Which 2017 NFL Draft prospects should you be watching in the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup between Pittsburgh and Northwestern?
Bowl season is a great time to get a look at the upcoming NFL Draft prospects. The top-tier college football players typically bring their best effort in their last game for their college programs.
Obviously the playoff games and higher tier bowls typically have the most talent, but there are plenty of NFL Draft prospects to watch for in the other games as well. On Wednesday, all eyes are going to look at the New Era Pinstripe Bowl matchup between Pittsburgh and Northwestern.
A team with a strong offensive unit and an aggressive defense, the Pitt Panthers can beat anybody. We saw that earlier this season as they hold upsets over both Clemson and Penn State this season.
That being said, their aggressive play on defense can hurt them, and that has proved to be the case in their four losses. In their four losses to Oklahoma State, North Carolina, Virginia Tech and Miami this season, the Panthers allowed an average of 42.3 points per contest.
The 6-6 Northwestern Wildcats come into this game as three-point underdogs. Northwestern has a strong rushing attack and a passing game that can get chunk plays. However, their defense is easily exploited through the air. It will be interesting to see if Northwestern can keep up in this one.
This college football game taking place at Yankee Stadium will undoubtedly be interesting to watch. However, we will mostly be watching to see the NFL Draft prospects. Who are the five best NFL Draft prospects in the 2016 New Era Pinstripe Bowl?
Oct 15, 2016; East Lansing, MI, USA; Northwestern Wildcats running back Justin Jackson (21) runs the ball against Michigan State Spartans safety Matt Morrissey (10) during the second half of a game at Spartan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports
5. Justin Jackson, RB — Northwestern
Height: 5-11 Weight: 193 pounds Class: Junior
The 2017 NFL Draft class is loaded with prospects at the running back position. Guys like Leonard Fournette, Dalvin Cook and Christian McCaffrey lead the way as possible first-round picks, but there is also serious depth at the position in this class.
One of my favorite later round running back prospects is Northwestern’s Justin Jackson. Just a junior, Jackson could come back to Northwestern next season, which could be enticing in such a loaded class. However, entering the NFL Draft before you get any older is typically the best bet for running backs.
Jackson has been the primary weapon in the Wildcats offense in each of his three years on campus. The 2016 season has been his best year yet, as he has totaled an even 1,300 yards and 12 touchdowns on 266 carries. With 3,905 career yards on the ground, Jackson is the second-leading rusher in the history of the program. If he returns to Northwestern next season, Jackson will easily become the all-time leading rusher in the program.
Jackson is a balanced back who shoulder a large workload in college. He shows solid power at the point of attack and a willingness to pick up the tough yardage on the inside. While Jackson is not the quickest or most elusive guy with the ball in his hands, he does have legitimate breakaway speed in space. The Northwestern product is also an extremely capable receiver out of the backfield who pass protects at an extremely high level for a young back.
Make no mistake about it, Justin Jackson is a talented running back who has some nice upside at the next level. He is undoubtedly an NFL Draft prospect to watch in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Oct 1, 2016; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back James Conner (24) rushes the ball against the Marshall Thundering Herd during the first quarter at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
4. James Conner, RB — Pittsburgh
Height: 6-2 Weight: 235 pounds Class: Junior
James Conner entered the 2015 season as one of the premier backs in college football. However, he suffered a torn MCL in Pittsburgh’s first game of the season, ending his year before it really even got going. Unfortunately, more bad news followed Conner later in the year, as he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which is a form of cancer. Obviously, Conner’s football career was put on hold as he had to work to get his health right.
Luckily, Conner overcame all odds by beating cancer. He was actually healthy enough to be on the field with his teammates at the start of the 2016 season. Not only has Conner returned to action, he looks as good as ever before.
This season, Conner has rushed the ball 208 times for 1,060 yards (5.1 yards per carry average) and 16 touchdowns. He is a workhorse back who shows the same kind of power that we were accustomed to seeing from him before. Conner’s return to the field is incredibly impressive and obviously a great story. But going forward, there is a lot to like about his game.
An extremely powerful back who is not afraid of contact, Conner thrives running in between the tackles. He is not the most elusive player on a football field, but he does show some nice explosion going through the holes and there is some breakaway speed in his game.
While it was not part of his game in the past, Conner has also shown the ability to be a capable receiver out of the backfield this season. Heading into this matchup with Northwestern, Conner has 20 receptions for 299 yards and four receiving touchdowns on the season. In the past, Conner was simply looked at as a two-down grinder back, but he has shown more this season. I believe that he has true three-down ability at the next level.
Conner beating cancer makes for a great story, but even putting that aside, he is a high-level running back prospect for the 2017 NFL Draft. His skills will be on full display against Northwestern in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Oct 22, 2016; Evanston, IL, USA; Indiana Hoosiers running back Devonte Williams (2) is tackled by Northwestern Wildcats linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. (1) in the second half at Ryan Field. Mandatory Credit: Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
3. Anthony Walker Jr., LB — Northwestern
Height: 6-1 Weight: 245 pounds Class: Junior
This next player may or may not leave early to enter the 2017 NFL Draft. That being said, whatever Northwestern linebacker Anthony Walker Jr. decides to do, he needs to be squarely on the radar of NFL teams.
Walker is an extremely athletic and aggressive linebacker prospect who has the ability to make plays all over the field. He shows great awareness both against the run and in pass coverage, and routinely makes plays that he seems to have no business making.
A linebacker with great speed and range, Walker is a fantastic playmaker at the position. However, do not doubt his ability to play tough on the inside. This guy does a great job of knifing through the defense and making plays on the inside. He can roam sideline-to-sideline, but Walker has the strength and willingness to mix it up inside as well.
While the skills and work ethic are certainly in place for Walker to shine, he is a relatively raw player. At times, Walker lets his aggressiveness get the best of him, overrunning the play or missing his assignment.
However, there is a ton to like about his game. Whether Walker comes out this season or next, he will have a chance to come in and be an immediate contributor for any NFL team. His initial contributions may come on special teams, but there is no doubting his defensive upside as well. A smart, tough and athletic player, Anthony Walker Jr. is a great NFL Draft prospect who can make a significant difference in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl.
Nov 21, 2015; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers offensive linemen Dorian Johnson (53) Brian O’Neill (70) celebrate with fullback George Aston (35) after Aston scored a four yard touchdown against the Louisville Cardinals during the second quarter at Heinz Field. PITT won 45-34. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports
2. Dorian Johnson, OG — Pittsburgh
Height: 6-5 Weight: 315 pounds Class: Senior
The Panthers have showcased an elite offensive line all season long. Not only do the guys up front open up holes extremely well for Conner and the running backs, they have done a great job protecting quarterback Nathan Peterman. Arguably the best offensive lineman of the top-notch group has been left guard Dorian Johnson, who has become a legitimate early Day 2 NFL Draft prospect.
Johnson is listed at 315 pounds, but I would imagine that listing is a bit generous. He is a bit on the small side for the position, which is not ideal. That being said, if Johnson lacks anything in size, he makes up for it in energy. Continually playing through the whistle, Johnson continually drives defenders back at the point of attack. He is an extremely aggressive run blocker who shows the ability to create holes for the back.
While Johnson certainly has some power to his game, it is his footwork that makes him most appealing. A quick and athletic guard, Pittsburgh uses Johnson to pull and trap block on a consistent basis.
Whether he is leading through the hole or making a quick kick out block on the pull, Johnson does a great job of getting where he needs to be. His foot quickness makes him stand out on the field and will translate well to the next level.
Johnson is inconsistent in pass protection, but the skills are clearly in place for him to become good in that department. An extremely willing player who has the natural skill-set to shine in the NFL, Johnson is undoubtedly a guy to keep an eye on against Northwestern.
Oct 24, 2015; Syracuse, NY, USA; Pittsburgh Panthers running back Qadree Ollison (37) runs behind the block of offensive lineman Adam Bisnowaty (69) during the fourth quarter of a game at the Carrier Dome. Pittsburgh won 23-20. Mandatory Credit: Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports
1. Adam Bisnowaty, OT — Pittsburgh
Height: 6-6 Weight: 305 pounds Class: Senior
Adam Bisnowaty is Johnson’s running mate on the left side of the Pittsburgh offensive line. With Bisnowaty at tackle and Johnson at guard, the Panthers have the best left side of an offensive line in college football.
The 2017 offensive tackle class leaves plenty to be desired. There are not any sure-fire first-round offensive tackles who guarantee to make an impact at the next level. That being said, Bisnowaty is a guy who could emerge as the best of the bunch.
A legitimate left tackle with great feet and athleticism, there is a lot to like about Bisnowaty’s game. He is an extremely tough and aggressive run blocker who can reach the second-level with ease.
Similar to Johnson, Bisnowaty has a relatively slight frame for an offensive lineman. That being said, his mean and nasty blocking style makes up for any size concerns. A physical drive blocker, Bisnowaty will never back down from a challenge. On top of playing with an edge, Bisnowaty has an ideal athletic build for an NFL left tackle. His movement on the edge is impressive, as Bisnowaty mirrors against speed rushers extremely well.
This offensive tackle class is not great, but there are some guys who have the talent to make an impact at the next level. A true left tackle prospect who has the ideal build and skills to succeed at the next level, Bisnowaty is a strong NFL Draft prospect. He has first-round upside for an offensive tackle needy team in the 2017 NFL Draft.