Cotton Bowl: NFL Prospects to Watch in Clash Between Oklahoma and Texas A&M
While most eyes in Friday's Cotton Bowl will be focused on quarterback Johnny Manziel and how he handles the Heisman Trophy spotlight, NFL scouts will be lasered in on the Texas A&M Aggies and Oklahoma Sooners that will be playing on Sundays next season.
Obviously, there is plenty of pre-draft hoopla still remaining for the players. There are All-Star games, individual workouts, pro days and combines where players consistently work to boost their draft stock, but the Cotton Bowl will be each player's last chance to leave an impression in an actual game.
It may seem trite to put such emphasis on an individual contest, but there have been countless instances where players have improved or torpedoed their draft stock in bowl games. In other words, the Cotton Bowl matters. A lot.
With that in mind, let's check out a few top prospects worth watching in Friday's contest.
Luke Joeckel (OT, Texas A&M)
Widely regarded as the best offensive tackle prospect in the 2013 draft, Joeckel should have an opportunity to once again establish his dominance on Saturday.
The Sooners' front seven has been a massive weak spot all season, and they have especially struggled getting to the quarterback. Heading into the bowl season, Oklahoma has just 24 sacks, which is tied for 69th in the FBS. Considering the team plays in the pass-happy Big 12, that number is indicative of a team-wide struggle to create penetration.
Even though the Sooners pass rush isn't scaring anybody, Joeckel will get the best they have to offer in Chuka Ndulue. A redshirt sophomore, Ndulue had five sacks this season and is one of the rawest physical talents on Oklahoma's roster. The Nigerian immigrant had never played football before moving to the United States at age 12 and still struggles mightily at times with basic football awareness.
Nevertheless, he possesses the type of raw power and speed that Joeckel will see regularly on Sundays. The junior tackle has handled himself brilliantly against elite defensive lines like LSU during the regular season, so he's ability is unquestionable.
It will just be nice for scouts to see Joeckel excel on the big stage once again and give scouts another reel of top-notch film. Look for the Texas A&M stud to be drafted inside the top five in April's draft.
Landry Jones (QB, Oklahoma)
We go from an Aggies star that very few are questioning to Jones, of whom very few know what to expect at the next level. The Sooners legend certainly has plenty of game tape under his belt, having been the starter in Norman for each of the past four seasons.
Nevertheless, Jones' career has slowly plateaued over the past couple of seasons. Once considered (arguably) the best returning quarterback in the nation in 2011, Jones has descended into relative obscurity.
His numbers in 2012 obviously were great. Jones finished with 3,989 yards and 29 touchdowns against 10 interceptions, but was overshadowed in the Big 12 by West Virginia's Geno Smith, Kansas State's Collin Klein and Baylor's Nick Florence this season. In fact, Jones finished seventh out of 10 Big 12 signal-callers in quarterback rating.
Despite the downtick in statistics, Jones is still considered the fifth-best quarterback in this draft class, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc. Though that may seem like a positive sign for Jones' future, there is such a jumble of varied evaluations that every single snap he takes on Friday will be micromanaged.
A brilliant performance against Texas A&M's vaunted pass defense and Jones could leap ahead of Arkansas' Tyler Wilson and even North Carolina State's Mike Glennon on some rankings. That would put him as high as the second-round area on some draft boards.
However, if Jones falls flat on his face, things could get ugly real quick. Tennessee's Tyler Bray, Florida State's E.J. Manuel and a couple others are all in that evaluation jumble, and Jones could become the sixth or seventh quarterback off the board with a disappointing game.
To put it mildly, there's a ton of money that could swing somewhat based on Jones' performance. NFL teams aren't going to use a one-game sample size to make their decisions, but it's important that Jones reminds them why he was once so highly touted.
Damontre Moore (DE, Texas A&M)
One guy hoping to make Jones' game a living nightmare is Moore. The scintillating junior defensive end has already declared for April's draft, and with good reason. Moore finished the 2012 campaign with 12.5 sacks, which led to him being named an All-American by a plethora of difference publications.
What's more, he's considered the best defensive end and second-best overall prospect in the 2013 class, according to ESPN's Scouts Inc.
In his final collegiate game, Moore will get quite a test. Oklahoma has given up only 14 sacks on the season, which ranks 17th in the nation and was third in the Big 12. Though that's mostly due to the Sooners' quick-read passing attack rather than brilliant offensive line play, it could be difficult for Moore to make a big impression.
Considering a Kyle Van Noy-esque performance could vault Moore into the No. 1 overall discussion, the Sooners' penchant for quick passes is something to consider. And if Moore noticeably struggles in any way, we could see his draft position (somewhat) adversely affected.
Moore may be the best defensive end in the class, but there are a bunch of guys nipping at his heels. LSU Barkevious Mingo and Florida State's Bjoern Werner both grade out as top-10 draft picks, and the latter has gotten some strong buzz inside the top five.
Barring something unforeseen, Moore will go inside the first five picks regardless of how he plays Friday. However, his performance could ultimately help decide whether that's pick No. 2 or pick No. 5. In the world of high-class NFL draft prospects, that means a whole lot more than us regular folks will ever know.
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