- Bowl games can be a great showcase for NFL-draft bound players. Here's who you should be looking out for in every matchup of 2018.
Bowl season is here, and while college football fans will get their fill of season finales for the next three weeks, a new wave of NFL fans will tune in for a first look at the next crop of prospects that will be the talk of the 2019 draft lead-up.
Here are 39 players to watch from this season’s bowl games, leading up to the College Football Playoff National Championship on Jan. 7 in Santa Clara.
New Mexico Bowl (North Texas vs. Utah State)
Utah State tight end Dax Raymond only had 25 catches this season in the Aggies’ high-powered offense, but he also missed four games due to a broken hand. He has good size at 6'6" and 250 pounds and decent blocking skills, but he needs to be used in different ways to maximize his potential. He scored only three touchdowns on his 70 career catches but could make waves at the Senior Bowl.
AutoNation Cure Bowl (Tulane vs. Louisiana)
Consistency is the key for Tulane receiver Darnell Mooney, who had four 100-yard games this season, along with four other games where he had two catches or fewer. He could benefit from another year in school, but then again, Green Wave quarterbacks only completed 49.6% of their passes all season. Like most Group of Five prospects, Mooney’s best chance of a big stock bump would come during combine tests.
Mitsubishi Motors Las Vegas Bowl (Fresno State vs. Arizona State)
Fresno State receiver KeeSean Johnson built off his breakout 2017 and led the Mountain West champs with 87 receptions for 1,267 yards and eight touchdowns, finishing tied for the nation’s lead with 13 catches of 30-plus yards. What Johnson doesn’t have in speed and explosiveness he more than makes up for with his intangible feel for the position. He can high point the ball to make catches over smaller defensive backs and can run the entire route tree with precision.
Raycom Media Camellia Bowl (Georgia Southern vs. Eastern Michigan)
Eastern Michigan’s Blake Banham could benefit from the NFL’s increased need for pass-catching running backs. At 5'9", Banham led the Eagles in catches, yards and touchdowns, while also averaging nearly 10 yards per punt return. He might be a running back in name only on an NFL roster, as he had seven carries this season.
R+L Carriers New Orleans Bowl (Middle Tennessee vs. Appalachian State)
Middle Tennessee quarterback Brent Stockstill, a lefty four-year starter under his father Rick Stockstill, has thrown for 12,142 yards and 105 touchdowns in his career and showed improved accuracy this fall after an injury-plagued 2017. He can fit the ball into tight windows, but he has thrown some interceptions under pressure, and the Mountaineers’ pass defense will post a stiff challenge in the Superdome.
Cheribundi Boca Raton Bowl (UAB vs. Northern Illinois)
Northern Illinois defensive end Sutton Smith dominated the competition over the final two seasons of his college career and recorded 15 sacks in 2018, while being named an SI All-America first-teamer, putting up 63 quarterback pressures despite consistent attention from double teams. NFL rush ends don’t come in at 6'1" and 237 pounds, so a position change may be in order once Smith reaches the pros.
Frisco Bowl (San Diego State vs. Ohio)
Listed generously at 5'9" and 177 pounds, Ohio receiver Papi White had his most productive season in 2018, with nine touchdown catches and 897 receiving yards, 350 of which came after the catch. The ability to get off press coverage will be key to White’s success at the next level, though he could also help a roster if given an opportunity to return punts.
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl (Marshall vs. South Florida)
On most snaps, South Florida tight end Mitchell Wilcox lines up in the slot, where he could provide a more dangerous target for his quarterback. Wilcox, who finished second on the team with 40 catches, will need help to improve his blocking, and it wouldn’t hurt for him to add weight to his 6'4", 236-pound frame.
Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl (FIU vs. Toledo)
Toledo receiver Diontae Johnson could carve out a pro career in the slot, but he will make the most impact in the return game. He averaged 25.7 yards per return, using his small frame to make defenders miss in open space. His receiving production went down significantly from his breakout 2017 season, and he has dropped a few catchable balls in his career, but his explosiveness will intrigue someone.
Famous Idaho Potato Bowl (Western Michigan vs. BYU)
Western Michigan running back LeVante Bellamy is a tough north-south runner who hits the hole without a lot of wasted motion, even though he is only 185 pounds. His vision is excellent, and once he reaches the secondary, Bellamy can fight for extra yards if he is not brought down immediately.
Jared Birmingham Bowl (Memphis vs. Wake Forest)
To find out what you need to know about Memphis running back Darrell Henderson, put on the tape of the first half of the AAC title game against UCF. Henderson ran roughshod over the Knights after a season in which he averaged an absurd 8.9 yards per carry and scored 22 touchdowns, mostly on simple draws or some zone concept. A threat also in the passing game, Henderson forces missed tackles with ease and is good for at least one big play per game.
Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl (Houston vs. Army)
With Ed Oliver sitting out, focus on Houston tight end Romello Brooker, who increased his production during his senior season from seven catches to 29 and tied for the conference lead for tight ends by scoring six touchdowns. He benefitted from Kendal Briles’s playcalling, which lined him up all over the field. Brooker’s size is NFL-caliber, and if he works on blocking and tests out well at the combine, he has Pro Bowl potential.
Dollar General Bowl (Buffalo vs. Troy)
Buffalo quarterback Tyree Jackson is the tallest quarterback prospect in the draft at 6'7", and perhaps the most intriguing. While he possess a cannon of an arm, it’s not very accurate, even when he sits in the pocket and has time to survey the field. It may be an issue with his footwork, which can be corrected with coaching. He still is a capable runner, although that part of his game was showcased less throughout his career as the other parts of his game proved sound enough to tear up the MAC.
SoFi Hawai’I Bowl (Louisiana Tech vs. Hawaii)
Louisiana Tech defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, the Conference USA defensive player of the year, was an absolute terror for offenses in his senior year. He tied for the national lead with 15 sacks as part of 23.5 tackles for loss, and he is two sacks away from Terrell Suggs’s FBS career sack record of 44. Ferguson is excellent with his hands and gets a great burst off the line. His ability to stop the run and close on quarterbacks who try to escape the pocket makes him a special player to circle.
SERVPRO First Responder Bowl (Boston College vs. Boise State)
Boston College defensive end Zach Allen is a load at 6'5", 285 pounds—he can get around offensive tackles or go through them to get to the ball. Allen had 55 quarterback pressures, 15 tackles for loss and 6.5 sacks this season. When he couldn’t get into the backfield, he used his length to swat down nine passes. The NFL is no stranger to versatile BC front seven stars.
Quick Lane Bowl (Minnesota vs. Georgia Tech)
Minnesota quarterbacks completed 183 passes this season; 74 of them went to junior receiver Tyler Johnson. He tied the school record with six games of at least 100 yards receiving this year, and his tools will draw plenty of attention if he chooses to leave early.
Cheez-It Bowl (California vs. TCU)
Though he played primarily as an edge rusher the majority of his career, TCU’s Ben Banogu probably fits best in the NFL as a stand-up linebacker in a 3–4 scheme with the ability to put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer on certain downs. Banogu was extremely productive in his three college seasons at Louisiana-Monroe and TCU, racking up 44 tackles for loss and 19 sacks.
Walk-On’s Independence Bowl (Temple vs. Duke)
Duke quarterback Daniel Jones has run hot and cold in his redshirt junior season, with four games with at least three touchdowns and two games with a sub-50% completion rate, but pro scouts love his size, arm talent and mobility. Four years of instruction under Blue Devils coach David Cutcliffe, who famously coached Peyton and Eli Manning, doesn’t hurt either.
New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Miami vs. Wisconsin)
Miami safety Jaquan Johnson played all over the field and was excellent in coverage, allowing only eight catches, while providing support in the run game with his tackling prowess. He will be the last line of defense against running back Jonathan Taylor and one of the primary playmakers charged with making Wisconsin’s shaky quarterbacks pay for taking to the air. Johnson has two forced fumbles and a pick this year after ushering in the Turnover Chain craze with seven takeaways last fall.
Academy Sports + Outdoors Texas Bowl (Baylor vs. Vanderbilt)
Vanderbilt cornerback Joejuan Williams has an NFL defensive back’s frame that helped him stand up to the SEC’s best No. 1 targets, leading to four interceptions and 10 passes defensed this season. He’s still improving in press coverage, but the ability to be a game-changing ballhawk is there.
Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl (Purdue vs. Auburn)
Auburn defensive tackle Derrick Brown uses his 6'5" 325-pound frame and a mean streak to wreak havoc up front, with the athleticism to chase down ballcarriers who try to break outside of the tackles. He can play a three-technique in a 4–3 scheme or handle defensive tackle or end duties during passing downs.
Camping World Bowl (West Virginia vs. Syracuse)
West Virginia wide receiver David Sills V quickly became a red-zone nightmare after the former quarterback committed to his position change. Sills has good size, excellent jump-ball skills and a feel for coverages that makes him a chains-moving threat. He scored 33 touchdowns over the past two seasons and scored in all but one game this year.
Valero Alamo Bowl (Iowa State vs. Washington State)
As much as Washington State threw the ball quickly, offensive tackle Andre Dillard played a big role in protecting grad transfer quarterback Gardner Minshew. Dillard allowed only one sack and 11 hurries all season on nearly 700 snaps, but it remains to be seen whether the technique he got away with at times in the Pac-12 will fly in the NFL.
Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl (Florida vs. Michigan)
Florida right tackle Jawaan Taylor has been a fast riser this season thanks to his quick, steady feet to go along with his 335-pound frame. He could slide inside to guard to get the most of his physicality.
Belk Bowl (South Carolina vs. Virginia)
Expect Virginia safety Juan Thornhill to start rising up draft boards with his unique ability to play cornerback and safety. Projected to be a safety because of concerns about matchups with fast receivers and his speed, he had five interceptions and 92 total tackles for the Cavaliers in 2018. He's comfortable playing near the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, covering a slot receiver or playing as a single-high safety.
NOVA Home Loans Arizona Bowl (Arkansas State vs. Nevada)
Arkansas State's Justice Hansen, a dual-threat quarterback, improved significantly from 2017 as far as limiting his mistakes, cutting his interceptions from 16 to 6 while raising his completion percentage and adjusted pass yards per attempt. He has good size and is a 68% passer when facing a rush, and led the Sun Belt’s best offense. Hansen could be a good fit for teams that utilize run-pass options because of his quick release and arm strength.
Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic (Clemson vs. Notre Dame)
A concern for Clemson defensive tackle Dexter Lawrence is sometimes he can disappear during games, but the undeniable talent is there. When he is on, Lawrence has the ability shed double teams and destroy any team’s game plan, especially if it wants to run the ball like Notre Dame tries to. Also look for Lawrence on the offensive end in goal line packages, either as a blocker or a ball carrier.
Capital One Orange Bowl (Alabama vs Oklahoma)
The dilemma with Oklahoma quarterback Kyler Murray, the Heisman Trophy winner, is whether he will stay in school, make himself available to the NFL or resume a promising baseball career. Murray’s arm and athleticism makes him an interesting project for a team willing to gamble on a non-prototypical quarterback. His size, at 5’10", could scare teams off, but this is all dependent on what he will do after the season.
Military Bowl Presented by Northrop Grumman (Cincinnati vs. Virginia Tech)
In this deep class of defensive lineman, Virginia Tech defensive tackle Ricky Walker might get lost in the shuffle, but it won't be because of his skill set. He is just as skilled as any of the players that will be taken ahead of him, but the consistency in his production doesn't stack up with others at his position. But Walker is your classic run-stuffer, who uses his hands well to fight off blocks and make plays.
Hyundai Sun Bowl (Stanford vs. Pittsburgh)
When healthy, Stanford running back Bryce Love was one of college football’s most productive backs. A shifty runner with outstanding vision and speed to take any handoff the distance, he also is effective running between the tackles. Love was slowed by an ankle injury and ran for only 739 yards in 2018 after his Heisman runner-up campaign in 2017, when he ran for over 2,100 yards and 19 touchdowns at 8.5 yards per clip.
Redbox Bowl (Michigan State vs. Oregon)
Many project Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert to be the first signal caller taken off the board in April’s draft—if he decalres. There isn’t much to nitpick about Herbert, as he has it all: the size, the mobility, the arm strength that teams love. The questions could be about his accuracy, which dropped nearly nine points from 2017. A late season shoulder injury and the need to add weight to his 6’6” 225–pound frame will be questions moving forward.
AutoZone Liberty Bowl (Missouri vs. Oklahoma State)
Missouri quarterback Drew Lock could have entered the draft last year after setting the SEC record with 44 touchdown passes in 2017. Instead he came back for his senior season and although his stats were down this season, he did improve on his accuracy and cut down on his mistakes. He has a pendency for pushing the ball down the field, which bodes well, and is patient enough to allow receivers to break open when his first and second reads aren’t there.
San Diego County Credit Union Holiday Bowl (Northwestern vs. Utah)
Among the concerns about Northwestern quarterback Clayton Thorson is his inability or unwillingness to throw the ball down the field. The dink and dunk style is slowly evaporating for the NFL and Thorson, who has 15 touchdowns and 14 interceptions while averaging 6.4 yards per attempt, will have ample opportunity to raise his stock. Utah’s defense is stout and could create problems for Thorson, who has displayed flashes, but also long bouts of inconsistency during his career.
TaxSlayer Gator Bowl (NC State vs. Texas A&M)
If it seems NC State quarterback Ryan Finley has been in college forever, it is because he has. He started his career at Boise State in 2013 and has 45 games of experience. Scouts praise Finley’s accuracy, which is best on West Coast-type short-to-intermediate routes, and he can place the ball in tight windows on the move. He could use some more weight on his frame, but has the arm and size that teams want.
Outback Bowl (Mississippi State vs. Iowa)
The Rams' Aaron Donald has set the standards for an interior pass rusher, and while the skill set isn't the same, Mississippi State defensive tackle Jeffery Simmons could make a similar impact in the right defensive system. He dominated SEC lineman with sheer strength, most of the time with a straight bull rush. Simmons is an elite run stopper and the catalyst for a Bulldogs defense that allowed only seven rushing touchdowns and 3.04 yards a carry.
VRBO Citrus Bowl (Kentucky vs. Penn State)
Kentucky linebacker Josh Allen had a spectacular season, leading the SEC in tackles for loss and sacks, while cleaning up during awards season. He also has 11 career forced fumbles. Allen can be a three-down linebacker in the NFL thanks to his incredible athleticism. He will be an immediate upgrade to any defense that can’t get to the passer or struggles on running downs.
PlayStation Fiesta Bowl: LSU vs. UCF
A typical sideline-to-sideline linebacker, LSU's Devin White is explosive at the point of attack, and typically sheds blockers with ease to either make the tackle himself or allow teammates to swarm the ball. He was second in the SEC in tackles and seemingly made an impact on every play. The ability to cover running backs on pass routes will make him an immediate starter on the next level.
Rose Bowl Presented by Northwestern Mutual (Washington vs. Ohio State)
Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins is a straight-up pocket passer who can throw receivers open on intermediate routes and also push the ball downfield with above-average accuracy. A volume passer who had five 400-yard passing games in 2018, Haskins’s intelligence and savvy will have him competing for a starting job on day one in the NFL.
Allstate Sugar Bowl (Texas vs. Georgia)
The key for Georgia cornerback Deandre Baker is for him to test well at the combine, especially in the 40. While not the most significant factor, it could mean the difference in where he is drafted. Baker, a first-team AP All-America selection, could have his hands full with Texas receivers Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey if the Longhorns decide to be aggressive with their passing game.