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2014 NFL Draft: Prospects with Most at Stake in College Bowl Games

Dan HopeContributor IIIDecember 12, 2013

2014 NFL Draft: Prospects with Most at Stake in College Bowl Games

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    UCF quarterback Blake Bortles will take the spotlight in the Fiesta Bowl against Baylor.
    UCF quarterback Blake Bortles will take the spotlight in the Fiesta Bowl against Baylor.Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

    For the players of the 70 college football teams set to play in them, college football's bowl games could be a prime opportunity for NFL draft prospects to impress scouts and large audiences in nationally televised games.

    While that opportunity may be greater for a Florida State or Auburn player in the BCS National Championship Game than it may be when Washington State and Colorado State open bowl season with the New Mexico Bowl, the 2013 bowl season is full of potential first-round draft picks from its first day (Fresno State quarterback Derek Carr, USC wide receiver Marqise Lee and Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack are among those set to play Nov. 21) to its last.

    Every bowl game provides 2014 draft prospects with an important stage to finish their college football careers with strong final impressions. There are a number of prospects on whom the spotlight will be shining especially bright.

    As a result of their potential as prospects and the teams and individual matchups they will face in their bowl games, the following 10 prospects are all in position to send their draft stocks quickly rising—or falling—in what could be the final game of each player's college football career.

Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    Fresno State vs. USC, Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 21

    While Louisville junior Teddy Bridgewater remains a strong favorite to be the first quarterback selected in the 2014 NFL draft, his top competition appears to be Fresno State senior Derek Carr. Carr may be overlooked by the masses by playing with Fresno State, but at least one NFL general manager thinks Carr could be the No. 1 overall pick, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.

    The Las Vegas Bowl on Dec. 21 will be a chance for Carr to show a national audience what he can do, but in the process, he is going to have to prove himself against a USC defense that has more talent than any other defense he has played this year.

    Carr fell apart in the bowl game spotlight last year for the worst game of his career. He threw two interceptions, both of which were returned for touchdowns, while also being sacked five times (including once for a safety) and having many other errant throws in a 43-10 loss to SMU.

    However, he has bounced back with an outstanding senior season in which he has displayed all the tools needed to be an NFL quarterback. He throws the ball downfield with strength, velocity and accuracy, and he has improved significantly in his decision-making and pocket presence.

    Carr has as much positive momentum going for him as any other prospect in the 2014 draft class, but he could still quickly lose that momentum if he struggles against USC. A strong performance, however, should only strengthen his position as a likely first-round pick and possible top-five pick.

Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU

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    BYU vs. Washington, Fight Hunger Bowl, Dec. 27

    Unlike Carr, whose bowl performance made it clear he needed to return to Fresno State for another year of development, BYU linebacker Kyle Van Noy's draft stock may have reached its apex in last year's Poinsettia Bowl.

    Van Noy was a one-man wrecking crew who showed he could do it all in that game against San Diego State. He scored two touchdowns, one on a fumble he both forced and recovered and another on an interception, while also blocking a punt and having 3.5 total tackles for loss. Van Noy was all over the field on all three downs in that game and put himself in the conversation to be a top-10 draft pick.

    Therefore, it came as a surprise when Van Noy decided to return for his senior season, during which he has been overshadowed by a number of other outside linebacker prospects including UCLA's Anthony Barr, Buffalo's Khalil Mack and Clemson's Vic Beasley. But that does not mean Van Noy, who is arguably the most versatile and complete of any of those players, cannot still end up being a very high draft selection.

    If he can shine again in his bowl game this year, he will have a big opportunity to restate why he should be an early-to-mid first-round pick.

    With explosive edge-rushing ability, fluid coverage skills and good run-defending ability, Van Noy is a very well-rounded player, but he will be tested in all of those capacities by a talented Washington offense.

    As he will be moved around the BYU defense and play multiple roles, he will have to contain athletic quarterback Keith Price, be sound as a tackler against dynamic running back Bishop Sankey and take on a very difficult matchup if asked to drop into coverage against tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

    Van Noy is a very good prospect who belongs in the first-round discussion, and as he showed last year, his bowl performance has the potential to really boost his stock. That said, Washington has enough talent at the skill positions and on the offensive line to exploit where Van Noy is weak.

Mike Davis, WR, Texas

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Texas vs. Oregon, Alamo Bowl, Dec. 30

    While some are expecting the Alamo Bowl to be a blowout in Oregon's favor, it will be an important showcase for Texas draft prospects, who will have to prove they can compete with the speed and talent on the Ducks roster on both sides of the ball.

    This is especially true for Texas senior Mike Davis, who is an explosive downfield receiver and big-play threat but has never fully lived up to his potential at Texas. Although his inconsistency makes him a likely Day 3 draft selection, he could rise if he can make a statement against arguably the nation's best cornerback, Ifo Ekpre-Olomu.

    Ekpre-Olomu, a physical and instinctive cornerback with great quickness and ball skills, is a first-round prospect who could be the top cornerback selected if he declares for the 2014 draft. Oregon is likely to match him up frequently with Davis in an effort to take Texas’ best receiver out of the game.

    That said, Davis, listed at 6'2" and 195 pounds, has a size advantage over Ekpre-Olomu, who is only 5'10" and 185 pounds. While Ekpre-Olomu will have the speed and quickness to keep up with Davis wherever he goes, scouts will be looking for Davis to show physicality at the catch point and make plays on contested passes.

    If Davis can make some plays against Ekpre-Olomu, he has a real shot to start a rise up the draft board, as his potential to be an NFL playmaker is significant. Getting shut down, however, could raise more questions about whether Davis has a game well-rounded enough to make much of an impact at the next level.

Ross Cockrell, CB, Duke

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    Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

    Duke vs. Texas A&M, Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31

    Duke had an unexpectedly great season by winning 10 of its first 12 games, but it looked physically overmatched in its 45-7 ACC Championship Game loss to Florida State. That is projected to be the case again on Dec. 31 when it matches up against Texas A&M, but it will be important for the team's NFL hopefuls to overcome that stigma and show they can hang with one of the SEC's top teams.

    Duke does not have a plethora of 2014 NFL draft prospects, but one player who is expected to be a Day 3 draft selection is cornerback Ross Cockrell.

    Cockrell is an athletic cornerback who has great ball skills and plays with good physicality, and he held up well in matchups this season against talented quarterbacks and wide receivers with Florida State and Miami. He could face the toughest matchups of his career, however, on Dec. 31 against Texas A&M's wide receiver Mike Evans and quarterback Johnny Manziel.

    Evans is a big, physical receiver who fights for the football and makes big plays, and he should be a big test for Cockrell, who consistently gets his hands on opposing receivers but does not have great strength. Additionally, as Cockrell often turns his eyes to the quarterback to try to make plays on the ball, he must stay disciplined against the dynamic dual-threat Manziel.

    The stage will be a big opportunity for Cockrell, who can finish his productive career with a big statement if he can make plays against Evans and hold him in check. But Evans, arguably the top receiver prospect for the 2014 NFL draft should he declare, has also made many of his opponents look very bad this season. If Cockrell struggles, it could be a serious hit to his projected mid-round draft stock.

C.J. Fiedorowicz, TE, Iowa

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    Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

    Iowa vs. LSU, Outback Bowl, Jan. 1

    C.J. Fiedorowicz is a great blocker and solid receiver with great size (listed at 6'7", 265 lbs), but he has had a disappointing senior season, catching just 26 passes for 253 yards. While he has not shown much ability to break big gains as a receiver this year, he does have a chance to give his draft stock a boost with a strong performance against LSU in the Outback Bowl.

    As the top senior prospect on an Iowa team that is likely to be overmatched overall by LSU, the spotlight should be on Fiedorowicz, especially in short-yardage and red-zone situations, where he does his best work.

    LSU has a number of talented athletes, including safeties Craig Loston and Corey Thompson, who have the strength and athleticism to challenge him as much as he has been tested in coverage in those situations this year. But Iowa will also need Fiedorowicz to be at his best as a blocker against a defense full of physical athletes.

    Fiedorowicz's limited athleticism and lack of progression as a senior should keep him out of the early rounds of the draft, but he is still in good position to be one of the top four tight ends selected in 2014. That said, his season could really use a strong game to cap it off, and scouts will certainly be a keeping close on this tape against a defense that features future NFL players at all three levels.

Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

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    Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

    UCF vs. Baylor, Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1

    Although he was not yet draft-eligible at the time, it was last year's Sugar Bowl win against Florida that made Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater a national phenomenon. UCF junior quarterback Blake Bortles, who actually beat out Bridgewater for a spot on the American Athletic Conference's all-conference first team, will have a similar opportunity this year to make a big name for himself in a BCS bowl.

    While a matchup against Baylor does not come with the defensive prestige that a matchup against an SEC team would have, it is still an opportunity for Bortles to play on a major national stage against a top-20 defense with a number of potential NFL players. Bortles could generate some very positive momentum into a potential draft declaration if he can shine on the national stage and lead his team to a win or at least a competitive game.

    Bortles could benefit from another season at UCF to become more consistent with his accuracy and decision-making, but he is also a dark-horse candidate to be one of the top quarterbacks selected in the 2014 draft should he declare. He has very promising physical tools with a great arm, very good mobility and listed measurables of 6'4" and 230 pounds.

    Though Bortles has been fantastic at times this season, he has been good but not great in games against Penn State, South Carolina and Louisville, the top competition he has faced this year. But because of his continued progress since those games and his impressive physical upside, he could really send his stock upward if he can put it all together in the Fiesta Bowl.

    In one sense, Bortles has less at stake than the other nine prospects on this list because he is the only one who still has a year of remaining eligibility and has not yet stated he will declare for the draft. That said, he may have more to gain with a great bowl game than any other prospect in any bowl games.

Gabe Ikard, C, Oklahoma

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    R. Yeatts/Getty Images

    Oklahoma vs. Alabama, Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2

    Though Alabama lost its SEC supremacy and a chance to play in a third consecutive BCS National Championship Game with its loss to Auburn on Nov. 30, it still has more NFL talent on both sides of the ball than any other team in college football. NFL scouts, therefore, should be paying especially close attention to the Sugar Bowl in their evaluations of Oklahoma prospects for the 2014 NFL draft.

    Oklahoma's top prospect in the upcoming draft class might be senior center Gabe Ikard, who stands on the Sooners offensive line with his athleticism. Ikard will look to show that he has the quickness to catch Alabama's athletes, including standout linebacker C.J. Mosley, in space and on blitzes.

    What Ikard may be challenged by most is Alabama's physicality. His strength is more questionable than his athleticism, which could mean a tough matchup against the powerful Alabama defensive line of Ed Stinson, Jeoffrey Pagan and Brandon Ivory.

    Ikard is an intelligent, disciplined blocker who has been a four-year starter on the Oklahoma offensive line, and he should be one of the top centers selected in this year's draft class. Nonetheless, his draft stock certainly remains in flux through the Sugar Bowl, as going up against the talent of Alabama's defense could be the truest test of how his game will translate to the next level.

Bradley Roby, CB, Ohio State

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    Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

    Ohio State vs. Clemson, Orange Bowl, Jan. 3

    Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby told the media in March that he was declaring for the 2014 NFL draft and has not wavered from his decision, but he has not played like the top-10 draft pick he set out to become when the season began. But though an up-and-down season marred by allowing big plays has hurt his draft stock, the redshirt junior has a great opportunity to finish on a high note in the Orange Bowl.

    Roby has struggled against some of his top competition this season, most notably against Wisconsin wide receiver Jared Abbrederis, but he will face arguably his toughest matchup of the season yet when he matches up against Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins.

    While Roby is no longer likely to be a top-10 draft pick, Watkins certainly could be. The speed advantage Roby typically has over his opponents will be absent against the explosive Watkins, while Watkins can challenge Roby with his quickness and size. But if Roby can hold Watkins in check, he can make a statement to his coverage ability that has been inconsistent this year.

    Roby's biggest issue this year has been his tendency to be overaggressive and give up big plays in the process. While he thrives on making big plays and has made his fair share this season, he will need to remain disciplined and rely upon his speed, physicality and proper technique to avoid getting burned by Watkins.

    Roby might fall to the second round of the draft after a disappointing season, but he still has as much potential as any cornerback in the draft class. If he can finish his season on a high note against a top receiver in the spotlight, NFL teams should remain willing to take a chance on his potential.

Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Oklahoma State vs. Missouri, Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3

    If you love watching matchups between top cornerbacks and wide receivers, Jan. 3 is a day to circle. While Roby and Watkins may be the best wide receiver/cornerback matchup of the bowl season, the same case could also be made for the Cotton Bowl matchup between Oklahoma State senior cornerback Justin Gilbert and Missouri sophomore wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.

    With great size (listed at 6', 200 lbs), great speed and quickness and very good ball skills, Gilbert has put himself into the first-round conversation for the 2014 draft with a terrific senior season. He will face one of his toughest tests of his career, however, when he goes up against an emerging star in Green-Beckham, who has the size (listed at 6'6", 225 lbs), speed and playmaking ability to test Gilbert at every level of the field.

    While Gilbert has always had the physical tools, he has really upped his discipline and technique this season. He will need to be at his best in both of those capacities against Green-Beckham, as he will be unable to rely upon an advantage of his physical gifts.

    The potential reward for a strong game against Missouri, in which he could also end up matched up against two other NFL wide receiver prospects in L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas, could be convincing some that he is the top cornerback prospect in the draft class. On the other end of the spectrum, however, he would not be the first NFL cornerback prospect to be exposed by Missouri's wideouts this season.

Christian Jones, OLB, Florida State

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Florida State vs. Auburn, BCS National Championship Game, Jan. 6

    Allowing just 10.7 points and 268.5 yards per game, Florida State's defense makes a strong case for being the best in the country. It could face its toughest test of the season, nonetheless, in the BCS National Championship Game against an Auburn rushing offense that leads the nation with 335.7 rushing yards per game.

    Playing in the most significant game of their careers against an elite running game, BCS National Championship Game performances will be a significant factor in the evaluations of all of Florida State's defensive draft prospects. Senior linebacker Christian Jones is certainly among that unit's top prospects and among the players who will be tested on Jan. 6.

    Jones is an outstanding athlete whose ability to fly to the football should be an asset for the Seminoles defense against Auburn. That said, the biggest concern with Jones is his ability to get off blocks and be physical at the point of attack, and there may not be any other rushing offense who can expose those flaws more than Auburn's.

    The spotlight of the BCS National Championship Game will be a prime opportunity for all of its prospects to garner attention and raise their draft stocks with impressive performances. But the stage is an especially important one for seniors like Jones with something to prove.

    If Jones fails to show the ability to break through blocks and make plays against Auburn's run defense, scouts might have legitimate reason to doubt whether he can do so at the next level.

     

    Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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