Wednesday marked the final day of padded practices in St. Petersburg, Flordia, for the East/West Shrine Bowl.
It was the final opportunity to leave a strong impression on the scouts in attendance with practices going forward more walkthrough in nature. Yes, there is still a game to be played Saturday, but the NFL isn't likely to stick around for that — the practices are where the valued takeaways come.
It meant Wednesday morning's East practice held a little extra intensity as players pressed to do what they could to sear their names in NFL personnel’s memory. For some? Mission accomplished. Others would probably like a mulligan on their final note at Tropicana Field.
Who was able to rise to the occasion? The practice was divided into a plethora of sessions with star performers in each and every one.
Bag Drills: Alex Highsmith, EDGE, Charlotte
Speed, flexibility and explosion were the questions surrounding Alex Highsmith entering the week. We knew he had them, but how would they translate to the All-Star circuit? As it turns out, pretty darn good. Highsmith was the best of the defensive linemen, not just on the bags but overall. Yet the bags are where his traits shined the brightest.
Highsmith ran steep angles on the arc better than his contemporaries and impressed with his quickness accelerating out of the turn as well. He's had a great week.
Red Zone 1-vs-1: Aaron Parker, WR, Rhode Island
If you're looking for a small-school winner this week, look no further than Aaron Parker. He reminds me wide receiver KeeSean Johnson, who was a standout at last year's Shrine event. Parker doesn't have the most prominent burst, he doesn't have the most dominant size, but he's a smooth operator as a route runner. He also showed really strong ball skills throughout the course of the week. That came to a head Wednesday when Parker hauled in several impressive catches that tested his radius in the back of the end zone during the red zone one-on-ones.
Team Session: Mike Danna, DL, Michigan
Mike Danna has prospered all week banging heads with the East's outgunned interior offensive line which will call into question exactly what Danna could be at the next level. He's a natural athlete and flashed in the first team period with pass rush disruption as a speed package interior rusher. I’m not sure he's a permanent player in any specific role at this point — a dilemma that may ultimately impact his draft stock. But there's a foundation here that can be worked on and the team session was Danna's exclamation point. He was routinely slashing into gaps and flashing across the quarterback's face.
Pass Rush 1-vs-1s: Michael Onwenu, OG, Michigan
If there was one interior lineman on the East roster that wasn't outmatched, it would be Michael Onwenu, who continues to be one of the biggest winners of the week. His anchor ability was evident as he challenged rushers in the one-on-ones. Onwenu recruits his lower body power so well and shows pleasantly nimble feet to keep his base established when fighting off contact. Pair that anchor ability with his 34 1/2 inch arms and he is a rare consistent winner in the pass rush one-on-ones at the All-Star event.
Red Zone Team Simulation: James Morgan, QB, Florida International
James Morgan, for my money, had his best day of practice and strung together several confident throws that grabbed your attention relative to the other quarterbacks in attendance. Each of the other QBs seemed timid in the red zone passing, passing over tight windows, seemingly in fear of ball security inside the 20. Morgan? He laced a high throw over the middle and allowed his receiver to make a play. He also showed good zip and anticipation at the top of route stems to drill throws into other receivers in tight coverage. If you're looking for an NFL talent amid the Shrine quarterbacks, Morgan made his case today in the congested red zone.
Two Minute Drill Simulation: Tommy Stevens, QB, Mississippi State
The other two Shrine quarterbacks didn't get their possessions into the end zone during the two-minute series — Morgan's offense stalled out in field goal range on fourth-and-7 and Kevin Davidson's possession saw a long field goal come up short. Tommy Stephens got a boost for his series. He started about 50 yards closer to the goal line due to the period seemingly being short on time. The good news? Stephens lofted a touchdown pass and subsequently pulled a zone read and ran to the corner for another score in his abbreviated possession. Points are king, which makes Stephen the winner of the drill.
How much does that boost his questionable draft status? Not a lot, but it was good to see Stephens — the last quarterback to go — step up and make some plays.