Leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, we are in the midst of all-star season. Practices for the 89th East-West Shrine Game begin today and the rosters are filled with as much or more talent than previous seasons.
While the Senior Bowl gets more attention, and better players, the Shrine Game has a strong history of putting players in the NFL.
From 2013's game, offensive tackle Terron Armstead, linebacker Sio Moore and cornerback Kayvon Webster were all third-rounds picks. The 2012 edition of the East-West game had eight players drafted in the first three rounds, including first-round A.J. Jenkins.
Here are some of the key players to follow throughout practices this week and in Saturday's game.
1. Max Bullough, MLB, Michigan State
There was some thought that Bullough would get an invite to the Senior Bowl, so he should be able to assert himself at the Shrine Game. Bullough's game isn't flashy. He flows smoothly to the ball and knows how to get off blocks. He was third on Michigan State this season with 76 tackles, and had 9.5 tackles for loss and four interceptions. Bullough may not get drafted overly high, but he looks like the type of player who can stick as a solid starter and special teams player.
2. Andre Hal, CB, Vanderbilt
A second-team All-SEC performer this season, Hal was a two-year starter on a surprising Vanderbilt team. He's a fluid cornerback who can get physical at the line of scrimmage. While Hal may not be a No. 1 cornerback in the NFL, his ball skills will keep him on a roster. As a senior, Hal had 49 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions and 15 pass breakups.
3. E.J. Gaines, CB, Missouri
There's a lot to like in Gaines' game. He can stick on the hip of opposing receivers and ride them up the sideline on vertical routes. He's a physical tackler and an asset in the run game. Gaines has decent hands for a corner and finished the season with five interceptions.
4. Jeremy Gallon, WR, Michigan
Gallon may not have the size some prefer in a wide receiver, but he does a lot of little things the right way. He competes for the ball and knows when to modify his route when a play breaks down. Gallon profiles as an ideal slot receiver and should latch on as a Harry Douglas-type of receiver.
5. Gabe Ikard, C, Oklahoma
The 2014 draft won't have a center who is more athletic than Ikard. While Ikard may not be a powerhouse center who will seal out the middle, he can get out on the second level and pick off linebackers and defensive backs. For teams that like to run a lot of pulls, Ikard could be picked as a guard.
6. Jimmy Garoppolo, QB, Eastern Illinois
Even if it came against FCS competition, Garoppolo's season of 5,050 yards and 53 touchdowns passing is an achievement. He is unquestionably the top quarterback in the Shrine Game this year and sure to grab most of the headlines. Garoppolo has solid athleticism for the position and a decent arm. Some team could take a chance on Garoppolo late on the second day of the draft.
7. Devon Kennard, OLB, Southern California
A former top recruit, Kennard didn't have quite the career at USC that some expected. That was due in part to a torn chest muscle that sidelined him for the entire 2012 season. Kennard has experience lining up at defensive end and as a linebacker. When Kennard can use his quickness, he can still be a good pass rusher.
8. Cassius Marsh, DE, UCLA
As a defensive end, Marsh doesn't blow you away as a speed rusher or someone who will bend around the edge. Marsh looks like a right end in a 4-3 defense. He can hold the edge in the run game and does just enough as a pass rusher to not be a burden.
9. Shaquil Barrett, OLB, Colorado State
The Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year finished his senior season with 20.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks. Colorado State lined him up as an end and split him off as a linebacker. At 6-foot-2 and 250 pounds, teams will be monitoring his athleticism and movement to see if he's truly a linebacker going forward. If Barrett can show good movement skills, he can be a big riser this week.
10. Hakeem Smith, S, Louisville
Sometimes overlooked playing next to Calvin Pryor, Smith makes his name as a coverage safety. On zone plays, Smith has shown he can patrol the center of the field and break on the ball in a hurry. Smith isn't especially big, so some teams may look at him as a cornerback.
Small schoolers to follow
Lindenwood cornerback Pierre Desir was awarded with the Cliff Harris Award, given annually to the small school defensive player of the year. In nine games, Desir had four interceptions and five pass breakups. He has great size for a corner at 6-foot-2 and 206 pounds. With a good week, Desir could become a top 100 pick.
Scouts will love Bloomsburg defensive end Larry Webster because of his length (he's 6-foot-7 and 250 pounds) and pure upside. Teams looking for this year's Devin Taylor may find him in Webster. If he can show a good first step, the sky is the limit for Webster.
Montana's Danny Kistler has incredible size at 6-foot-8 and is experienced at right tackle and guard. Obviously he has length, but this week he'll have to display the ability to play with power.
Cornerback Ross Cockrell was one of Duke's defensive backs that helped neutralize Texas A&M star Mike Evans for much of the Chick-fil-A Bowl. Cockrell can get physical at the line of scrimmage and is best in man situations. The Shrine Game this year features several nose tackle including Wisconsin's Beau Allen, Louisiana Tech's Justin Ellis and Virginia Tech's Derrick Hopkins. UCLA linebacker Jordan Zumwalt always seems to be around the ball, especially on running plays. Of all of the UCLA's draft-eligible linebackers, Zumwalt is the best. Last year's Shrine Game featured Zac Stacy, who looks like the running back of the future for St. Louis. This year's version of Stacy could be Sam Houston State running back Tim Flanders. A compact 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds, Flanders is coming off a season of 1,430 yards and 14 touchdowns rushing. Expect to hear a lot about West Virginia Will Clarke, a lanky defensive lineman whom draftniks love. When Nebraska wide receiver Quincy Enunwa extends his arms out and grabs the ball out of the air, he can be a dangerous player. Other than Florida State's Kelvin Benjamin, no wide receiver in this year's draft may be as physical as Enunwa.