Although the main focus for the time being remains the end of college football's bowl season and the NFL playoffs, the NFL draft is starting to garner more attention, as well. With a high number of intriguing prospects, it should be an interesting couple of months.
The draft class is not finalized yet as underclassmen around the country decide whether to make the jump or stay in school. But assuming there are no shocking decisions by players expected to head for the NFL, it's certainly a class with a lot of playmakers and no shortage of potential.
With that in mind, let's examine three prospects who are generating top-10 hype but still have a lot to prove before the draft gets underway. While all three flashed terrific upside at the collegiate level, it's a whole new ballgame in the NFL.
It's impossible to deny Clowney's athleticism or his tremendous potential. He looks the part of a superstar defensive end with an ability to beat tackles with speed or power. His production matched the hype for the first two seasons at South Carolina as he racked up 35.5 tackles for loss and 21 sacks.
Yet, his junior campaign was extremely underwhelming as he tallied just three sacks in 11 games. Part of that is due to opposing offenses focusing more attention to him, but he also lacked the competitive drive necessary to dominate. Colin Cowherd of ESPN joked about his seeming lack of interest:
Players like Clowney, who possess immense talent and have nothing left to prove at the college level, can go through a lull while waiting to make the jump. But he must show front offices at the next level that he can flip the proverbial switch and transform back into an unstoppable pass-rusher.
He sports the skill set necessary to transform an entire defense by putting constant pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Since he didn't do it as a junior, however, questions will be raised leading up to the draft. He must answer them both in workouts and interviews.
Manziel put together an outstanding performance in the Chick-fil-A Bowl to lead Texas A&M past Duke in a thriller. He connected on 30 of 38 passes for 382 yards and four touchdowns through the air while adding 73 yards and a touchdown on the ground.
Despite the general assumption that he would head for the NFL after two great collegiate seasons, the talented quarterback wasn't ready to fully commit after the bowl win. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk passed along comments he made in the post-game interview:
"I cant even think about anything other than this game right now," Manziel told ESPN’s Samantha Ponder from the field after wiping out a 21-point halftime deficit. "I love Texas A&M. I love my teammates. Unreal."
So what would bring him back to the Aggies for another year?
"This guy [coach Kevin Sumlin] and all this teammates I have right here," Manziel said. "I love them more than anything on the face of this earth."
Before the game, Gil Brandt of NFL.com reported Manziel was going pro, making the clash with Duke his final college game. Assuming that's true, the Aggies star must show scouts at the next level that his ability will translate to the NFL game.
Obviously there's an enormous difference between carving up the Duke defense and taking on the Seattle Seahawks. Is Manziel ready to make snap decisions and stand tall the pocket when pressure is coming to deliver strikes consistently? He must prove the answer is yes before the draft.
Mack is going to face the same critiques that every small-school player does during the draft process. Going from Buffalo in the MAC to the NFL is a big jump and he must show the huge stats he put up weren't simply due to the lesser competition.
The good news, aside from the fact he had 100 tackles, 19 of which were for a loss, and 10.5 sacks, is that he played a great game against Ohio State. He made plays all over the field, including an interception return for a touchdown to keep Buffalo within 10 points until deep in the third quarter.
Playing that well against a highly ranked team should help his cause. NFL.com's Albert Breer provided remarks from a college scouting director who does think Mack did enough in college to warrant getting his name called early:
"He's one of the top pass rushers in the draft," an AFC college scouting director said. "He played his best games against the biggest opponents, and can be an (outside linebacker) in a 3-4 or a Sam (linebacker) in a 4-3. ... He's proven (what kind of player) he is." The college director compared Mack to Von Miller from a size/speed standpoint, even if he is a tick below what the Broncos star was as a prospect. The senior is a sure-fire first-rounder, and with a strong spring, he could wind up in the top 10.
Yet, those general small-school concerns will remain for some. Mack should take on every workout or interview offered to him by teams around the league as a way to show he's confident he can dominate on Sundays just like he did on Saturdays at Buffalo.