2017 NFL Draft Prospects to Watch: Dec. 30-31 Bowls
Nov 26, 2016; Columbus, OH, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes cornerback Gareon Conley (8) gets the crowd into the game during the second quarter against the Michigan Wolverines at Ohio Stadium. Ohio State won 30-27. Mandatory Credit: Joe Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports
The final two days of 2016 are arguably the two most exciting days of the college football season. Nine bowls will be packed into these two days, including the Peach and Fiesta Bowls, which will determine which teams will compete for the national championship. With nine games taking place, there will be a ton of 2017 NFL Draft prospects to keep an eye on.
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Scouts will be closely watching how these prospects perform in their final collegiate game. In each of the nine contests taking place during this two-day stretch, there are certain prospects and matchups that will garner the majority of the attention. NFL decision makers will be looking for the prospects involved in these matchups to step up with the spotlight on.
The following 2017 NFL Draft prospects are the players NFL teams will be watching closely in these nine games. Whether they’re involved in an intriguing matchup or just someone who needs to improve their stock, these are the 2017 NFL Draft prospects to keep an eye on during the final nine bowl games of 2016.
Sep 10, 2016; Fort Worth, TX, USA; TCU Horned Frogs defensive end Josh Carraway (94) sacks Arkansas Razorbacks quarterback Austin Allen (8) during the first quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports
Liberty Bowl: Josh Carraway (DE – TCU)
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For the second year in-a-row, TCU defensive end Josh Carraway was named first-team All-Big 12. While the conference isn’t known for skilled defenses, Carraway is one of the few bright spots and is a likely mid-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Carraway has been one of the most productive edge rushers in college football over the past two seasons. He’s recorded 17 sacks and 22.5 tackles for a loss since the beginning of the 2015 season when he joined the starting lineup. He’s not nearly as effective against the run as he is rushing the passer, but there’s a role in the NFL for him as a third-down specialist.
If Carraway wants to prove to NFL decision makers he can remain on the field on first and second downs, there isn’t a better opportunity than the one he has in the Liberty Bowl against Georgia. The Bulldogs have possibly the best one-two punch at running back with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Both backs made headlines recently by announcing their intention to return to Georgia for another season. They combine to carry the ball about 29 times per game, which will give Carraway plenty of opportunities to showcase his skills against the run.
Sep 24, 2016; Chapel Hill, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Mitch Trubisky (10) passes the ball during the first quarter against the Pittsburgh Panthers at Kenan Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports
Sun Bowl: Mitch Trubisky (QB – North Carolina)
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The Sun Bowl has been in the news for all the wrong reasons this bowl season. First, Stanford’s star running back Christian McCaffrey announced he would begin preparing for the 2017 NFL Draft rather than play in this game. Then, North Carolina’s running back Elijah Hood stated he would return to school next season, but would also sit out the Sun Bowl. While the two ball carriers have already made their future plans known, the NFL is anxiously awaiting a decision from North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky.
While the best one-on-one matchup in this game will be North Carolina right tackle Jon Heck versus Stanford defensive lineman Solomon Thomas, all eyes will be on Trubisky. The junior signal caller has only started 12 games in his career, but has already received early first-round hype. What makes him so valuable is his accuracy and production in critical situations such as third downs and in the red zone. What he needs to improve is how streaky he gets at times. While he has been on point for extended periods of time, he’s also gone through long stretches of marginal play.
Trubisky could use another year of seasoning in college, however there are plenty of reasons to declare for the 2017 NFL Draft. Not only is he projected to be a first-round pick, but his top receivers (Ryan Switzer, Bug Howard and Mack Hollins) are all seniors. If this is indeed his last collegiate game, it won’t be an easy one. Opponents are completing just 54.3 percent of their passes against the Cardinal defense.
Oct 8, 2016; College Station, TX, USA; Tennessee Volunteers defensive end Derek Barnett (9) in action during the game against the Texas A&M Aggies at Kyle Field. The Aggies defeat the Volunteers 45-38 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Music City Bowl: Derek Barnett (DE – Tennessee)
When all is said and done, Tennessee defensive end Derek Barnett could be a top-10 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. However Barnett will be looking to make history first. If he can record even half a sack against Nebraska in the Music City Bowl, Barnett will surpass Reggie White as the all-time sack leader in Tennessee history.
The junior defender has amassed double-digit sacks in each of his first three seasons at Tennessee and is expected to make the jump to the NFL after this season. Barnett possesses a very good burst off the snap, and as seen in the play below, has the quickness to beat a pulling guard to the point of attack.
Barnett may not receive the hype that Myles Garrett or Tim Williams do out of the SEC, but he may be the most well-rounded of the group. As solid as Barnett has been as a pass rusher, he’s equally as skilled against the run. The fact that Tennessee has been riddled with major injuries on the defensive side of the ball, including cornerback Cameron Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin, makes what Barnett has accomplished this season even more impressive.
Sep 19, 2015; San Diego, CA, USA; South Alabama Jaguars tight end Gerald Everett (12) runs for a touchdown after making a fourth quarter catch as San Diego State Aztecs defensive back Na
Arizona Bowl: Gerald Everett (TE – South Alabama)
Playing at South Alabama, Gerald Everett may not receive a lot of national attention, but he has caught the attention of scouts. Despite what is considered a deep class of tight ends, Everett has shown enough to earn an invitation to the Senior Bowl. There he’ll look to prove he belongs with the likes of Evan Engram (who has accepted an invite), O.J. Howard, Jake Butt and Jordan Leggett (none of whom have been officially added to the game yet).
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Before the Senior Bowl on January 28th, Everett and the Jaguars will look to finish the season strong. South Alabama is currently 6-6 on the year and has alternated wins and losses for the past six games. They’ll look to reverse that trend against Air Force in the Arizona Bowl after winning the regular season finale.
In the Arizona Bowl, Everett will see plenty of Air Force safety Weston Steelhammer. Steelhammer is a three-time all-Mountain West first-team selection and has led the Falcons in tackles and interceptions each of the past two seasons. This will be one of the more underrated one-on-one matchups of bowl season, but is one NFL scouts will be sure to watch closely. Both prospects are potential late-round picks in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Sep 3, 2016; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Michigan Wolverines defensive end Taco Charlton (33) rushes on Hawaii Warriors offensive lineman RJ Hollis (74) at Michigan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
At the end of last season, Roderick Johnson was rated as high as the number two offensive line prospect in college football behind Cam Robinson of Alabama. This season, he’s seen his 2017 NFL Draft stock slide as inconsistent play has thrown up a red flag.
Johnson continues to be a mauler in the run game and still has moments in pass protection that resemble a first-round pick, however he also has moments where he completely falls apart from a technique standpoint. This is most common against defensive ends who can bend around the edge. As seen in the play below, Taco Charlton is more than capable of doing just that.
Charlton has increased his production every year in Ann Arbor and may not be anywhere near his peak. A solid showing against Johnson as well as in offseason workouts could elevate him to round one of the 2017 NFL Draft. His scheme versatility will help his stock as well, as Charlton has the size and skill set to play DE in a 3-4 or 4-3 front.
Charlton will play both the left and right side of the defensive line, however scouts will have him under the microscope when he’s at RDE against Johnson. These are two prospects who will be off the board by the end of round two of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Oct 3, 2015; Lexington, KY, USA; Kentucky Wildcats offensive guard Nick Haynes (68) and center Jon Toth (72) look on during the game against the Eastern Kentucky Colonels at Commonwealth Stadium. Kentucky defeated Eastern Kentucky 34-27 in overtime. Mandatory Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports
TaxSlayer Bowl: Jon Toth (C – Kentucky)
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Georgia Tech may possess one of the better run games in all of college football, but the success of Kentucky’s ground game will determine the outcome of this game. Two Kentucky running backs rushed for over 1,000 yards this season, and a lot of that had to do with the play in the trenches; specifically center Jon Toth and the interior of the offensive line.
Toth entered the starting lineup early in his freshman season and has never looked back. The TaxSlayer Bowl will be his 48th consecutive start at center for the Wildcats. Toth is likely the only member of the Kentucky roster who will be selected in the 2017 NFL Draft and will look to finish his career strong.
Toth will see plenty of Georgia Tech’s defensive tackle Patrick Gamble throughout the game. Gamble’s 5.5 sacks and 8.5 tackles for a loss lead the Yellow Jackets. The redshirt senior has had by far his best season of his career in 2016 and will force Toth to stay on top of his game. This isn’t one of the most talked about matchups of bowl season, but is one that will have an impact in the later rounds of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Oct 15, 2016; Baton Rouge, LA, USA; LSU Tigers safety Jamal Adams (33) celebrates after picking up a fumble during the third quarter of a game against the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Leonard Fournette won’t be participating in the Citrus Bowl, but there are still plenty of prospects in this game who will be selected in the 2017 NFL Draft. That includes the starting strong safeties for both teams.
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In what is considered a deep safety class, Jamal Adams is at or near the top. The junior is a first-round lock barring any unforeseen injury or off-field issue and may surpass Jabrill Peppers as the top-rated safety by the time 2017 NFL Draft rolls around. He’s scheme versatile and has the awareness, range and toughness to play either safety position at the next level.
Josh Harvey-Clemons is the much larger of the two safeties, listed at 6-foot-5, 228 pounds by the school. While he may be close to Adams in terms of stopping the run, his marginal coverage skills are what separate the two. That, in addition to the issues that led to his dismissal at Georgia, are why Harvey-Clemons is expected to still be available on day three of the 2017 NFL Draft.
Both teams are capable of moving the football downfield, especially on the ground. How well both safeties play may not heavily influence when the two are selected in the 2017 NFL Draft, although it will impact which team comes away with the victory.
Sep 17, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Washington Huskies wide receiver John Ross (1) rushes the ball against the Portland State Vikings during the second half at Husky Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports
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In the first national semifinal, the top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide host the Washington Huskies. Alabama has the best run defense in all of college football, so in order for this game to remain close, Washington must be able to move the ball through the air. If that’s going to happen, star wide receiver John Ross will need to step up.
Ross could sneak into the end of round one of the 2017 NFL Draft if he performs well throughout the pre-draft process, but he’s more of a day two talent. In the Peach Bowl, he’ll face his biggest challenge of the season in the form of redshirt sophomore Marlon Humphrey. If he declares, Humphrey is the favorite to be the first cornerback off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft.
Ross certainly has the straight-line speed to beat just about any defensive back deep, however Washington quarterback Jake Browning won’t have all day to throw the football. The Alabama pass rush will force the Huskies to throw short, quick passes. It will be up to Ross and the rest of the Washington receivers to generate yards after the catch.
Preventing yards after the catch is one area in which Humphrey has excelled in this season. He possesses track star speed and closes on the football as fast as anyone in the nation. In the play below, Humphrey is lined up six yards off the line of scrimmage at the snap. He takes a few steps back before diagnosing the play and displaying an elite plant and drive towards the football. What initially looked like a potential first down, turns into a one yard gain on third-and-six.
This battle is one NFL teams will be watching very closely. Both prospects have a lot to gain from this matchup; not only a trip to the national championship game, but a boost in their 2017 NFL Draft stock as well.
Dec 3, 2016; Orlando, FL, USA; Clemson Tigers wide receiver Mike Williams (7) during the second half of the ACC Championship college football game against the Virginia Tech Hokies at Camping World Stadium. Clemson Tigers defeated the Virginia Tech Hokies 42-35. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
The other national semifinal will also feature an intriguing matchup outside the hashes. Clemson should have success running the football with quarterback Deshaun Watson and running back Wayne Gallman, but the Tigers will need to create balance in order to advance to the title game. As the top receiver on the Clemson roster, Mike Williams will have to step up against one of the best secondaries in college football.
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Williams hasn’t missed a beat since returning from a serious neck injury suffered in the 2015 season opener. He leads the team with 84 receptions for 1,171 yards and 10 touchdowns, all personal bests as well. Williams enters the Fiesta Bowl on a hot streak, averaging more than eight catches per game over the last seven contests. Ohio State will try to slow down the 6-foot-3 junior with cornerbacks Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore.
Williams will have about a three-inch height advantage over the two corners, however both Conley and Lattimore should have no problem keeping up with Williams from a speed and route-running standpoint. The duo has faced several star receivers throughout the season and has played very well. Heisman finalist Dede Westbrook of Oklahoma managed just 51 yards against the Buckeyes earlier in the year and Michigan’s Amara Darboh and Jehu Chesson combined for just 79 yards in the regular season finale.
Conley and Lattimore have combined for seven interceptions, 17 pass breakups and 24 passes defended. Williams may be the best receiver they’ve faced all season, but the pair has proven time and time again that they won’t alter their style of play based on the opponent. Conley could potentially join Williams in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft if he declares, while Lattimore should come off the board at some point on day two.