In arguably the biggest day of the college football season upon us, there is plenty of future NFLers to watch today, with a handful that could potentially be plug-and-play defenders for the Pittsburgh Steelers should the franchise select them this May.
Peach Bowl — Florida State (10-2) vs. Houston (12-1), Noon, ESPN
One team is all about the up-tempo, spread-you-out offense, while the other has stuck to their pro-style offense and relied on their bell cow running back. Although this has the makings of a strength-against-strength, this could be the most entertaining game of the day.
Houston is led by junior quarterback Greg Ward, Jr., who is a dynamic athlete in space and is nearly impossible to defend as a dual-threat quarterback.
He’s best served to return to school for his senior season and get another year of work under head coach Tom Herman, but it would not shock me if he makes the leap to the NFL based off of his ridiculous junior year in which he should have received Heisman Trophy buzz.
Ward projects to be a dynamic slot receiver/returner in the NFL, so he could be a mid-round pick if he makes the leap.
Another Cougar to watch is senior cornerback William Jackson III, who has generated some first-round buzz this year but likely falls into the second or third round range due to some questions about his hip fluidity.
With that said, Jackson is a 6’1”, 185-pound corner who can press at the line and is able to turn and run with the receivers. He’s going to be a steal for whichever team takes a chance on him.
For the Seminoles, keep an eye on defensive back Jalen Ramsey and front seven defenders Terrance Smith and DeMarcus Walker.
Ramsey is a likely top five pick in this class due to his versatility and ball skills. He’s the defensive version of Charles Woodson for me. He can play at a high level as a single-high safety, press/man corner or slot corner. Ramsey is incredible. He’ll start from Day One and could be the next version of Kansas City’s Marcus Peters without the off-field questions.
As for Smith and Walker, the guy with the most upside is Smith, who has gone from a likely round six or seven pick to one that could find his name called early in the second round due to his ability to play in all phases of the game, as well as his size and speed as a 6’4”, 222-pound linebacker.
Walker does one thing extremely well and it’s something that is very valuable at the next level: getting to the quarterback.
The junior defensive end became the first Seminoles defender to record 10 sacks in a single season since 2012.
He applied for a review from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, but it likely won’t come back higher than a third round grade, which would allow him to go back to school and improve his draft stock significantly with another big year.
Orange Bowl — Clemson (13-0) vs. Oklahoma (11-1), 4 p.m., ESPN
In the first game of the College Football Playoff, this might be the best game of the two due to the high-powered offenses of the Tigers and Sooners, led by some dynamic NFL prospects.
DeShaun Watson is a year away from NFL eligibility so we won’t touch him, but running back Wayne Gallman is grossly underrated.
The 6’1”, 205-pound redshirt sophomore had a huge year for Clemson, rushing for 1,332 yards and 10 touchdowns on the ground for the No. 1 team in the control. He’s not an explosive running back, but he’s very decisive with his cuts, hits the holes hard and possesses a balanced running style that allows him to run behind his pads.
Defensively, Clemson has a plethora of potential first round picks led by edge rusher Shaq Lawson and defensive backs Mackenzie Alexander and Jayron Kearse.
Lawson is a likely top-15 pick who happened to lead all of the FBS in tackles for loss (22) and sacks (9.5) for a Tigers defense that was consistently one of the best in the country week after week.
The 6’3”, 270-pound defensive end is a powerful pass rusher who has some high-end moves to work with, led by his rip and spin moves. At this point for me, Lawson might be a better overall prospect than Vic Beasley was just one year ago.
Alexander is another outstanding cornerback in a class filled with them who has great coverage skills and can play with the best of them. Along with Alexander, Kearse is a standout safety who has great size, tackles very well in the open field and can move up in coverage when necessary.
Clemson might need both of the defensive backs to step up in a big way against an explosive Oklahoma offense led by junior quarterback Baker Mayfield and senior wide receiver Sterling Shepard, who is quickly emerging as one of my favorite prospects in the 2016 draft class.
Shepard reminds me a lot of former Steelers and current Denver Broncos wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. The Sooner receiver lines up all over the field, runs terrific routes and can make all the catches.
He’ll also win after the catch in a big way as he forced 11 missed tackles this season when making plays after the catch. If I’m building a team and need a receiver, I’m taking Sterling Shepard.
Mayfield is a bit undersized but reminds me a lot of Johnny Manziel without the off-field circus that follows.
The redshirt junior is great at making plays out of the pocket and is a serious threat to tuck and run. He should have been in New York City as a finalist for the Heisman Trophy based off of what he did this season for Oklahoma.
He could be a great find in the middle rounds for a team looking to draft a quarterback for the future.
Defensively, the Sooners are loaded with impact players who will stand out on Sunday’s led by defensive lineman Charles Tapper and cornerback Zack Sanchez.
Tapper is a big, physical defensive end that can anchor well against the run while also being able to push the pocket with a mean bull rush. He’ll be a terrific 3-4 defensive end.
Sanchez is a future CB1 in the NFL who can be had in the middle rounds as other teams fight for the big name cornerbacks.
He’s a physical cornerback who can excel in man and zone coverage and has a knack for getting his hands on the ball.
If I were in the front office of Pittsburgh I’d be making a major case to draft Sanchez on day two.
One name on the Oklahoma defense that really intrigues me is linebacker Eric Striker.
Although is position at the next level is a major question mark due to his size, but he’ll attend the Senior Bowl where he’ll likely play tons of base inside linebacker rather than showcasing his known skills on the edge.
Cotton Bowl — Michigan State (12-1) vs. Alabama (12-1), 8 p.m., ESPN
I’m a huge fan of the Crimson Tide, so I’ll be watching this game regardless of NFL Draft preparation or not.
However, this game — much like Clemson-Oklahoma — is LOADED with NFL talent, led by Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and stud Spartans quarterback Connor Cook.
Henry is far from a perfect prospect at running back, but he’s my No. 2 RB in this class who will likely get drafted in the 33-40 range. That’s a perfect spot for him. I think he can become a dominant three-down running back in the NFL who will be a major load to bring down.
He’s carved up some strong defenses this year. Now he’ll face an even tougher test in the Spartans defense.
Along with Henry offensively, Crimson Tide are led by quarterback Jake Coker, who has worked his way into a late-round pick after transferring from Florida State two years ago.
Running back Kenyan Drake is a dynamic athlete in space who could be a change-of-pace running back out of the backfield in the running game and passing game, similar to Danny Woodhead and Dion Lewis.
Tight end O.J. Howard won’t blow people away on tape or on paper with his numbers due to the way the Tide used him, but he’s a very good athlete who could be the next version of Jordan Reed.
Howard has good hands and can run away from defenders.
Center Ryan Kelly might be the best center in the country as a run blocker and pass protector.
It’s unclear where he’ll go in the draft in terms of round, but he’s a day one starter.
Defensively, Alabama has three potential first round draft picks along the defensive line in Jarran Reed, A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen.
Quite a few people have soured on Robinson, but I’m not one of them. He’s a dominant 3-tech DT who is very agile for his size and is at his best when two-gapping. He’s a big reason Alabama has been so dominant against the run.
Reed and Allen are dynamic pass rushers but also terrific run defenders who will start from day one regardless of where they land. Both should be very high on NFL draft boards, and should rise higher than originally thought if they’re able to have big days against Michigan State’s dominant offensive line.
Linebacker Reggie Ragland is my No. 4 ILB in this class and that might even be too low. Any other year and Ragland is the No. 1 ILB coming out. He’s so instinctive, runs very well sideline-to-sideline and is extremely underrated in coverage.
Outside of the front seven of the Crimson Tide, watch out for cornerback Cyrus Jones and safety Eddie Jackson.
Jackson was burned by current Steelers (and former Auburn) wide receiver Sammie Coates last year as a cornerback, but he’s reached another level as a defender since switching to safety this year.
Jones is a dynamic athlete in space who’s been able to carry that athleticism and agility over to the cornerback position where he’s turned into a shutdown cover corner.
For Michigan State’s offense, Cook is the headliner who could be the first quarterback taken with a strong performance in the college playoff.
He’s not a flashy passer who puts up massive video game numbers, but he’s as solid as they come with decision making and has the touch and arm strength to make all of the throws.
His favorite target is the emerging Aaron Burbridge, who will need to put on a show against some of the top corners in the draft to show he has what it takes to be a No. 1 option in the NFL.
Jack Conklin is in the discussion as a top three tackle in this class, while center Jack Allen and guard Donovan Clark will carve out roles at the next level due to their size, strength and experience in a pro-style system.
Defensively, Michigan State is just as talented as Alabama is. They might not be big names like the Crimson Tide defenders, but linebacker Darien Harris is another one of my favorite prospects to watch.
He brings tons of power behind him when wrapping up the ball carrier and is constantly around the ball. He’s the heart and soul of this defense. Although he won’t test well in terms of measurables and speed, the tape doesn’t lie.
Defensive end Shilique Calhoun is much-scrutinized defender, but I’m a big fan of his. He’s quietly productive and turned in arguably the best game of his career against Iowa in the Big Ten championship game, racking up six tackles, three tackles for loss, two sacks and a forced fumble.
He’s put out quality tape since he started seeing the field for the Spartans and could work his way into a top 32 pick in the 2016 Draft.