The East-West Shrine Game is in Tampa Bay on January 18, 2014 at 4 p.m. ET, with coverage on NFL Network. The Denver Broncos are in the thick of the NFL playoffs, with one more victory to go before they reach the Super Bowl. However, they have sent scouts to search out their next draft class at the Shrine Game.
This is a game that has garnered huge results for the team in the past. In 2011, it was Julius Thomas who stood out as a developmental prospect out of Portland State. Last year, it was Kayvon Webster who caught the eye of the Broncos’ scouting staff. They’re hoping to find more draft gems this year.
Denver has five main spots it needs to focus on during the pre-draft process. It should take a long look at cornerbacks, defensive linemen, wide receivers, tight ends and linebackers in this game. There might even be a surprise standout at another position that could flash NFL ability.
For the past eight years, I have attended the week of practice for the Shrine Game. This trip has taken me to Houston, Orlando and now Tampa Bay for the past three years.
Here are some of the standout players I observed during practice who could fit what the Broncos need.
There were quite a few good cornerback prospects at the Shrine Game this year. With the NFL becoming a pass-happy league, it’s important for teams to have quality depth in the secondary.
Nevin Lawson (Utah State) was turning the heads of scouts and analysts in attendance during the week of practice. He’s currently seen as a sixth-round pick but could move up the draft board after this week.
Lawson has good hips, and he can transition quickly from backpedal to sprint when staying with a downfield receiver. He has good ball skills, and Lawson can time his pass breakups perfectly.
The Broncos would be wise to consider adding a player like Lawson late in the 2014 NFL draft.
Another player who the Broncos could consider at this position is Shaquille Richardson (Arizona). He has an intriguing size/speed combination, and Richardson is not afraid of playing with a physical style.
The “pit” is always one of the best drills to watch at an All-Star practice. This one-on-one drill clearly shows who can be dominant on the line of scrimmage.
A player flying under the radar right now is Derrick Hopkins (Virginia Tech). He’s short (5’11”) but has a wide base, measuring in at 311 pounds.
Hopkins showed no nuance to his game in the pit. Instead of using moves and technique, Hopkins instead chooses to bull rush on most every snap. This can be used against him as sometimes Hopkins gets too far forward and will lose his balance.
He may not get drafted, but Hopkins is a big body who would be an intriguing prospect to look at as a priority free agent.
Louisiana Tech’s Justin Ellis is tough to beat. He’s got the size at 6’2”, 357 pounds, and he will get into his opponent quickly after the snap. Like Hopkins, he’s a late-round pick with upside.
A team can never have too many pass-rushers, and that’s why the Broncos should consider drafting Tyler Starr (South Dakota). He’s tall at 6’5” and has enough weight (250 pounds) to hold up to the NFL beating.
Starr was able to knock away one pass in practice on Wednesday. On the next play, he secured the interception, covering his man about 15 yards downfield. His versatility shined through, and the small-school prospect made a big impression on scouts.
The Broncos haven’t had a quality middle linebacker since “Smoke Dog” Al Wilson was forced into early retirement due to a neck injury in 2006. Max Bullough (Michigan State) is the player to watch here.
Bullough (6’3”, 245 pounds) has a nose for the ball. He made an interception in practice one day, and the catch looked natural for him. Bullough can fly around the field and stuff the run. He's currently considered a fourth- or fifth-round pick.
The Broncos have one of the best group of receivers in the league, but that could quickly change if they lose Eric Decker in free agency. The team could also move on from wide receiver/return man Trindon Holliday this offseason. That would open the door for a guy like Bernard Reedy (Toledo) to get drafted.
Reedy is quick in the open field, and he does a good job of securing the catch when it is contested. He can get open on underneath routes then break ankles in the open field. His speed and quickness make him a good option as a return man as well.
Another wide receiver to watch is Seantavius Jones (Valdosta State). He was the largest receiver on the West team and has a large wingspan to catch passes that are out of range for others.
Speaking of large, I also liked what I saw from Matt Hazel (Coastal Carolina). He measures in at 6’3” but is a little light at 190 pounds. Hazel doesn’t play up to his size and needs to learn better technique. There’s talent there, but smaller cornerbacks can jam him at the line of scrimmage too easily.
They found Julius Thomas in this game in 2011, and they’ll need to look at the position again if Jacob Tamme and Joel Dreessen are released this offseason.
There’s a couple of intriguing names at this position.
First, Crockett Gillmore (Colorado State) impressed scouts from day one. At 6’6”, 245 pounds, Gillmore makes for a large target who is more athletic than some think.
He spent a lot of time lined up wide or in the slot during practice. However, Gillmore can also line up next to the tackle as a traditional in-line tight end. He’s not supremely athletic like a Jimmy Graham, but there were some Chris Cooley comparisons tossed around about Gillmore in Tampa.
Second, Jordan Najvar (Baylor) made standout plays during practice. His athleticism is apparent from the snap. Najvar is simply too athletic for linebackers to cover. At 6’6”, 255, he’s also too fast for safeties to cover.
Najvar knows how to use his frame to box out smaller defenders. This skill also makes him a quality target in the red zone.
It’s not a position of need for the Broncos, but if they lose Knowshon Moreno in free agency, then running back may be on their board. If Moreno is gone in 2014, then we’ll see Montee Ball as the lead back. Ronnie Hillman and C.J. Anderson will compete to be the primary backup.
The Broncos could choose to add more speed and athleticism to the backfield. If they want that, then Zach Bauman (Northern Arizona) is their man. He was a standout on Monday, and the scouts were buzzing about his ability.
Bauman shows good quickness and initial burst. He’s not the biggest running back (5’10”, 200 pounds) but looked comfortable running between the tackles. Bauman has the quickness and footwork to bounce a run outside if need be.
A fumble in Wednesday’s practice did draw some moans from the crowd. He was having an excellent week up to that point. Any small-school runner needs to be nearly flawless in the pre-draft process if he wants a shot in the NFL.
Another small-school back to watch is Tim Flanders (Sam Houston State). His body style reminded me a lot of Anderson.
Flanders is only 210 pounds, but that weight resides in his lower body. He has thick thighs and a large bubble to generate power when he runs. Flanders has good feet, and his legs churn like pistons when he carries the rock between the tackles. He’s versatile and can line up at fullback or catch passes out of the backfield.