For all the hype during college football’s bowl season, the 2014 NFL draft is still a long way off, and some surprising prospects should continue to rocket up scouts’ draft boards as the months go by.
Poor bowl performances will likely be forgotten in favor of measurables and great ones will be inflated to outsize proportions.
Some players will benefit more than others from the pontificating that occurs before each draft, causing some players that are lightly regarded now to hear their names called in the early rounds come May.
There are two prospects in particular who could find themselves in the first round sooner rather than later.
Bortles just looks like a quarterback, and in the NFL, that’s half the battle when it comes to draft position.
At 6’3” and 230 pounds, Bortles has impressive size, but can also run the ball efficiently. The 93 yards and touchdown he notched against the Baylor Bears in the Fiesta Bowl also helped prove that he’s nimble for his size.
Bortles has his share of flaws—he’s not particularly accurate with the ball and his delivery is often described as methodical, which is never a promising adjective—but scouts may quickly see past his issues when considering his physical attributes.
He also played a great game against Baylor to lead Central Florida to a big upset, further raising his national profile.
Bortles wasn’t perfect in the game, but his two interceptions weren’t entirely his fault and he showed commendable leadership, as CBS Sports’ Rob Rang explains.
Perhaps most impressive about Bortles' evening was his poise. After throwing interceptions to abruptly end consecutive UCF drives in the second quarter, Bortles led Central Florida to touchdowns on four of their next six drives, out-scoring Baylor's high-octane offense.
Neither of the interceptions, however, will likely earn negative grades from scouts.
On the first, Bortles took the ball from shotgun, identified favorite receiver Rannell Hall streaking deep down the middle against one on one coverage. The pass was thrown with perfect trajectory and good accuracy, giving Hall, the team's leading receiver, an opportunity to make a play. Instead, Baylor senior cornerback Demetri Goodson simply played the ball better than Central Florida's receiver, extending his arms to catch it over his head for an impressive interception.
Bortles' next pass was also intercepted but was even a flukier play.
Though he again took the snap out of the shotgun, Bortles dropped back further and rolled right, hoping to buy room for a developing screen to tight end Kevin Miller. A well-timed blitz from 6-foot-2, 210-pound nickelback Sam Holl, however, caused Bortles to throw the ball prematurely. Holl tipped the pass and linebacker Eddie Lackey dove at Miller's feet to secure the ball just before it hit the ground.
Leading Baylor to the upset and possessing impressive size should be enough to put Bortles in the top 10 of the first round.
The NFL Draft Advisory Board only gave Bortles a second-round grade, but with so many teams at the top of the draft looking for help at quarterback, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to hear his name called very early in the draft.
If Bortles is the type of player who will impress scouts with his size, then McCarron is the type who will impress with his smarts.
McCarron performed considerably less impressively in the Sugar Bowl, completing 19 of his 30 passes and throwing two interceptions, but few people are blaming the quarterback for the loss in the aftermath.
If anything, a player with a reputation for clutch performances like McCarron will almost certainly get credit for the big plays he did make, like this long touchdown throw.
As NFL teams start to admire his record as a winner with Nick Saban, they’ll likely have no trouble rationalizing his substandard arm strength; the Cleveland Browns did almost exactly the same thing when Colt McCoy entered the draft in 2010.
McCarron is already pretty highly thought of in NFL circles, and that should only improve as April approaches.
Phil Savage, the executive director of the Senior Bowl, told NFL.com:
I think if you asked all 32 teams right now on a bell curve, there'd be two or three teams who would have him potentially as a high second-round, maybe even late first-round pick, then there would be two or three teams that would have him in the fourth or fifth round, that are not that impressed with his arm strength, what have you. The vast majority of scouts I have spoken to see him as a second- or third-round pick.
By the time the draft rolls around, and teams start trading down to find quarterback talent in the late first round or second round, it wouldn’t be surprising in the least to see McCarron come off the board to serve as a savior without top 10 expectations.
The NFL draft truly is a fickle process.
Bortles and McCarron each have their share of issues, but as NFL teams get further from the actual games and more embroiled in the draft process, perceptions of players can get warped.
Observers might see the negatives of players like these two clearly now, but each could easily rise up draft boards as the process continues.