College Bowl Game Preview for Top 2014 NFL Draft Prospects
For college football fans, the bowl season truly makes December and January "the most wonderful time of the year."
For NFL draft gurus, however, it's time to get to work. Instead of having all of these top prospects spread out at different times (or at the same time!) and on channels even the best satellite dish can't always pick up, this is almost every top prospect, in the spotlight, against other good teams!
It's more comparable to finals time that students have to go through. Draft aficionados will be marked by the copious amounts of notebooks and pencil shavings around their work stations. Or, maybe more clearly, by the caffeine overload that is sure to set in well before New Year's Day.
So, to help you prepare for the joyous (yet work-filled) occasion that is the college football bowl season, here's a primer—position by position—of the top picks, when they play and what you should look for in each game.
1. Teddy Bridgewater (Louisville)—Russell Athletic (Dec. 28), vs. Miami
The draft's top quarterback prospect gets a solid matchup against the 58th-ranked scoring defense in the nation (72nd in passing defense). Miami may be coming off two straight wins, but Louisville's talent is far more comparable to the Florida State, Virginia Tech and Duke squads that handed the Hurricanes three straight losses before that.
This game should be a great opportunity for Bridgewater to show off his myriad skills. Look for just enough athleticism to elude the pass rush and maybe pick up a first down or two with his legs. The accuracy is what you really want to watch for, as he should be hitting receivers in stride en route to a Louisville victory.
2. Derek Carr (Fresno State)—Royal Purple Las Vegas (Dec. 21), vs. USC
If you came into the season thinking that Fresno State would be bowling against USC and have just as many big-name NFL draft prospects, we need to plan a trip to Vegas together.
Carr has shot up draft boards with one of the strongest arms of any QB prospect and fully passes any "eye" test that is thrown at him. The concern, both here and in draft prep, is his pocket presence. Derek is already light years ahead of his older brother, David, but that comparison could sink him in NFL circles if he doesn't prove to be more comfortable in the pocket.
3. Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M)—Chic-fil-A (Dec. 31), vs. Duke
The NFL doesn't just look for quarterbacks; it looks for passers. Duke is bringing the country's 70th-ranked pass defense to the party, which should give Manziel all the opportunity in the world to showcase his NFL-quality arm and prove that he doesn't need his legs to survive.
Manziel has made leaps and bounds as a prospect this season. This bowl game could do a lot to cement top-15 (if not top-10) status for the polarizing young man.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Blake Bortles (Central Florida)—Fiesta; Tajh Boyd (Clemson)—Orange; AJ McCarron (Alabama)—Sugar; Zach Mettenberger (LSU)—Outback (inj.); Jimmy Garoppolo (Eastern Illinois)—Division II playoffs
1. Lache Seastrunk (Baylor)—Tostitos Fiesta (Jan. 1), vs. UCF
Seastrunk was my top back before the season, and although he didn't do a ton to solidify that status, neither did his peers. More and more, this is looking like a year with no first-round back, and the combine may end up settling who goes first.
Against UCF's 13th-ranked rush defense, it will be tempting to pass, pass, pass—which, frankly, is what Baylor wants to do anyway. Seastrunk will be tasked with getting his yardage through the air or on draw plays. He needs to find ways to break out in the open field. Otherwise, he could drop down this list in a hurry.
2. Ka'Deem Carey (Arizona)—AdvoCare V100 (Dec. 31), vs. Boston College
Carey is a favorite prospect of many, and it's not difficult to see why. He's multitalented and well-rounded as a back (increasingly a rarity these days) and he runs hard for his size. His draft status will be defined by how teams feel he performs in the open field. Look for shiftiness in between breaks, and some of what I call "natural" running. If teams feel he's a linear athlete, he could drop.
Neither Arizona nor Boston College have great rushing defenses, so this bowl should be a great feature day for both star backs (Andre Williams, BC).
3. Tre Mason (Auburn)—BCS National Championship (Jan. 6), vs. Florida State
Florida State has a top-15 rushing defense, so it's going to be tough sledding for Mason in the BCS National Championship Game. However, if he has a solid day, it is more than possible for him to rocket to the top of this list, as no back has the soaring draft stock that Mason has right now.
You know that "natural" running ability I talked about? Mason has it in spades. He's quick in and out of his breaks and brings plenty of shake to the table. Watch how quickly his feet go up and down—almost piston-like—as he changes directions and finds space where others would give up.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Carlos Hyde (Ohio State)—Orange; Bishop Sankey (Washington)—Fight Hunger; Andre Williams (Boston College)—AdvoCare V100; DeAnthony Thomas (Oregon)—Alamo
Not in a Bowl: Charles Sims (West Virginia)
1. Sammy Watkins (Clemson)—Discover Orange (Jan. 3), vs. Ohio State
There's a good chance that Watkins is the only receiver in the top 15 this spring, and he can certainly solidify that status with a great game against an athletic Ohio State defense. OSU is overmatched, as the 104th-ranked pass defense in the nation, but Urban Meyer is going to spend a month making sure Watkins doesn't take over this game.
For Watkins, that means just doing what he does best—making big plays and turning even the shortest of completions into big yardage. Watch how fluid he is, both before the catch and after it, and you'll see why NFL teams love this kid.
2. Marqise Lee (Southern California)—Royal Purple Las Vegas (Dec. 21), vs. Fresno State
If you can take your eye off the ball during this matchup, you'll appreciate some of the finer points of Lee's game that keep him among the top prospects even though USC has had a disappointing past couple of seasons.
Route-running—it's a rarity in the college game. At least more than it used to be, as top receivers aren't asked to run the full complement of routes that NFL receivers must master to succeed. Lee, on the other hand, is a polished prospect and can get good separation where others might not.
3. Mike Evans (Texas A&M): Chic-fil-A (Dec. 31), vs. Duke
Evans faces some concerns from scouts about his physical makeup. He's a tall (6'5"), big-bodied (225 lbs.) receiver whom some coaches might look at as an on-the-move tight-end prospect more than a receiver. For comparison's sake, Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiver Vincent Jackson is roughly the same size but was able to run a 4.46 at the combine. If Evans runs in the 4.5s or 4.6s, as some expect, it could magnify those concerns.
In the Chic-fil-A, however, he'll be able to showcase what I (and many others) love about him so much. He has some of the best ball skills not only in this draft class, but in a long time. Evans has that basketball background that a lot of scouts love, and it shows when he's in the air and can control his body better than most.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Davante Adams (Fresno State)—Las Vegas; Kelvin Benjamin (Florida State)—BCS Championship; Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt)—Compass
Not in a Bowl: Allen Robinson (Penn State)
1. Eric Ebron (North Carolina)—Belk (Dec. 28), vs. Cincinnati
The Jimmy Graham comparisons are justified.
I could end with that and you'd want to tune into the Belk Bowl, right? This kid is a stud who has been lost in the shuffle a bit with a North Carolina team that just hasn't been able to utilize his talent to the fullest. That said, he's clearly one of the most explosive athletes on any given field on any given Saturday, and that should translate to Sundays.
2. Jace Amaro (Texas Tech)—National University Holiday (Dec. 30), vs. Arizona State
Amaro isn't a polished blocker, but Texas Tech doesn't ask him to be. And neither will NFL teams. As the NFL moves to more and more slot-tight-end hybrids, Amaro (and Ebron) have the skills that those teams are looking for, so don't get hung up on Amaro missing a block or two versus ASU.
Watch, instead, how smoothly he moves up and down the field and how cleanly he catches the ball. Scouts like to talk about "natural" receiving ability, and it's often simply the ability to snatch the ball away from one's frame rather than catching it by trapping it in your chest.
3. Austin Seferian-Jenkins (Washington)—Fight Hunger (Dec. 27), vs. BYU
Seferian-Jenkins might be the most well-rounded tight-end prospect of the top three and could appeal to teams looking for a three-down, traditional lineman if they don't plan on splitting him out. Though, don't get me wrong—Seferian-Jenkins can be a weapon in the passing game as well, just not as the elite matchup threat the other two project to be.
Pay attention to big moments in the game where Seferian-Jenkins will be depended upon the most as a security blanket. With sure hands and a big frame, he makes an attractive target on 3rd-and-whatever.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: C.J. Fiedorowicz (Iowa)—Outback; Marcel Jensen (Fresno State)—Las Vegas; Jay Prosch (Auburn)—BCS Championship; Jacob Pedersen (Wisconsin)—Capital One; Chad Abram (Florida State)—BCS Championship
1. Jake Matthews (OT Texas A&M)—Chic-fil-A (Dec. 31), vs. Duke
It used to be said that the biggest question for Matthews would be whether he could play the left side of the line, or if he would be relegated to the right. After a 2013 draft where many of the top picks ended up on the right, that may no longer be the concern.
Instead, simply watch how Matthews performs on an "island"—either man-up in the run game or against pass-rushers. This is a good matchup where Matthews should be able to use his considerable physical prowess to consistently win at the point of attack.
2. Taylor Lewan (OT Michigan)—Buffalo Wild Wings (Dec. 28), vs. Kansas State
Lewan has slid down some boards this season. Where once it was thought he could challenge for the top tackle spot, he may have trouble being even third or fourth if he doesn't test off the charts. It's such a packed second tier of tackles, that every moment counts—even the B-Dubs Bowl.
He played well against Ohio State, and KSU is an even easier matchup. Pay attention to Lewan's initial punch. He should be able to maintain separation and not let rushers into his frame. Even if he keeps Devin Gardner upright, struggling in any way could be another red flag.
3. Cyrus Kouandjio (OT Alabama)—Allstate Sugar (Jan. 2), vs. Oklahoma
The lineman parade out of Alabama continues, as Kouandjio may be one of the best athletes (at lineman) that the school has produced in recent memory. He can play multiple places on the line, but he will probably end up testing well enough to be entrusted with the blind side at the next level.
Alabama will want to run, but Oklahoma has a top-30 rushing defense. So expect Kouandjio to be a very important part of the game plan as the Crimson Tide will look to open up rushing lanes behind him early and often.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: David Yankey (OG Stanford)—Rose; Xavier Su'a-Filo (OG UCLA)—Sun; Cedric Ogbuehi (OT Texas A&M)—Chic-fil-A; Cameron Erving (OT Florida State)—BCS Championship
Not in a Bowl: Antonio Richardson (OT Tennessee)
1. Louis Nix (Notre Dame, injured)—New Era Pinstripe (Dec. 28), vs. Rutgers
At 357 pounds, Nix is going to appeal mostly to teams looking for a big-bodied nose tackle for their 3-4 defense. Even 4-3 defenses that use a traditional 1/3-tech setup may feel Nix isn't a good fit. His better-than-advertised athleticism could make those teams think twice, however.
He'll be sitting out the Pinstripe Bowl after undergoing season-ending knee surgery in late November.
2. Will Sutton (Arizona State)—National University Holiday (Dec. 30), vs. Texas Tech
Sutton has an intriguing skill set, and a violence to his game that makes him stand out on tape. That said, at only 6'1", he's got almost the opposite size problem as Nix. If he had the same production and were a little better, he could be a top-five pick. Instead, scouts openly wonder if he'll be able to hold up well in the pros.
Against Texas Tech's "Air Raid" offense, however, he won't have to consistently worry about downhill running. Instead, he should have plenty of opportunities to flash his penetration ability and at least disrupt the passing game. Don't just look at sacks. If he can pressure or knock down the passer a few times, it could change the look of this game in a hurry.
3. Michael Bennett (Ohio State)—Discover Orange (Jan. 3), vs. Clemson
Bennett plays a lot of nose when Ohio State drops to a 3-4, but that's not what teams want to see. No, they'll want to see him wreaking havoc in the backfield as a penetrating 3-tech as he was able to do against Michigan time and again.
Bringing down Tajh Boyd is easier said than done, but Bennett might actually have a chance to be the top tackle taken in the draft if he plays well in the Orange Bowl.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Ra'Shede Hageman (Minnesota)–Texas; Anthony Johnson (LSU)—Outback; Aaron Donald (Pittsburgh)—Little Caesars; Timmy Jernigan (Florida State)—BCS Championship
Not in a Bowl: Daniel McCullers (Tennessee)
Defensive End/Rush Linebacker
1. Jadeveon Clowney (DE South Carolina)—Capital One (Jan. 1), vs. Wisconsin
Everyone, and I mean everyone, should be watching how Clowney holds up against the Badgers offensive line. It's not just about individual physical matchups, but Wisconsin is known for pumping out solid linemen with great technique who don't fall apart at the end of games.
Meanwhile, Clowney has had his conditioning questioned quite a bit this season, and if the Badgers wear him down, Clowney could find himself having to restate his case as this year's top pick.
2. Anthony Barr (OLB UCLA)—Hyundai Sun (Dec. 31), vs. Virginia Tech
If one defensive player can take that shot at Clowney, it's going to be Barr, who has been drawing a lot of legitimate Von Miller comparisons of late because of his ability to play stand-up linebacker, cover, pursue against the run and still rush the passer at a high level.
It'll be important for Barr to finish against Virginia Tech. Logan Thomas is a big boy, so Barr will have to make extra sure to not just get to the Hokie quarterback, but to finish the job when he gets there.
3. C.J. Mosley (OLB Alabama)—Allstate Sugar (Jan. 2), vs. Oklahoma
If you're the top defensive player on Alabama, it's possible to just walk into the top 10 of the draft, but Mosley doesn't let up. He'll be looking to prove that he should be top five, or even higher! With his polished rushing moves and awesome athleticism, it's possible that he could be the one-man wrecking crew teams are looking for. Then again, who needs one man when you have the entire Alabama front coming after you?
Watch Mosley in space, as he's drawn high grades in that regard. He can play a number of linebacker positions at the next level, so teams will want to see him defend the pass once in a while. Mosley should do well against Oklahoma.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Michael Sam (DE/LB Missouri)—Cotton; Khalil Mack (DE/LB Buffalo)—Idaho Potato; Ryan Shazier (LB Ohio State)—Orange; Vic Beasley (DE Clemson)—Orange; Stephon Tuitt (DE Notre Dame)—Pinstripe
1. Chris Borland (Wisconsin)—Capital One (Jan. 1), vs. South Carolina
For my money, Borland is the most instinctual linebacker in the country. What he lacks in terms of athleticism, he makes up for by rapidly diagnosing plays, getting to the point of attack and (most importantly) shedding blocks once he gets there. Borland is the kind of linebacker who can rack up 10 tackles in a hurry.
South Carolina is averaging over 200 rushing yards per game this season, and Borland will be a big part of keeping the Gamecocks under that mark.
2. Shayne Skov (Stanford)—Rose (Jan. 1), vs. Michigan State
Skov, like Borland, is known more for what's above his shoulders than the measurables. He's not going to wow anyone with his 40 time or vertical leap, but he will gain plenty of fans with his game film and in meeting rooms.
Michigan State is a physical team on both sides of the ball...so is Stanford. This is one of those old-school matchups that purists love to see. If Skov and his lauded motor hold up through four quarters here in the Rose Bowl, he could easily see himself taken above Borland in the spring.
3. Christian Jones (Florida State)—BCS National Championship (Jan. 6), vs. Auburn
Jones can play multiple linebacker positions and is a tremendous athlete. Because of that, he could get a combine boost above both of those guys currently ranked higher than him on my board. The question, on the field, is if he can consistently find his way through traffic and not get held up at the point of attack.
Against Auburn and its top rushing offense, that is no easy task.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Max Bullough (Michigan State)—Rose; Lamin Barrow (LSU)—Outback
Not in a Bowl: A.J. Johnson (Tennessee); Yamin Smallwood (Connecticut); Andrew Jackson (Western Kentucky)
1. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu (CB Oregon)—Valero Alamo (Dec. 30), vs. Texas
More and more, colleges are asking their corners to play man coverage, and even press coverage—much to the delight of NFL scouts, as those are far more the norm on Sunday afternoons. As such, prospects like Ekpre-Olomu have been able to showcase the skills that will eventually serve them well in the pros.
In this one, watch how Ekpre-Olomu performs if he's unable to jam his receiver effectively. It happens, but what sets great corners apart is the ability to stick with their man and not resort to the type of grabbing and tugging that gets called more frequently at the next level.
2. Darqueze Dennard (CB Michigan State)—Rose (Jan. 1), vs. Stanford
Another press corner, Dennard has long arms and great athleticism that could help him excel in any NFL scheme. Against Stanford, he'll be asked to be a feature in the run defense as well—something he has no trouble doing.
Scouts I talk to want to see more big-play ability from Dennard, however. He's good enough to consistently pick off errant passes and jar loose balls, but they just want to see more of it. If he picks up some game-changing plays against Stanford, it could be enough to turn the tide in the Spartans' favor, and solidify Dennard as a top corner.
3. Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix (S Alabama)—Allstate Sugar (Jan. 2), vs. Oklahoma
A big part of Alabama's success on defense is the football IQ of "Ha Ha" in the secondary. There is, literally, no better friend to a 3-4 defensive coach than a safety who can still make plays even when the rush doesn't get there. For Clinton-Dix, a career in the NFL would be possible even if he weren't a phenomenal athlete.
Oh, but wait. He is.
Against Oklahoma, watch him fly up the field after dropping back at the snap. We call this "click-and-close" ability. His change of direction is so powerful that he can lay vicious hits on ball-carriers, even after dropping back to defend the pass off the snap.
Other Top Prospects to Watch for: Bradley Roby (CB Ohio State)—Orange; Justin Gilbert (CB Oklahoma State)—Cotton; Lamarcus Joyner (S/CB Florida State)—BCS Championship; Kyle Fuller (CB Virginia Tech)—Sun.
Not in a Bowl: Jason Verrett (CB TCU).
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