One of the more fun exercises at the end of the annual East/West Shrine Bowl is to stake your flag in the ground with a bold proclamation.
For the past several seasons, I've made a habit of trying to predict the highest drafted player from the event — with varying results. We've seen John Brown and Jimmy Garoppolo pass through in 2014 and guard Joe Thuney get called in the early third-round in 2017. We've seen former Miami defensive end Chad Thomas go in the early third-round in 2018 and Sioux Falls offensive lineman Trey Pipkins stun as a top-100 selection in 2019 — all as Shrine Bowl alumni. Garoppolo was a fairly straight forward call. Pipkins? Not so much.
Inevitably, there are a handful of players from Shrine Week who crash the party in the top 100 of the NFL draft each and every year. Who will be the lucky few to see their stock surge and surprise in 2020?
Allow me to build a case for Charlotte defensive end Alex Highsmith.
Highsmith is a former walk-on and over the course of his five years with the program, he has developed into a very legitimate talent as a pass rusher. Between Highsmith's final two seasons with the 49ers, he logged 17 sacks and 39 tackles for loss over a span of 25 games. Ignore the numbers, though. When you put Highsmith through the filters that draft prospects are put through, this is a player that checks a lot of the boxes you'll want to find from a next-level pass rusher.
Highsmith entered the week with a strong weigh-in, checking in at 6-foot-3, 247 pounds with 33 1/8 inch arms. At that size, Highsmith is at (or close to) every size threshold you could possibly hold EDGE prospects to. And as a player in Conference USA, Highsmith successfully checks boxes from a productivity standpoint as well — considering you'll want smaller school players to dominate the competition. But where do players need to pass with flying colors the most?
The tape. Always check the tape.
In the case of Highsmith, the tape tells the story of an explosive athlete who doesn't just run around people with bursts but actually shows next level skills with his hands. Highsmith offers good quickness in short spaces and illustrates the necessary bend and tilt to corner and attack quarterbacks with effectiveness. His explosion may get all the press, but one of his best qualities is his hands.
You can't block what you can't touch, and Highsmith presents challenges to offensive tackles with his varying counters to initial contact. Add in some savvy hand usage once he's engaged with blockers and it all adds up to a viable Day 2 prospect.
So why is Highsmith here? Typically the cream of the crop is reserved for the annual Senior Bowl. How did Highsmith slip through the cracks and end up with an invitation to the Shrine Bowl instead?
The EDGE class in 2020 is quite stout. Many of the top talents? You've guessed it, they're eligible for the Senior Bowl. So while Highsmith meets the thresholds you would expect an NFL EDGE, he also isn't prototypical build. Power Five prospects like Alton Robinson, Anfernee Jennings, Bradlee Anae, Kenny Willekes, Terrell Lewis and others all preempted his eligibility for the game.
In a lesser field of EDGE players, Highsmith is likely a probable invite and a candidate to surprise and rise. Depending on injuries, he may still get a call. But one thing that we do know is that Highsmith has the film, production and size to challenge for a top-100 pick.
Add in his status as a former walk-on who has had to grind for his place in the 49ers starting lineup and Highsmith has suddenly filled out quite the resume. One so strong it may well get called first out of this year's Shrine alumni, and others all preempted his eligibility for the game.
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