2018 East-West Shrine Game: Matt Miller's Biggest Takeaways
Draft season officially got started this week with the passing of the underclassmen deadline to enter the 2018 draft (January 15) and with numerous scouts trekking to St. Petersburg, Florida, for the annual East-West Shrine Game.
This event doesn't get the highest level of hype from the media or from NFL franchises since it's basically the B-team to the Senior Bowl's A-team. But that doesn't mean professional clubs can't and won't find talent on the high school practice fields the all-star squads use all week. And like the Senior Bowl, it's the practices the NFL cares about. Performing well in the game—after nearly every NFL person has left town—might get you a cool trophy, but it can't raise your stock like a week of strong practices.
Who moved up this week? Did anyone move down? Overall, what did we learn from the practices and the West's 14-10 win on Saturday afternoon? I'll give you all that info below in my big takeaways from the week.
Daurice Fountain Is for Real
I received the most texts about Northern Illinois' Daurice Fountain all week. At 6'1 ⅝" and 210 pounds, Fountain has the size everyone wants at wide receiver (not to mention 34.5-inch arm length) and dominated practices with that size and precise route running.
Once the Fountain love started, I went back and looked at my notes on him and reviewed more film. He has excellent burst up the field and has the wheels to run away from NFL defensive backs. Scouts saw that all week and raved about his play. It's not hyperbole to say Fountain left St. Petersburg as the biggest riser of the process.
On my board, Fountain was ranked as a late Day 3 player headed into the week. He could leave as a middle-rounder.
Riley Ferguson Is a Gamer
The general consensus from scouts I talked to this week was Memphis quarterback Riley Ferguson didn't look like the same player in Florida as the guy seen on tape tearing up defenses this year.
What changed? Nothing. Ferguson isn't the type of player to wow you in a practice setting. It's the same complaint I've heard for years surrounding Case Keenum: He doesn't look good in shorts and a helmet but rises to the occasion when the lights come on.
Ferguson is a rhythm quarterback who needs time to develop as a passer and fill out his lean frame. He's almost 6'3" and weighed 196 pounds. That's a concern because he likes to move around in and out of the pocket. Gaining weight is perhaps the easiest thing for prospects to do, and Ferguson will need to bulk up some to handle the NFL beating.
Deadrin Senat Made Himself Some Money
How good was USF defensive tackle Deadrin Senat this week?
One scout texted me, "He's having an Aaron Donald kind of week down here." Senat isn't Donald, but what the scout is referring to is how dominant Donald was at the Senior Bowl. He was unstoppable in drills and would draw huge crowds and all the eyes in the stands when he would go one-on-one with blockers in practice. Senat did some of the same things and pushed himself up boards.
The Donald comparison might also come from Senat's size. He measured in at 6'0 ¼" and 322 pounds. The way the NFL works is that any short, quick defensive tackle must be compared to the best guy at that spot (which is Donald). Senat does have a quick first step to penetrate, but we need to see it in a game situation before he can jump up boards as much as some want him to following a strong week.
One of the great things about the Shrine Game is that a good practice showing will send scouts—team or media—back to the film to look for traits they saw there. That's what I'll be doing post-Super Bowl on Senat.
Don't Overlook J.T. Barrett
I made a cardinal scouting mistake early in the year while watching Ohio State: I wrote off quarterback J.T. Barrett.
He looked awful against teams such as Indiana and struggled to move the talented Buckeye offense. During that time, I put an undrafted free-agent grade on him and ignored his film the rest of the season. That has to change after scouts told me Barrett was impressive at the Shrine Game. Not only did he show improvement as a passer, but his leadership and character also blew scouts and coaches away.
Barrett might never start a game as an NFL quarterback, but his leadership, wiring and football IQ will all aid him in getting his name called in the draft. This is a lesson for me to learn in writing off a player too early in the process.
DaeSean Hamilton Is a Sleeper to Remember
Penn State quarterback Trace McSorley held back the Nittany Lions' aerial attack the last several seasons.
Because McSorley was better with his legs than his arm, it was hard for wide receiver DaeSean Hamilton to accumulate the stats and plays needed to get his name on the radar. That changed with his monster Shrine Game week.
Hamilton, at almost 6'1" and 207 pounds, has the size teams want. He can play inside or outside and has the speed to get away from defenses. Like you saw in the game with his dropped slant route, Hamilton just has to be more consistent.
He won't likely be a Day 1 or 2 pick, but if Hamilton can get into a scheme that values route running and toughness at receiver, he has a chance to emerge as a starter coming out of the draft's third day.
Chad Thomas and Poona Ford Get Promoted to Senior Bowl
A good week at the Shrine Game can get you called up to the Senior Bowl, and that's exactly what happened to defensive linemen Chad Thomas (Miami) and Poona Ford (Texas).
Thomas has a Day 2 grade on my draft board, and it was a shock he wasn't invited to the Senior Bowl originally. He showed good traits at Miami, and his measurements back it up. These are outlandish numbers at 6'5", 275 pounds with 10 ⅜" hands, 34 ⅛" arms and a wild 80" wingspan. That's a dream for a defensive end with the athleticism to bend the edge or stack up against the run. The intriguing Thomas will be a better pro than collegiate player.
Ford doesn't meet the NFL's standard for height at defensive tackle, but the 5'11", 309-pounder has been an anchor in the middle of Texas' defensive line and all week at the Shrine Game. When I talked to Texas' Malik Jefferson about playing middle linebacker, he said, "Thank God for Poona Ford" because of how well Ford keeps blockers off his linebackers.
We'll get to see that next week in Mobile, Alabama.
The Strength at Running Back Is with the Underclassmen
This is the first year I can remember where I didn't have a middle-round grade on a running back at the Shrine Game. The majority of the position's talent this year is with the underclassmen, with Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones II and Kerryon Johnson at the head of the class and a few strong seniors (Rashaad Penny, Akrum Wadley) headed to play next week at the Senior Bowl.
It's unfortunate we won't see either Nick Chubb or Sony Michel from Georgia participate in an all-star game. The seniors are coming off a long season, so it's understandable they don't want to go take hits for another week, but it leaves us with a weak roster of senior running backs in the two all-star games.
If you had to pick one back from the Shrine Game with a chance to make an impact, I'd look at Colorado's Phillip Lindsay. He's a jitterbug at 5'7" and 185 pounds but is one of the toughest players in college football and gives max effort as a runner, receiver and even as a blocker.
Ohio State's Chris Worley Can Be an NFL Starter
Ohio State's defense was so loaded in 2017 that Chris Worley got overlooked despite being a top-tier linebacker in the Big Ten. A big week in Shrine Game practices should have reminded scouts that the Buckeyes have another thumper worth drafting, though.
Teams running a 4-3 defense could place Worley at middle linebacker and have a Day 3 starter. However, I like his fit best in the middle of a 3-4 scheme where he'd be protected by a nose tackle and be able to step into gaps and make tackles in the run game.
Worley's speed is something we'll have to see at the NFL Scouting Combine to judge his ability to track NFL talent, but the film shows a linebacker with sleeper tools if drafted late.
P.J. Hall and Bilal Nichols Are Small-School Playmakers
Two names to know both play on the defensive line, and both come from small schools: Sam Houston State's P.J. Hall and Delaware's Bilal Nichols.
Nichols has length (34 ⅜" arms) and size (6'3 ½", 301 lbs) and has the versatility to play defensive end in a 3-4 or an inside tackle spot as a pass-rusher in a 4-3. He made plays all week and in the game. The biggest knock I heard from scouts was he has a motor that often overheats, and he'll shut down for plays. But if he can get motivated and conditioned, Nichols has NFL tools.
Sam Houston State isn't a must-stop for scouting trips, but this year everyone knew Hall was a playmaker. It was just a question of if his lack of size (6'0", 308 lbs) would keep him from being drafted. The week of practices and what he did in the game should answer that question. Hall is worthy of a draft pick. He might be a late-rounder due to size and competition concerns, but he should be playing in the NFL.
NFL Scouts Complained All Week About the Lack of Talent
It's been a long season for everyone, so it wasn't a surprise scouts got a little grouchy. But more than ever I heard complaints from scouts and executives this week. Said one scout: "This is a waste of time. I should have stayed home and watched film."
The thought shared by many is that the high number of underclassmen entering the draft each year (a record 106 declared for 2018) has watered down the senior talent. And since the NFL won't allow juniors to participate in all-star contests unless they've graduated, it leaves the Shrine Game lacking.
Said another director of player personnel, "This was the worst group of quarterbacks and defensive backs I've seen in St. Pete, and we need both positions."