NEPD Staff Writer: Dan Hope
The first day of the NFL playoffs will take center stage on Saturday, but before the professionals take the stage, there is one early-afternoon bowl game: the BBVA Compass Bowl in Birmingham, Ala., which will be televised at 1 p.m. ET on ESPN, and features the Pittsburgh Panthers versus the Mississippi Rebels.
There aren’t too many potential New England Patriots in this game, but if the desire for a full Saturday of football leads you to tune into this contest, there are a few players you should keep an eye on.
Ray Graham, RB, Pittsburgh
It is unlikely that the Patriots will draft a running back this April, as they do not have any need to add another back to the roster, but truthfully, there is a good chance that Pittsburgh’s Ray Graham will be the only player selected from either of these teams in this year’s draft.
At only 5’9” and 190 pounds, Graham is a small back, but he overcomes his lack of stature with great feet and quickness. He is very good at making moves at the line of scrimmage to find holes, then can make defenders miss with his quick feet in the open field. He doesn’t have tremendous speed, but by combining his quickness and footwork with good vision and good hands out of the backfield, he has been a very productive back for the Panthers.
Graham has a chance to make it in the NFL as a third-down back for his quickness, receiving ability and toughness. That is unlikely to be the Patriots, who have three backs of that style in Danny Woodhead, Shane Vereen and Jeff Demps. He projects, however, as a likely fifth-round selection.
Jarred Holley, FS, Pittsburgh
If any player in this game is to be drafted by the Patriots, it will likely be Pittsburgh free safety Jarred Holley. A four-year starter for the Panthers, Holley is a well-rounded safety who has been a stabilizing presence in their secondary, and could provide depth in a Patriots secondary that is currently thin.
Holley doesn’t have the measurables of an NFL safety at only 5’10”, 190 pounds and lacking great speed, and he isn’t a big difference-maker, so chances are good that he will go undrafted. He is, however, a consistent tackler and solid deep cover safety who at the very least should be able to find a home as a good special teams player at the next level.
The Patriots should be looking for safety depth at some point in the 2013 NFL draft — especially if Patrick Chung leaves via unrestricted free agency — and Holley could be a potential fit with their seventh-round pick.
A.J. Hawkins, G, Mississippi
Ole Miss doesn’t have much senior talent on their roster, but one player who has an outside shot of making it at the next level is interior lineman A.J. Hawkins. Hawkins is a big, 315-pound liner who has played all three spots on the interior line, and is a powerful inside run blocker.
Hawkins doesn’t have the quickness to garner much interest as a pass-blocker, and could be hard-pressed to land a roster spot as strictly a backup interior lineman. But for a team like the Patriots who have been known to take chances on lineman in late rounds or as undrafted free agents, and who currently need more interior line depth, Hawkins is a possible pickup following the draft as an undrafted signing.
Other Prospects to Watch:
Chris Jacobson, G, Pittsburgh – Grade: 7th Round-Undrafted
Mike Shanahan, WR, Pittsburgh – Grade: 7th Round-Undrafted