The following article is a part of the USA Today Sports Weekly preview for the Shrine Game and NFLPA Collegiate Bowl Preview
Draft season is starting to ramp up, and that starts with the all-star game circuit, which allows NFL scouts, coaches and front office personnel a chance to see a large number of prospects up close.
Though the Senior Bowl at the end of the month receives the most attention, the East-West Shrine Game and the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl have done a great job of attracting talent. The 2016 games produced a total of 47 prospects who heard their names called at the draft. It will be difficult to replicate that number, but this year’s games are not short on NFL-caliber talent.
In previous years, the Shrine Game has brought back former NFL coaches to run the teams. This season, the NFL partnered with the Shrine Game to provide promising assistant coaches the opportunity to gain experience and exposure as a head coach.
The West team will led be Minnesota Vikings defensive coordinator George Edwards and the East team will be coached by Arizona Cardinals defensive line coach Brenston Buckner.
Here’s a look at the key prospects in both games:
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Fish Smithson, S, Kansas: Smithson led the Jayhawks with 93 tackles and had four interceptions, but the standout player didn’t get a lot of notice because of the Jayhawks’ 2-10 record. Smithson has great range, and his coverage skills will be on display during the game
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) July 6, 2016
Stacy Coley, WR, Miami (Fla.): His stats won’t blow you away, but Coley has shown in his four-year career that he can be a big-play threat. Look for Coley to demonstrate that he can run more than just deep routes.
Ejuan Price, DE, Pittsburgh: Price was easy to find on tape because he lived in the opponent’s backfield, getting 13 sacks and 23 tackles for losses. He’s an explosive athlete, but his listed 6-0 height will raise questions about whether he can play along the edge on every down.
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) October 16, 2016
Dan Skipper, OT, Arkansas: In college, he was able to get by using scheme and his size to overwhelm defenders. In Florida, Skipper will face a group of talented pass rushers and show if he has the lateral agility to play tackle in the NFL.
Elijah McGuire, RB, Louisiana-Lafayette: Using good burst and quick lateral cuts, McGuire has made a career out of making defenders miss. It is difficult for running backs to show much during limited-contact practices, so Saturday’s game will be his time to shine.
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) August 6, 2016
Jeremy Cutrer, CB, Middle Tennessee State: Having been displaced by Hurricane Katrina and left homeless, Cutrer should be able to manage the pressure of an all-star game. He’s 6-2, and Conference USA offenses steered clear of him. In St. Petersburg, Fla., he’ll get to show off the ball skills and athletic ability that made him a four-star recruit.
Channing Stribling, CB, Michigan: Playing on a loaded Michigan defense with high-profile teammates, Stribling was overshadowed. Standing 6-2 with four interceptions and 12 pass breakups, he has the makings of a starting press cornerback.
Joe Williams, RB, Utah: After initially retiring, Williams rejoined the team for the final seven games and rushed for 1,332 yards and 10 touchdowns. Plenty of questions will be raised about his commitment, but his explosive speed cannot be ignored.
Austin Carr, WR, Northwestern: The lightning-quick slot receiver had a breakout season. His 1,247 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns led the Big Ten.
Hunter Dimick, DE, Utah: With good quickness, heavy hands and relentless effort, Dimick had 141/2 sacks and 20 tackles for losses. This draft class is full of edge rushers, so Dimick could use a good week of practice against high-quality tackles if he wants to be selected on Day 2.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Gabe Marks, WR, Washington State; Fabian Moreau, CB, UCLA; Cooper Rush, QB, Central Michigan; De’Veon Smith, RB, Michigan; I’Tavius Mathers, RB, Middle Tennessee; Jalen Myrick, CB, Minnesota; Marquel Lee, LB Wake Forest; Xavier Woods, S Louisiana Tech; Avery Gennesy, OT, Texas A&M; Avery Moss, DE, Youngstown State; Deatrich Wise, DE, Arkansas; Josh Tupou, DT, Colorado; Tedric Thompson, S, Colorado; Weston Steelhammer, S, Air Force; Leon McQuay, S, Southern California
Here’s a look at the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl:
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Brady Gustafson, QB, Montana: With everyone trying to find that next diamond-in-the-rough quarterback, a player with Brady Gustafson’s skill set will garner plenty of attention. Injuries plagued Gustafson during his senior year. But in the nine games he played, he averaged 309.4 yards per game, using a quick release and good arm strength. Standing at 6-7, he will get a lot of Brock Osweiler comparisons, but Gustafson’s arm is significantly better.
Mitch Leidner, QB, Minnesota: Coming into the season, there was major buzz about him as a sleeper prospect, but that cooled down as he regressed in every statistical category. Physically, Leidner has the tools to be successful with good size, the ability to move within the pocket and a strong enough arm to make every throw. For Leidner to be drafted, though, he will have to show the ability to throw with timing and accuracy.
Greg Ward, QB, Houston: Over the last two years, Houston has hit new heights, and a big reason has been Ward’s playmaking ability. The dual-threat quarterback accounted for 4,075 total yards and 32 touchdowns in his senior season, and he is looking to use the Collegiate Bowl to show that he has the skills to play in the NFL as a quarterback. Don’t be surprised, based on his athletic ability, if he gets reps as a receiver.
Dontre Wilson, WR, Ohio State: As a top-100 recruit coming out of high school, Wilson was quickly tabbed to play the Percy Harvin role (wide receiver and running back) for the Buckeyes. Instead Wilson never topped 500 total yards in any season and became a full-time receiver in his final year. He has raw physical talent, and a week of NFL coaching could showcase his potential as a slot receiver and returner.
Cethan Carter, TE, Nebraska: Normally, a tight end with 744 career receiving yards and four touchdowns would not receive a ton of attention, but Carter has shown good traits beyond the stats. He uses his size and strength as a premier blocker, although he has shown only flashes of brilliance in the passing attack. When given the chance during this game, Carter should be able to show his soft hands and the athletic ability that teams want out of the position.
Lewis Neal, DE, LSU: He had eight sacks as a junior playing defensive end in a four-man front, but his production dipped to 31/2 in his final year as the Tigers switched to a 3-4 defense and used him more inside. Neal displays power against tackles and uses his ability to accelerate to get into the backfield. Moving back to the edge this week should allow him to showcase his potential.
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) May 21, 2016
Riley Bullough, LB Michigan State: Bullough had 30 fewer tackles last season as he missed three games and played behind a young, beat-up defensive line. The aggressive downhill linebacker has the ability to knife through the line of scrimmage to attack the ball. Bullough wasn’t asked to do much coverage at Michigan State, but he will need to show he’s capable of that if he wants to be anything more than a role player.
— Brian Johannes (@Draft_Brian) August 3, 2016
OTHERS TO WATCH
Taquan Mizzell, RB, Virgini; RJ Shelton, WR, Michigan State; Ben Braden, G, Michigan; Jay Guillermo, C, Clemson; Desmond Lawrence, CB, North Carolina; Teriyon Gipson, RB, New Mexico; Zach Pascal, WR, Old Dominion; Micheal Rector, WR, Stanford; Darrell Daniels, TE, Washington; Jonah Pirsig, OT, Minnesota; Darius Hamilton, Rutgers; Ahmad Thomas, S, Oklahoma; Jordan Burton, DB, Oklahoma State