10 NFL Draft-eligible players to watch in national title game
National championship teams require quality coaching, execution, some good fortune and, most importantly, top-of-the-line talent. Alabama and Clemson will meet at the University of Phoenix Stadium with plenty of the latter, featuring NFL-caliber talent all over the field, particularly along the two defensive lines. FOX Sports South takes a look at 10 players looking to lead their respective teams to one final win this season before potentially hearing their names called to play on Sundays next fall.
A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Junior, Alabama
At 6-foot-4, 312 pounds, the anchor of the Crimson Tide’s relentless defensive line was named a consensus All-American in 2015 and looks poised to be the first defensive tackle taken in the ’16 draft. Robinson delivered on his promise as a highly touted recruit with 22 career tackles for loss despite demanding constant double teams. Clemson’s rebuilt offensive line has done an excellent job of protecting quarterback Deshaun Watson and paving running lanes this season, but it will have its hands full with Robinson & Co.
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Shaq Lawson, DE, Redshirt Junior, Clemson
Clemson’s defense faced the unenviable task of replacing top-10 draft pick and disruptive pass rusher Vic Beasley along the defensive line this past offseason, a task that fell to Lawson. The 6-foot-3 junior delivered by making the leap from sidekick to All-American to potential first-round selection. Lawson led the country with 23.5 tackles for loss (10.5 sacks) with some of his brightest moments coming against ranked opponents Notre Dame and North Carolina. Though he left the national semifinal against Oklahoma early, Lawson is expected to play (and perform) in Phoenix.
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Reggie Ragland, LB, Senior, Alabama
Not only does Nick Saban’s defense boast arguably the top interior lineman in the country, it also features an absolute ballhawk in Reggie Ragland, a first-round talent in his own right. The 6-foot-2, 252-pound senior replaced former 17th overall pick C.J. Mosley in 2014, and has only improved since moving to the mike linebacker position this season, leading Alabama with 97 tackles and two forced fumbles. Considered the consensus top inside linebacker in the upcoming draft, expect Ragland, a unanimous first-team All-American, to create problems for the Tigers’ dynamic offense.
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Jarran Reed, DT, Senior, Alabama
The Crimson Tide boast the nation’s top rushing defense, allowing just under 71 yards per game on the ground, and it’s not only because of Robinson and Ragland. The 313-pound Reed completes the best 1-2 interior line punch in college football, demanding extra blockers and attention alongside Robinson. The senior has notched 4.5 tackles for loss this season en route to second-team All-SEC honors. A Day 1 talent in his own right, Reed, a former JUCO transfer, will be a popular name tossed around NFL front offices looking to shore up their efforts against the run.
The 5-foot-11 cornerback started his 2015 campaign off by proclaiming himself to be the nation’s best — and he has yet to disappoint. Alexander’s counting numbers do not jump off the page (five passes broken up, two tackles for loss), but that’s mainly due to opposing quarterbacks avoiding him at all costs. Despite lacking ideal size, he’s in an elite class of corners alongside the likes of Jalen Ramsey (Florida State), Vernon Hargreaves III (Florida) and Kendall Fuller (Virginia Tech) and shutting down top receivers in Notre Dame’s Will Fuller and Oklahoma’s Sterling Shepard has only help his draft stock. The title game could be his final audition for NFL scouts.
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Jayron Kearse, S, Junior, Clemson
The Fort Myers, Fla., native is listed at 6-foot-5, 220 pounds by his school’s measurements — elite size even for NFL wide receivers — making him quite a unique prospect at the safety position. Considered an early-round pick, Kearse is a versatile playmaker (seven career interceptions) that can cover ground and make plays at the line of scrimmage: He claims 11.5 tackles for loss in his two seasons as a starter.
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Jonathan Allen, DE, Junior, Alabama
Alabama’s twin steamrollers, Robinson and Reed, garner the highest NFL praise, but it’s Jonathan Allen who owns the most disruptive numbers on the team. The 6-foot-3 former five-star recruit benefits from the attention paid to his teammates — what player wouldn’t? — but leading the Crimson Tide with 12 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss is not a fluke. ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay has Allen slotted as a first-round talent due to his size and versatility. Clemson’s standout true freshman tackle Mitch Hyatt faces a tall task in keeping Allen away from Watson.
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Derrick Henry, RB, Junior, Alabama
Though the defensive lines claim the vast majority of top-tier NFL talent in this national title matchup, the running back position is absolutely loaded. Sophomore Wayne Gallman set Clemson’s single-season rushing record and Alabama second-stringer Kenyan Drake is drawing pro interest as well, but Derrick Henry, the 2015 Heisman Award winner, claims the brightest spotlight. With 2,061 yards and 25 touchdowns, he’s a machine. Alabama utilized him as a decoy against Michigan State, but he’ll be a focal point regardless … and then possibly the top running back prospect in the draft.
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Jordan Leggett, TE, Junior, Clemson
Tigers quarterback Deshaun Watson needed targets to emerge after 2014 top receiver Mike Williams suffered a season-ending injury in Week 1, so Leggett’s breakout campaign could not have come at a better time. After two quiet seasons, the 6-foot-4 athletic tight end became a formidable redzone threat and Clemson’s leader in receiving touchdowns. As a result, he’s shot up draft boards and looks like a possible Day 2 pick should he decide to declare.
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Ryan Kelly, C, Redshirt Senior, Alabama
A three-year starter at center with 45 career games under his belt, Kelly has watched former linemates Cyrus Kouandjio, Arie Kouandjio and Austin Shepherd get drafted in recent years … and soon it is going to be his turn. After taking over for former All-American Barrett Jones in 2013, Kelly has positioned himself as the top-rated center on draft boards. The 297-pound All-American has helped pave the way for three consecutive top-25 offenses.