There are a handful of teams still alive in the NFL playoffs, fighting for a spot in Super Bowl XLVIII. But for the majority of NFL teams, the 2013 season is a distant memory as scouts, coaches and the entire front office have already begun the pre-draft process. And one of the first chapters of that journey is the annual East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., an all-star exhibition game for senior prospects.
The 89th East-West Shrine Game will be played at Tropicana Field on Saturday, January 18 with daily practices throughout the week. For a complete schedule of the week, click here.
The Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala. the following week is the premiere prospect All-Star game, but the Shrine Game has dozens of future NFL starters as well. Over 100 players from last year's game were either drafted or signed as undrafted free agents, including third round picks LB Sio Moore (Raiders), OT Terron Armstead (Saints) and DB Kayvon Webster (Broncos).
This year's Shrine Game is loaded with NFL talent once again. Below are 10 of the top players for this year's match-up and definitely names to watch this week.
1. QB Jimmy Garoppolo, Eastern Illinois (6-2, 222, 4.78, #10)
The quarterback who broke most of Tony Romo's school passing records, Garoppolo is much more than a funny looking last name. He isn't the biggest and lacks a huge arm, but he has an above average understanding of offensive football and uses his quick eyes and touch to push the ball downfield. Garoppolo is not only considered the top quarterback in this game, but he might be the best overall prospect.
2. CB E.J. Gaines, Missouri (5-10, 195, 4.44, #31)
A good-sized athlete for the position, Gaines does a nice job in coverage and is extremely physical vs. the run. He has good feet and does a nice job staying balanced in his movements to blanket receivers and make aggressive plays on the ball. Gaines is arguably the best defensive prospect in this all-star contest.
3. DL Will Clarke, West Virginia (6-6, 273, 4.83, #98)
A player who was a pleasant surprise when I turned on his game tape, Clarke is a flexible, greased up athlete for his size. He is at his best when he uses his length, strong hands and first step explosiveness to set the edge or win in one-on-one situations. Clarke isn't a household name, but I expect him to become better known after this week.
4. CB Pierre Desir, Lindenwood (6-1, 205, 4.56, #3)
A tall, long athlete, Desir has an interesting background and he can flat out play. And it will be interesting to see him matched up against FBS talents throughout the week. A native of Haiti, Desir started his collegiate career at Washburn before transferring to Lindenwood and he now has his sights on the NFL.
5. DE Cassius Marsh, UCLA (6-4, 260, 4.92, #99)
A fiery competitor, Marsh has good size and strength with the quickness and redirection skills to be a factor rushing the passer and defending the run. He needs to keep his emotions under control and develop his rush moves, but he's a motivated defender who projects best as a one-gap end who can move inside on passing downs.
6. WR T.J. Jones, Notre Dame (6-0, 195, 4.54, #7)
With Tyler Eifert gone, Jones stepped up and led the Irish in receiving this past season, finishing his senior year with a career-best in catches (70), receiving yards (1,108) and touchdowns (9). He's a natural plucker with strong hands and projects as a down-the-road starter at the next level.
7. DT Justin Ellis, Louisiana Tech (6-2, 357, 5.34, #70)
A load to handle, Ellis has a large body with a wide frame, using his size and momentum to surge through the offensive line and disrupt the backfield. He needs to show he is more than just a bull rusher, but his nonstop motor, ferocious demeanor and much improved ball awareness are impressive.
8. C Gabe Ikard, Oklahoma (6-3, 298, 5.17, #64)
A very athletic lineman, Ikard has a quick first step and easily gets into position with the flexibility to mirror in space and take care of business at the second level. His lack of power shows up when he doesn't win with angles or leverage, but his smooth body control and overall mobility will give him a chance in the NFL.
9. ILB DeDe Lattimore, South Florida (6-0, 237, 4.83, #34)
One of the top middle linebacker prospects in the draft, Lattimore led South Florida in tackles this past season and his competitive motor shows on tape. He needs to improve his awareness to be in better position to make plays, but he is physical at the point of attack and fills hard against the run.
10. OT Justin Britt, Missouri (6-6, 315, 5.28, #68)
After his junior season was ended by an ACL injury, Britt returned to the field and started all 14 games at left tackle for Missouri in 2013. He has a wide base with good bend and flexibility in his kickslide to protect the edge and keep the pocket clean. Britt isn't the strongest, but his shuffle and smarts are NFL quality.
Five players I'm looking to step up after so-so senior seasons:
1. DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, Colorado
2. QB Jeff Matthews, Cornell
3. CB Ricardo Allen, Purdue
4. CB Carrington Byndom, Texas
5. DB Alden Darby, Arizona State
Five “small school” players who will make a name for themselves:
1. OL Dakota Dozier, Furman
2. DE Larry Webster III, Bloomsburg
3. WR Matt Hazel, Coastal Carolina
4. RB Tim Flanders, Sam Houston State
5. DL Zach Moore, Concordia