The NFL Draft season truly starts ramping up when the best seniors in the country head to various All-Star games across the country to get poked and prodded. A week of practices run by NFL coaches, official measurements, and interviews with teams. A week at the East-West Shrine Bowl or Senior Bowl can be the catalyst for draft buzz, or it can turn a prospect into just another name on a big board full of them.
With prospects from the Power Five, Group of Five, FCS, Division II, and U Sports (Canada’s highest level of collegiate sports) heading to Las Vegas for the Shrine Bowl, it’s the perfect opportunity to get a closer look at some of the top senior talent in the 2023 NFL Draft and uncover some hidden gems.
With the East being coached by the Atlanta Falcons and the West being coached by the New England Patriots, these prospects will also have the chance to get up close and personal with pro coaches while helping their stock. Prospects like San Francisco 49ers quarterback Brock Purdy, Detroit Lions pass rusher James Houston, Kansas City Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco, and LA Rams cornerback Decobie Durant come out of the Shrine Bowl last year—point is, starting NFL talent will be found in Vegas.
This year, Eric Galko, the director of football operations and player personnel for the East-West Shrine Bowl, and his staff have put together a loaded group on defensive, especially on the defensive line and at cornerback where multiple prospects will be drafted. These are the top prospects to watch at each defensive position on the East and West rosters (checkout the offensive prospects here).
Interior defensive line
East- Keondre Coburn, Texas (6-2, 344)
This season saw the NFL push back a bit against the pass-happy mantra of modern football and saw more and more teams take advantage of two-high safety looks by running the football up the middle. A lot of teams had prioritized pass rushing interior defensive linemen and didn’t have the girth up the middle to stop the run, the 2023 NFL Draft could see teams look to fix that.
With teams reverting back to valuing big run plugs, nose tackles have seen a resurgence in value across the league which bodes well for Texas’ Keondre Coburn. There are few players bigger and stronger than Coburn who started 45 games for the Longhorns while racking up 95 tackles, 15 TFLs, and 6.5 sacks.
Although Coburn won’t add a ton on passing downs, he’s an old-school space eater with the width and strength to take on doubles and keep his linebackers clean. Coburn plays with consistent leverage and power at the point which allows him to anchor down and clog gaps.
Despite being limited as a pass rusher, he can push the pocket with a bull when needed, Coburn is the definition of a two-gapping nose tackle who can play 15-25 snaps a game to stop the run. The Shrine Bowl is a great place for Coburn to show he’s got enough athleticism and stamina to be worthy of a Day 3 selection.
West- PJ Mustipher, Penn State (6-4, 318)
On Day 3 of the NFL Draft the name of the game is finding useful football players—quality depth, rotational pieces, developmental traitsy prospects, special teams contributors, etc. Having defensive linemen who can rotate in and play quality snaps is huge, and there’s quite a few prospects who fit that bill at the Shrine Bowl this year.
One of them is Penn State’s PJ Mustipher, a 28-game starter for the Nittany Lions who cracked the rotation as a true freshman in 2018. A solidly built interior defensive lineman, Mustipher has been a huge part of Penn State’s defense the last few years with 144 tackles, 10.5 TFLs, and 3 sacks while playing both 1-tech and nose tackle.
Mustipher makes his money as a run defender with his ability to hold the point using power and leverage to occupy blocks without giving up ground. He’s also capable of making run stops himself with his strength on display when stacking and controlling offensive linemen with his vice grip hands to help cause pile ups on inside runs.
For Mustipher, one-on-one’s at the East-West Shrine Bowl will provide him with a chance to show improvements as a pass rusher and that he’s more than a pocket pusher. If he can do that, he could move himself up from being viewed as a late selection in the NFL Draft.
East- Ochaun Mathis, Nebraska (6-5, 260)
The Shrine Bowl, and other All-Star games, can be a springboard of sorts with a strong week of practice against other NFL Draft prospects being the first building block of the pre-draft process. It can create buzz for an unknown prospect or help reignite the stock of a once brand name player, Nebraska’s Ochaun Mathis is hoping to do the latter in Las Vegas.
Mathis, a TCU grad transfer, left the Horned Frogs after a coaching change despite putting up 129 tackles, 25.5 TFLs, and 12.5 sacks from 2019 to 2021. He was one of the marquee names in the transfer portal and viewed as a potential top-100 pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, but a quiet season (48 tackles, 5 TFLs, 3.5 sacks) in Lincoln didn’t do him any favors.
Even after a forgettable year with the Cornhuskers, Mathis still showed flashes of big-time talent, albeit in small bursts. His length, twitch, and effort frequently led to almost big plays this season, but he was also asked to play multiple positions (5-tech, 3-4 outside linebacker, and stand-up edge) and never looked comfortable. On top of that, he wasn’t playing consistent snaps being used more as a rotational player and not given the chance to get into a rhythm.
Mathis is a big boom or burst prospect, but when he’s on he looks every bit the NFL Draft prospect people thought he was when he hit the portal. His explosion off the ball and ability to run the arc create all kinds of problems for offensive tackles and he’s able to use his length to set a strong edge and even stack and shed to make plays against the run.
At TCU, and at times with Nebraska, his body control, bend, and ferocity when hunting quarterbacks looked like that of a NFL starter. Few players at the Shrine Bowl will be as physically imposing as Mathis and the one-on-one’s present a perfect chance for him to lean on his athletic gifts to embarrass offensive linemen.
West- Habakkuk Baldonado, Pittsburgh (6-5, 260)
While the East roster at the Shrine Bowl is stacked with proven pass rushing talent, the West roster is full of athletic specimens at the position waiting to prove themselves. Chief among them is Pittsburgh’s Habakkuk Baldonado who followed up his breakout junior campaign in 2021 (12 TFLs, 9 sacks) with an injury plagued senior year (5 TFLs and 2 sacks in 9 games).
Baldonado is still relatively new to the sport after moving from Italy to Florida in 2017 and playing just one year of high school football. A raw athlete, it’s not hard to understand why he took to football so quickly with his frame and explosiveness.
The best part about Baldonado’s game is his first step quickness, he’s usually the first one off the ball and that allows him to quickly get into offensive tackles chests. Though he’s stiff and lacks bend, his straight line speed when paired with his active hands and length can cause all sorts of issues for linemen. As a run defender, he plays with his hair on fire and is a willing edge setter, but can be prone to getting out of position when trying to make a play.
Baldonado has a shockingly deep bag of pass rush moves (swipe, swim, chop) for a raw prospect, but must continue to develop his timing and violence with them. To really elevate his game, and his draft stock, he needs to show a more consistent pass rush plan and counter moves when his first doesn’t work during one-on-one’s in Vegas.
East- Anfernee Orji, Vanderbilt (6-2, 230)
Last year alone the Shrine Bowl had four off-ball linebackers selected in the NFL Draft (Micah McFadden, Chance Campbell, Tariq Carpenter, and Baylon Spector), and the feather in the Shrine’s cap was undrafted rookie Jack Sanborn turning into sensation for the Chicago Bears. Contributing linebackers will be found in Las Vegas this year, and the best bet to be selected is Anfernee Orji.
Vanderbilt’s leading tackler the last three seasons, Orji has been the best player on a couple bad Commodores teams and hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. With 269 tackles, 21 TFLs, and 3 sacks in his career, Orji quickly jumps off the screen when watching Vandy.
With legit range and solid take on skills, Orji plays sideline-to-sideline against the run and is constantly around the football, but needs to improve his instincts and be more consistent shedding blocks. What makes him such an exciting Day 3 prospect though are his fluid hips and quick feet in coverage, he’s so natural dropping into zone and reacting to what’s in front of him; not surprising considering he’s a former safety.
For a prospect with physical traits like Orji, he can get scouts talking in Vegas by showing out in one-on-one coverage drills against tight ends and running backs. Teams looking for an athletic Will linebacker with special teams upside will love what Orji brings to the table.
West- Drake Thomas, NC State (6-0, 230)
One of the best ways to stand out in an All-Star game setting surrounded by other NFL Draft prospects is to bring the most aggression to the drills. Good luck finding any player at the Shrine Bowl more aggressive than NC State’s Drake Thomas.
Thomas, a three-year starter, was the leader of talented Wolfpack defense the past few years while finishing his career in Raleigh with 292 tackles, 46 TFLs, 19 sacks, and 4 interceptions. He’s the definition of a ball magnet, no matter where the play went he seemed to find himself involved thanks to his hustle and instincts.
Known for big hits, Thomas is one of the best thumpers in the class and hits running backs like a car crash, but his physicality and lack of length can lead to missed tackles at times. Seeing him trigger downhill to fit the run is a sight to see; he often puts himself in position to make a play by reading his keys before attacking.
Although he’s explosive coming forward, Thomas wasn’t asked to do too much in coverage at NC State because of his ability as a blitzer; his natural leverage, violent hands, and first step made him a terror off the edge. The Shrine Bowl will allow teams to see how he looks dropping in zone and reacting to what’s in front of him; it’ll also allow him to match up with tight ends and running backs one-on-one.
The biggest knock on Thomas is his lack of size, but a strong week at the Shrine Bowl proving he can hold up in coverage and clean up his take on skills could volt him into the mid-to-early Day 3 conversation. At minimum, he has the makeup of a special teams star.
East- Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson, TCU (5-9, 180)
Last year the Shrine Bowl had a loaded group at cornerback, including Jack Jones, Damarion Williams, Decobie Durant, Ja’Sir Taylor, Dallis Flowers, and Sam Webb; all of them made an impact as rookies in the NFL. This year cornerback is another strength in Vegas, especially on the East roster.
Although TCU’s Tre’Vius Hodges-Tomlinson leads the East group, Louisville’s Kei’Trel Clark, Texas’ D’Shawn Jamison, and LSU’s Mekhi Garner are all big-time Power Five players, while Western Kentucky’s Kahlef Hailassie, San Jose State’s Nehemiah Shelton, and Coastal Carolina’s Lance Boykin are three of the best from the Group of Five.
What separates Hodges-Tomlinson is his consistency as one of the best cornerbacks in the country the last three years, he even won the Jim Thorpe as a senior this season. Over his four years with the Horned Frogs, he broke up 36 passes to go with 5 interceptions to prove his ball production.
Most comfortable playing off coverage, Hodges-Tomlinson is at his best in zone where he trusts his eyes and has the quickness to close on passes. His footwork also shows up in man coverage where he has the ability to mirror receivers and carry them vertically.
With plenty of positives on tape, including a willingness to play the run as a force player, Hodges-Tomlinson can use the week at the Shrine Bowl to answer questions about his size and playing the ball in phase against larger receivers (he struggled with DPI at times when matching up on the outside). His lack of length and height will be a sticking point that pushes him into Day 3, but everything is there for him to be viewed as a top nickel in the 2023 NFL Draft.
West- Cameron Brown, Ohio State (6-0, 192)
After having Jeff Okudah, Damon Arnette, Denzel Ward, Marshon Lattimore, Gareon Conley, and Eli Apple selected in the first-round between 2016 and 2020, Ohio State looked like the next cornerback factory. Since then, a few Buckeyes cornerbacks have garnered buzz, but none have lived up to it.
Former blue-chip recruit Cameron Brown was once viewed as the next one, but injuries and inconsistent play stopped the fifth-year senior from ever reaching those heights. Still, he managed to start 15 games in Columbus and the flashes were there.
Brown’s at his best playing press-man coverage when he just focusses on who’s in front of him. He leans on his light feet to mirror receivers and his fluid hips to turn and run with them in man, but can struggle to find the ball in phase which leads to him being too grabby. When playing zone, he’s got the quickness to react and attack, but it’s just about putting himself in the right place and not taking false steps.
The Shrine Bowl practices are hugely important for Brown to show his smooth cover skills in one-on-one’s to prove he can grow into the player many thought he would be at Ohio State. A big week in Vegas for Brown could be the difference between being selected on early Day 3 of the 2023 NFL Draft or going undrafted.
East- Bennett Williams, Oregon (6-0, 205)
The recent trend in the NFL of playing bigger receivers in the slot to attack undersized nickel corners has led to a need for more size, or at least physicality, at the position. There are quite a few prospects in the 2023 NFL Draft labelled as “safeties” who more or less moonlight at the position while playing far more snaps down low at nickel, one of them is Oregon’s Bennett Williams.
A Freshman All-American at Illinois in 2017, Williams spent two seasons in junior college before landing in Eugene during the pandemic-shortened season. After starting two games that first year, he earned the starting nickel job in 2021 before an injury forced him out. This season, he finally broke out with 72 tackles, 6 pass break ups, and 2 interceptions in Dan Lanning’s first season at the helm.
Williams possesses the size and physicality of a safety, but the cover skills and instinct of a nickel which has allowed the Ducks to utilize him closer to the line of scrimmage against slots while not giving up too much against the run where he’s a strong force player. He’s rarely out of position and plays with patience and balance in coverage excelling in off-zone where he can read and react to the quarterback.
With his willingness to play the run, cover versatility, and communication skills (he’s frequently seen signalling to his defensive backs to get everyone set), he’s going to have defensive back coaches fired up in Vegas.
West- Trey Dean III, Florida (6-3, 207)
There’s usually a handful of players that attend the Shrine Bowl who look like they were created in a lab to play in the NFL. Height-weight-speed athletes with the traits to be NFL starters if they can put it all together, often those prospects didn’t have the most consistent collegiate careers. Trey Dean is an outlier.
Dean, a four-star recruit turned 40-game starter and five year contributor for Florida, was a key cog on the Gators defense for years finishing his college career with 255 tackles, 13.5 TFLs, 18 pass breakups, and 4 interceptions. He lined up everywhere from cornerback to nickel to deep safety to box safety; a true do it all defender.
With his length and physicality, Dean is at his best around the line of scrimmage where he can be utilized like an extra linebacker against the run who has the ability to handle tight ends in coverage.
He’s got terrific take on skills and doesn’t shy away from fitting the run, but more importantly, he’s a tight end stopper with his size and athleticism being perfect for matching up with big pass catchers. That’s not to say he can’t play two-deep, he’s got the eyes and instincts to make plays in zone and the fluid hips to change directions and carry routes deep.
Dean is among the most talented and experienced players heading to the Shrine Bowl, a strong week of one-on-one’s could really create the buzz he needs in a deep safety class; he has a chance to be one of the biggest winners.