The road to the draft starts in St. Petersburg, Florida.
As the NFL playoffs wind down, many eyes in the league have already turned their attention toward the next crop of eager, young hopefuls vying for a shot at playing on any given Sunday.
The annual East-West Shrine Game isn't the first all-star college game of the year (there are minor regional games set earlier), nor is it the biggest (that's next week's Senior Bowl), but it's an important part of the draft process that has been growing for years now and has sent a number of impressive prospects not only to the Senior Bowl as "call-ups," but also to the NFL, where Shrine Game alum have been playing important roles as rookies.
Bleacher Report will have everything you need to know from the practices this week, but my standard college all-star game disclaimer applies: This is a small part of the process. A tremendous performance/disappointing practice session this week doesn't supersede the hours of tape on these guys, nor should it.
No one gets drafted or passed on solely because of what he does at a game like this.
Here's where it's useful, however. Many of these players don't play against the top level of competition week in and week out. Those who do are often overshadowed by other players on their respective teams. All-star games put these players in the context of their peers on a level playing field and with NFL-caliber (or at least NFL-style) coaching.
The Shrine Game has bounced around a bit over the years, but it's found what looks to be a permanent home here in St. Pete. On Saturday, the game will be held at Tropicana Field, which normally hosts Tampa Bay Rays baseball and a couple of college bowl games.
During the week, the practices are held at Shorecrest Preparatory School and St. Petersburg High School. The fields are surprisingly well-prepared for the event, and the stands are usually filled not only with scouts and agents, but also with diehard fans looking to say they "saw so-and-so" before anyone else did. Down at field level, there are more scouts and agents but with a smattering of media and the occasional NFL general manager.
The players stay at the Tradewinds Resort in St. Pete Beach, which also serves as meeting rooms for scheme install and a first-day weigh-in which is private to NFL personnel unlike the Senior Bowl, which is far more of a meat-market atmosphere. It also sits right on a private beach on the Gulf of Mexico, which many players over the years have said is a highlight of the trip.
"More Than Just a Game"
The week starts with the player and coaches visiting the local Shriners Hospital, where the tagline of "More than just a game" is seen firsthand as the current and future stars interact with the children and parents there.
This is the 90th Shrine Game, and the connection between the game and its mission (which is more than just to raise much-needed money for the Shriners' work) has never been stronger.
From the Shrine Game website:
The true meaning of the game hits home when the players and coaches spend time with the kids, experiencing their courage and determination. All will tell you, time spent with the kids is both humbling and inspirational.
A Little Shrine Game History
The game started in 1925 in San Francisco. Over the years, it bounced around to Oakland, Stanford, San Antonio, Houston and Orlando before settling in St. Petersburg. There was even a spin-off of the game, the North-South Shrine Game, which was held in Miami.
Over the years, a lot of really impressive names have come through the Shrine Game portion of the process, including Gale Sayers, Tom Brady, John Elway and Dick Butkus. Though, in more recent years, the game has been more about finding the next great unknown superstar, as the Senior Bowl has taken precedent in garnering the top all-star game talent, and increased early entry into the draft has dried up much of the talent pool.
Still, this is my fifth year covering the Shrine Game, and I've seen my fair share of potential studs: Arizona Cardinals receiver John Brown, Jacksonville Jaguars guard Zane Beadles, Seattle Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor and Carolina Panthers cornerback Josh Norman are just the start of a list of current NFL impact starters first scouted here firsthand.
Top Players Attending in 2015
Is there a Chancellor or a Beadles this year?
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There's likely not a Brady or an Elway, though. The quarterback crop is headlined by Old Dominion passer Taylor Heinicke, who may not be the best prospect but has that small-school allure that will draw plenty of eyes to him. We've also got Anthony Boone from Duke, Cody Fajardo from Nevada and Taylor Kelly from Arizona State.
The best overall prospect here at the game is Louisville offensive guard John Miller, who I think can be an impact starter in the NFL almost right away. After him, I'm excited to watch Texas running back Malcolm Brown and William & Mary wide receiver Tre McBride.
On the defensive side of things, Kansas linebacker Ben Heeney is a personal favorite of mine, and I'm excited to see both Louisville's Deiontrez Mount and UT-Chattanooga's Derrick Lott up close.
Though the Senior Bowl gets actual NFL coaching staffs, the Shrine Game typically gets older coaches who are in the twilight of their careers or coaches who are looking for a second shot. This year is no different, as Jim Zorn and Mike Singletary have signed on to coach.
Though the average NFL fan might think of them solely as failed head coaches, the knowledge they can impart not only as former coaches but also as fantastic former players is incredible for these young men. A linebacker might think he has everything figured out, but when Mike Singletary tells him he's doing something wrong, he better listen.
Who to Follow on Twitter
One of the ways I keep notes during practices is on Twitter. Yet, I'm not the only set of eyes out there, and one person can only see so much. Here are some other vetted and talented types I'll be bumming around the sidelines with:
- Cecil Lammey—Bleacher Report Featured Columnist/ESPN Radio Denver
- Josh Norris—Rotoworld
- Dane Brugler—CBS
- Greg Auman—Tampa Bay Times
Day 1 Scouting Notes
The first day was a typical Florida afternoon, which usually means rain. It made scouting some of the skill positions a little more difficult and taking notes a little sketchy thanks to the poor mixture of falling water and both paper and electronics. Still, the assembled players, coaches and crowd did their part to chug along and take care of business.
The first practice (East) was slowly run with a lot of standing around and quiet (no pads popping). The quarterbacks sprayed passes around, endangering onlookers and worms alike. In both practices, wet field conditions meant plenty of slipping and plenty of sloppy footwork.
Most of my notes are on offensive players, as the non-padded practices are usually a wash for the defensive guys.
—The play of the day in my estimation was a drill rep in which LSU running back Terrence McGee dealt with the defender at the top of his route by drilling him like he was Hines Ward coming on a crackback block. He laid out his man without losing balance on the route and then caught the pass away from his frame.
—There's a lot to like about both McGee and Kenny Hilliard out of LSU. Though the numbers for Tigers backs haven't always been impressive at the college level (*cough*CamCameron*cough*), once those same players get to the NFL, they've become productive members of society—Alfred Blue (Houston Texans) and Jeremy Hill (Cincinnati Bengals) are just the latest.
—William & Mary receiver Tre McBride had some of the most pregame buzz around him (small-school guys tend to), but he was outshined on the first day by Michigan State receiver Keith Mumphery. He's smaller than you'd like for a No. 1, but he runs decent routes and catches the ball away from his frame well. (Though, he had a "completing the process" mishap on a catch that may have been a shoutout to Dez Bryant.)
—McBride spent a good portion of the day practicing punt returns with a few other receivers. He didn't look as comfortable as one might like catching the punts, but he warmed up to the process and was the best of the three once he stopped fighting the ball. He looked to have the best "get off" first step as well.
—McBride also had a fantastic catch on a deep ball thrown by Georgia's Hutson Mason along the sideline.
—Saw something for the first time in my life here in St. Pete. Kentucky offensive tackle Darrian Miller was blasted a few times for footwork, as he wasn't getting his feet up and down into the wet grass. On one drill, he was "on skates" but moving forward as he was holding the bag and the other lineman had gotten a tremendous push. It wasn't stumbling, but looked more like Miller had figured out levitation. If so, he might be a first-rounder.
—Washington receiver Kasen Williams used to be one of my favorite receivers in the college game. Now, he looks undraftable as injuries have sapped his speed.
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Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter.