More often than not the Defenses dominate actual game action at this Star Game. That is due in great part to the predominance of fly-around, athletic defensive players at the event. In many instances, for example, the overall DL group may be slightly undersized by NFL standards but is very athletic and quick. Most of all, it is due to a short week of practice has less effect on a chase the ball defense, compared with trying to install an entire offensive scheme in that same short time span. And if we are being totally honest the usual lack of elite QB play seriously hinders both offenses.
This year’s DL group is no exception to the norm, and may cause some major headaches on game day. But the 16 DL have been a very impressive group, and should have major impact on the game. More importantly, we may see more than a few of the following names in next April’s Draft. Right away at Monday’s East practice my attention was grabbed by KYLE LAWRENCE PHILLIPS/Tennessee. The Vols have been struggling through coaching changes and below average play over the past decade. So names like PHILLIPS are new to the average football fan. But showed some nice burst out of his stance and into the backfield. He also practiced with a very high energy level, which was infectious. on both teams’ units. He never let up all week and I expect him to make a few impact plays on game day. NFL scouts are likely scheming how his size and talents can translate to pro defensive schemes based on his energy displayed here.
Because the Shriners are an international organization they have always brought in two collegians from Canadian schools. This year they brought in two DE prospects. The star was DE/MATHIEU BETTS/Laval. He showed grit, high energy and some athleticism right from the get-go. He is explosive out of his stance, and has a very nice inside spin, to break free of tackles he cannot get around on the outside shoulder. Though a bit undersized to set the edge against the run he is tough and will not back down. He should have a good chance to be drafted in April and make an NFL roster. If he ends up in the CFL he should be a star. The most impressive Canadian collegian I have seen at the Shrine since a long, raw OT was here, named Laurent Duvernay-Tardif now with the Chiefs.
JORDAN BRAILFORD/Oklahoma State caught my eye the first day of practice with his molded body and edge speed. He also showed the ability to shoot gaps and penetrate the pocket from the inside. At 6’3/241, he is clearly a candidate to move to OLB in his transition to the NFL. CORTEZ BROUGHTON/Cincy is a very interesting study. He’s a bit squat at 6’2, but carries 290 lbs, mostly muscle. He shows a nice combination of strength and some quicks. In today’s NFL he has the skill set to flip between DT and DE from down to down. I saw him collapsing the pocket both inside and out during the course of the week. A young man who had a slow start to the 2018 season, but has looked like a different man since the middle of the 2018 season is CHRSI SLAYTON, a big bodied DT from Syracuse who 6’035″ and weighed 310 lbs. He uses his 10″ hands very effectively, in swimming right past OG/C blockers, and chasing through the pocket. He also has looked stout holding the line-of-scrimmage on running plays. He confirmed everything I saw in him in Nov/Dec during practices here. If he can post some numbers at the Combine he could be drafted early on Day Three of the Draft.
The most impressive practice player for the West DL group was Kansas DT DANIEL WISE. This young man wins my “hustle award” for the week. From the first drill in practice ’til the end of each session he was busting his butt to make plays. My only criticism is that he might try to cheat a bit in anticipating the snap count, which could be problematic at the NFL level. But he uses his 6’024″/285 lb. frame effectively, with just enough quickness to beat some blocks before the massive OL can tie him up. He also was solid at getting his hands up to obscure the QB view downfield, even tipping a couple of throws. He should be drafted on Day Three. The WEST had two behemoths on the interior DL in practices. CHRIS NELSON/Texas is pretty much an immovable object in the middle of the DL. He measured 6’1/303, but played like 315. he’s a run stopper with value late. One of the more pleasant surprises of the week was a late roster add-on in DAYLON MACK of Texas A&M. This stout strong man made NELSON look small. He checked in at 6’1/335 and played like it, except for being pretty mobile and almost light on his feet. Usually a guy with his body struggles through most drills, but not so for MACK. The former 5-Star HS recruit had an undistinguished career for the Aggies overall, but showed major flashes down here. Though his arms are short MACK has 10.25″ hands which come in handy for moving blockers around. We heard last night that he has been added to the Senior Bowl roster for next week. Even though I feel he has disappeared at times I have also liked some of the work from ARMON WATTS/Arkansas, who had a breakout senior campaign for the Aggies. At 6’044″ and 305 lbs. he gets some push into the pocket, although I have seen him being screened away from the ball by blockers a bit too easily at times. He must work on staying low out of his stance, not making himself an easy block by popping upright. The key now becomes whether he’s best as 3-4 DE, of 4-3 DT. I sense that he could handle either, which may be his ticket to a solid pro career in a DL rotation.
Listed as a DE, but with pro size of an OLB was another Aggie in LANDIS DURHAM. I was not specifically looking for DURHAM because of his confusing (at least to me) size. But there were multiple occasions that I saw someone burst into the backfield for a TFL, or sack and when I checked his number it was DURHAM. At 6’2/247 he has nice size for LB, and he certainly showed enough athleticism to indicate he could handle that role in time.
Overall I expected some of the LB group to stand out this week but most did not. A very active, if a bit raw, guy was Ulysses Gilbert/Akron. At 6’0/228 he will be somewhat limited as a pro, unless he can show the ability to play in reverse and provide pass coverage. He looks like an immediate contributor on Special Teams, which will always give him a chance to stick at the bottom of someone’s roster. A literally “big” surprise was when highly touted tackling machine KHALIL HODGE/Buffalo weighed in at 255 lbs. Monday. He looked incredibly thick from the waste down. I heard him tell one team scout that his goal was to lose about 15 lbs. before the Combine. His play this week reflected his high weight. He missed Tuesday’s practice for unknown reasons, and was pretty ordinary the time he did spend on the field. A nice looking athlete, who seemed caught up in the coaches’ indecision about where they needed to use him was JUSTIN HOLLINS/OREGON who was splitting time between OLB and DE. At 6’5/245, he has very good athleticism and may really impress in a Combine setting. But other than edge-rushing his frame will force him to stand up more often than putting his hand on the ground.
Looking ahead to the game, expect both offenses to target the short, middle of the field where the LB roam. It is likely to be the Achilles Heel for both defensive units.
I should also mention that I kept my eye peeled for Kansas LB JOE DINEEN to make some plays, but he pretty much faded into the background. Now watch him have double digit tackles in the game.
Traditionally, the DB group at the Shrine venue is a main feature for pro scouts. There were some standouts again this year, but by the middle of the week the DB group had been whittled down by injuries. By Wednesday D’COTA DIXON/Wisconsin, JAMAL PETERS/Miss St, KEISAN NIXON/S Carolina, RASHAD FENTON/S CAROLINA, DELVON RANDALL/Temple, ISAIH WHARTON/Rutgers, DONNIE LEWIS/Tulane were all out with injuries. The Shrine normally does not bring in very many replacement players unless a specific position group is depleted by injury. We saw a few fresh faces added to this group.
Despite the carnage, the talent fro DB was still pretty darn good. BLACE BROWN/TROY came in with high expectations and he lived up to them overall. He is a serious press-cover guy who clearly shows he has little, if any, fear of any wideout being able to beat him deep. He lined up face-to-face receivers on almost every down. He was the best all-around DB in practice all week to my eyes. Not far behind him was MICHAEL JACKSON/Miami, who has the size (6’1/207) to man-up and also support the run. He looks like the prototype of an NFL CB physically. Both these two guys look like solid Day 2 draftees to me.
Close behind them, from the East squad was DERRICK BAITY/Kentucky the cover man with high scout appeal because of his fluid, athletic style and great length at 6’2/198. He showed very well in coverage both deep and over the middle. Looks like a Top 100 prospect to me.
Talk of the practices was diminutive CB JIMMY MORELAND/James Madison. He’s 5’096, and a slight 179 lbs. He ‘s not a guy I am going ask to help set the edge against the run (though he’d no doubt give it a try), but he’s a fighter with nice quickness and instincts. He was a tough match-up for most receivers all week long. He was getting lot of scout-luv after each practice session. MONTRE HARTAGE/Northwestern had a very productive, solid week in pads. The average sized, average athleticism young man showed us just what he did during his career in college. He’s tough minded and physical beyond his 5’11/187 size. I’d be willing to bet that he’ll make a play or two on Special Teams. He’s already shown he has some ball skills, but even better tackling fundamentals.
ANDREW WINGARD/Wyoming has been hard to miss with his locks flowing from under his helmet. But has also stood out in on-field work. He shows good instincts to the ball and is a willing tackler at 6’0/205, which is a bit lighter than I expected him to weigh in at.He also has knocked down some passes and recorded an INT in scrimmaging. I don’t see him getting drafted before Day 3, but he clearly has pro potential.
THat’s a wrap for practice observations this year at the Shrine. Saturday morning, before the game, I will publish my all-practice team.