|Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, left, finished second to Baylor's Robert Griffin III in the Heisman Trophy voting.|
The college bowl season provides scouts with another opportunity to assess the potential of top prospects in competitive battles on a big stage. These games not only carry more cache than regular season contests, but also leave a lasting impression on evaluators heading into their initial draft meetings.
Here are a few of my thoughts after watching several bowl games featuring elite prospects over the past few weeks:
(*Denotes underclassmen who have not declared their intention to apply for entry into the 2012 NFL Draft)
Andrew Luck still is a better QB than Robert Griffin III*
There have been whispers in scouting circles regarding Griffin's pro potential being off the charts, but he still rates behind Luck at this time. The Stanford quarterback is far more polished in several aspects of his game, including accuracy, anticipation and footwork. Luck has considerable experience working within a pro-style offense, and his refined game has been honed under the tutelage of several former NFL coaches (Jim Harbaugh, David Shaw and Pep Hamilton). Those factors should be considered when weighing the immediate potential of both players.
Also, Luck is playing with an inferior supporting cast that limits his ability to fully showcase his talents as a passer. With the exception of Coby Fleener, who ranks as one of the top tight end prospects in the 2012 draft class, he is throwing to a cast of pass catchers short on speed and athleticism. Consequently, his ball placement has to be on point due to his receivers' inability to separate from tight coverage.
Griffin, who is certainly impressive as a playmaker, has thrived in a spread offensive system that features few sophisticated pass concepts. The scheme is designed to quickly get the ball into the hands of a fleet set of receivers, and the majority of his passes were completed within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. With pass catchers like Kendall Wright capable of turning short throws into big gainers, some of Griffin's gaudy production was a byproduct of his surrounding talent.
That's not to suggest Griffin isn't an elite college quarterback. He is an extraordinary athlete with remarkable arm strength, awareness and football intelligence. He has a knack for raising his game in big moments, and his ability to lift Baylor into national prominence suggests that he possesses all of the intangibles desired in a franchise-caliber quarterback. He remains an unrefined pocket passer from a technical standpoint, however, and must develop better footwork and mechanics to become a deadly dual threat capable of defeating defenses with his feet and arm. Griffin's potential ceiling for greatness might exceed his counterpart based on his exceptional tools, but the safer choice would be Luck due to his polished overall game.
North Carolina's Quinton Coples is overrated
Oh, I know my fellow Tar Heels will take me to task for being critical of the North Carolina star, but my disappointment stems from Coples' underwhelming performance in his final season. He didn't dominate in a way that suggests he will become an impact player in the NFL, and his status as a potential top-5 pick should be reconsidered based on his play.
Coples finished the season with 51 tackles, 13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks, but he routinely disappeared for stretches in games and didn't play with the intensity expected from a dominant player. He cruised through games, appearing to avoid the potential for injury and only turned it on in spurts when he wanted to flash his immense potential.
Those inconsistencies were on display in the Independence Bowl against Missouri. He played lackadaisical at the point of attack and gave little effort chasing players beyond the line of scrimmage. His lack of hustle and energy was disappointing to watch, and it revealed a lot about his desire to be a disruptive force as a defender.
To be fair, it is not uncommon for NFL hopefuls to underperform at various points of their final season due to the burden of expectations that accompanies carrying a high preseason grade, but Coples' struggles are part of a year-long trend. If he doesn't perform well on the all-star circuit, he could be in jeopardy of watching his stock tumble dramatically in the run up to the draft.
Illinois' Whitney Mercilus is a hot commodity
The meteoric rise of Mercilus has been one of the biggest surprises in the scouting community due to his remarkable surge in production. He led the nation with 16 sacks and displayed all of the athletic potential that scouts covet in a defensive end.
At 6-foot-4, 265 pounds, Mercilus tantalizes scouts with his length and non-stop motor. He routinely outworks blockers on the edge, and his ability to win with power or finesse makes him a valued commodity as a pass rusher. His combination of hand skills and tenacity makes him difficult to block in isolated matchups. When used on stunts or twists, Whitney's ability to turn speed into power allows him to defeat interior blockers at the point of attack.
In looking at the flaws in Whitney's game, I would point to his initial quickness and lack of consistent production. He doesn't display the explosive first-step typically seen from elite rushers, and his slow takeoff could prevent him from defeating blockers on speed rushes as a pro. From a production standpoint, his dramatic increase in sacks leads to questions about his consistency. After barely getting to the quarterback during his first two seasons, he emerged as one of the most dominant pass rushers in the country as a junior.
While some scouts will attribute his surge in production to his game maturing with more experience, the "one-year wonder" label will lead to questions about his ability to fit within a scheme. Regardless, the ability to impact the passing game makes him a valuable commodity whenever he enters the NFL.
Arizona State's Vontaze Burfict is an enigma
And the biggest one in college football, for that matter. The junior linebacker is considered one of the best prospects at his position, but questions about his character, maturity and unruly behavior will make him a difficult evaluation for scouts.
As a player, he is a violent hitter with outstanding instincts and awareness. He quickly diagnoses plays and shows an uncanny knack for shooting through gaps between the tackles. His intimidating presence in the middle discourages runners and receivers from venturing between the hashes, which makes him a potential game-changer as a pro.
While those traits are certainly admirable, Burfict's lack of discipline and conflicts with teammates and coaches make him a tough sell in war rooms across the league. Throughout his three-year tenure at Arizona State, he has registered numerous personal foul penalties on an assortment of dirty tactics. From head butting opponents to delivering hits well after the whistle, his lack of emotional restraint is a major concern.
In addition, evaluators should be troubled by his inability to get along with teammates. He reportedly has been involved in numerous altercations with teammates and coaches, and those issues appeared again in the Las Vegas Bowl. He was benched in the second half for sub-par play, and reportedly refused to re-enter the game when asked by the coaching staff. If his insubordination is verified in interviews with team personnel, Burfict will be deemed a huge character risk for teams across the league.
Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.