Many scouts will be heading to the East-West Shrine Game or NFLPA Collegiate Bowl next week, as the circuit of postseason all-star games for 2015 NFL draft prospects is underway, but they’ll also want to keep an eye on Monday’s College Football Playoff National Championship Game.
The two teams playing for this year’s title, Oregon and Ohio State, are both loaded with future NFL players. And while one game should not supersede the overall body of work in the evaluations of any of these prospects, Monday night will be a great opportunity to see potential pros from both schools go up against top competition on college football’s biggest stage.
From a quarterback who could be the No. 1 overall pick to standouts in the trenches on both sides, there will be no shortage of difference-makers trying to make big final impressions as their teams battle for the glory of victory.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
In competition with Florida State’s Jameis Winston to be the first quarterback selected in this year’s draft, Marcus Mariota has a chance to match what Winston accomplished last season if he can become the second consecutive quarterback to win a Heisman Trophy and national championship in the same season.
Widely projected in mock drafts to be chosen by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at No. 1, Mariota will looking to finish strong a season in which he has completed 68.6 percent of his passes for 4,121 yards and 40 touchdowns, rushed for 731 yards and another 15 touchdowns and threw just three interceptions.
A 6’4”, 219-pound quarterback who throws the ball with consistent velocity, excels at throwing on the move and has the acceleration to run for big gains himself, Mariota has all the physical tools NFL teams covet in a modern dual-threat.
In an excellent redshirt junior season, Mariota has shown significant progress in his ability to maneuver in the pocket under pressure and continue to make accurate throws.
There isn’t much more that Mariota can prove in Monday’s game. While the amiable prospect faces questions about his ability to make throws into tight coverage windows, those concerns stem more from Oregon’s offensive system than failures on the quarterback’s part.
Still, as Mariota is set to face the barrage of overanalysis that comes with being a projected top quarterback in the months leading up to the draft, he would serve himself well to leave a positive lasting impression in his final collegiate game.
Michael Bennett, DT, Ohio State
A quick, gap-shooting interior penetrator, Michael Bennett is Ohio State’s most likely draft-eligible player to be a first-round pick.
After a slow start to his senior season, Bennett has really stepped up down the stretch of Ohio State’s run to the title game. In his past six games alone, the defensive tackle has recorded 11 tackles for loss.
At times, Bennett is able to make big plays simply because he is significantly more explosive than most collegiate offensive linemen. That said, he also has an impressive array of pass-rushing moves, as evidenced by the following two clips, which enables him to make big plays even if he is stopped on his initial burst.
Bennett’s draft stock could be hurt by his lack of size, as he is small for a defensive tackle at 6’2” and 288 pounds. If he is unable to bulk up, he could have issues defending the run at the point of attack.
Still, Bennett is likely to be a top-32 selection because of his ability to disrupt and his versatility. He projects as a 3-technique defensive tackle for a 4-3 defensive scheme or as a 5-technique defensive end for a 3-4 front, but he could even play some 4-3 defensive end in situations thanks to his athleticism.
Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
One of the players who will be tasked with keeping Bennett at bay in Monday’s game, Hroniss Grasu will have a chance to make his case for being the top center in the 2015 draft class.
A two-time finalist for the Rimington Trophy as one of the best centers in college football, Grasu’s athleticism has made him a perfect fit for the Oregon offense.
Grasu has the lateral agility to move as Mariota and the offensive line move in pass protection, while he can accelerate quickly to the second level to make downfield run blocks. A four-year starter, Grasu displays good awareness as he keeps his head on a swivel and often makes switches to block multiple defenders within one play.
In a more power-oriented NFL offense, Grasu might need to add some weight and improve his strength. At 6’3” and 297 pounds, Grasu is undersized for an NFL offensive line and does not exhibit much ability to drive block defenders off the line of scrimmage.
Nonetheless, Grasu has more than held his own against top competition. He played a big part in Oregon's shutting down Florida State defensive tackle Eddie Goldman, also a potential first-round pick in the 2015 draft, in the Rose Bowl.
If he can do the same against Bennett, whose quickness will be a test even for a center as athletic as him, Grasu will have a strong argument for being this year’s best prospect at his position.
Jake Fisher, LT, Oregon
While Grasu is in competition with Florida State’s Cameron Erving and Auburn’s Reese Dismukes to be the 2015 draft’s top center, he might not necessarily be the first offensive lineman drafted from Oregon. Ducks left tackle Jake Fisher is another senior blocker in the mix to be an early-round selection.
Like Grasu, Fisher is an excellent match for the Oregon system because of his foot skills. Showing great ability to move laterally as well as downfield, Fisher has the athleticism NFL teams covet at the left tackle position.
Also like Grasu, his size and strength will be questioned as he projects to NFL offensive schemes. Listed at 6’6” and 300 pounds, Fisher has good height and length but is a bit lean for a professional offensive lineman.
Playing in Oregon’s offense and with a mobile quarterback gives Fisher an advantage in pass protection, as he does not typically have to hold the edge of the pocket as long as most left tackles do. Still, he deserves credit for having a dominant season on the blind side, especially considering he was slated to play right tackle before Tyler Johnstone suffered a preseason injury.
Fisher has as much upside as any offensive tackle in this year’s draft class. A deep group at the position could push him down to the second or third round, but it’s also possible he could end up as a first-round pick, especially if he finishes his collegiate career strong against OSU.
DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead, DE, Oregon
On the defensive side of the ball, Oregon’s top prospects to watch are its disruptive tandem of defensive ends, DeForest Buckner and Arik Armstead.
Buckner, at 6’7” and 290 pounds, and Armstead, at 6’8” and 290 pounds, both have ideal measurables for the 3-4 defensive end position each mans in the Ducks defense. Combining their terrific size and length with impressive athleticism, Buckner and Armstead are both likely to be selected within the first two rounds of the draft if they declare as juniors.
While their measurables are similar, they bring different skill sets to the table that could make Buckner a better fit for some schemes and Armstead a better fit for others.
Buckner has had a breakout year and leads Oregon with 13 tackles for loss. He has a good burst off the snap, flashes quick hands and has impressive closing speed in pursuit.
With leaping ability and long arms, Buckner also has a demonstrated ability to bat passes at the line of scrimmage. He has recorded four pass breakups this year, including one in the Rose Bowl that created an interception.
Able to create disruption both inside and on the edge, Buckner could play as a defensive end in either a 3-4 or 4-3 scheme.
Armstead is more of a power player. While he too has the athleticism to explode into the backfield and to chase down plays, he’s at his best as an interior run-stopper and bull-rusher.
In the following example, Armstead (No. 9) bull-rushed Florida State right guard Tre Jackson—an NFL prospect in his own right—straight backward to force Jameis Winston out of the pocket on a play that ended with an incompletion.
Armstead does not possess the ability to turn the corner that Buckner does, so he would likely have to bulk up to play defensive tackle in a 4-3 front, but he might grade out higher as a 5-technique defensive end prospect.
Tony Washington, OLB, Oregon
Tony Washington’s career at Oregon hasn’t generated nearly as much hype as that of Dion Jordan, but Washington’s skill set and production compare favorably to the 2013 NFL draft’s No. 3 overall pick.
Washington’s not quite as explosive and agile as Jordan, but he’s a very good athlete in his own right. The 6’3”, 250-pound outside linebacker is fluid and fast around the edge and closes quickly in pursuit, as No. 91 shows in the following clip from the Rose Bowl.
In addition to being a skilled pass-rusher, Washington also demonstrates the abilities to play the run in space and to cover slot receivers and tight ends. He might be best suited to continue playing 3-4 outside linebacker, although he lacks optimal length for the position, but he could also project as a strong-side linebacker in a 4-3 defense.
Considering how highly Jordan was drafted, there’s no reason Washington shouldn’t at least be a fourth-round pick.
Devin Smith, WR, Ohio State
Arguably the best deep-threat wide receiver in college football, Devin Smith could greatly increase Ohio State’s chances of winning if he can come up with one or more of his signature big plays on Monday night.
Smith has only caught 32 passes in his senior season, but 10 of them have been for touchdowns. He leads the Football Bowl Subdivision with an average of 27.69 yards per reception.
With excellent acceleration, Smith is a threat to take the top off a defense anytime he is on the field, especially now that Ohio State has rocket-armed redshirt sophomore Cardale Jones at quarterback. In just two games with Jones, Smith has caught six passes for 224 yards and four touchdowns, including the big play below from the Big Ten Championship against Wisconsin.
Playing against Oregon, a team known for its speed, will be a great test for Smith.
The 6’1”, 199-pound wide receiver’s game is one-dimensional, as he has not developed into a diverse route-runner, but he has shown significant improvement at the catch point this year while forgoing the regular drops that plagued him in previous seasons.
Smith also excels as a gunner in punt coverage. Combine his special teams value with his big-play ability, and Smith is well worth a selection in the middle rounds.
Troy Hill, CB, Oregon
With Ifo Ekpre-Olomu sidelined by a torn ACL, Troy Hill is likely to be the Oregon cornerback tasked with keeping Devin Smith in check and out of the end zone.
That will be a tough test for Hill, but the cornerback’s play throughout his senior campaign suggests he should be up to the task. A native of Youngstown, Ohio, Hill has challenged top receivers all year and has legitimized himself as an NFL prospect.
Hill is undersized for an NFL cornerback at just 5’11” and 175 pounds, but he plays with physicality. He also has very good ball skills, as evidenced by his ranking third in the entire FBS with 19 passes defensed this season.
Having pleaded guilty in January 2014 to a charge of menacing which stemmed from a December 2013 domestic violence arrest, Hill’s chances of being drafted could be adversely affected by off-field concerns. On the field, however, Hill has elevated his draft stock in a big way.
He will have a chance to continue bolstering his stock Monday, as a good performance against Smith could go a long way in proving he has the speed and ability to cover deep.
Erick Dargan, FS, Oregon
Like Hill, Erick Dargan has emerged in his senior year as a star playmaker on the back end of Oregon’s defense, having previously been a backup in the secondary.
Dargan has had a knack for making plays on the ball this season. He is tied for third in the FBS with seven interceptions, has two forced fumbles and leads the Ducks with 90 tackles.
A 5’11”, 210-pound free safety, Dargan has displayed impressive range all season. He has been a big hitter in the box and around the line of scrimmage, while he has also been able to handle deep-coverage responsibilities.
Dargan has also excelled on special teams, which is likely where he will earn his stripes at the next level.
While he does not stand out physically, Dargan should be a valuable Day 3 pick for safety depth and special teams skill.
Jeff Heuerman, TE, Ohio State
Although he has had an underwhelming senior season with only 17 receptions for 207 yards and two touchdowns, Jeff Heuerman still projects as one of the best tight end prospects in the 2015 draft class.
At 6’5” and 255 pounds with very good athleticism for his size and consistent hands, Heuerman fits the prototype for an NFL tight end. He is a solid in-line blocker and has also been flexed out as a slot receiver.
Perhaps the biggest reason why Heuerman’s production is low is that he plays in an offense that does not frequently utilize the tight end. Unless Ohio State decides incorporating that into its game is a wrinkle that could throw Oregon’s defense off, it’s unlikely Heuerman will have the ball thrown his way often on Monday night.
Even so, scouts will be keeping a close eye on how well Heuerman runs his routes and how effectively he blocks.
While he’s unlikely to ever be a big-play weapon, Heuerman has a skill set that could make him a more productive player in the NFL than he has been in college. He is likely to be an early Day 3 draft selection.
Doran Grant, CB, Ohio State
The most experienced player in Ohio State’s secondary, Doran Grant is another senior who will be under the microscope as he goes up against Oregon’s fast offense Monday.
A two-year starter for the Buckeyes, Grant has had a strong senior season in which he has recorded 14 passes defensed (five interceptions) and has played his opponents tightly each week with good positioning and physicality.
At 5’11” and 193 pounds, Grant does not stand out physically but has held his own against the top receivers he’s faced this year, including projected top-10 pick Amari Cooper in the Sugar Bowl. He’ll be relied upon once again in this game to play a key role in defending a talented and athletic crop of Oregon pass-catchers.
Grant projects as a third or fourth cornerback on an NFL defense but has enough skill to potentially be a top-100 pick, as this year’s draft class looks weaker than most at the cornerback position.
Additional Prospects to Watch
It would come as a shock if Ohio State junior defensive tackle Adolphus Washington declared for this year’s draft, but he’s an NFL talent in his own right. He’s been overshadowed by Michael Bennett and sophomore defensive end Joey Bosa, but he is a quietly disruptive player who has very good athleticism at 6’4” and 295 pounds.
A dynamic offensive playmaker who converted to wide receiver from running back this season, Oregon junior Byron Marshall could end up entering the 2015 draft, as he is requesting an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, according to Andrew Greif of The Oregonian. He would be smart to stay in school for his senior year, as he needs to become a more developed route-runner and consistent pass-catcher, but he’d have a shot to be selected as a late-round flier.
Some Ohio State seniors who could be late-round picks but are more likely to get shots as undrafted free agents include linebacker Curtis Grant, defensive end Steve Miller, right tackle Darryl Baldwin and wide receiver Evan Spencer.
Three Oregon seniors who project as fringe draft prospects are linebacker Derrick Malone, left guard Hamani Stevens and wide receiver Keanon Lowe.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.