I’ve been at every Shrine Game practice thus far, and here are my overarching takeaways from the practice fields of St. Petersburg…
1. Tyler Starr is a star. The South Dakota linebacker has really put on a show during the West practices. He’s proven to be the most agile and quickest LB on the squad, and on Wednesday he picked off a pass and followed that up by slamming the running back for a tackle-for-loss on the very next rep. He’s got a strong future and is system versatile. He’s got young A.J. Hawk hair too.
2. Jeff Mathews is the best QB in St. Pete. A lot of my colleagues are giving love to Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo, but I prefer Mathews and will grade him higher. Mathews was somewhat stymied at Cornell by a pedantic offense and middling coaching. He’s flashed a better arm and better downfield precision here than Garoppolo, who didn’t impress me Monday but looked pretty good on Wednesday. Mathews has a more compact release and stands taller, though his movement skills are not as adroit. When seeing Mathews in person I would swear he’s 6’5” even though he’s measured at just over 6’3”. There is a lot of desirable upside in Mathews, who should be a late third/early fourth round pick.
3. Earlier this week I said that the first player from the Shrine Game to be drafted will be Lindenwood CB Pierre Desir. I’ll stick to that, because 6’1” corners with his movement skills just don’t come along very often. He’s pretty raw, but he’s also a quick learner. A good coaching staff could rapidly mold him into a legit starting corner with scheme versatility. In my next mock draft he will be a second-round player. He’s what the Lions hope Chris Greenwood becomes.
4. Desir’s biggest challenger figures to be Garoppolo. On Wed. I saw what others have been raving about. He’s got a pretty release with excellent balance and accuracy…at times. He still throws off his left foot with his right foot flying away and his shoulders falling off at times, but when his mechanics are sound he’s very impressive. I tweeted this during the East practice:
Garoppolo sails a throw from one foot. Fell away from his target. Ugh. #shrinegame— Jeff Risdon (@JeffRisdon) January 15, 2014
Immediately after sending that out, Garoppolo was legitimately awesome. Like, blown away good. After practice I was within earshot of him talking to the Chargers (don’t read much into that SD fans) and he’s an engaging, likeable young man. I can see a team getting infatuated with him and also getting scared that others will be too and pulling the draft trigger in the 40s.
5. One of the more pleasant surprises here has been McGill offensive tackle Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. I had never heard of the Canadian before this week, but he has proven he belongs. Predominately playing right tackle, he’s proven to be technically sound and surprisingly adept at handling both speed and power. Most Canadians who have been here have been either not quite athletic enough or technically raw, but in two days of watching him pretty intently I’ve seem neither issue with Duvernay-Tardif. Others have noticed as well, including his opponents on the D-line, who have had nothing but good things to say about him. One prospect from a major BCS conference told me he’s the best tackle he’s ever played against. Keep him in mind on the draft’s third day and hope your team takes a flyer on him.
6. One of the bigger disappointments from the week has been Oklahoma center Gabe Ikard. I’ve seen him in person (vs. Notre Dame) and was higher on him than most draftniks heading here. Unfortunately he has played down to their level instead of rising to my expectations. I still love his agility--no C here gets to the second level better--but he’s a waist-bender with overextension issues. He’s also a little shorter and shorter-armed in person than I expected. There is still legit 4th round potential for a zone-blocking scheme team, but my infatuation is gone. I’m reminded of my 11th grade crush on Debbie Gibson and then seeing her in Playboy and it just was like, okay.
7. I’ve had the opportunity to meet and stand with many of these players, and I can attest that they are correct in grumbling about their height measurement issues. The official weigh-ins, which are not made public, were obtained by my friend and colleague Kyle Crabbs at NFL Draft Tracker and can be found here. A good rule of thumb is to add a half-inch to every payer above six feet tall. Two different agents have informed me the players were told to put their heads down when being measures, and I absolutely know guys like Desir and Wisconsin OL Ryan Groy are taller than their listings. I’m exactly 6’5” and I’ve seen Groy both in pads and in the team hotel and we are dead-on eye to eye. As an aside, Groy is a genuinely nice guy and one to root for.
8. Just as East practice ended on Wednesday, the word started circulating that former Bengals Defensive Coordinator Mike Zimmer was hired as the Head Coach of the Minnesota Vikings. This was universally well-received. Zim is one of the most beloved figures within NFL circles, an outstanding football mind with a great track record. He’s not always politically correct or shy about expressing thoughts that might not go over well, similar to Rex Ryan in that regard. I was with Bengals scouting consultant and former Ohio State coach John Cooper when he found out and he was thrilled. The Bengals lost both Zimmer and Offensive Coordinator Jay Gruden, the new Ethnic Slurs coach, and they will have a hard time replacing those key components.
9. My time to be overly critical and harsh. To borrow from my “quickies” format from the weekly cents piece, here are five one liners:
--Washington QB Keith Price is not a NFL talent. I hope to never have to utter his name in a scouting context again.
--Valdosta State WR Seantavius Jones has a lot to work with, but will be a priority free agent and practice squad stash as a rookie. Long strider with build-up speed but good hands and catch radius, hard worker.
--Colorado State LB Shaquil Barrett struggles some in space but can be a very effective edge rusher and bulky 3-4 OLB in the poor man’s Paul Kruger mold. Look for him to drop a few pounds and time very well in Indy, and for his stock to rise. He has impressive game tape vs. Alabama and others, and he’s a willing worker.
--Most pleasant surprise has been Fresno State G Austin Wentworth. He’s consistently demonstrated power, balance, and the ability to control the action from a technically sound stance. He’s been the only West lineman to contain Louisiana Tech DT Justin Ellis, who is a 3rd-4th round handful as a one-gap nose tackle. The Bears desperately need Ellis, while the Dolphins need Wentworth.
--Michigan WR Jeremy Gallon has been uncoverable in the slot. Unfortunately he’s even smaller in person than he is from the stands and press box, where I’ve seen him five times over the last two seasons. He’s not lightning quick like a Dexter McCluster or Darren Sproles, and he needs to attack the ball in the air better, but he’s proven he’s worthy of a 4th or 5th round pick and can be an immediate contributor from the slot and on gadget plays.
10. I’m working on a more extensive piece for another site about this subject, but it’s worth mentioning here. I’m not one who likes to do player interviews very much. I don’t mind meeting players and chatting with them casually, but doing intensive interviews is just not my thing. One of the major reasons is that I cannot turn off the judgment meter in my head. If a guy is a lunkhead, I have a very hard time not holding that against him. Likewise, if a player is bright and great to talk with, I inherently inflate my opinion of them. It’s a personal flaw, but identifying flaws is a big part of scouting. In doing self-scouting--another vital process--I found I simply cannot handle it very well. That’s why you rarely see prospect interviews here or at detroitlionsdraft.com, where I am the editor. Other guys love doing them and do them well, and I encourage you to look to them in this arena. I like talking to guys off the record and picking at their brains with unusual questions, but that doesn’t always translate well to this format.