The unofficial kickoff to the NFL offseason is the pre-draft all-star games where all 32 teams have the opportunity to evaluate senior prospects on the same field (underclassmen are not eligible for the games). During the upcoming week, scouts, coaches and other NFL representatives will gather in St. Petersburg, Fla., for the 88th annual East-West Shrine Game.
The game is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday at Tropicana Field. But the real action takes place during the week at the practices, where NFL teams keep a close eye on the players competing on the field. These practices are when prospects have a chance to stand out and improve their draft standing in the minds of scouts.
Entering this year's Shrine Game, here are 10 of the top defensive prospects for the 2013 NFL Draft:
1. OLB Gerald Hodges, Penn State (6-2, 238, 4.75) -- Although sometimes overshadowed by Michael Mauti on Penn State's defense, Hodges has led the team in tackles each of the past two seasons with 100-plus stops both years. He has above average athleticism for the position, showing the range to make plays all over the field and the agility to avoid blocks and quickly arrive to the play. Since high school, Hodges has added nearly 30 pounds of bulk onto his lean frame, but he doesn't have the body type to get much bigger, too easily getting hung up on blocks at the point of attack. His natural athleticism allows him to have an impact in different ways, and it wouldn't be surprising if he's first Shrine Game participant to be drafted in April.
2. OLB Sio Moore, Connecticut (6-1, 230, 4.63) -- One of the more underrated prospects in this game, Moore might be the most versatile defender in the country that few are talking about. Lining up at weakside linebacker for the Huskies, he made plays in coverage, against the run and even getting after the passer, putting his hand in the dirt on third downs and rushing off the edge. Moore leaves UConn with a productive résumé (268 tackles, 43.0 tackles for loss, 16.0 sacks and 22 passes defended), but his role at the next level is a bit of a mystery at this point. He has some tweener traits, but with his burst off the edge and lateral fluidity in space, Moore has top-100 potential.
3. OLB Lerentee McCray, Florida (6-2, 249, 4.64) -- A hybrid defensive end/linebacker prospect, McCray spent most of his first four seasons in Gainesville either on the sideline or the training table. But he started 12 games as a senior this past season, flashing some next-level talent as an edge rusher. McCray has tweener size and lacks ideal length and power to be a consistent hand-on-the-ground rusher in the NFL, but he does an excellent job with leverage and energy, using his size to his advantage. He needs more experience in coverage and to improve his awareness in space, but his active motor and pursuit speed make him an intriguing nickel rusher in the pros.
4. CB Terry Hawthorne, Illinois (5-9, 192, 4.52) -- Believed by some to be the top senior cornerback prospect entering the season, Hawthorne had an up-and-down 2012 campaign. He lacks ideal size and strength and enters the NFL with some durability concerns, especially after a serious concussion literally knocked him out of the Wisconsin game last October. Hawthorne has good read-and-react ability to break down the action on the move and close in a hurry. He isn't afraid to get physical in the run game, finishing his Illinois career with 162 tackles, but too often he has trouble disengaging wide receiver blocks on the perimeter. With a strong pre-draft process, beginning with his performance this week, Hawthorne can work his way back up draft boards.
5. S Josh Evans, Florida (6-1, 200, 4.54) -- When discussing Florida safety prospects in this draft, most conversations will be dominated by the hard-hitting Matt Elam. However, Evans deserves to be mentioned in the same breath. A rangy, physical player, he led the Gators in tackles this past season with 83 stops, adding three interceptions and six passes defended. Evans is aggressive near the line of scrimmage and surprisingly does a nice job working through traffic, but he needs to improve his consistency in space, often taking streaky angles and gaining poor positioning in coverage. While Elam is the more well-known safety from Gainesville, Evans matches his toughness and energy and isn't far behind him in regards to his NFL future.
6. CB Micah Hyde, Iowa (6-1, 190, 4.53) -- When talking about "tweener" prospects, it's often a reference to undersized pass rushers who aren't quite defensive ends but not natural linebackers either. Well, the tweener label also fits in the secondary as well, and Hyde fits that mold as a cornerback/safety. He doesn't have the elite speed or explosive footwork, but he has excellent football awareness, always reading the quarterback and reacting accordingly. Hyde, who will practice at cornerback this week, has good height and length and, despite average bulk, he is a willing and reliable tackler in run support. He opens his hips too early and needs to refine his technique in order to cover on the outside, but his instincts and ball skills are top-notch.
7. OLB DeVonte Holloman, South Carolina (6-2, 241, 4.64) -- A versatile defender, Holloman lined up as the "SPUR" on South Carolina's defense, which is basically a hybrid WLB/SS position. He is a talented athlete with smooth movements to make plays all over the field, using his read/react skills to diagnose and attack. Holloman is an aggressive run defender but needs to do a better job fighting through the traffic, often getting hung up on blocks. Although he still needs to improve his consistency in coverage, he has improved well in this area, leaving South Carolina with seven career interceptions, including a team-high three in 2012. Holloman played mostly strong safety in a Gamecocks uniform, but has really bulked up over the past 18 months and probably projects best as a weakside linebacker in the pros.
8. CB Josh Johnson, Purdue (5-11, 195, 4.49) -- Although many view Ricardo Allen as the best cornerback on the Purdue roster, Johnson put together a strong senior campaign, tying for the conference-lead in passes defended in 2012 with 19. He isn't an elite athlete, but good enough with the speed to blanket receivers in single coverage and the smooth coordination to look natural in reverse or when changing directions. Johnson is very aggressive and confident and matched up really well against Notre Dame's Tyler Eifert, but he also has a bad habit of playing too hands-on which will attract penalties at the next level. Johnson looks comfortable on an island in man coverage, doing a nice job playing his man but also locating and making a play on the ball.
9. S Duke Williams, Nevada (6-1, 200, 4.46) -- A prospect who is tough to get an accurate read on, Williams flashes early-rounds potential at times, but then to others he looks like a prospect who could be labeled with the dreaded "JAG" title (just another guy). He has good size and length for the position and understands how to size up his target and strike through the ballcarrier, closing in a flash. Williams is a big-time hitter, but he also leads with his shoulder too much and looks for the violent collision instead of playing smart. He has the length to locate, extend and get his hands on the ball, but he also shows streaky ball skills and can get turned around in deep coverage, causing him to make contact and attract the penalty.
10. DT Josh Boyd, Mississippi State (6-3, 300, 4.96) -- A prototypical 3-technique defensive tackle, Boyd had a productive junior season in 2011 but produced mixed results as a senior this past season. Without Fletcher Cox (Eagles first round pick) attracting double-teams next to him, he managed only 2.5 tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks in 2012. Boyd plays a little light in the pants, but he carries his weight well and has good body fluidity for the position to smoothly redirect his momentum and make plays away from the line of scrimmage. He needs to develop his pass rush moves and show more consistency with his pad level, too often popping upright off the snap. Boyd has some NFL tools to work with, and some NFL coaching should improve his football discipline.
Just missed: S Earl Wolff (NC State), DL David Bass (Missouri Western State), DL Caleb Schreibeis (Montana State), CB Melvin White (La.-Lafayette), ILB Steve Greer (Virginia), DE Wes Horton (USC), CB Demontre Hurst (Oklahoma), ILB A.J. Klein (Iowa State), CB Khalid Wooten (Nevada), CB Branden Smith (Georgia)
Needs a strong week: DE Craig Roh, Michigan
Roh has shown flashes of being an impact pass rusher, but has struggled with consistency, never recording more than four sacks in any of his four seasons in Ann Arbor. Part of the inconsistency is due to the way he was misused in the Wolverines ever-changing defensive schemes over the years, starting 50 consecutive games at Michigan (28 at defensive end, 20 at linebacker and two at defensive tackle).
Under the radar: S Shamarko Thomas, Syracuse
Based on the way he has handled adversity off the field, Thomas isn't a prospect I would bet against as he makes the jump to the NFL. Despite an underside frame, he has the speed, aggressiveness and toughness that will impress scouts and earn him a shot at the next level, at worst, as an impact performer on special teams.
Small School Alert: OLB Keith Pough, Howard and S Cooper Taylor, Richmond
There are several talented "small school" defenders participating this week, but I narrowed it down to two. It was tough leaving Pough off the top-10 list above, but it won't be a surprise if he's included on the revised copy a week from now. A terrific size/speed/strength athlete, he is poised to turn a few heads throughout practice. Taylor, a Georgia Tech transfer, looks more like a linebacker at 6-4 and 230 pounds, but he has impressive range to roam the secondary, leading the Spiders in tackles per game in 2012 (7.7).
For a look at the top-10 offensive prospects going into this year's East-West Shrine Game, click here.