Shrine Game Boasts Strongest Roster In Years

Photo: Jan 21, 2017; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; East Team linebacker Richie Brown (42) is congratulated after he made a tackle during the first quarter of the East-West Shrine Game at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Ah, the Shrine Game. The Senior Bowl's little brother.

Played a week before the Senior Bowl, the Shrine Game also brings in graduating seniors with NFL Draft aspirations -- but generally speaking, the Senior Bowl is the higher-profile and more desirable of the two games, and accordingly attracts bigger names.

That being said, because the Shrine Game often focuses on smaller names and schools, it does serve as a good place for uncovering gems. Such was the case with Shrine Game poster boy Jimmy Garoppolo, who leveraged a successful 2014 campaign into a second-round draft selection: he was taken out of Eastern Illinois University, an FCS school.

But this year, while the Shrine Game still boasts of some potential hidden gems from schools far and wide, the rosters were also rounded out with some surprisingly high-end talent: players we expected the Senior Bowl to have their eyes on and potentially invite. This matters two-fold: it will give the Shrine Game an ability to elevate its profile with more Day 2 selections than it typically rosters, and it will increase the level of competition for those players coming in from smaller schools -- help you sort the wheat from the chaff, as it were.

The TDN crew will be on location in St. Petersburg for the entire week of practices, and we'll be interested to see if our estimation of this studly Shrine Game roster comes to fruition throughout the week.

Brett Rypien and the QB void

The biggest Senior Bowl snub, in my opinion, is Rypien -- a player you've heard us discuss many times through Twitter, Twitch, and on the site. The Boise State quarterback took what was promising, but low-ceiling film in 2017 and turned in a generally elevated 2018, in which he made tougher throws with better velocity, showed off improved mobility, and produced accordingly: 67.3 comp%, 8.3 Y/A, and a 30:7 TD to INT ratio.

There are legit concerns with Rypien that can't be avoided: he doesn't have a super deep ball in terms of arm strength, and his pocket presence tends to leave me wanting at times. He trusts his accuracy too much at times and tests downfield windows he shouldn't, which leads to a more risk-prone style of play than you'd expect from a passer of his mold.

I don't dispute the worries, but I do wonder: in such a weak quarterback class, how did a high-floor QB like Rypien slip into the Shrine Game's hands? Either way, they were lucky to get him, and they appropriately bolstered their QB room with two other quarterbacks of interest: that's North Dakota State QB Easton Stick and Ole Miss QB Jordan Ta'amu. Stick has played well in FCS powerhouse NDSU, but I'm not sure there's NFL-caliber anticipation and processing speed there -- improved competition will help in that regard. For Ta'amu, his arm talent and natural touch have always been evident with the Rebels, but how well can he get through his reads in a more progression-based offensive attack?

With the two top-flight QBs in this class -- that's Justin Herbert and Dwayne Haskins -- both potentially returning to school, there's room for QB risers everywhere. I think Shrine has two of the big ones, in Ta'amu and Rypien. This is one of their more exciting QB rooms I can remember.

Defense -- like, a lot of defense

The Shrine Game doesn't necessarily struggle as much to find interesting offensive talent as they do defensive talent -- and that makes sense. As offenses get smarter and more spready, it's easier to maximize raw athletes and find a niche role for them. That inflation of the market leads to trickle-down players that make their way into the Shrine Game and even NFLPA Bowl.

But the Shrine Game has had some stronger defenders as of late. They landed DTs Poona Ford and Deadrin Senat last season -- Senat went Round 3 to the Falcons and could have gone to the Senior Bowl if he wanted to go back-to-back on the bowl circuit; Poona instead showed up in Mobile and, while he went undrafted, he's providing quality reps on the Seattle defensive line. Throw Pitt's Avonte Maddox, a fourth-round selection for the Eagles who's been playing high-quality reps for them as of late, and Penn State's Grant Haley doing similar stuff for New York, and you've got a decent defensive profile for the 2018 class.

But this year looks super stacked -- at all three levels. The defensive line boasts of Boston College EDGE Wyatt Ray, who I think has a higher ceiling than fellow BC EDGE Zach Allen; Terry Beckner Jr., the Mizzou DT with quick hands and some good closing burst. I think both of them could be Day 2 picks, while Temple DT Michael Dogbe and Virginia Tech DT Ricky Walker are both Day 3 role players who could impress with strong weeks.

Linebackers? Even better, I'd say! Cody Barton out of Utah is one of my favorite sleeper backers in this class, and while his running mate Chase Hansen got the Senior Bowl nod over him, I think Barton is the better player of the two. Staying in the Pac-12: the nation's leader in tackles Ben Burr-Kirven has an opportunity to show his open-field athleticism and prove to teams that he has an NFL role, whether that's at 4-3 WILL or box safety. And behind them all is the athlete question mark: that's Colorado's Drew Lewis, who has bounced from EDGE to WILL to SAM in his two years at Colorado -- can an NFL team make him into something more real?

Last but not least, the defensive backs are probably the weakest group -- that doesn't mean they aren't strong in their own right. Delvon Randall out of Temple is one of the better players there -- super smart player. Much like Barton and Hansen, I think the better of the Kentucky corners slipped into the Shrine Game in Derrick Baity; I think a potential high-ceiling TE eraser in Colorado's Evan Worthington could have a Dane Cruikshank-like rise across the week as well.

I think there are easily 15 draft picks across this defensive roster. That's a great number for Shrine.

And of course...DaMarkus Lodge

I'm mostly including him so that Ledyard doesn't kill me. Not really -- cause Lodge is actually good -- but I just know he'd never let me forget it if I left Lodge off here.

I've yet to complete a formal evaluation of Lodge, but from what I've seen on broadcast film he does have clean releases off the line of scrimmage and good elevation ability down the field. While Ole Miss doesn't ask for many multi-break routes from him, he seems to have clean footwork and change-of-direction ability as well.

If he is all that Ledyard claims him to be, he should make mincemeat of the corners in St. Petersburg and put the pressure on the Senior Bowl to call him up. I will say, I think Lodge's presence could lead to us sleeping on some other exciting skill position players who are there, such as Fresno WR KeeSean Johnson and Nebraska RB Devine Ozigbo.