ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Yes, we're talking about practice.
At this week's East-West Shrine Game, like all other all-star contests, the early-week practices are what NFL general managers, coaches and scouts fly in to watch.
Examining players up close on the practice field is crucial in the evaluation process, not only to inspect the prospects' build and athleticism, but also the way they take to coaching and handle adversity. These future professionals must show confident body language (even when they make a mistake) and the ability to translate coaches' instruction into action in order to curry scouts' favor.
All of the players here obviously have skills, or they would have not been invited to play in the 87th edition of this prestigious event. But they begin to separate themselves into three tiers of talent as the week progresses: those strong enough to hear their name called in the second day of the draft (second and third rounds), others with enough long-term potential to be drafted in the first half of Saturday's proceedings (fourth and fifth rounds), and those fighting for a coveted slot in the sixth or seventh rounds with hundreds of other prospects across the country.
Listed below are those players looking like they could break into those top two groups based on what they showed this week, along with the game tape they've accumulated during their collegiate careers.
Next month's NFL Scouting Combine will have an impact on where these players fall, so nothing is set in stone. But NFL folks in St. Pete have noticed the play of these prospects, and that's really what these practices are all about.
Note: Players are listed alphabetically within their group.
Second- & Third-Round Picks
OG Brandon Brooks (Miami, OH), 6-5/353
The bruising Brooks won't be highly rated by all teams because of his average lateral agility, but a handful of offensive line coaches will love his size and strength enough to push for him in the mid-to-late third round. San Diego made a similar pick in 2009 when they selected massive former Texas Tech guard Louis Vasquez in the mid-third.
DE Tyrone Crawford (Boise State), 6-4/285
Finding 4-3 swing ends with his length, strength, and hustle is not easy. If the Canadian native proves as athletic as he has looked in practices, a team will take him earlier than most are currently projecting.
DT DaJohn Harris (USC), 6-3/308
Few players saw their draft stock rise as far as Harris this season, and his work on the practice field hasn't stopped that momentum. The fact he lined up at five-technique Thursday and made some plays inside and outside only enhanced his value.
DE/OLB Brandon Lindsey (Pittsburgh), 6-2/255
Lindsey hasn't necessarily wowed scouts this week, but they know he's being asked to do things he probably won't as a 3-4 rush 'backer or 4-3 "wide nine" defensive end at the next level. He did impress with his ability to play the edge and handle tight ends at the line, and intercepted a pass during Thursday's team work to make up for a drop earlier in the week.
Brooks: Top 50 prospects
CB Josh Norman (Coastal Carolina), 6-0/203
His three-interception performance Wednesday only accentuated Norman's solid Monday and Tuesday efforts. With his size and the ball skills he displayed (also catching a few punts), Norman could be the highest-drafted player here this week if he does well at the Combine, both on the Lucas Oil Stadium turf and in team interviews.
CB Shaun Prater (Iowa), 5-10/185
There was little doubt watching the West team Thursday that Prater had the best foot quickness and hip turn among the cornerbacks on the squad. Though not possessing great size, a strong Combine workout combined with his overall skill set could land him in the third round as a valuable inside/outside corner.
WR Jarius Wright (Arkansas), 5-9/176
Several small-but-quick receivers from the Shrine Game have landed in the top 100 the past few years: Steve Smith (Utah/Carolina, not USC/Giants-Eagles), Deion Branch, Dexter Jackson, Deon Butler and Emmanuel Sanders. Wright's ability to eat up cushion was on full display on the St. Petersburg High School field, which portends a nice 40-yard dash time in upcoming workouts. His production in multiple facets of the Arkansas passing game, along with untapped potential as a receiver, could make him the next receiver on that top-100 list.
Fourth- & Fifth-Round Picks
CB/FS Robert Blanton (Notre Dame), 6-0/197
Lacks great fluidity, but has the size and physicality to move to safety, where he played a bit this week.
WR Greg Childs (Arkansas), 6-3/215
Possesses NFL size and good enough hands to take a chance on his returning to 2010 form within the top 150 picks.
QB B.J. Coleman (Tennessee-Chattanooga), 6-3/234
The former Tennessee Volunteer is very similar to 2010 fifth-round pick John Skelton in terms of his NFL size/arm and questions about his accuracy/footwork.
WR B.J. Cunningham (Michigan State), 6-2/209
The most polished route-runner and pass-catcher on the East team looks like a solid No. 2 outside starter who will reliably move the chains.
OG Derek Dennis (Temple), 6-3/315
East defensive linemen simply could not move this likely early-career starter off the line or beat him consistently in pass rush drills.
ILB Najee Goode (West Virginia) 6-0/245
A solid 4-3 Mike candidate who thumps running backs inside and has the agility to work in limited coverage.
DT Dominique Hamilton (Missouri), 6-5/320
Hamilton played with real power all week, and his explosiveness off the edge of his man's shoulder made him a consistent visitor into the offensive backfield during Thursday's West team session.
FS Aaron Henry (Wisconsin), 6-0/208
The corner-turned-safety used his ball skills to take advantage of bad throws and intercept two passes during Thursday's West practices.
WR A.J. Jenkins (Illinois), 6-0/192
Sometimes Jenkins ran so smoothly this week he appeared to be moving in slow motion. His quickness and toughness over the middle could make him a real bargain on draft Saturday.
OG Rishaw Johnson (California-PA), 6-4/309
His length is so good (34 1/2" arms) that he relies on it at times instead of moving his feet, but most of the week the former Ole Miss Runnin' Rebel looked like the athletic mid-rounder scouts expected to see.
OLB Josh Kaddu (Oregon), 6-3/235
His press technique at the line lapsed at times, but he still showed the length and open-field agility to be one of the best 4-3 Sam coverage linebackers in the draft class.
TE Kevin Koger (Michigan), 6-3/262
H-back prospect who looks the part of an NFL contributor and exhibited good enough hands to confirm scouts' thoughts that he was simply underutilized at Michigan.
CB Micah Pellerin (Hampton), 6-1/195
Southern Miss transfer looking quick and strong enough to play cornerback in the NFL, but was just a step late in closing to make a play on the ball.
RB Tauren Poole (Tennessee), 5-10/206
Clearly the best back on either side this week due to a nice combination of wiggle and power with the ball in his hands. Scouts will be very interested in how he performs in live action Saturday.
OT/OG Matt Reynolds (BYU), 6-5/310
Older prospect who showed up in St. Pete more trim than expected, but maintained his strong anchor. He could move inside to guard next year, but may have earned a shot on the edge with his efforts.
SS Christian Thompson (South Carolina State), 6-0/213
Didn't get a chance to really light anyone up this week, but looked athletic enough to handle himself on Sundays. Watch for the Auburn transfer to have a couple of big hits during this weekend's game.
OG Jeremiah Warren (South Florida) 6-3/336
His thick lower body will be some NFL offensive line coach's dream, and he showed a respectable ability to mirror and redirect defensive tackles in one-on-one pass rush drills.
WR Devon Wylie (Fresno State) 5-9/186
Receiver/punt returner with excellent quickness and route-running skills, but his average hands and foot injuries (along with missing games due to hamstring, concussion) lower his stock a bit.