NFL draft prospects to watch during college football playoffs, bowl games
To get you ready for all of college football’s post-season action, and to help you prepare for the 2016 NFL Draft, we’re offering up one player to keep an eye on for each bowl team. Here’s who to watch during the games taking place Dec. 31 through Jan. 2:
Peach Bowl (Dec. 31)
Houston vs. Florida State
Houston: William Jackson, CB. ESPN's Todd McShay wrote last month that he is "hearing a lot of Day 2 buzz" about Jackson. And honestly, I'm not sure that even sets the bar high enough. Jackson (6'1", 185 pounds) has the size and desire to play a physical game at the line of scrimmage vs. NFL receivers. He broke up seven passes in the AAC title game alone, part of a school-record 21 break-ups this season. Jackson will play in the Senior Bowl. If he excels there, his stock could shoot through the roof.
Florida State: Nile Lawrence-Stample, DT. Listed on Florida State's website at 6'1", 302 pounds, Lawrence-Stample both looks and plays bigger than that along the interior. He did notch 2.5 sacks this season, after missing much of 2015 with a pectoral injury. His real value, though, is in occupying space against the run. Lawrence-Stample doesn't have the same athletic upside, but his game reminds me some of 2015 third-rounder Carl Davis.
Playoff Semifinal (Dec. 31)
Clemson vs. Oklahoma
Clemson: Jayron Kearse, S. The nephew of former NFLer Jevon Kearse, the Clemson junior safety is one of two potential first-rounders in the secondary (redshirt sophomore cornerback Mackensie Alexander the other) and one of three draft standouts overall (DE Shaq Lawson had a huge year). Jayron Kearse is tall for a safety (6'4", 210 pounds), but that height, arm length and mentality allow him to drop down and play coverage. He's also rangy enough to succeed patrolling as a Cover-1 safety. His game needs refinement, but the available skill is worth a little patience.
Oklahoma: Charles Tapper, DE. Off a 7.0-sack, 10.0 tackle-for-loss season, Tapper is slated to play at the Senior Bowl next month. The sack production actually came as a bit of a surprise, but a pleasant one. Tapper's strength is in using his frame (6'2", 282 pounds) to stymie offensive linemen on run plays.
Playoff Semifinal (Dec. 31)
Alabama vs. Michigan State
Alabama: Ryan Kelly, C. The Rimington Trophy winner as the nation's best center, Kelly (6'5", 297 pounds) is a three-year starter for the Crimson Tide. He played an instrumental role in Derrick Henry's impressive season, plus has yet to allow a single sack in 2015. Kelly moves really well and displays NFL-ready technique.
Michigan State: Aaron Burbridge, WR. A lot of draft chatter surrounding other Spartans like Connor Cook, Shilique Calhoun, Jack Conklin, etc. Burbridge (6'1", 208 pounds) has emerged as a draft prospect in his own right, thanks to 79 receptions and 1,200 yards. He was brilliant in contested spots this year, repeatedly turning Cook's tight-window throws into significant gains.
Outback Bowl (Jan. 1)
Tennessee vs. Northwestern
Tennessee: Cameron Sutton, CB. Likely at least in the Day 2 mix should he declare for the draft, Sutton (5'11", 186 pounds) has started 37 games for Tennessee. A bonus: Sutton also leads the FBS ranks in punt return yardage with 467, including two touchdowns. Sutton thrives playing up on receivers; he has six INTs and 26 pass break-ups during his career.
Northwestern: Dean Lowry, DE. My favorite Northwestern prospect, CB Nick Vanhoose, won't play in this game because of a finger injury. Whenever anyone feels like hopping aboard his bandwagon with me, feel free—there is plenty of room. Pro Football Focus did last month, ranking Vanhoose (6'0", 190 pounds) as the No. 2 Power-5 conference cornerback this season, behind Michigan's Jourdan Lewis (who has said he will stay in school).
His teammate and fellow Shrine Game invitee, Lowry (6'6", 285 pounds) has slid under the radar, too. He has 13 tackles for loss and 3.0 sacks this season, and he can be a real handful up front. Lowry's high-energy game could make him a scheme-versatile option in the NFL.
Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1)
Florida vs. Michigan
Florida: Antonio Morrison, LB. Soon to be headed to the Senior Bowl, Morrison has averaged 95.5 tackles the past two years for Florida. He made an extremely impressive recovery from a brutal knee injury, suffered during January's Birmingham Bowl. His smaller frame (6'1", 218 pounds) and that injury history could drive him down a bit, but he is an instinctive linebacker with the tackling skills to produce.
Michigan: Graham Glasgow, C. Glasgow (6'6", 303 pounds) has started at center and both guard spots over the past three seasons, spending the duration of 2015 in the middle of Michigan's line. He's turned in some very steady showing this season, generating some push in the run game and showing good awareness as a pass blocker. The Shrine Game awaits.
Fiesta Bowl (Jan. 1)
Notre Dame vs. Ohio State
Notre Dame: C.J. Prosise, RB. We should see Prosise on New Year's Day after he missed the Irish's regular-season finale at Stanford. The 6'0", 220-pound senior took over from an injured Tarean Folston and rushed for 1,000 yards with 11 TDs. He also caught 26 passes out of the backfield (11.8 yards-per-catch average), showing some of the elusiveness that had him at DB and WR earlier in his career.
Ohio State: Joshua Perry, OLB. Passing score on the eye test here—Perry stands an impressive 6'4", 254 pounds. He can do a little bit of everything with that frame, too, including blitzing (3.5 sacks this season and 7.5 for his career). Perry had 124 tackles in 2014 and has 98 so far this year. He has accepted a Senior Bowl invite.
Rose Bowl (Jan. 1)
Iowa vs. Stanford
Iowa: Desmond King, CB. King (5'11", 200 pounds) already has been claimed on Twitter by a few draft analysts as a favorite prospect in this class (should he declare). It's easy to see why. King picked off eight passes this season and broke up another 12 en route to winning the Jim Thorpe Award as college football's top defensive back. He can handle just about any responsibility thrown at him, from a variety of coverage spots. Impressive.
Stanford: Joshua Garnett, G. I was trying to take notes on Stanford OT Kyle Murphy at one point earlier this season but would up marveling at Garnett instead. The 6'5", 321-pound guard had at least a couple plays per game on which he just demolished the defender in front of him. The Outland Trophy winner (college football's top interior lineman) will participate in the Senior Bowl.
Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1)
Oklahoma State vs. Ole Miss
Oklahoma State: David Glidden, WR. There are several Cowboys with draft hopes, including possible first-rounder Emmanuel Ogbah, CB Kevin Peterson, DE Jimmy Bean and LB Ryan Simmons (the latter two are injured). So, a bit of a shot in the dark here, if only because we haven't yet used a Wes Welker comparison in any of these blurbs.
Glidden (5'8", 185 pounds) has to live at slot receiver because of his size, but he's been productive there for Oklahoma State. He caught 53 balls for 807 yards this season, both career highs. The redshirt senior is a reliable pass-catcher and has a knack for finding open space.
Ole Miss: Trae Elston, S. Unfortunately, Rebels safety Tony Conner won't play in this game—he's been battling a knee injury all year. His absence should shine a brighter spotlight on Elston, an underrated performer. Elston (5'11", 195 pounds) picked off four passes and knocked down 12 this season, plus averaged 62 tackles during his career. He's aggressive almost to a fault, but will be a valuable and versatile piece at the next level.
TaxSlayer Bowl (Jan. 2)
Penn State vs. Georgia
Penn State: Austin Johnson, DT. A big body (6'4", 323 pounds) with the quickness off the snap to penetrate the line—Johnson notched 5.5 sacks and 13.0 tackles for loss this season. The size/athleticism combo figures to push Johnson up the board, should he opt to enter the draft. Just a junior, Johnson is waiting to hear back from the NFL advisory board.
Georgia: John Theus, OT. Jumped right into the fray, starting at right tackle as a freshman. He eventually transitioned over to the left side, though a kick back to his original college position could be awaiting in the pros. How Theus (6'6", 303 pounds) plays down in Mobile at the Senior Bowl could be the determining factor. He has potential as a decent run blocker with room to grow elsewhere.
Liberty Bowl (Jan. 2)
Arkansas vs. Kansas State
Arkansas: Hunter Henry, TE. Is the consensus All-American and Mackey Award winner (top tight end) his position's top 2016 draft prospect. Should Henry (6'5", 253 pounds) bypass his senior season, he very well may be. Henry is very difficult to deal with as a route-runner, using his frame and fluid movements to create those slot mismatches NFL teams crave.
Kansas State: Cody Whitehair, G/T. Whitehair (6'4", 305 pounds) is All-Big 12 left tackle who also offers experience on the right side and at guard. He could filter through several spots at next month's Senior Bowl, as his versatility is a clear selling point. The Wildcats' senior isn't noticeably quick but he plays large and strong.
Alamo Bowl (Jan. 2)
Oregon vs. TCU
Oregon: Bralon Addison, WR. Might be one to file away for the 2017 draft. Addison did miss the 2014 season with an ACL tear, though, so the redshirt junior might be ready to make the NFL leap now. If he does, his explosive playmaking abilities could turn him into a Day 2 superstar, a la Seattle's Tyler Lockett. Addison (5'10", 190 pounds) caught 58 passes, scored 13 TDs and averaged 16 yards on kick and punt returns this year.
TCU: Aaron Green, RB. An 1,100-yard rusher this season, Green (5'11", 205 pounds) offers nice burst through the hole and shiftiness between the tackles. He hasn't done a ton catching passes (14 receptions for 61 yards and a TD this season), but does pass block frequently. Green is the type of back an NFL team can round out its RB depth chart with, trusting that he can be used in all situations.
Cactus Bowl (Jan. 2)
West Virginia vs. Arizona State
West Virginia: Nick Kwiatkoski, LB. Mountaineers safety Karl Joseph is a lot of fun to watch play his position, but he has been out since October with a knee injury. Kwiatkoski (6'2", 235 pounds) has helped West Virginia's defense survive without him. The hard-nosed linebacker has 79 tackles this year, giving him 289 for his career. Assuming he fares alright at the Senior Bowl, Kwiatkoski shapes up as a mid- to late-rounder who sticks in the NFL for a long time.
Arizona State: Mike Bercovici, QB. Have not hit on any QBs yet, so may as well close with a wild card. Bercovici (6'2", 210 pounds) threw for 3,436 yards, 26 TDs and nine INTs this season. Like his team, Bercovici's inconsistency has been rather maddening, but he's intriguing as an NFL prospect when he clicks. The redshirt senior can manipulate the pocket and throw on the run, backing those abilities with a decent arm. Think late-round prospect who could benefit greatly from the right coaching.