The East-West Shrine Game is still a few days away, but scouts have already seen enough from the top prospects in attendance at practices this week to make strong assessments on their potential.
Evaluators paid close attention to the work done in individual drills to assess the speed, athleticism and agility of the top players, while the performance of prospects in 1-on-1 and team drills provided scouts with a feel for competitiveness and football aptitude. Of course, practice tempo is drastically different than game speed, but the opportunity to watch prospects perform in a competitive NFL-like environment provided evaluators with some of the answers to the looming questions derived from regular season film study. Here's some of the buzz that's making the rounds in NFL circles this week:
Eastern Illinois QB Jimmy Garoppolo has made a strong case for his candidacy as a late-round prospect. He has shown better than anticipated arm strength on intermediate and deep throws, while also exhibiting adequate accuracy and ball placement.
In addition, Garoppolo has impressed scouts with his quick delivery and release, and shown sound judgment getting the ball to open receivers on the perimeter after working through his progressions. Scouts wondered if he could execute intricate reads at the next level after thriving in a "pick and stick" spread system at Eastern Illinois, but he has been on point with his execution throughout the week.
Ball State QB showing intriguing tools
Ball State QB Keith Wenning continues to stand out as the top quarterback on the West squad. He has shown superb touch and anticipation on finesse throws, yet also shows the ability to ramp it up on line-drive tosses into tight windows at intermediate range. Wenning has repeatedly connected with receivers on deep in-breaking routes (dig and deep crosses) throughout the week, changing his trajectory and pace to fit the ball between multiple defenders. With touch, timing, anticipation and accuracy cited as more desirable traits than arm strength, Wenning's ability to throw different pitches from the pocket could lead a savvy offensive coordinator or quarterback coach to view him as an intriguing option as a developmental candidate.
Scouts taking hard look at QB Price
As I talked to an NFC college scouting director this week, I discovered that more NFL teams are taking a hard look at athletic signal-callers as potential No. 3 quarterbacks.
Part of the fascination with mobile quarterbacks stems from the recent success of the read-option and scripted quarterback runs. Coaches have seen the impact of improvisational playmakers like Cam Newton, Colin Kaepernick and Russell Wilson on defensive game plans. Moreover, the surprising preseason play of athletic playmakers like Tyrod Taylor and B.J. Daniels have encouraged some teams to identify a handful of mobile throwers to possibly add to the roster as late-round or free-agent possibilities.
At the East-West Shrine Game, this has led some scouts to take an extended look at Washington's Keith Price to see if he has a combination of skills that could help him develop into a legitimate quarterback prospect. After talking to several scouts familiar with Price from the fall, the prevailing opinion that I received was that he was a good "college quarterback," but many wondered if he has enough special attributes to shine at the next level. Watching Price in individual and team drills this week, I believe he is certainly athletic enough to execute some of the designed quarterback runs. Additionally, he displays enough arm talent to operate effectively in a pro-style passing game. Although Price still needs to refine his footwork and mechanics, he has shown enough to garner some interest as a Day Three possibility.
Hurns' height under review
Miami WR Allen Hurns was one of the guys that I was excited to see perform at the East-West Shrine Game based on his solid senior campaign. Listed at 6-foot-3, 195 pounds in the Hurricanes' media guide, I expected to see a big-bodied playmaker with speed, quickness and athleticism. Hurns seemingly towered over defenders on tape, while tallying 62 receptions for 1,162 yards with 6 scores. He flashed potential as a possible No. 2 receiver at the next level, leading some to speculate that Hurns could be in the mix as a mid-round candidate.
After watching Hurns work throughout the week, I believe he is much shorter than his listed height. Additionally, I saw a wiry-built receiver with lean arms and skinny legs. Now, that's not necessarily an issue at the next level because Hurns displays adequate functional strength working through contact on the perimeter. Although he didn't face a lot of press coverage in practice, Hurns effectively worked through incidental contact down the field and stayed on track in his routes. He created separation from defenders at the top of breaks and found a way to get open against man and zone coverage on the outside. Early in the week, Hurns had a few drops due to lapses of concentration, but his hand placement and eye tracking suggests that he should be a consistent pass catcher.
Factor in his sneaky speed and burst, and it's possible that Hurns could carve out a niche as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver at the next level.
Keep eye on North Carolina's Boston
The changing nature of the passing game in the NFL has led scouts to look for safeties with size, athleticism and ball skills. In addition, scouts are searching for tough, physical defenders with the aggressiveness and courage to fill alleys against the run. One defender catching the eye of scouts at the East-West Shrine Game is North Carolina's Tre Boston. The former Tar Heel standout was a heavily recruited prospect out of a high school, but he didn't consistently play to the hype that surrounded his arrival. Although he made a handful of splash plays as a deep middle defender, scouts told me that Boston appeared to have epic mental busts in coverage throughout his career. He routinely vacated the middle of the field on hunches or overreactions to playaction fakes, leaving his corners without deep ball protection.
At the East-West Shrine Game, however, Boston has shown encouraging traits as a versatile defender in the back end. He has aggressively filled lanes as a run defender, while also patrolling the middle as a designated center fielder. If he can play with discipline, awareness and toughness in the game this weekend, Boston can alter the perception that he is a wild-card defender with questionable discipline and focus. Given the number of teams in desperate need of a top safety, Boston's game performance could have a significant impact on his draft status in a few months.