With Week 14 of the college football season in the books, here's a look at who's on the rise and who's in decline based on the weekend's action.
Connor Cook, Michigan State, QB: Despite leading the Spartans to the Big Ten title and earning the Most Valuable Player award for his efforts, Cook could slide down the charts due to concerns about his leadership skills and prickly personality. Cook seemingly blew off two-time Heisman Trophy winner Archie Griffin during the postgame ceremonies, which plays into the questions about his leadership skills based on his inability to earn a captain's spot despite his impressive resume as a three-year starter. Cook later issued an apology to Griffin after seeing reaction on Twitter and video of the exchange, saying he got "caught up in the moment" while trying to celebrate with his teammates. While some observers won't take umbrage with Cook's blatant disrespect of a Big Ten legend, the fact is that it plays into the narrative that he has an arrogant personality and suspect leadership skills. Given the significance NFL coaches and scouts place on intangibles in the evaluation of franchise quarterbacks, Cook's off-field actions could severely ding his draft stock.
Cody Kessler, USC, QB: NFL scouts pay close attention to the championship game performances of top quarterback prospects because it allows evaluators to gauge how a player handles the pressure of performing on the big stage. With Kessler failing to ignite the Trojans' offense with his play from the pocket, scouts will question whether he has the potential to develop into a front-line starter as a pro. Kessler simply lacks the arm strength to test elite defenses with vertical throws; he is unable to compensate for his range limitations with pinpoint short and intermediate throws into tight windows. Although he deserves credit for his impeccable ball security (87 career touchdowns against just 18 interceptions), Kessler's inability to thrive as a playmaker for the Trojans will force scouts to downgrade him as a potential starter.
Deshaun Watson, Clemson, QB: NFL scouts love to watch top quarterback prospects perform in championship games because it provides a glimpse into how well the player possesses the "it" factor needed to be a franchise player at the next level. Based on Watson's outstanding performance against North Carolina in the ACC Championship Game, the Clemson standout is everything evaluators covet in a franchise quarterback. Watson exhibited exceptional poise, confidence and leadership skills in leading the Tigers to a 45-37 win. Most importantly, he displayed the explosive running skills and spectacular arm talent that made him one of the prized recruits in the 2014 class. Watson completed 26 of 42 passes for 289 yards and three scores; he added 131 rushing yards on 24 carries with a pair of touchdown runs. From his pinpoint passing to his slippery running ability, Watson's playmaking ability will resonate with scouts when discussing his ability to carry a team as a primary playmaker. Given the eery similarities between his game and the playing style of Marcus Mariota, scouts will continue to monitor Watson's performance on the biggest and brightest stage to see if he has the potential to develop into a franchise player as a pro.
Christian McCaffrey, Stanford, RB: The Cardinal star might have swiped the Heisman Trophy from a host of competitors with his sensational showing against USC in the Pac-12 Championship Game. The sophomore totaled 461 all-purpose yards (207 rushing, 105 receiving and 149 return yards) and a pair of scores. Although scouts were well aware of McCaffrey's versatility and explosiveness as a dynamic "triple threat" (runner-receiver-returner), the magnificent performance confirmed his skills as an electric playmaker on the perimeter. The 6-foot, 201-pounder flashed explosive stop-start quickness and burst with the ball in his hand in the open field, while also showing sneaky strength and power on inside runs. Considering McCaffrey also exhibited tremendous balance, body control and wiggle as a pass-catcher/route-runner, he is certainly looking like a pro-style running back in the mold of Reggie Bush. While some will scoff at those comparisons based on Bush's legendary status as a collegian, McCaffrey's numbers (he broke Barry Sanders' single-season all-purpose yardage mark) match his game tape, which makes him a legitimate candidate to handle a role as a designated playmaker at the next level.
Calvin Ridley, Alabama, WR: It's uncommon for a freshman receiver to have a highly polished game, but NFL scouts are already smitten by Ridley's potential as a WR1. The 6-foot-1, 188-pounder is a silky smooth route runner with the patience and poise to set defenders up with clever stutters and stems at the top of his routes. Ridley complements the superb route-running ability with strong hands and spectacular ball skills. He attacks the ball out of the break, exhibiting an aggressive pass-catching demeanor that's common among elite receivers. With Ridley posting a 100-yard game against a Florida secondary littered with NFL-caliber talent, he is squarely on the radar of scouts looking for a future WR1 to anchor a passing game.
Blake Martinez, Stanford, LB: Martinez has been one of the unsung heroes on a rapidly improving Cardinal defense. The 6-foot-2, 245-pound senior is a "gamer" with outstanding instincts and awareness. Martinez has a strong nose for the ball, displaying a knack for weaving through traffic to make solid shots on runners in the hole. In addition, Martinez is a sneaky rusher with a terrific feel for knocking the ball loose. Martinez finished the night with 11 tackles, one sack and a forced fumble vs. USC. Most importantly, he showed scouts he could control the tackle-to-tackle box against a physical offense.
Shaq Lawson, Clemson, DE: The Tigers have consistently funneled top defensive line talent to the NFL over the past decade. Lawson is poised to continue the tradition as a 6-foot-3, 270-pound defensive end with explosive first-step quickness and power. He dominated the action against North Carolina, totaling six tackles, including two for loss (one sack). Most impressively, Lawson spent most of his time in the Tar Heels' backfield and completely disrupted Marquise Williams' timing in the pocket. Given Williams' impact as a dual-threat playmaker for the Tar Heels, Lawson's disruptive penetration was one of the biggest keys to the Tigers' win. With NFL scouts and coaches prone to covet disruptive defenders, Lawson's strong play in the ACC Championship Game will earn him high marks in meeting rooms around the league.