2014 NFL Draft: Where Top Players Stand Following Bowl Performance

Dan Tylicki@DanTylickiAnalyst IJanuary 3, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Where Top Players Stand Following Bowl Performance

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    With just a few college bowl games to play in this year's college football season, scouts have begun to finalize their notes on players whose college football careers are now set in stone as the NFL Scouting Combine and draft approach.

    Most of the top draft picks have now declared after wrapping up their seasons, some having ended their careers and jump-started their draft stock with a bang.

    Now, the top of the draft in terms of team order is set. But for players currently expected to be at the head of most teams' draft boards (at least until the scouting combine), how much did their performances in their final bowl games help them, if it did at all?

    Only players whose college football careers have concluded are listed so as to analyze their full careers. As such, standouts such as Clemson's Sammy Watkins are not listed.

8. Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo

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    Khalil Mack burst onto the scene this season with a dominant performance against Ohio State, and since then he has remained a force for the Buffalo Bulls.

    Mack has 10.5 sacks and three interceptions on the year, and he took both his productivity and numbers into the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl against San Diego State.

    Buffalo lost 49-24, and while Mack had a few tackles, he was not as much a force as he had been throughout the season. The Aztecs double-teamed him and kept him in check, knowing that taking Mack out of the game would be huge for them.

    Despite the lackluster performance, throughout the season Mack has been great, and that one game is not going to knock him down the draft boards. He will still be selected in the first half of the draft.

7. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State

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    Michigan State was one of the most feared defenses in the country this past season, and it was thanks in part to cornerback Darqueze Dennard, who won the Thorpe Award as the nation's top college cornerback.

    Dennard had four interceptions on the year. He went up against another top team in the Rose Bowl in Stanford, a game that Michigan State won 24-20. While Dennard didn't not show up much on the stat sheet, he made himself known in another way.

    Stanford quarterback Kevin Hogan struggled big time, going 10-of-18 with an interception. Wide receiver Ty Montgomery had three catches for 21 yards and was unable to get it going while being covered by Dennard.

    He has established himself as perhaps the best cornerback in the draft, as he is able to shut down opposing receivers while also nabbing the occasional interception. His performances both in the Rose Bowl and the Big Ten title game are proof of that.

6. Blake Bortles, QB, UCF

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    The UCF Knights were this year's team that seemed to come out of nowhere. Likewise, Blake Bortles shot up draft boards seemingly out of nowhere, and now he's considered a top three quarterback.

    Bortles had a nearly 68 percent completion percentage, 25 touchdowns and nine interceptions on the season, and the Fiesta Bowl matchup against Baylor was his opportunity to show what he could do on the national stage.

    There were times where Bortles made some bad throws, but in the end he had 301 yards, three touchdowns, and two interceptions in a 52-42 win. He not only kept up with Baylor's high-octane offense but surpassed it.

    One thing that every prospect needs to know in the NFL is that it's not how you start, it's how you finish. Bortles did not have a very good first half, but after halftime he turned into the first-round prospect that has taken draft circles by storm.

    It's tough to say exactly where he will go right now since many are still fully evaluating him, but his pocket presence and his ability to lead a team mean he should have no difficulty hearing his name early on draft day.

5. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA

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    Anthony Barr was one of the most exciting players to watch this season as a scout, since he had just become a full-time linebacker the previous season, and the question was how much he would continue to grow.

    He had ten sacks on the season, and that included two against Oregon. He is an ideal 3-4 OLB at the next level, and he could potentially get even better.

    In the Hyundai Sun Bowl against Virginia Tech, he did not record a sack and was in on just three tackles, but he was consistently pressuring the Hokies' offensive line, and Virginia Tech quarterback Logan Thomas struggled thanks in part to Barr's efforts.

    He is likely to be a top-five pick in the NFL draft, since he is one of the rare breed in this year's draft class to combine both production and upside. He has a bit of work to do, but even a statless game like the Sun Bowl performance shows that, even when he does not show up on the stat sheet, he still can be dominant.

4. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M

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    Jake Matthews has been near the top of draft boards since last season, and when he decided to return for his senior season, it looked like he would be a lock as a top-five pick.

    One year later, that has not changed, and his performance at the Chick-fil-A Bowl was not going to change that.

    Truthfully, Matthews was not someone whom writers paid attention to after Manziel's great comeback victory. But for offensive tackles, if they're not being discussed during the course of a game, then that's usually because they have gone a good job.

    There's no question Matthews fits that bill. Duke's pass-rushers got to Manziel more often than expected, but in the second half in particular the offensive line held its own. In this game, just as he has been throughout his career, Matthews was polished and showed great technique.

    It would take something shocking for him to not be the first offensive tackle drafted, but then again, many said the same of teammate Luke Joeckel last year.

3. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M

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    I am the first to admit that I have been hard on Johnny Manziel, wondering if his play will transfer to the NFL. More importantly, would he be able to take a bad team and rally them into a good one, and how would he react if he had to overcome a major deficit.

    The skill set and height issues will always be there, but when it comes to his natural ability and leadership, he could not have done a better job than he did in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Duke.

    Duke owned the first quarter of play, and by halftime the game looked set. Watching Manziel on the sidelines, I saw a spark plug, someone motivating his teammates and trying to get them on the same page. That's exactly what he did.

    By the time the 52-48 victory was set in stone, Manziel went 30-38 with 382 yards and four touchdowns—and a few of those incompletions were drops—to go with 73 rushing yards and a touchdown.

    He also had the touchdown in the video above, which encompasses in under 60 seconds everything he brings to the NFL. If anyone was fence-sitting on Manziel heading into that game, they were not afterwards. The question with him is simply whether he will be the second or third quarterback taken, or if he can somehow beat out Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater.

2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina

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    Jadeveon Clowney has been a force for South Carolina the past three seasons and is the kind of player whose impact often doesn't show up in the box score. He had only three sacks on the year and failed to record more than five tackles in a game, but that happens when you are routinely double-teamed.

    His statline for the Capital One Bowl game against Wisconsin did not include a sack, but he did have two pass deflections. He spent what I found to be a surprising amount of time in coverage in the Capital One Bowl against Wisconsin, but that may have been due to the way Wisconsin was playing.

    The big question for Clowney is not his on-field performance; anyone watching him knows he has great talent. But moving forward, he has to show that he wants to play in the NFL and be a leader at the next level.

    He could go anywhere in the top ten of the 2014 draft, and his performance on the field this season was not going to change that. What matters is whether or not he can be a consistent playmaker and not have any off-field issues.

    One AFC general manager noted Clowney as a "boom or bust" pick, and that sounds right. He could be a Hall of Famer or flame out depending on where he lands.

1. Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville

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    Teddy Bridgewater entered the Florida Citrus Bowl as a strong favorite to be the number-one pick in the draft. In the match against Miami, he did nothing to concern anybody who felt that way.

    Bridgewater seemed to have Miami's number from the beginning, going 35-of-45 for 447 yards and three touchdowns, throwing in a rushing touchdown as well in a 36-9 beatdown.

    Having the numbers is all well and good, but they don't tell the whole story. In watching the game, i saw a player in complete control, able to evade pressure and make plays happen. One impressive play in particular came when he was able to shake off a sack attempt and complete a pass, something not many quarterbacks can do.

    Barring anything crazy happening at the combine or later, Bridgewater should be the top pick in the draft, especially if he plays in the NFL like he did against Miami.