By Marc Sluis, Staff Writer
Even though most prospects don’t go through fundamental changes in their talent level or skill set during the year, their stock certainly fluctuates like it does. The same phenomenon occurs in finance as stock prices surge and dip daily despite very little actually changing at the company level. It’s a little different scenario when you’re dealing with evaluating people like us draftniks do, but that is part of the fun. The bowl season is over and the All-Star or Senior circuit is just underway, so let’s take a look at whose stock has risen the most recently.
QB Blake Bortles, UCF
One of the hottest names going into the offseason has been Blake Bortles. As UCF surged all the way to a BCS Bowl victory Bortles proved he was the main reason why. In terms of size the 6’4 235 lb quarterback is the exact prototype teams look. He has the height to see over his line and the strength to shrug off defenders while climbing the pocket.
His play down the stretch wasn’t impressive because of eye popping stats or flashy performances, but more because he looks so comfortable pro doing it. Whether it was a cold weather win in surprisingly frigid Dallas against SMU or a big time upset of Louisville and fellow quarterback prospect Teddy Bridgewater, Bortles has shown he has pro potential.
Edge Rusher Dee Ford, Auburn
The current NFL landscape has changed and allowed players like Ford to be in the Top 100 conversation. Ford, similar to Clemson’s Vic Beasley and Seattle Seahawks rusher Bruce Irvin, might be undersized and struggle mightily in the run game but because so many teams now run a 3-4 there is a natural position open to them. As an edge rushing 3-4 outside linebacker teams can plug in undersized defenders like Ford and ask them to utilize their skill set and do what they do best. And that is to simply rush the passer. Against a talented offensive line of Florida St. Ford was disruptive and constantly in the Seminole backfield. Using a spin move and active hands Ford showed he can impact a game off the edge and scouts will love that high revving motor as well.
WR Sammy Watkins, Clemson
Sammy Watkins has proven his explosiveness and ability to change a game in a flash ever since he burst onto the scene as a freshman. He only built upon that reputation this season and capped a tremendous career with 16 catches for 227 yards and two TD in the Tigers Orange Bowl victory. It seems people forget that Watkins isn’t just a burner as his size (6’1), large hands and body control often gets overlooked, but should make him a complete NFL receiver.
OT Greg Robinson, Auburn
Much like Eric Fisher did last season Robinson has absolutely exploded up draft boards late in the year to challenge an Aggie tackle Jake Matthews (Luke Joeckel last year for Fisher) for the top spot at the position. Unlike Fisher though Robinson did it dominating top notch SEC competition, which makes his tape even more impressive. In the Tigers run heavy attack Robinson is a major catalyst opening up holes for Tre Mason and company. The 6’5 320 tackle has great feet and strength to handle any style of pass rusher possessing the agility rarely seen in a road grading type tackle.
DE Marcus Smith, Louisville
Smith, a former quarterback, has built up some steam heading into the pre-draft process. The American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year looked every bit like the impact defender he was all year in the Cards finale versus Miami. Smith added two sacks to his 14.5 total, which left him just a half a sack behind Trent Murphy for the most in college football and was disruptive all day against a good Hurricanes squad.
WR Matt Hazel, Coastal Carolina
As a small school prospect its imperative to make the most of any opportunity you have to play against the big boys. Most often that chance comes in the form of All-Star games like the Senior Bowl or East West Shrine Game. Hazel has used to latter to showcase his route running technique and smooth footwork while getting the attention of pro scouts. He still looks underdeveloped physically and needs to gain more muscle to match up in press coverage but his size and footwork are more than enough to work with.
DE Scott Crichton, Oregon St.
Crichton is a top pass rushing prospect without having the explosiveness most scouts crave. He remains effective because he’s a hard worker, rarely out of position and plays with tenacity on every snap. Against Boise St. in their bowl game, he came off the right edge giving a slight step to fake going inside then executed a flawless swim move on his way to the quarterback. He forced a sack, fumble which was picked up and run into the end zone for a defensive score. Not too long after he used his hands to disengage and dismiss multiple blockers stopping the running back for a loss.
One thing I noticed is that Crichton understands the nuances of the game and routinely sets up an outside swim move with a quick step inside, where he plants and drastically shifts his weight back outside. It’s that heady play paired with a relentlessness coaches love which makes the Beaver a fringe first round prospect and very safe selection.
ILB Jordan Zumwalt, UCLA
The UCLA program is rising fast and one of their less heralded defenders is also making a similar leap up draft boards. Jordan Zumwalt delivered some punishing hits, including knocking out Virginia Tech’s Logan Thomas, in the Sun Bowl victory for the Bruins. A tough player who reads the game well, Zumwalt lacks the speed and explosion to excel in coverage. That’s evidenced by the fact he rarely plays in passing situations. While his ability to be an every down player is in question he makes his mark as a ferocious hitter who can be a physical presence in the run game and likely best suited as an inside 3-4 backer.
DT Timmy Jernigan, FSU
Jernigan was one of the players who got the chance to shine on national TV during the BCS Championship Game and took full advantage. The former blue chip recruit was able to manhandle the interior line of Auburn as his explosive hands and quickness caused them fits. The 6’2 298 pound Seminole has always had the talent, but now looks to ride an impressive year of production to a first round selection.
DE Larry Webster, Bloomsburg
Most former basketball studs who turn to football play the role of a pass catching tight end, but the 6’7 Webster has taken to the defensive end position and shown why many consider his potential to be sky high. Understandably he’s still incredibly raw so his timeline for actually seeing the field will likely be much longer than most rookies. However, as a long and fast athlete he’ll no doubt have a shot to see the field as a pro with time. You can teach him technique but his length and natural athleticism cannot be taught.
RB Tre Mason, Auburn
Not many players can make the meteoric rise that Mason has of late. An afterthought in terms of the 2014 draft to start the year despite running for over a thousand yards in 2012, Mason simply ran through the SEC totaling an insane 1,816 rushing yards in 2013 including 499 in his last two outings. Mason isn’t special in any one category and likely benefited from the wizardry of Gus Mahlzan’s rush heavy attack, but his power and vision through the hole are more than enough to succeed at the next level.
Mason always seemed to find openings in the defense and his patience allowed him to hit them consistently then burst into the secondary with his above average acceleration. Teams will also love his ability to be a workhorse averaging 40 carries a game over those final two contests.
QB Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
Last but not least is Mr. Johnny Football who now tops Mel Kiper’s 2014 Mock Draft. The Texas native is getting mentioned in the top five by numerous sources coming off a brilliant Chick-Fil-A Bowl performance leading the Aggies back from a 38-17 deficit. Manziel was near flawless going 30/38 (78.9% completion rate) for 382 yards, 4 TD and no picks. The strides he’s made as a passer this year have been paramount in his return to glory and when added to his unique ability to elude defenders while on the move could help a team in the top five overlook the maturity issues that we all know are present.