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Move The Sticks notes: The true value of bowls in prospect evals

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  • By Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks
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Editor's note: NFL.com analysts and former NFL scouts Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks of the Move The Sticks Podcast share some of their college-scouting notes, including:

» Jeremiah's take on what the Browns should do with their top 2 draft picks
» A look at the biggest needs for the teams that picked QBs at the top of the 2016 draft
» An exec's take on Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon

But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Brooks' look at the biggest story of the week in college football.

With Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette recently announcing their intentions to skip their teams' bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft, the impact of bowl games on the draft evaluation process has dominated headlines for the past few days.

Analysts have weighed in on how NFL scouts, executives and coaches view prospects who choose to sit out of their final games instead of competing for a final time on the collegiate level. While I'm on record saying that I support the superstar runners' decisions to bypass playing in their bowls based on their impressive resumes, I think it's important to understand what scouts are looking for when they evaluate prospects in postseason games.

Evaluators typically use bowl games to see how top prospects perform in matchups against top competition in a big-game atmosphere. Depending on the talent within their conferences, some prospects only see NFL-caliber players once or twice a year. Thus, the bowl game gives top guys a chance to cement their spot at the top of the charts while also offering mid-to-late-round prospects a chance to climb up the ladder with a spectacular performance against a talented prospect. Considering how scouts value production in primetime games, a strong bowl game can boost a prospect's stock, particularly if it happens in an elite bowl game.

"You're always trying to see how well prospects perform against other top guys," said an AFC scout. "I want to see how they compete against NFL-caliber guys. You're trying to see if the game is too 'big' for them."

For small-school prospects, bowl games can be "make-or-break" contests in the minds of scouts. Evaluators want to see how small-school standouts perform against elite competition. Since most small-school stars rarely face players with the talent to challenge them, scouts put significant stock in these postseason games against brand-name schools or top competition. Thus, guys like Western Michigan WR Corey Davis can earn big points with a spectacular performance against Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl. If he puts up numbers against another top Big Ten team, scouts will feel better about his transition into the league.

"Small-school guys need to play well in bowl games because they rarely face elite players during the regular season," said an NFC scout. "If they play well against big-school players, you feel better about their ability to hold their own at the next level."

Finally, scouts want to see how prospects finish the season. Area scouts are expected to conduct multiple visits during the fall to determine if a player is an ascending or descending prospect. Ideally, evaluators want to select players with steadily improving games heading into the league because it suggests that they are peaking at the right time and will continue to get better with more reps at the highest level.

As far as the prospects that skip their final games, evaluators will treat each case differently based on the prospect's talent and resume. Players viewed as top-15 picks aren't likely to receive a lot of criticism or backlash when they blow off a lower-tier bowl (bowl game not included in the College Football Playoff or New Year's Six). Sure, they will have to answer questions about their decisions, but their planned absences won't severely impact their draft grades.

"I don't mind them skipping bowl games," said an NFC scout. "But there are some 'old-school' scouts who will give them a hard time during meetings. It won't change their opinions, but they will ask the players questions about their competitiveness, loyalty and love of the game."

In the end, bowl games are really nothing more than extra-credit homework. If a prospect performs well, it can add some points to his final score and increase his draft grade. While a poor performance will prompt a scout to spend more time in the film room scouring the tape for flaws, it won't necessarily lead to a grade change or negatively impact a prospect's draft stock. It's simply another opportunity to watch a player validate an opinion that was formed through extensive tape study over the fall. -- Bucky Brooks

* * *

What Browns should do with top picks: If the season ended today, the Browns would hold the first and 10th picks in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft (the latter pick was acquired from the Eagles in the teams' trade before the 2016 draft). What should they do with their top two picks? Obviously, we'll need to wait and see which underclassmen declare for the draft before assigning names to fix their problems. However, we can discuss what positions they should target with those two first-round selections.

I spoke with several personnel executives around the league to get their thoughts on what they would do if they were in charge of the Browns. Everyone stressed the same point -- the Browns need to sit tight and select two blue-chip players with limited risk. No more trading down. They have a decent amount of serviceable starters, but this roster lacks difference-making talent.

Should they use one of those top two picks on a quarterback? Those I spoke with said they shouldn't go in that direction. Not in this draft class. Too much risk. Obviously, they still have a glaring need at the position, but there's too much risk with this group of passers. Wait and take one in the second round or work out a trade for a talented veteran, like Jimmy Garoppolo.

What would I do? This draft class is loaded with defensive talent. I think the Browns would do well for themselves if they came away with the draft's premier edge rusher as well as the premier safety. That is a very doable task considering where they could be picking. Adding those two players to a young nucleus of guys like Danny Shelton, Christian Kirksey and Emmanuel Ogbah could really jumpstart that side of the ball.

The Browns won't be able to solve all of their problems in this one draft, but they can get the process started by nailing these two first-round selections. Don't get cute. Don't trade back and accumulate a bunch of "solid" players. It's time to add some sizzle to this roster and it starts with these two incredibly important decisions. -- Daniel Jeremiah

* * *

No. 1 priority for Rams and Eagles in offseason: The Rams and Eagles paid a hefty price to move up in last year's draft to address their need at the quarterback position. While they QBs they selected have shown promise (the Eagles' Carson Wentz more so than Rams' Jared Goff), they have had more than their share of struggles this fall. This upcoming offseason will be very important for both organizations. Obviously, the Rams must first hire a new head coach but soon thereafter, the focus will shift to upgrading the talent around their young quarterback. The Eagles don't need to find a coach, but they do need to collect some talent to support Wentz.

The No. 1 priority for the Rams should be to upgrade the offensive line. They have given up 38 sacks (tied for sixth most) and they have the 31st ranked rushing offense (78.6 yards per game) in the NFL. If the Rams can add 2-3 quality starters on the O-line in the offseason, it will go a long way in aiding the development of their young signal-caller. They have other needs on offense, namely adding a true No. 1 pass-catcher, but they must start by addressing the line. The Titans have used this approach over the last couple years and it's turned their football team around.

The No. 1 priority for the Eagles should be upgrading the wide receiving corps. Jordan Matthews is a solid No. 3 wide receiver, but the rest of the receiving corps is very underwhelming. Ideally, I'd like to see the Eagles add 3-4 new receivers to their mix. I'd start with a veteran presence in free agency and then use two mid-round picks on pass-catchers. They need someone who can really stretch the field and a reliable middle-of-the-field target with strong hands and toughness. A physical, pounding running back would also be a welcome addition. If Lane Johnson can avoid any more suspensions, their offensive line is in pretty good shape. -- Daniel Jeremiah

* * *

The TE who could be matchup nightmare for NFL defenses: With hybrid tight ends like Jordan Reed creating chaos for defensive coordinators around the league, more NFL scouts are looking for athletic tight ends with WR-like skills on the perimeter. That's why evaluators are intrigued by Virginia Tech TE Bucky Hodges based on his combination of size, athleticism and pass-catching ability.

Measuring 6-foot-7, 245 pounds with excellent movement skills, Hodges creates problems for defenders with his ability to run routes from a flanked position. He moves like a receiver on the perimeter and his athleticism gives him a decided advantage over linebackers in space. He's simply too shifty and explosive for 'backers, which allows play callers to use him as a "Jumbo" receiver in spread formations to exploit matchups on the outside.

In addition, Hodges' size, strength and "box-out" skills make him a tough guard for defensive backs in man coverage. He flashes enough quickness at the line to run away from press coverage but also displays the strength, power and agility to post up (ward defenders off with his body or subtle shoves) on fade routes (see Pittsburgh game). Hodges could be a dominant red-zone weapon in the system that uses the H tight end (move tight end) prominently in spread formations. While some scouts will downgrade Hodges due to his spotty blocking skills, we've seen a number of finesse tight ends enjoy success at the next level as "Jumbo" receivers in creative offenses. With that in mind, I believe Hodges would be a nice fit as a complementary pass-catcher for a team in need of a versatile chess piece in the passing game. -- Bucky Brooks

* * *

Exec's take on Joe Mixon: Whenever Oklahoma RB Joe Mixon decides to enter the draft, he's going to present a dilemma for scouts and executives around the league. The recent release of a video that shows Mixon punching a woman in 2014 has cast doubt on his NFL future, but scouts and coaches will be captivated by his electric talents as a versatile playmaker. He spoke publicly Friday for the first time since the tape was released.

Measuring 6-foot-1, 226 pounds, Mixon is a new-school running back capable of delivering splash plays as a runner, receiver and returner in spectacular fashion. He flashes an impressive combination of balance, body control and vision as an inside-outside runner with the ball in his hands. Mixon routinely scoots through holes following a nifty jump cut that rivals the "skate" moves frequently made by elite NFL runners on Sundays. Not to mention, he catches the ball like a receiver on the perimeter, exhibiting soft hands and shifty route-running skills. Mixon's game reminds me of Arizona Cardinals RB David Johnson when I study the tape, which isn't bad considering Pro Bowler's impact as a dynamic playmaker.

However, Mixon could have a hard time finding a gig in the NFL after the release of the video. I reached out to an AFC executive for his perspective on the topic.

"He's a hard sell to ownership," the exec said. "The climate has changed so much that I don't know how you convince an owner to take a chance on him when the negative P.R. and potential protests could put a black cloud over the franchise. I know there has been some time between the incident and where we stand now, but it's such a hot-button topic that it's tougher to bring him into the building."

When it comes to character issues, scouts try to determine if negative incidents are simply mistakes or part of a pattern of behavior that will continue to haunt the player. He also received a one-game suspension in 2016 for a violation of team rules that centered around a dispute with a parking attendant.

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Mixon's off-field issues continue to overshadow his talent. With the Sooners' star sitting squarely in the cross hairs of an intense public debate, it will be interesting to see if he decides to apply for early draft eligibility before the Jan. 16 underclassmen deadline or elects to stay in school and show scouts (and others) that he is capable of becoming a better person and player. -- Bucky Brooks

* * *

Edge rusher to remember: Here's a name to remember as the draft season gets ready to kick off -- Ohio University DE Tarell Basham, who plays on Friday in the Dollar General Bowl (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). Scouts measured him in the spring at 6-foot3 1/2 and he weighed 262 pounds. He has put up outstanding numbers this fall, racking 15.5 tackles for loss (including 11.5 sacks). I studied two of his games (Tennessee and Kansas) and he was outstanding. He usually lines up in a four-point stance and he plays with excellent leverage and power. He can uproot offensive tackles with his bull rush and his motor never stops. The only negative notes I took where about his ankle and hip tightness, which led to some missed tackles in space. Overall, I came away impressed. He's already accepted an invitation to the Reese's Senior Bowl and I can't wait to see him in person. He's a very intriguing prospect. -- Daniel Jeremiah

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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