The road to the NFL draft starts today.
The East-West Shrine Game officially kicks off draft season with a look at some second-tier senior prospects fighting to get noticed by NFL teams. For many, the real story is the week of practices—packed with media, NFL personnel and fans hoping to catch a glimpse of future stardom.
Three years ago, the game moved from Orlando to St. Petersburg, Fla., and is currently held at Tropicana Field. The move also correlated with a boost in popularity for the event. The more buzz there is, the more agents want to send their players. The more top players show up, the more buzz is created. The cycle continues spinning.
Shrine Game alumni through the ages include Merlin Olsen, Bob Lilly, Gale Sayers, Larry Csonka and more names you might recognize. However, the level of talent, especially recently, has lagged far behind the Senior Bowl (held the following week in Mobile, Ala.). Those who have been going to the Shrine Game for years agree that this might be the most talented crop in quite some time.
To watch the 89th East-West Shrine Game for yourself, tune in to the NFL Network at 4 p.m. ET on Saturday. Patrick Kinas, Rick Berkey and former NFL/MLB player Brian Jordan will have the call.
The biggest storyline of the week is the presence and size of Michigan State linebacker Max Bullough. Suspended for the Rose Bowl for an unreleased infraction, Bullough showed up to practices about 15-20 pounds heavier than his playing weight for the Spartans.
One former NFL personnel man suggested the extra weight was intended to appeal to teams running a 3-4 defense, and that he would probably show up much lighter (and faster) at the combine. However, a player agent told me that he would never let a client show up "looking sloppy" to a showcase event like this.
The only thing that had people along the sidelines—NFL employees and media—talking more this week than Bullough was West head coach Romeo Crennel. Crennel is going to be named the Houston Texans defensive coordinator shortly after this game, but his practices were among the worst anyone at the event had ever seen. Former Buffalo Bills coach Chan Gailey was renowned for running a set of terrible practices at the Senior Bowl some years ago, but Crennel's may have taken the crown as worst ever.
If the West team seems horribly prepared, Texans fans can look forward to similar levels of preparation in the coming seasons. It wouldn't be the first time the team with the more relaxed and less intense practices actually wins the game, so it's just something to look out for.
Top Prospects on the East
Several in the media who have been attending this game for longer than I have called this the best quarterback crop they've seen at a Shrine Game. Looking back to "before my time," the 2002 pairing of Joey Harrington and J.T. O'Sullivan may have been the last time practices featured multiple passers who could one day be handed the keys to an NFL team.
Jeff Mathews (Cornell), Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois) and Jordan Lynch (Northern Illinois) are all NFL-caliber talents with starting-level potential. There's work to be done with all three, but the margins are pretty thin between them, and different teams will value different traits.
The East also features the top offensive standout of the week in Zachary Bauman (RB, Northern Arizona). The 5'7", 196-pound back was the most natural runner I've seen in my four years covering this game. Most senior backs aren't top prospects anyway (this year is worse than most), and the Shrine Game typically features a lot of one-speed linear backs with good physical skills but not a lot of shake.
Bauman, frankly, could open a lot of eyes after this week.
Matt Hall (OT, Belhaven) is a massive prospect at a listed 6'10". It's impossible not to feel a little dwarfed standing next to Hall, who is at least head and shoulders taller than most of his teammates. He is raw, though, like most small-school linemen and had trouble with speed-rushers throughout the week.
On defense, watch defensive backs Nevin Lawson (Utah State) and Pierre Desir (Lindenwood). Both have starting-caliber skills at the next level, and Desir might find himself the top player drafted out of this game.
When not watching the defensive backs, cast your eyes to the defensive line, where Will Clarke (West Virginia), Bruce Gaston Jr. (Purdue) and Kerry Wynn (Richmond) all had good weeks and look to have NFL-caliber natural tools.
Top Prospects on the West
The West's quarterback crop doesn't have the depth the East's does, but it might actually have the MVP of this game in Keith Wenning (Ball State). Wenning doesn't have the elite athleticism of Lynch or the physical tools of Mathews, but he's a polished, efficient and talented passer who told Bleacher Report he's always looking to improve every facet of his game.
The other West quarterbacks don't look NFL-ready, but Tommy Rees (Notre Dame) has the far superior physical tools over Keith Price (Washington). Rees has a mountain to climb to see any meaningful snaps on Sundays, but the right situation and right coaching could lead to a long career as an NFL backup.
Seantavius Jones (WR, Valdosta State) has some pretty fantastic physical tools at a listed 6'3", 200 pounds. He catches the ball well and doesn't shy away from contact in the air. Jordan Najvar (TE, Baylor) was probably the biggest matchup threat during the week and high-points the ball well. He could find himself in the end zone a couple of times during the game as well as on Sundays.
Other offensive skill-position talent to watch on the West includes: Chandler Jones (WR, San Jose State) and Tim Flanders (RB/FB, Sam Houston State), both of whom flashed potential during the practices.
On the other side of the ball, defensive back Carrington Bynum (Texas) had a good, if not standout, week. Sometimes, especially with secondary players, it's better not to be noticed. Shaquille Richardson (Arizona) didn't work against a ton of top talent with the West receivers but was able to lock down when manned up against them.
Down in the trenches, watch Josh Mauro (DL, Stanford) and Larry Webster (DL, Bloomsburg). Both have intriguing size and physical tools but didn't jump out as much as I expected in practices. Some of that certainly has to do with the practice tempo and setting. Team scouts I spoke to repeatedly told me that they expect good games out of these guys.
Overall, the Shrine Game is a blip on the radar of most NFL personnel guys. These players' tapes from their college careers will always trump their execution in this game, and we've still got a combine and pro days to get through.
That said, the game has become and remained part of the process for good reason. What teams see in the practices and during the game will send them back to tape on many of these prospects. It might help "break some ties" on draft boards around the league, and it will put some prospects on a team's radar thanks to seeing them in different roles than they played collegiately.
The draft season is here, and the Shrine Game is the perfect chance to get to know some players who will become household names soon enough.