By Russ Lande
On Saturday, some future NFL players will be participating in the annual East-West Shrine Game in St. Petersburg, Fla., and more people should be paying close attention this week -- some of these prospects might just be the surprise picks in this year's NFL draft. As I packed my bags for my annual trip to the Shrine Game, it occurred to me how many good NFL starters I had seen there over the years, so below is a look at some recent alums of the Shrine Game who have developed into quality NFL starters. This list does not even include players such as Jacoby Jones, who have made an impact in the NFL but have struggled to become consistent starters (players are listed in alphabetical order).
DE, Texas A&M, undrafted free-agent signing by the Seattle Seahawks after the 2009 draft
After evaluating Bennett off Texas A&M film, it was clear that he had the strength and competitiveness that NFL teams look for in defensive ends. However, he had not shown the explosiveness, quickness (both off the ball and changing directions), pass rush repertoire and all-around athleticism necessary to be an effective pass rusher in the NFL. While Bennett clearly did not "wow" NFL people enough to get drafted, he showed better quickness and athleticism during the week of practice than many expected. This led to him being viewed as an intriguing developmental project and, combining his work ethic with continued good coaching, Bennett has developed into a consistently disruptive defensive end that impacts games both as a pass rusher and against the run.
TE, USC, fourth-round draft pick by the Cleveland Browns in 2011
For a player who began his college athletics career on the hardwood, Cameron grabbed the NFL's attention with a strong final season in his first year as a starter. Long and lean, Cameron was viewed as a thin-framed, athletic tight end with raw tools to try and develop, which was likely to lead to him being a late-round pick. Then he came to the East-West Shrine Game, where he impressed from the start when he looked more muscular and well-built at the weigh-in than had been anticipated. He continued to impress throughout the week of practice as he displayed better acceleration, route-running and ball skills than had been apparent at USC. Although he did not immediately make an impact in the NFL, it is clear three years into his career that he is going to be one of the better receiving tight ends in the NFL for the next decade.
LB, Georgia, undrafted free-agent signing by the Baltimore Ravens after the 2009 draft
When Ellerbe participated in the East-West Shrine Game there was a sense among many that this game would be a turning point, either positively or negatively, in his career, as few doubted that he had the physical skill set to play in the NFL. However, after some off-field issues at Georgia raised concerns about his character and his on-field struggles/inconsistency during his final season, Ellerbe needed to prove to everyone in the NFL that he even deserved an opportunity. While no one can look back and say that Ellerbe looked like a star that week, he was clearly one of the best players on the field and reminded me of the player he was before his disappointing final college season. His character concerns still kept him from being drafted, but had he not shined at the Shrine Game he may not have even been signed as a free agent after the draft.
WR, Mount Union, fourth-round draft pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011
Former Jaguars GM Gene Smith receives a lot of criticism for selecting too many small players early in drafts, but in the case of Shorts he hit a home run. Shorts has developed into a quality starting receiver. As is often the case for dominant small-school players, especially receivers, the East-West Game provided Shorts with a chance to show NFL scouts that he had the athleticism, speed and mental makeup to make the huge jump to the NFL. Surrounded by many bigger-name receivers throughout the week, Shorts held his own and proved that his combination of athleticism, size and ball skills was as good as anyone else's. One of the hardest skills for an NFL scout to evaluate is a small-school receiver's true speed, because the bulk of the cornerbacks they compete against run in the 4.7-plus range and will never play pro football. The Shrine Game gave Shorts the stage necessary to prove himself and force his way into mid-round consideration.
TE, Portland State, fourth-round draft pick by the Denver Broncos in 2011
Similar to Jordan Cameron, Thomas was first a basketball player in college. At Portland State, he was seen by fewer NFL scouts, which made the Shrine Game even more valuable for him. During the weeks leading up to the 2011 Shrine Game, many NFL scouts were looking forward to seeing Thomas compete against better competition. He was viewed as a real "sleeper" because of his combination of size, athleticism and potential. However, while Thomas' athleticism jumped out immediately during practices, it was also clear that he was raw running routes and would be a real developmental project. Proving that he had elite athleticism and soft hands that week helped Thomas get drafted in the fourth round despite needing so much work on the fundamentals of the position. Obviously, three years later many NFL teams wish they had gambled and drafted Thomas -- he looks like he could one of the best receiving tight ends in the NFL for the foreseeable future.
OG, Texas Tech, third-round draft pick by the San Diego Chargers in 2009
No one doubted that Vasquez, who had played in Texas Tech's wide-open passing attack, understood pass blocking inside and out, but the bigger concern was whether he had the athleticism to be effective in pass protection in the NFL. Strong enough to stop pass rushers in their tracks with a hard punch and to torque them off their feet at other times, Vasquez rarely had to re-direct and slide quickly to adjust to explosive change-of-direction pass rush moves, which is something NFL guards face regularly on passing downs. Additionally, due to his experience in a pass-first offense, NFL teams wanted to get a feel for his run blocking. In college, his success as a run blocker had often been due to his combination of size, strength and competitiveness, but not his footwork and technique. Throughout the week of practice Vasquez displayed nimbler feet than many expected, and combined with his strength and hand use, he made pass blocking look easy. After a week at the Shrine Game, Vasquez proved that he warranted consideration as one of the top guards in the draft and has proven to be better than expected during his NFL career.
OT, Houston, second-round pick by the New England Patriots in 2009
When the Patriots surprised many by selecting Vollmer in the second round, the buzz after the draft among scouts I spoke to was that Vollmer's performance at the Shrine Game dramatically helped his draft stock. Before the Shrine Game Vollmer was viewed as a gifted athlete for such a big man, but his technique was poor and led to wildly inconsistent play at Houston. However, throughout the week of practice he displayed better footwork, flexibility and use of hands than expected and had scouts buzzing about how good he would be if he could maintain this technique and consistency at the NFL level. This is not to say that Vollmer dominated all week -- he still struggled more than most elite OT prospects -- but the improvement he showed, combined with his size, long arms and natural athleticism, definitely proved that if he continued on his upward trajectory he would become a solid starter in the NFL.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big 10 Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.