The College Football Playoff and the major bowls are right around the corner. Here are the top draft-eligible talent NFL teams are keeping an eye on this week:
Cotton Bowl, Dec. 29, 4 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame
Clemson: DT Dexter Lawrence is one of three Clemson players who failed drug tests because they had traces of the illegal substance ostarine in their samples. He was one of three projected first-round talents on the Tigers’ defensive line, along with DT Christian Wilkins and DE Clelin Ferrell. Wilkins is incredibly nimble for a 315-pounder, and some evaluators believe he could actually contribute on offense, too (Clemson has used him some as a goal-line tailback). NFL teams wish he was more physical, because there are questions on how he plays the run, but in the passing game, he consistently wreaks havoc. Ferrell is a really good player with great instincts as a pass rusher. Cornerback Trayvon Mullen is also a potential first-rounder, he has the size and speed to be developed into a top-flight corner.
Notre Dame: DL Jerry Tillery is a borderline first-rounder. Most guys Tillery’s size (6' 7") are run down players, but Tillery can also affect the quarterback. He’s quick off the ball and explosive, and teams love that, paired with his height and length.
Orange Bowl, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma
Alabama: DT Quinnen Williams will likely be a top-five pick. In a draft loaded with interior defensive linemen, Williams is regarded by many as the top defensive tackle—he won the 2018 Outland Trophy for best interior lineman in college football. Alabama also has the best safety in the draft, Deionte Thompson, who is having a breakout season as a redshirt junior. Thompson has tremendous instincts and range. If you like watching offensive line play, keep an eye on the Tide’s left tackle Jonah Williams. There’s a question of what position he’ll play in the pros—he might project to right tackle or inside. Whether Williams can man the left side or not, there’ll be a place for him in the league.
Oklahoma: If Sooners QB Kyler Murray honors his baseball contract with the Oakland A’s, this could be his last football game ever. Murray is currently committed to major league baseball after his college season ends, but there is plenty of evidence that proves he’s at least considering the NFL as an option, and many NFL scouts I’ve spoken to expect him to choose football. Murray is anywhere from a first- through third-round prospect, but could raise his draft stock with a good performance against Alabama.
Holiday Bowl, Dec. 31, 7 p.m. (FS1)
Northwestern (8-5) vs. No. 20 Utah (9-4)
Northwestern: QB Clayton Thorson first appeared on the NFL radar his sophomore season in 2016. Since then, Thorson has 30 touchdowns and 26 picks in 2017 and 2018 combined, but he's hit the 60% completion bar in both seasons. Thorson tore his ACL in the Music City Bowl last season, but came back in time to start the entire 2018 season and lead the Wildcats to a Big Ten West title. Thorson is a four-year starter, and NFL teams will appreciate that experience, but his arm strength isn’t extraordinary and his decision-making needs work.
Liberty Bowl, Dec. 31, 3:45 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 24 Missouri (8-4) vs. Oklahoma State (6-6)
Missouri: Another four-year starter at quarterback, Drew Lock, will benefit from Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert’s decision to return for his senior season in 2019. Lock finished 2018 with the best completion percentage of his career (63.2), and led Missouri to a win over No. 13 Florida, his first victory against a ranked opponent.
Outback Bowl, Jan. 1, Noon (ESPN2)
Iowa (8-4) vs. No. 18 Mississippi State (8-4)
Iowa: The Hawkeyes have the best tight end in the 2019 class in Noah Fant. Fant is a raw but athletically gifted receiving weapon who could add some flexibility to NFL offenses.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have two first-round caliber defensive linemen in DE Montez Sweat and DT Jeffrey Simmons, but both have character concerns. Sweat is the kind of lanky, flexible edge-bender that is always in demand. Simmons has outstanding athleticism for a 300-pounder. Along with masterful hand use, he is often unblockable.
Citrus Bowl, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. (ABC)
No. 16 Kentucky (9-3) vs. No. 13 Penn State (9-3)
Kentucky: OLB Josh Allen came back for his senior season and is the perfect example of a player who improved his draft stock drastically by finishing his college eligibility. He is a force on the edge and has proven himself capable as a run defender. RB Bennie Snell was the driving offensive force behind Kentucky’s 7-1 start this season. He’s had an impressive year, averaging 5.1 yards per carry with 14 touchdowns. The underclassman has already declared for the draft and will be among the top running backs in the 2019 class.
Penn State: Senior QB Trace McSorley is one of the most accomplished QBs in Penn State history, but polarizing as an NFL prospect. His height (6' 0") and accuracy are question marks, but he can make plays with his feet, and will be an interesting developmental prospect at the next level. Senior cornerback Amani Oruwariye is a borderline first-round prospect. He’s been a rock in Penn State’s secondary, with the size and ball skills to become a quality boundary corner.
Fiesta Bowl, Jan. 1, 1 p.m (ESPN)
No. 11 LSU vs. No. 7 UCF
LSU: Their top prospect, CB Greedy Williams, is skipping the bowl game to prepare for the NFL. Linebacker Devin White is this season’s Butkus award winner as the nation’s top linebacker, and a first-round talent as a three-down linebacker and playmaker who is seen as a potential Pro Bowler.
Rose Bowl, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. (ESPN)
No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Washington
Ohio State: If redshirt sophomore QB Dwayne Haskins declares for the draft, he will benefit the most from Herbert’s decision to stay in school; Haskins could be the first quarterback taken. DL Dre’Mont Jones is still raw, but he can be molded a number of different ways as a 290-pounder who moves like a much smaller man. Haskins will be throwing to three fifth-year senior receivers, none of whom will be first-round picks, but one, Parris Campbell, a run-after-catch threat, stands a good chance of being drafted.
Washington: CB Byron Murphy is a first-round talent, a versatile and aggressive corner. He has ball skills and the ability to cover the slot. He’s on the small side but more than willing to step up in run support.
Sugar Bowl, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET (ESPN)
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 14 Texas
Georgia: CB Deandre Baker is a tough, savvy ballhawk who will likely be ready to play right away. The only drawback is his height (5' 11").
Texas: The Longhorns have a pair of electrifying receivers in Collin Johnson and Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Johnson’s career numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s been held back by injuries and a lack of opportunities. His size (6' 6") creates mismatch advantages. Humphrey is a a big, physical receiver but lacks ideal long speed for the next level.
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