Each week, the East-West Shrine Bowl casts a very wide net when evaluating 2023 NFL Draft prospects. But which prospects impressed the most, and which prospects will garner particular consideration in the weeks to come? This week, Director Eric Galko divulges his thoughts on some of the more impressive players to this point.
Charlie Jones is the ultimate 2023 NFL Draft breakout prospect
Week 3 may not have had the high-level conference clashes and top-10 upsets of previous weekends. But for the scout mired in the 2023 NFL Draft evaluation process, it was another exciting showcase — where certain prospects took advantage of opportunities to rise.
Speaking on some of the more eye-catching performances from the previous week, Galko immediately lands on the Syracuse-Purdue contest. Syracuse ultimately came out on top in a close battle, but Galko was quick to mention two players on the Boilermakers’ offense.
“That Aidan O’Connell-to-Charle Jones connection was my favorite part of the weekend.”
Galko lauded O’Connell’s poise and confidence, rallying back to give the Boilermakers a chance after throwing a bad interception. When Purdue was down 10, O’Connell gave them an NFL QB drive in the eyes of Galko — moving the chains, making accurate throws, and connecting with his top target.
But that top target — Charlie Jones — is who draws the majority of the praise. And deservedly so. Jones came into his matchup with Syracuse with 21 catches for 286 yards and four scores through his first two contests. Playing against Garrett Williams — a future NFL cornerback with some Day 2 buzz — Jones didn’t miss a beat, catching 11 passes for 188 yards and an additional score.
Jones is now up to 32 catches, 474 yards, and five touchdowns through just three games — absurd numbers for a player who’s just now seeing premier usage as a WR after transferring from Iowa. Jones was the East-West Shrine Bowl’s Breakout Player of the Week. Galko says that Purdue is a match made in heaven for the former return specialist, and it’s no accident that he’s breaking out with the Boilermakers.
“It’s the fact that he and O’Connell are on the same page,” Galko said. “Their timing is impeccable for a guy who just got there. Their timing together, plus O’Connell being the QB that he is — I think Charlie’s in perfect position. There’s not a program in the country that he could be drafted higher at, than he would be drafted playing at Purdue.”
“It’s a perfect situation, but I think it’s also a good example of — you know, not many guys change their stripes. We talked about it a couple weeks ago. But for Charlie, he’s able to do stuff in this offense — particularly, play Z-receiver, move around the alignment, do a lot of different route combinations, set up, and go as a vertical runner. He didn’t do that a whole lot, or enough, in the last offense he was in. But with this offense, he can. So he’s getting a chance to show a side of him that isn’t new — it just hasn’t been shown yet.”
Jones — appropriately nicknamed “Chuck Sizzle” by announcer Gus Johnson — has been unleashed at Purdue, with his usage, and with the chemistry that he and O’Connell share as childhood friends. But none of this is to diminish the tools that Jones himself possesses. Jones isn’t just a product of his system, Galko says. He’s a legitimate 2023 NFL Draft prospect with a very translatable method of success, who is rightfully soaring up boards with his play.
“He’s going to get Cooper Kupp comparisons. It’s probably not necessarily right, as far as who the player is, but I think we forget who Kupp was at Eastern Washington,” Galko explained. “He showed a lot of these things that Charlie is showing — great at the catch point, surprisingly good after the catch, controls his speed very well, can get vertical on the outside and in the slot. A lot of the stuff that Kupp did, Charlie Jones is doing now.”
“I’m not saying they’re the same player, but I am saying that, in today’s NFL, we can’t under-appreciate the way Charlie Jones is winning and how much he’s winning. It’s going to translate. He’s going to be an NFL receiver. The question is: How good will he be, or what’s his role going to be? I would rather be over-aggressive on Charlie Jones’ expectations in the NFL. He’s been outstanding.”
Rashee Rice battling Jones for biggest riser mantle
Jones has been phenomenal, but he’s not the only receiver prospect putting up eye-popping numbers. Halfway across the country, in Dallas, Texas, SMU’s Rashee Rice has been dominant.
Rice’s numbers are nearly identical to Jones’ — 491 yards and three touchdowns, but on four fewer catches. He’s averaging 17.5 yards per catch and is coming off an 11-catch, 193-yard showing against a Maryland defense with quality NFL draft talent.
Production can be a great indicator for NFL-caliber receivers. It’s the case with Jones, and Galko says it’s the case with Rice as well. But what’s most impressive with Rice — Galko says — is that he’s winning as a route runner, at the catch point, and as a vertical threat. He’s SMU’s guy. Everyone knows it. And yet, no one can stop him.
“He’s being targeted as a receiver in that SMU offense more than any FBS receiver in the country. When it’s a passing play, it’s going to him almost 50% of the time,” Galko said of Rice. “Defenses know it’s going there. His yards per route run is high, which means he’s generally going deep. And yet, he still has 15-yard catches. He still has 21 of 28 catches being first-down catches. Usually, these big-play receivers have lower catch totals, bigger yards, high yards per reception. But Rice is the No. 1 receiver, who’s also their best deep threat, who’s also their best third-down receiver. And that’s pretty rare.”
In the words of Galko, this is where film and analytics — often contentious factions when draft season rolls around — can merge and join forces to paint a complete picture of a prospect. On film, Rice dominates. And in different categories, the numbers mirror his impact on tape. Rice’s emergence for the Mustangs has made many, including the Shrine Bowl staff, reconsider his projected role at the NFL level.
“We entered the year thinking Rice was a very good complementary No. 2 receiver, but he has resoundingly told us that ‘hey, this guy can be a featured receiver in an NFL offense, with the way he’s playing,'” Galko concluded. “If he has these numbers at the end of the year, it would be historic. If he can keep up being this targeted and this successful on first downs, this effective vertically, he’s on track to eventually become, undeniably, one of the top receivers in the draft class.”
Another transfer making the most of his opportunity
When pondering the question of which transfer has helped himself the most this season, it’s hard to come up with a different answer than Jones. His move from Iowa has resulted in an astronomical rise just three weeks into the 2022 season. But moving farther into the conversation, Galko also has another name in mind on the defensive side of the ball: Michigan State outside linebacker Jacoby Windmon.
Before playing at Michigan State, Windmon was at UNLV. His best season with the Rebels came in 2021 when he put up 119 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 6.5 sacks. Just three games into the 2022 season, Windmon already has 6.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks, along with four forced fumbles.
It’s safe to say he’s made an impression on the Shrine Bowl staff. Galko says there may be discussions about what his specific role is in the NFL. But his combination of athleticism and production is worth banking on.
“What is he in the NFL? He’s a playmaker who sacks the quarterback in the NFL. He did it at UNLV, and he’s done so at Michigan State. He has 5.5 sacks already, and four of them were in that Week 1 game. He jumps out as a guy who, in his current role, might be overthought. That’s where we have analytical processes, too.
“Athleticism matters a lot for pass rushers. Separately, elite-elite production — a certain threshold we have, using pressures and on-ball production — that matters, too. When guys have both, it’s very, very rare that those guys aren’t special players.”
Windmon still has to sustain his production across the season, especially in Big Ten play. But the 6’2″, 250-pound edge rusher has already made his mark. Particularly in Week 1, his ghost move was unstoppable — a move fueled by Windmon’s rare combination of burst and bend capacity. He’ll have to add more to his game beyond finesse, but Galko likes the trajectory Windmon is on.
“I think for guys like Windmon, the way he’s going to test athletically, plus if he has 13 sacks this year — we could debate his nuances all the time, but great athletes and great producers make good football players. I think that’s what Windmon is going to end up being for teams.”
Banking on traits with a rising Oregon edge rusher
For edge rushers, which are dubbed as creator positions by Galko, banking on natural traits is very important. That’s a movement we’ve seen strengthened in recent cycles, with prospects like Maxx Crosby and Micah Parsons developing into NFL stars on the edge. That’s a sentiment that’s echoed with Galko’s praise of Windmon, and also of another ascending edge rusher — Oregon’s DJ Johnson.
If you’re looking to bank on traits, Johnson certainly has them. He was named on the Feldman Freaks list this past summer — a long 6’4″, 275-pound defender with a near-23 mph maximum speed, a 455-pound bench press, and a 655-pound sumo deadlift. He’s big, he’s athletic, he’s strong — there’s little that Johnson lacks in the way of traits. And after a strong showing against BYU, Galko is confident that the arrow is pointing up for the converted tight end.
“I think he was always a ‘wait and see’ guy,” Galko explained. “He had a grade on him in the preseason, but I think we were all collectively like ‘hey, we can’t grade on what we haven’t seen yet.’ But we were pretty confident his grade was going to be wrong in about three weeks. We said that as a staff, too. That was absolutely the case.”
Galko emphasizes that Johnson is still raw and still getting better. He only has one sack to this point and can ultimately be more productive. But especially against BYU, Johnson’s promise was on full display. Galko references a play where Johnson was able to use his bend and burst to get around the edge, his motor to work through two blockers, and the strength to finish as a tackler in pursuit of QB Jaren Hall.
“He’s got the long arms. He’s a plus athlete. He can bend, he’s got upper-body strength,” Galko continued. “When you say the sky is the limit, sometimes you can over-do that for players. But for edge rushers, where athleticism and motor and body type can matter so much, sometimes if you just have those three things — even if you have no pass-rush moves — you can figure it out.”
“That was Ezekiel Ansah at BYU way back when. He didn’t always have a plan, but he was just so big, so athletic, could bend, and had a high motor, that he was of course going to figure out. And he goes first round, top 10.
“I’m not saying Johnson is going to be Ansah — they’re very different players. But my point is that, as he starts showing a little bit of pass-rush repertoire — if he can develop by the end of the year a true outside arm-under move and counter off that, working back and forth with a couple moves to go to, the sky could really be the limit. He’s got the talent to grow into a featured pass rusher in the NFL.”
Most importantly for Galko, even beyond the projection of Johnson’s tools, is how Johnson will be perceived by coaches. In a callback to a comment from Shane Coughlin, looking at prospects through the lens of developers, Galko says that Johnson doesn’t need to be perfect. All he needs to do is convince NFL teams and coaches that “hey, we can work with that kind of guy.” Natural tools and a hot motor put him in good standing on that front.
“And again, he has reason to be getting better. He’s a former tight end who changed his position,” Galko added. “He’s not underdeveloped. He’s just raw, and he’ll definitely get better in the future.”
Hunter Luepke stands out among FCS prospects in Week 3
Circling around to the FCS level, there were several prospects who drew attention with their Week 3 performances. But perhaps no one did more to boost his stock on the FCS stage than North Dakota State H-back Hunter Luepke.
In a near-upset of Power Five opponent Arizona, Luepke rumbled for 115 yards and two touchdowns on 18 carries. He also caught three passes for 65 yards and an additional score.
Galko took notice of Luepke’s performance, and in fact compared his skill set to a 2022 Shrine Bowl alum, draft pick, and emerging fullback at the NFL level — former Purdue standout Zander Horvath.
“Hunter Luepke has been very impressive,” Galko said. “Last year at the Shrine Bowl, we had Zander Horvath, who was very similar in terms of what his value was. Horvath has two touchdowns in two games with the Chargers — both receiving touchdowns out of the red-zone packages. He’s got seven receiving yards for two touchdowns, but that’s not an accident. It’s not a gimmick. He’s very good at that catching out of the backfield, finishing as a receiver, working through contact. I think Luepke has that too.”
Luepke’s draft projection is ultimately a bit more complicated, given his position. He’s a fullback, and while Luepke does have capability as a runner, he might not be a scheme fit for every team. But those teams that do need him, or do have use for his talents and versatility — Galko says — could make a point to acquire him with capital. Luepke is already doing a good job of marketing his variability.
“Talking about draft psychology, teams that love him and the value he provides could take him as that second third-round player. For teams that don’t view him as a fit for their offense — he may be a sixth or seventh-round guy. But Luepke has already been his team’s best running back. He’s one of the team’s best receiving weapons. And I think he can have multiple roles in the NFL.”