The practice considered even more important than the East-West Shrine game itself had hundreds of NFL scouts lining the sidelines of the Houston Texans' practice bubble at Reliant Stadium on Wednesday.
The session referred to as the "NFL Day" began with scouts measuring the heights and weights of the players. Also measured were the length of each player's hands and arms.
With several all-star games being added in recent years, the Shrine Game remains unique in its midweek combining of the opposing East and West teams for drills and full contact scrimmage.
Wednesday, our concentration was on the offensive and defensive lines.
All-star games are inherently unfair to offensive linemen. They are asked to block one-on-one against more athletic defensive linemen in drills with an immobile coach or fellow offensive lineman posing as the quarterback they are to protect. Average defensive linemen can look like world-beaters against even quality offensive linemen in this capacity.
So when an offensive lineman is able to neutralize the pass rusher, it is considered a victory for the offense. Few of the offensive linemen here were able to consistently stop defenders, though a few flashed the combination of balance and strength to cause scouts to scribble in their notebooks.
Northern Illinois left tackle Doug Free entered the week as the most highly acclaimed offensive lineman in the Shrine Game. While he appeared to be struggling with the speed of the East's pass rushers on Tuesday, Free was among the better pass blockers Wednesday, showing good foot quickness, balance and arm punch to overcome the defender's initial rush.
Oregon State's Adam Koets was perhaps the most impressive all-around tackle during one-on-one battles. Koets could be walked back to the "quarterback" after engaging the defensive lineman because he needs to continue to add strength, but his quickness off the snap speaks to his potential.
TCU tackle Herb Taylor also flashed the foot quickness and balance to handle pass rushers. He was among the practice's most consistent blockers, often able to lock-out defenders and ride them outside until the play was over.
Purdue's Mike Otto, a late addition to the roster, showed steady form and tenacity. While he isn't as athletic as some of the other tackles here, scouts noted that his opponent rarely got by him.
It wasn't very pretty, at times, for the interior linemen. Even those already invited to the Combine seemed to struggle against a fairly mediocre defensive tackle crop. One player who did help his cause significantly was New Mexico's Robert Turner. Turner, who wasn't among the initial invites to the Combine, showed strength, quickness and tenacity.
Another interior lineman who helped himself this week was Fresno State's Kyle Young. Among the most dominant linemen in the WAC over his four-year career with the Bulldogs, Young was suspended from the team due to academics and was surprisingly not invited to the Combine. Young, listed at 6-feet-5, 330 pounds, is massive — perhaps even too massive to remain at center — and was among the most imposing opponents for defensive linemen. He could be beaten with quickness, but if he got his hands on the defender, he typically won the battle and even pancaked a defender, an extreme rarity in these drills.
In drills in which they have a clear advantage, this was an important day for defensive linemen to prove they can beat offensive linemen one-on-one in space. Defenders often look spectacular in space, but disappear once the full offensive and defensive lines match up.
Bryan Hickman (UCLA), Daniel Bazuin (Central Michigan) and Brian Robinson (Texas) were the most impressive of the outside pass rushers. Hickman played defensive end throughout his time at UCLA, but might be better suited to the outside linebacker role at the next level. His burst off the edge was tough for offensive tackles to handle and he showed the balance and quick hands of a natural pass rusher. Bazuin had some of the more impressive rushes of the day. He didn't always stand out during individual drills, but his relentlessness came through during the scrimmage when he was often able to generate enough of a pass rush to force opposing quarterbacks to step up in the pocket and hurry their throws.
During individual drills, Texas' Brian Robinson might have been the most impressive pass rusher. His speed off the edge was impressive, at one point blowing past the offensive tackle so quickly that the tackle was still coming out of his stance. That said, Robinson wasn't nearly as explosive during the scrimmage.
Washington State's Mkristo Bruce and Miami's Baraka Atkins flashed the burst off the edge that made each of them highly decorated pass rushers in the Pac-10 and ACC, respectively. However, neither was able to string together the type of dominating effort to match their big names.
Surprisingly, the most impressive defensive tackle throughout the two days of practice was Florida's Steven Harris. While it is no shock that a member of the national champion Gators was impressive, it was a surprise in that Harris struggled to distinguish himself throughout most of his career with Florida despite great talent around him. Harris was not among the defensive linemen initially invited to the Combine. Here, however, he showed good burst off the snap and impressive technique. On back-to-back snaps in individual drills, Harris beat his opponent cleanly. The first snap he used an effective swim move to get past the blocker. The next, he simply beat the offensive lineman through the gap with quickness. Harris stood out during the scrimmage, as well, knifing through the line on multiple occasions to disrupt the offense's timing.
Alabama's Jeremy Clark and Nebraska's Ola Dagundoro also were able to consistently blow up plays from the inside. Each showed good initial quickness off the snap and enough power to hold up consistently at the point of attack. Dagundoro, in particular, flashed during the scrimmage, causing scouts to point him out.
Michigan State's Clifton Ryan wasn't quite the difference-maker he appeared to be the previous day. Admittedly, I paid much more attention to other positions Tuesday, but Ryan made it impossible not to notice him as he not only broke through the line several times, he also quickly read and reacted to a screen pass, intercepting the throw and returning it for an uncontested touchdown.
Though he lacks the height preferred at the position, Kansas State's Quintin Echols was a consistent tough assignment for offensive linemen. His quickness and natural leverage advantage allowed him to make plays against even the best offensive linemen the Shrine Game had to offer.
While Idaho State quarterback Matt Gutierrez enjoyed an impressive day Tuesday, he struggled at times Wednesday. When pressured, Gutierrez reverted to a three-quarter throwing motion. He remained fairly accurate and has plenty of arm strength, but the almost sidearm delivery and low throwing point will make it easier for defenders to tip passes at the line of scrimmage — a problem a 6-4 quarterback shouldn't have.
Lane's Jacoby Jones, arguably the most impressive player on the field Tuesday, enjoyed another strong performance. That said, the best receiver Wednesday was unquestionably Michigan's Steve Breaston. Breaston was good the previous day, but he ratcheted up the intensity and came through with several noteworthy receptions, including a few long touchdowns. The maddening inconsistency that characterized Breaston's career with the Wolverines was nowhere to be found over the past few days.
While on the receivers, it was good to see a bit of a bounce-back performance from South Carolina's Syvelle Newton. After struggling mightily with drops, his hands were better and his routes were crisper Wednesday. Newton was better not only in individual drills, but also came through with some impressive catches during the scrimmage. One crossing pattern over the deep middle was a particularly impressive play.
Among the pass defenders, Alabama State's Michael Coe made an immediate impression. Coe showed good footwork, a nose for the football and the quick, strong hands to break up passes. He was the most impressive corner on the field at times — quite a statement considering the flashes shown by C.J. Wilson, Bo Smith and Dashon Goldson.
Wyoming's John Wendling was effective, but never made the game-altering plays I was hoping to see out of him this week. He seemed to be a step late at times on passing routes, and wasn't allowed to showcase his physicality because of the no-tackle rules in place for much of the scrimmage. However, this was a rule happily ignored by other defenders on occassion.
Of course, the point of the players signing up to play in any all-star event is to improve their draft stock. Each of the following players was pointed out by scouts as having helped themselves with their performance thus far (listed alphabetically):
Michael Allan, TE, Whitworth
Travarous Bain, CB, Hampton
Steve Breaston, WR, Michigan
Michael Coe, CB, Alabama State
Ola Dagunduro, DT, Nebraska
Dashon Goldson, CB/S, Washington
Steven Harris, DT, Florida
Jacoby Jones, WR, Lane
Ben Patrick, TE, Delaware State
Brian Robinson, DE, Texas
Bo Smith, CB, Weber State
Kyle Young, C, Fresno State
Scouts Line Up for Shrine Practice
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