This will be my 7th season covering the NFL Draft “professionally.” It’s been a learning experience, including the understanding that seven years is not a long period of time. Most importantly, I’ve learned to not be certain about an uncertain subject. Early on I would dig my heels in, convinced what I saw in a prospect was fact. You learn to loosen the parameters of your certainties, and to identify different avenues that arrive at multiple answers. To me, that is improving process.
To me, the East-West Shrine Game is about identifying the 20 or so prospects that will make an impact in the NFL. That’s different than the Senior Bowl. 80-plus percent of the Senior Bowl roster will be drafted and many will be given an immediate chance, to the point they have to play themselves out of an opportunity. Few who participate during Shrine week will have the same experience.
Recent alumni include: Phillip Lindsay, Justin Jackson, Poona Ford, P.J. Hall, Bilal Nichols, Kenny Young, Chase Edmonds, DaeSean Hamilton, Brian Allen, Deadrin Senat, Chad Thomas, Kentavius Street, Avonte Maddox, Tre Flowers, Joe Thuney, Javon Hargrave, Fabian Moreau, Justin Simmons, Dean Lowry, Graham Glasgow, Robby Anderson, De’Vondre Campbell, Alex Lewis, Anthony Brown, Brian Poole, Brandon Shell, Elijah McGuire, Xavier Woods, Deatrich Wise, Geronimo Allison, Derek Watt, Jamon Brown, Mark Glowinski, John Miller, Justin Coleman and many more.
This week matters.
Here is a link for this year’s roster. As always, expect injuries and replacements.
Throughout the game's week of practices I will be posting articles here, tweeting observations from the field, and giving input on every player on the roster, so follow me @JoshNorris. For now, here are some of the top prospects sorted by position. Note that weigh-ins take place on Monday but the media is not allowed to attend. Here are the 15 names that grabbed my attention on first watch.
QB Easton Stick, North Dakota State
RB Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska
RB Nick Brossette, LSU
RB Ty Johnson, Maryland
WR Shawn Poindexter, Ole Miss
iOL Bunchy Stallings, Kentucky
OL Frederick Johnson, Florida
DL Daniel Wise, Kansas
DL Daylon Mack, Texas A&M
LB Tre Watson, Maryland
LB BJ Blunt, McNeese State
CB Michael Jackson, Miami
CB Keisean Nixon, South Carolina
CB Blace Brown, Troy
S Chris Johnson, North Alabama
Why isn’t Easton Stick at the Senior Bowl? It would be stunning if Stick is not (at least) a longtime backup at the NFL level. In a league with Taylor Heinecke, Cooper Rush and Alex Tanney - no offense - locking down those roles, why can’t Stick?
Not to simplify the quarterback position, because that would be foolish, but there are two phases of offense: inside of structure and off script. Stick succeeds in both. North Dakota State’s offense features plenty of concepts we see in the NFL. It attacks multiple levels of the field. It promotes the quick game and developing downfield routes. It even asks Stick to work from center. And the quarterback is comfortable with it all.
Stick isn’t a see it throw it passer. He will release before clear separation. He will give his receivers a chance to win one on one downfield, even when covered along the sideline and in the endzone. You know how Mitchell Trubisky has that ability to win out of structure? Accelerating by and evading defenders as a runner? Stick shows those same qualities.
Is Easton Stick mini-Trubisky? 3rd and 21 converted on the ground. pic.twitter.com/oRhvCUEEJv
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 5, 2019
He can miss high in the intermediate area of the field, and Stick needs to improve his recognition of backside pressure, as he’s a tick late to shuffle in the pocket to open areas when pressure comes off his left side. The positives far outweigh the negatives: Stick can play the quick game or the long game. Stick is aggressive off play action. Stick can extend plays to his left and right. Stick doesn’t settle for easy throws.
Easton Stick is the best quarterback at the Shrine Game since Jimmy Garoppolo.
It is difficult for ball carriers to stand out at this event. Finding running backs who create yards on their own is the purpose of evaluating. Hopefully all of these future professionals can pick up the yards blocked for them. Recognizing the ones who create, either by balance on contact or making close defenders miss, is the key. Devine Ozigbo and Ty Johnson both do this, but in different ways.
Devine Ozigbo is already one of my favorites of this class. Watch this man work.
Just picking up pieces of Ozigbo’s story in the last few weeks, it seems he was never featured prior to his final season. Poor coaching? Ozigbo is so explosive. Don’t give him a seam, space or the corner. You’ll regret it. And he wins after contact. Combining his skills result in big plays. It would not be surprising to see Ozigbo test in the top tier at his position. Ozigbo gives me Matt Breida vibes.
Ty Johnson’s acceleration is eye-catching. As soon as he breaks through the line, Johnson has one cut acceleration he uses to blow past oncoming defenders, to the point where they pause and are forced to chase. Those jets were more apparent in 2017.
Finally, Nick Brossette is worth a shoutout. His pass protection is as good as you will see from a draft prospect. He does pick up what’s blocked and adds yards on final contact by falling forward, but if Brossette succeeds as an NFL role player, teams will rely on his pass protection. He stays square, anticipates and is aggressive.
Wide Receiver and Tight End
The top prospect who accepted an invitation was bumped up to the Senior Bowl: Keelan Doss from UC Davis.
Don’t fret, intriguing names remain.
Let’s start with the homerun swing: Shawn Poindexter out of Arizona. Tall - 6--foot-5 and 212 pounds. Smooth on outside breaking routes. Animated in his movements with head fakes to aid his separation. Does not release off the line like a lumbering pass catcher. Poindexter stays active when his quarterback breaks structure. Again, I’ll emphasize how smooth he is in his twists and turns. The problem? Just 67 catches for 1,135 yards and 12 touchdowns in three seasons at Arizona.
Fresno State’s Keesean Johnson is like a budget Sterling Shepard. From might I can tell, he wasn't confined to the slot with the Bulldogs, but it might be where he wins in the NFL. Johnson does his best in tight spaces, wins with fluidity and even slightly pushes off to create slivers of space at the catch point.
Everything is built off a straight-line Damarkus Lodge out of Ole Miss. Lodge runs vertical routes, then breaks it off at different levels, all on the right side and almost always outside the numbers. It’s a narrow home, but Lodge can win in contested situations and literally palms the football with one hand. Xavier Ubosi from UAB can fly. The tight end group all look like blockers. Extra linemen.
Time to praise Bunchy Stallings out of Kentucky.
Kentucky RG Bunchy Stallings, attitude. Will be at Shrine practices next week pic.twitter.com/Y9uEmeOY7n
— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) January 8, 2019
Savage. Stallings looks to finish in every single game I watched. During the whistle. After the whistle. And inside of structure he wants to lock up his opposition, win close to his frame, and twist and turn the defender while under control.
Miami’s Tyree St. Louis is athletic. His set is agile and his drive blocking is explosive, yet he struggles when his feet stop. Florida’s Frederick Johnson has right tackle experience, but even more time at right guard. Whereas Stallings and other interior linemen block close to their body, Johnson wants to use his length, even on the interior. That is uncommon. He showed some real nastiness against Michigan.
There are some massive, massive linemen at this game. Olisaemeka Udoh from Elon, the most important university on the planet, is 6-foot-5, 335 pounds. Ethan Greenidge is 6-foot-4, 335 pounds. Fredrick Johnson is 6-foot-6, 330 pounds. Brian Wallace is 6-foot-6, 320 pounds. Oshea Dugas is 6-foot-5, 330 pounds. They might need an extra bus.
This game has a great track record of defensive linemen. Typically there’s at least one I prop up for the remainder of the process. This year, that is Daniel Wise out of Kanas. The brother of Deatrich Wise Jr. and son of Deatrich Wise Sr., both NFL players. Wise’s athleticism pops off the screen. For such a big human, he moves so fluidly. There’s a lot of room for growth, as Wise looks lost and takes himself out of plays too often due to not obtaining backfield vision. Wise has experience on the edge and inside, and the flashes are fantastic.
Terry Beckner out of Missouri shows zero interest on too many plays, but when the effort is there, he shows quickness, explosion and natural movement skills. Do traits equal talent. We’ve seen this profile for many defensive linemen before, and often when their paycheck is based on the quality of their play, they become more consistent.
Markus Jones out of Angelo State wins with natural athleticism at his level of football. Bursts off the line, gets under the tackle’s pads, drives them back to the depth of the quarterback. Tennessee's Kyle Phillips is an outside to inside player. What you see is what you get. Sturdy, solid athleticism, solid strength. No flash, plenty of consistency.
All-Star games offer depth for the league at linebacker. Tre Watson was a grad transfer from Illinois who finished his career at Maryland. He doesn’t play to linemen and ball carriers, he plays through linemen and ball carries. Watson attacks blockers like they are receivers. BJ Blunt from McNeese State reminds me of Shaquem Griffin out of UCF, even playing a similar edge role.
Perhaps this is hyperbole, but Michael Jackson out of Miami offers everything. Height and length. Wants to press, jam and ride through coverage. In zone he snaps his head back and drives on underneath action. Great 2017 performances. Destroyed Pitt on corner blitzes. Apparently it was the 2018 work that left some with a sour taste in their mouths.
As always, all-star games are the perfect platform for small schoolers to perform on an equal stage. Chris Johnson from North Alabama can maximize that opportunity. Johnson keys on the quarterback, reading his eyes and breaking on routes just before the pass is released. This leads to numerous difficult catches and disrupted targets. He makes plays on the ball over and over again. If his athleticism is at least average, watch out.