For consensus top 20 draft prospects the college all-star game circuit is something they usually choose to avoid. Few agents let college prospects with locked down draft stock risk injury. For those whose college career may not have been as high profile or failed to pan out as well as they had hoped, college all-star games in the pre-draft period can help to put an NFL hopeful on the map.
Such was the case last year for two Bills players aspiring to reach the NFL level and secure a spot on a roster.
Duke Williams felt he had a college career productive enough to certainly get himself drafted. His measurables were also draft worthy, but playing at the University of Nevada his games weren't seen much by any NFL personnel evaluator east of the Mississippi. Williams wanted to expand his level of exposure in the hopes of boosting his draft stock in the process.
That's why when the East-West Shrine game committee extended an invite he jumped at the chance to participate.
"I had aspirations of going to the Senior Bowl, ultimately I got invited to the Shrine game," Williams said in a recent appearance on the John Murphy Show. "As far as the game and how it went, there were great players at the Shrine game."
Williams, who later got an invite to the Senior Bowl as well, felt the intensity of the practices and the game were higher at the Shrine game.
"The Shrine game has more of the underdogs who are overlooked by teams and those guys are really hungry and they really have a chip on their shoulder and they want to prove themselves," he said. "So it's a dog fight at the Shrine game. It was really good competing with those guys in practice and in the game and seeing their talent and comparing your talent level. It was a great experience all around."
The Shrine game week was the first time he came into contact with several NFL scouts including one from the Bills.
"I think it was one of the first or second scouts to talk to me. It was a brief conversation. It wasn't in detail at all," Williams recalled. "The scout knew about me and he asked me if I thought I could play different positions at defensive back. He felt I had the ability to do that. He got my height and weight and contact information. It was the quickest meeting I had."
Though Williams had just one tackle in the game, he felt his performance during the practice week is what carried the most weight. His biggest challenge was getting through the week and the game for the East-West Shrine contest and then traveling to Mobile after getting a late Senior Bowl invite the following week.
"I flew from St. Petersburg to Mobile that very next week so I had an extra, extra long offseason playing in two all-star games, but it was worth it," said Williams, who ultimately was drafted in round four by Buffalo and appeared in all 16 games for the Bills this past season.
For Jeff Tuel the college all-star game was even more obscure. He received an invite to the fledgling NFLPA bowl, which had only gotten off the ground the year before. Tuel however, was not in a position to be picky. After a star-crossed college career that was interrupted by injuries, as well as a coaching change heading into his senior season, he was never able to maximize his talent on the game field at Washington State.
"As soon as I got the invite I accepted it because I was trying to get to one of those games and get as much exposure I could," Tuel told Buffalobills.com.
For quarterbacks the college all-star games are among the toughest to pull off because you're immersed in an offense that you could be unfamiliar with and you're throwing to receivers that in most instances you have not worked with before. Tuel didn't focus on those drawbacks.
"Shoot it was just playing football," he said. "I didn't pay too much mind to building real relationships with receivers. You throw routes on air a few times, but that's not enough to really know what guys are going to do when the bullets are flying. You've just got to go play ball and that's what I did. I felt very comfortable running that offense. It's very similar to some of the things that we do now. It just worked out well for me. It was a good day."
Working under National Team head coach Dick Vermeil, Tuel focused on mastering the playbook for the week and it paid off. During his time on the field he capped a drive with a nine-yard touchdown pass to Xavier Boyce and went 8-for-8 passing in the game for 64 yards.
"We got playbooks and coach Vermeil was real serious about it," Tuel said. "We had some in depth plays so I was in my playbook every day. I went into the game knowing what was going on. That was huge for me because if you know what's going on you can make plays."
Even though Tuel went undrafted his phone was ringing as the draft came to a close. Ultimately he chose to sign with the Bills and was so effective in training camp and the preseason that the Bills felt he couldn't be hidden on the practice squad. Would his NFL opportunity have been different had he not participated in the NFLPA bowl? That's a hard question for even Tuel to answer.
"It's tough to make predictions like that so I don't know," he said. "I think the NFLPA game did a lot of good things for me and gave me a lot of exposure and got a lot of eyes on me, which is what it's designed to do. It's up to the player to take advantage of it or not, and I just had to take advantage of it. I felt any opportunity I had to get in front of scouts the better, so I took it very seriously and there were definitely a lot of scouts at that game so it was a great opportunity for me."