The Shrine Bowl‘s early additions in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle have been announced, prompting a flurry of excitement. We’ve talked about several of the Shrine Bowl’s acquisitions already in previous calls — among them Boston College WR Zay Flowers, Houston QB Clayton Tune, and Purdue CB Cory Trice. But here are a few more additions that have both onlookers and the Shrine Bowl staff itself buzzing.
Brenton Cox Jr. Brings Talent and Intrigue to Shrine Bowl
The Shrine Bowl has had no shortage of high-profile signings thus far. But the most well-recognized addition to the Shrine Bowl roster, aside from maybe Flowers, has to be edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr., formerly of Florida.
The spotlight has followed Cox, dating back to his high school days. He was a five-star 2018 recruit from Stockbridge, Georgia, who signed in-state with the Georgia Bulldogs — known for being perennial defensive juggernauts. But a tumultuous offseason in 2019 led Cox to transfer to Florida, joining the Gators in 2020 after sitting out 2019 due to transfer rules.
At Florida, Cox morphed into a stalwart contributor on the field, amassing 32.5 tackles for loss and 13.5 sacks in three seasons, with a career-high eight sacks in 2021. But his career with the Gators was suddenly cut short late in 2022 when it was announced that he was dismissed from the program.
It was shortly thereafter that Cox declared for the 2023 NFL Draft and joined the Shrine Bowl’s roster.
Naturally, character will be a topic of discussion with Cox. Cox’s 2019 offseason included a misdemeanor arrest for marijuana possession, and his dismissal at Florida came shortly after punching a Georgia player during the teams’ Oct. 29 matchup.
It’s important not to shy away from the issue of maturity — and that’s something Shrine Bowl Director Eric Galko makes clear when talking about Cox. But he also says, to truly get to know a young player — who he is, and who he can become — you have to go deeper.
“I’ve talked to Brenton multiple times now,” Galko said of Cox. “I think, for me, it was important to know who Brenton is.”
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For Galko, and for NFL teams as well, the issue of character isn’t necessarily about who a player has been, or what a player has done. Situations with criminal implications are a notable exception. Aside from that, it’s truly about deciphering what a player can become, and for NFL teams, what they can be with more maturation, development, and a professional focus.
“If I’m an NFL team, at the very least, I want to learn more about the story,” Galko continued on Cox. “Personally, I think he’s a guy who’s been in some unique situations. Some room for maturation — he’ll admit that. But also some unique situations that led to where he’s at. I think there’s a range of outcomes where he finishes the year out at Florida very strong, and he ends up being an early-round draft pick like we think he is on film.”
Those outcomes ultimately won’t come to fruition after Cox’s dismissal. But for Galko, that’s where the next leg of the process begins — not just giving Cox a platform to shine at the Shrine Bowl, but also giving him and other prospects a chance to talk first-hand with NFL teams and tell their stories.
“The real benefit of why we put so much time, with a lot of great NFL feedback, into our interview process at the Shrine Bowl is because, for some players, that’s way more important than the field,” Galko said.
“Cox is going to be really, really impressive during the week of practice on the field, but I think NFL teams are going to be dying to talk to him at that length in the interview process. And we make sure there is plenty of interview time. So I told Brenton: ‘Take care of business on the field, but make sure NFL teams know accurately — not a script — what they want to know about your story.’ Be honest, be truthful, and I think NFL teams will appreciate that.”
Galko mentions Jack Jones from the previous Shrine Bowl class — a cornerback from Arizona State who was typecast as a player with character issues for a mistake he made in his past. But as teams got to know him through the interview process, both his potential, and how he’d changed since, became clear. He earned a chance with the Patriots, and now he’s thriving in the NFL. Galko says Cox has a similar opportunity coming his way.
“I don’t want to compare Brenton to Jack — they’re different backgrounds,” Galko concluded. “But I think the interview process can help bring to light players who were misunderstood, and I’m proud the Shrine Bowl has a great process to do that.”
Robert Beal Represents the Georgia Defense in Las Vegas
Cox wasn’t the only SEC defensive end to join the Shrine Bowl roster this past week. Galko and the staff also announced the addition of Georgia’s Robert Beal — a former four and five-star recruit at various outlets.
Beal was, in fact, a teammate of Cox’s at Georgia early on. Unlike Cox, who was a steady producer upon reaching Florida, Beal at times struggled to sustain a consistent role with the Bulldogs. He was a rotational defender in 2018 and 2019, and primarily a special-teams player in 2020. Beal then exploded in 2021, however, leading a national championship-winning defense in sacks with 6.5, to go along with 7.5 TFLs.
Beal’s 2021 campaign was a career-defining season. But the mass exodus of first-round talent put the scope on Beal in 2022, and his production declined. With the 2022 season over halfway complete, he has yet to log a sack. But for the Shrine Bowl, there’s enough on tape already to know that Beal has the talent worth investing in.
Galko says that the Shrine Bowl staff had eyes on Beal last year when he was thinking about declaring. Beal ultimately chose to return to school, and while his numbers have gone down, it’s not souring the Shrine Bowl’s outlook on his potential.
“I think the important thing for Robert is, he has been a good player,” Galko started. “He has shown a lot of talent, and that talent didn’t go anywhere. It’s not like he had a catastrophic injury. He just hasn’t had the same kind of opportunities in the past. And I think teams know that maybe a year ago, he wasn’t as focused on by offenses, too.”
Without Travon Walker, Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, and others to draw attention, Beal hasn’t seen quite as many isolated looks. But looking at the frame, the athleticism on tape, and the flashes of promise, Galko has confidence that Beal can become an NFL player.
“Robert has ample talent to play in the NFL, and we’re very confident in Robert’s ability,” he exclaimed. “I think he’ll have more sacks at the Shrine Bowl during the week of practice and the game than he had this past season at Georgia, and I think it’s because he has immense talent, and an opportunity like this is what it’s all about.
“Instead of having too much production against lesser competition, he’s had enough production, but not played enough snaps against elite guys. I think he’ll find that right balance at the Shrine Bowl.”
Charlie Thomas Ushers in a Playmaking Presence at Linebacker
One of the very first Shrine Bowl acceptances announced was that of Georgia Tech linebacker Charlie Thomas. For some prospects, production is an issue. For Thomas, it’s a resounding strength.
Thomas has been one of the ACC’s most prolific playmakers, particularly over the past two seasons. Yet, in truth, his name’s been a constant on the stat sheet for five years.
Across a five-year stretch with the Yellow Jackets, Thomas has 298 tackles, 35.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks, four interceptions, five pass deflections, seven forced fumbles, and six fumble recoveries.
Across the past two seasons alone, Thomas has 167 tackles, 19 TFLs, five sacks, and four picks to his name. In 2022, he’s notched a career-high 97 tackles, nine TFLs, two deflections, two forced fumbles, and two fumble recoveries — among other accolades.
With all of his production, Thomas’ projection will be an interesting one. At 6’2″, 208 pounds, he’s visibly underweight at the LB spot. There’s a sense that, with his natural coverage ability, perhaps a hybrid safety role may be in his future. But Galko isn’t stressing over how Thomas will project. For him, it’s as simple as this: He’s one of the best linebackers in the nation.
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“For us, it was like: ‘You know what, we can figure out the weight and versatility stuff later. But we want to invite the best senior linebackers.’ He consistently makes plays, he’s not bad at taking on blocks. He can get around guys, he can knife through and finish tackles, and he can obviously play in coverage and space.”
Thomas’ weight will be a question mark — and Galko says that he’s talked to Thomas about adding mass to his frame. The issue of positional flexibility may also be a topic of discussion at a later date. But Galko says, in a space-dominated modern NFL, there may be a place for Thomas’ current skill set.
“Five years ago, I worried about weight a lot with players. But we’ve seen at receiver, at tight end — maybe measurables don’t matter as much now that the game is so much about spacing and isolation. It’s better to have really good athletes who can make plays in space.
“I believe a lot in Charlie as a linebacker. I think he can be a starter right away in the NFL. And there are multiple teams who think the same thing — that this guy can develop, if not be an NFL starter in their scheme. The safety questions will be there for some teams, but I don’t want to typecast Charlie as a position convert. I think he can play linebacker early in his career.”
Jose Ramirez a MAC Star Set To Make Himself Known
The Shrine Bowl provides a platform for some of the nation’s best seniors to show off their talent in front of NFL evaluators. That experience isn’t exclusive to Power Five prospects. Case in point: Eastern Michigan edge rusher Jose Ramirez.
Ramirez joined the Shrine Bowl’s roster this past week. Being from the MAC, he’s not going to be a household name right away on the 2023 NFL Draft stage. But the 6’2″, 251-pound pass rusher has been one of the most productive defenders in college football over the past two seasons.
He had 6.5 sacks and 11 TFLs in 2021 and upped his totals to nine sacks and 16 TFLs in 2022.
For Ramirez, the elite production is a nod to his enticing skill set and execution in the trenches. His success at Eastern Michigan is reminiscent of 2021 Pro Bowl edge rusher Maxx Crosby.
Galko is very bullish on what Ramirez can do in Vegas.
“He’s going to win a lot of one-on-ones at the Shrine Bowl,” Galko said plainly. “He’s a really quick guy on the edge. Those one-on-one drills are set up for guys like Jose Ramirez.”
With his size, Ramirez likely isn’t going to be a 4-3 DE for many teams. But his ability to generate pressure at such a consistent clip can be invaluable in a 3-4 OLB role. The exciting part — Galko says — is that he’s still just scratching the surface. More work with a defensive line coach could further unlock his potential.
“He has the bend and the flexibility to add so many more pass rushes to his repertoire,” Galko expanded. “He’s not some stiff, one-dimensional power rusher. He can make plays in space, and I think part of the reason he hasn’t had even a lot more sack production is, there are some wasted steps and hand movements.
“If he cleans those up, he can be a really efficient speed rusher off the edge. And talking to NFL teams — everyone needs three pass rushers, minimum. Every team wants good speed rushers, and Jose is not far off from being a good one in the NFL.”
LaDarius Henderson Exudes Early-Round Upside
What’s distinct in the Shrine Bowl’s early additions is the amount of potential early-round talent present. Flowers at wide receiver is the headliner, but offensive guard LaDarius Henderson is another Shrine Bowl prospect with early-round upside.
Henderson hasn’t succinctly declared for the 2023 NFL Draft just yet. But Galko says — whether he comes out this year or next — Henderson has a place on the Shrine Bowl roster. Not only is he a quality prospect in the immediate timeline, but his upside is nearly unmatched in the entire guard class.
“He has ideal, if not rare, measurables for a guard in the NFL,” Galko said of Henderson. “When you have a lot of length like he does, his upside is absolutely fantastic. He has the ability to move in space and finish as a pass blocker, work against stunts and delayed linebackers with his length. He can channel all those things.”
Much like Ramirez on the defensive side, Henderson is just scratching the surface. Despite being a senior with multiple years of starting experience, as well as snaps at both tackle and guard, Henderson is incredibly young. He won’t be 21 years old until just before the Shrine Bowl.
There’s an abundance of prime years and growth potential with Henderson. Combining that with his elite tools, it’s hard not to get excited.
“NFL teams I’ve talked to have shared the same thing,” Galko went on. “Some teams like him as a starter, some teams say he’s more developmental and can work a couple spots. But everyone is saying he can be an impact starter before he’s 24 years old. That’s a really exciting thing: That this guy could play in the league for 15 years and be an NFL starting guard for 14 of them, because of how young he is and how many tools he has.
“Why’d we select him? Because he’s really good, and it’s pretty obvious on film — but I’m really excited to see him through the draft process because he’ll be able to win against all types of defensive linemen during the week of practice.”
Purdue Tandem of Aidan O’Connell and Payne Durham Poised To Impress
Less than two dozen Shrine Bowl acceptances have been announced to this point. But already, three Purdue players have joined the fray. On defense, cornerback Cory Trice was recently announced. But the tandem of Aidan O’Connell and Payne Durham will draw particular attention from teams looking for offensive talent.
Together, O’Connell and Durham have forged a prolific combination with the Boilermakers. It was incredibly distinct in the team’s win over ranked Illinois earlier this month, when Durham had seven catches for 70 yards and two scores. But they’ve been doing this for a long time, and they’ll get a chance to keep doing it in Vegas.
O’Connell, at times, feels overlooked in the 2023 NFL Draft QB class. But for Galko, he brings all the operational tools you need to have a quality NFL quarterback.
“O’Connell reminds me so much of Jimmy Garoppolo and Kirk Cousins as a quarterback,” Galko extrapolated. “Both those guys have started a long time in the NFL, but both those guys are really smooth operators in the pocket, have a really quick release. You can clean up a few things with Aidan for sure, but I would rest easy at night if Aidan O’Connell was in my QB room. I think a lot of NFL teams think the same there.”
O’Connell’s story at Purdue is inspiring. A former walk-on, he worked his way into not only securing a roster spot but eventually earning a starting opportunity. When he had that opportunity, he ran with it, earning All-Big Ten honors in 2021 and carrying his production into 2022. Galko says O’Connell’s mentality is a definite strong point, but that’s not all he brings.
“I think he’ll have a great Shrine Bowl. Not only in the interview room, but he’ll be really impressive, because he can adapt to all types of receivers very, very quickly,” Galko expanded.
“I was actually talking to Aidan and one of his QB coaches the other day — I remember seeing Garoppolo and Derek Carr side-by-side at an all-star game. I remember watching Carr and how impressive he was physically, but watching Garoppolo get to his spot cleaner, get the ball out quicker, and get it there on time. While some guys might have stronger arms than guys like Garoppolo and O’Connell, Aidan’s a guy who can get the ball out quicker with decisiveness and play with great anticipation, too.”
We’ve seen what O’Connell and Durham can do together with their timing and chemistry. O’Connell’s own accuracy and consistency help maximize Durham’s gifts. But Galko also makes a point to give Durham his respect as a 2023 NFL Draft prospect in his own right. Durham has been great in 2022 — boxing out undersized linebackers and safeties, winning on five-yard routes, and blocking with force.
“I haven’t spoken to a single NFL team that doesn’t like Durham,” Galko relayed. “They vary on grades, but everyone says that can play in our offense tomorrow. I think Payne is one of the safest tight ends in this draft class, and I think he and Aidan will have a lot of fun together.”
There’s still a lot of work left to do before the Shrine Bowl’s 2023 roster is settled. But already, there’s a lot of cause for excitement. And as more prospects come into the fold, that excitement will only grow.