In a very short amount of time, the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl has become a focal point of the draft process.
That's because since 2011, more than half of the major collegiate all-star games around it have folded. This year alone, the scouting community lost Texas vs. the Nation, Casino Del Sol All-Star Game, and the Raycom All-Star Classic.
The brunt of the impact from these closures has been felt by the draft prospects. Where before players and agents could leverage bowl invites against one another, many now must beg their way into a game. The void left in the wake of these closures turned a once thriving cottage industry into a desolate landscape, especially for unheralded prospects.
Fortunately for these players, the NFLPA bowl has experienced tremendous growth.
When first introduced in 2012, the NFLPA Bowl was forced to scavenge for talent, leaning heavily on players from small programs like Hampton and Fort Valley State. Now in its third year, the game features a slathering of big school prospects. Not coincidentally, the increase in team presence is unmistakable.
One agent remarked, "When I first sent a client here that first year, it wasn't even clear if every team sent a representative. Now, you can find two, three, even four scouts from a single team."
In actuality the team presence far exceeded just scouts. Kansas City Chiefs head coach Andy Reid attended practice over the course of the week, and it's likely that others joined him. For a fledging all-star game competing with the Senior Bowl, the East-West Shrine Game, and the Medal of Honor Bowl for talent and attention, Reid's appearance is validation that it's headed in the right direction.
As with any all-star game, the quarterback position generates the most hype and anticipation. Unlike its contemporaries, the NFLPA Bowl featured a whopping eight signal callers, ranging in notoriety from South Carolina's Connor Shaw to West Texas A&M's Dustin Vaughan. But with that many passers comes inevitable complications. Over half of the quarterbacks were limited to six passes or less, complicating the evaluation process. Only Hawaii's Sean Schroeder reached double digits attempts (17).
Collectively, the quarterbacks had a rough night. Of the National team's passers, only Connor Shaw consistently demonstrated poise, hitting on five of his six pass attempts. Unfortunately, Shaw's one miss resulted in an interception, forcing his defense to protect a short field. Both Louisiana-Monroe's Kolton Browning and the aforementioned Vaughan played undisciplined football, throwing into double coverages and taking unnecessary risks downfield. Browning's cavalier play led to an interception of his own.
The American team fared better, completing 60% of their passes. However, both Ohio State's Kenny Guiton and UNLV's Caleb Herring appeared overmatched, each displaying lazy footwork and an eagerness to run when the their primary target failed to get open. Missouri's James Franklin looked better equipped to handle the jump in competition, but he too misjudged the coverage and tossed a pick of his own. Only Schroeder showcased himself well, completing 13 passes for 138 yards and a touchdown. His only negatives were a few what-were-you-thinking passes that landed nowhere near a receiver, but none were in danger of being picked off.
More impressive were the running backs and receivers as each team producing multiple strong performances. Stanford's Anthony Wilkerson led all rushers in yards with most coming on a 27-yard scoring run. Wilkerson didn't appear any faster than his days with the Cardinal, but his size and low center of gravity allowed him to slip through multiple tackles. Teammate and Tulsa-alumnus Trey Watts looked similarly capable, albeit without the same amount of power in his running style. While the numbers suggest otherwise, Oklahoma's Roy Finch ran more like an Oregon Duck than a Sooner. He showcased elite quickness and an unmatched ability to juke out defenders, easily one of the standout performances of the night. Fresno State's Isaiah Burse shined brightest amongst the wide outs, producing the game's best catch on a 33-yard streak stopped just short of the goal line.
On defense, it turned out to be a better night for the front seven. Southern Mississippi defensive tackle Khyri Thornton frequently took up multiple blockers, displaying the fast hands and athleticism to pressure the quarterback. On the one occasion that the American team allocated just a single blocker to Thornton, he burst through for a sack. On the other side, Mississippi linebacker Mike Marry produced perhaps the game's best hustle play. Locked in one-on-one with Georgia's Dallas Lee, Marry bull rushed the left tackle right into Kolton Browning's lap, forcing a check down. Marry then chased down the receiver 10 yards away to make the tackle.
The low point of the evening came in the form of an ugly injury to Jared Biard. On a passing play in the first half, the Colorado State guard's right leg was pushed in the opposite direction of his body. He laid motionless on the field for several minutes before the medical staff and teammates helped him off the field. He would not return. While the injury appeared to be a severe knee injury, the early diagnosis is a dislocated kneecap. With a little luck, Biard should be back on the field in a matter of weeks.
Ultimately, the NFLPA Bowl will be judged by how much NFL talent it can gather. While still trailing the more heralded Senior Bowl and Shrine Game in that regard, the NFLPA's all-star game certainly featured a solid collection of future pro players. That's a credit to Director of Recruiting Tony Softli and regional scouts Jerry Shay, Johnny Meads, and Josh Buchanan. They've assembled best group of players the NFLPA Bowl has showcased in any of its three years of existence. In future seasons, the game will garner more attention from the NFL teams, and by consequence even more NFL talent.
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