Are you warming up for the Senior Bowl? Are you cracking your knuckles and stretching your hamstrings for the twelve-round title bout that is draft season? Do you have a list — that I'm sure you've checked twice — of NFL prospects you would like to watch over the next three months?
Shame on you, then, because the Shrine Bowl has already passed you by.
The Shrine Bowl is more than just the Senior Bowl's little brother. A steady flow of NFL-worthy talent get to show off this week, and with that comes highly-drafted players. In each of the last three drafts, a top-100 pick has come from the Shrine Bowl roster. Trey Pipkins, the development offensive tackle out of Sioux Falls, who went to the Chargers in the third round of last season; Miami's EDGE Chad Thomas to the Browns in 2018 and Joe Thuney, now a top-flight starting guard in New England, from NC State in 2017. Back in 2014, two players broke the century mark: Jimmy Garoppolo and John Brown. Both have continued to rock it in the league since.
While the Shrine Bowl certainly has its fair share of players that won't get drafted, it has some important top talent as well. After a few days of practice, it isn't hard circling the best of the best. The players that I think are comfortably NFL caliber from this year's group include:
- Ohio State WR Binjimen Victor
- Washington OT Jared Hilbers
- Michigan iOL Michael Onwenu
- Utah iDL John Penisini
- Fresno State LB Mykal Walker
But that's an incomplete list missing two critical names. The first is Khalil Davis, a Nebraska defensive tackle who has dominated the entire week and will likely get a few sacks come Saturday. The second is Alex Highsmith, the Charlotte EDGE who checks every box in terms of size, strength, speed, agility and bend — oh, and his rush moves are sick.
It's easy to figure out the top players; it's hard to figure out the top player. TDN’s Kyle Crabbs made the case for Highsmith being the top one off the board, that elusive top-100 player. Now, I'm making the case for Davis and why I think he is the Shrine Bowl's best bet for a Day 2 selection. It starts with sacks.
Sacks are the best. NFL coaches just love them. They're drive killers, turnovers waiting to happen. They improve field position, galvanize the defense and aren't nearly as susceptible to luck or good fortune as interceptions and fumbles are.
Davis had eight sacks in the Big Ten this year. That tops among all Big Ten defensive tackles and is the ninth-best in the conference overall. Davis was a rotational player on Nebraska’s line before this season, in large part because he was struggling to find his ideal playing weight and density. Davis was closer to 295 pounds his junior year, but bulked up to 315 for his senior season and tipped the scales at the Shrine Bowl at 308. The difference in mass is critical. Davis has retained his quickness but increased his strength and anchoring ability against double-teams.
Why was he ever at 295? In Nebraska, Davis plays from the 3-4 defensive end spot, often rushing from a 4i-technique that best mirrors his eventual 3-technique deployment in the NFL. On base downs, Davis was initially responsible for run support and two-gap techniques, which minimize the advantages of his penetration ability; and 3-4 defensive ends ideally play at 290 while 4-3 defensive tackles play 310.
Davis is also not a long player. His wingspan measured only 31 inches at the Shrine Bowl to again demonstrate he's not well-built for that 3-4 DE role. Davis needs to be a penetrating 1-gap player at the NFL level, and that's what the Shrine Bowl has allowed him to do: show off that ability.
But even at an odd position and with disadvantageous responsibilities, Davis got those eight sacks. How? His hand usage is delightful, and his bend and hip mobility is surprising for a player of his density. Davis rushes with ideal natural leverage, attacking from a 6-foot-1 frame with aggressive and dynamic hands and an explosive first step. In one-on-ones, he regularly shocks his opponent back onto their heels with his long-arm bull rush and can relocate his drag hand to a hump move or forklift to finish at the depth of the quarterback. That's so critical.
He's not just a head-down bull rusher or a gap shooter with blinders on. Davis is aggressive and downhill. He's powerful and explosive, but he knows how to disengage from contact and end up at the quarterback. That's how you produce the way he did in his senior season.
Davis reminds me of Poona Ford, a 6-foot, 306-pound defensive tackle from Texas who dominated the Shrine Bowl, got called up to the Senior Bowl, looked solid there, but was undrafted in the 2017 class and ended up at Seattle. There, Ford won a roster spot and has been a dependable rotational piece on the Seahawks’ defensive front. Davis was the best player here, and if he gets the Senior Bowl call up, he could very well cement a high draft stock as teams avoid making the same mistake they did when they passed on Poona: ignoring a good pass-rusher just because he wasn't that tall.
Highsmith has gaudy senior year statistics and good film against lower-level competition; but Davis has bloomed late, peaking at just the right time to ride a strong pre-draft process into a quality combine and a top-100 selection. Book it now.