The NFL Draft may be months away, but for the Philadelphia Eagles and 27 other teams, the process began in earnest this week. The East-West Shrine Game unofficially kicks off draft season for most of the league.
The East-West Game is a little lacking in star power. The majority of the players in the game are mid-to-late-round picks at best. Quite a few won’t be drafted at all.
That being said, every pick has value, and All-Star games such as this and the week of practice leading up to it are often crucial steps in the evaluation process to unearth those gems. And as Bo Wulf for PhiladelphiaEagles.com points out, quality players and even stars can be found in this game.
Birds safety Earl Wolff (pictured) played in the game just last year.
So while it may not have the same luster as the Senior Bowl, we can certainly pick out a few names Birds fans might want to keep an eye out for this weekend.
One of the most difficult positions to fill in pro football, the Eagles are lacking the kind of true nose tackle that can really make a conventional 3-4 defense go. You know, a big space-eater who commands constant double-teams and still break down the interior of the offensive line.
Sadly, those kinds of players don’t come around every day but at least one young man will look the part for the West Team at the Shrine Game. At 351 pounds—yes, you read that correctly—Louisiana Tech’s Justin Ellis is the largest player competing on Saturday, and he’s already made quite the impression.
NFLDraftScout.com analyst Dane Brugler was among those raving about Ellis after attending practices all week, per CBSSports.com.
Entering the week, my top defensive tackle prospect participating this week was Louisiana Tech DT Justin Ellis (6-2, 351) and he hasn't disappointed so far. He used his active hands and quick feet to beat blockers during drills, putting spin moves on Oklahoma's Gabe Ikard and also steamrolling him on a few occasions. To no surprise, Ellis weighed in as the heaviest prospect here at 351 pounds and he uses that girth well to bully blockers and surge through the line of scrimmage.
Some things, you just can’t teach, size obviously being one of them. The fact that he is also being praised for his agility and technique are great signs that his talents can be further developed.
As of now, Ellis projects as a late-round pick, but he might be rated higher by teams that utilize the 3-4. A huge showing in the Shrine Game (no pun intended) could really shake up draft boards for defenses searching for the next Casey Hampton.
As the saying goes, you can never have too many pass-rushers, so while I would expect the outside linebacker position to be addressed much earlier in the draft, somebody here might be worth a flyer.
Actually, there are a number of intriguing prospects on the West Team roster in particular. Prince Shembo out of Notre Dame and USC’s Devon Kennard were rated players coming from major programs to begin with.
The name that’s really on the rise at practices though is one that’s going to be hard to forget once you learn it. Colorado Buffaloes defensive end Chidera Uzo-Diribe (pronounced chee-derra u-zoh da-ree-bay) has been building his case this week, and NFL Network’s Bucky Brooks likes what he’s seen so far.
Colorado's Chidera Uzo-Diribe opened eyes with his explosiveness and athleticism in drills. The 6-foot-3, 250-pounder was impressive rushing the passer in 1-on-1 drills. He blew past challengers with an explosive speed rush move; he flashed an inside spin as a complementary move. Uzo-Diribe followed with a powerful bull rush that showcased his exceptional arm length.
Prior to the 2013 season, CBSSports.com’s Rob Rang reported Uzo-Diribe has a 36-inch vertical, could bench 225 pounds 22 times, and clocks in the 4.5s in the 40-yard dash. If that proves true at the scouting combine in February, this kid could really move up.
The only thing that might hold Uzo-Diribe back is poor production in college—he never recorded more than seven sacks in four years at Colorado. How much of that was because the team was usually getting blown out though?
Having game-planned against Uzo-Diribe in the Pac-12, you can bet Chip Kelly will know what he brings to the table.
The cornerback trio of Cary Williams, Bradley Fletcher and Brandon Boykin will get the Eagles through another year, but depth was an issue last season, and beyond 2014, who knows. Coming away from this draft with one, if not two cover guys should be a priority.
You want to be careful not to typecast too much with Chip Kelly, who just wants the best players on the field, but the signings of Williams and Fletcher as free agents last offseason was telling. Both are physical and six feet tall. That’s what he likes on the outside. That, as the Seattle Seahawks are showing, is the model in the NFL now.
The Shrine Game is not exactly overrun with towering corners, but there is one. At just a shade under 6’2”, not only will Pierre Desir be the tallest on the field, he might be the best.
Never heard of him? That’s not surprising given Desir played for the prestigious football program at Lindenwood. Don’t let the small-school stigma fool you though. The Division-II product is rated as one of the top prospects playing in the game on Saturday. NFLDraftScout.com’s Dane Brugler has more, via CBSSports.com:
Lindenwood CB Pierre Desir entered the week as one of my top defensive prospects in St. Petersburg and he did little to persuade me from that thought during Monday's practice. He looks the part with a tall, long frame and he does a nice job staying low and fluid in his stance, backpedal and overall transition. Desir is going up against FBS-level wide receivers this week like Miami's Allen Hurns and Michigan's Jeremy Gallon, but he hasn't looked out of place through one day of practice.
If their last two drafts told us anything, it’s that the Eagles are showing more of a commitment to drafting players from major college football programs since general manager Howie Roseman took over the draft from Andy Reid. That said, with his size and ability, Desir may be a rare prospect that’s too good to pass on—on draft day and game day.
The Eagles will undoubtedly draft a safety or two, it’s just a matter of how early. As long as Earl Wolff is competing for a job—he held his own as a rookie—the front office is likely to fill one of those two spots with a veteran, either re-signing Nate Allen or another free agent.
That means they won’t necessarily be targeting a safety on day one, but if nothing else, the Birds still must look to the draft to fill out the depth chart and provide Wolff with some competition. And the top-rated safety in the Shrine Game? Not a bad place to start their search.
Hakeem Smith was a four-year collegiate starter, and named to the all-conference team four times. Not bad considering he’s not even viewed as the best safety coming out of Louisville this year. At 6’0”, 186 pounds, he’ll need to bulk up a bit at the next level, but at the very least he figures to be a competent safety with some upside as a playmaker.
Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting talked about what he saw from Smith at practice on Monday:
Smith is a bit undersized as many have pointed out before/did during practice, but he filled gaps well at strong safety, got work at both spots, and matched up in the slot very well. He’s no Calvin Pryor upside-wise, but Smith looked the part of a future NFL starter.
Chip Kelly demands versatility from his players, so the fact that Smith can defend from the slot too is very important. It’s a role Eagles fans saw Patrick Chung get burned in with great frequency in 2013.
The Eagles are set at guard for the time being, particularly on the left side where tactician Evan Mathis finally earned All-Pro honors this season. Both Mathis and Todd Herremans are signed through 2016, so it’s not an immediate need.
However, Herremans struggled at times last season, and both he and Mathis are on the wrong side of 30, and they’re the only offensive linemen listed as guards on the current roster. With all of that in mind, it might not be a bad idea to invest in a project.
The problem is head coach Chip Kelly prefers quick, athletic linemen both for his blocking scheme and up-tempo pace—the type of player the Shrine Game is lacking based on scouting reports. However, there is one small-school prospect who could fit the bill.
6’4”, 312-pound Dakota Dozier from FCS Furman is switching from tackle to guard in an effort to make the jump to the NFL, yet even despite the position change, he’s already managed to catch the eyes of scouts.
Tony Pauline named Dozier one of his “winners” on PhiladelphiaEagles.com after day two of the West squad’s practice.
Dozier, 6-4, 312, overcame his lack of size and power by blocking with great technique and controlling defenders in one-on-one drills. He's an athletic sort of lineman who will only improve as he physically matures and gets stronger.
A consensus All American, Dozier seems destined to be drafted, and with continued strong showings he could creep into the mid-rounds on some boards. The Eagles would be wise to take stock.