 pounds, but by using leverage and a hell of a push, the defender blows up a run play for a loss.
Switching to the pass rush, Barrett played a whale of a game against No. 1 Alabama in 2013. He faced potential first-round pick left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio most of the evening, and this sack of quarterback A.J. McCarron demonstrates Barrett’s speed-rush ability.