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 on the eve of the College Football Playoff, including:
But first, we kick off this week's notebook with Brooks' look at why the stakes are high this weekend for two of college football's top quarterbacks.
Who says bowl games don't matter?
Not any teams or scouts looking for a franchise quarterback this year. While some positions allow evaluators to put the pen away at the end of the regular season, quarterbacks are always under scrutiny, particularly in bowl season. Scouts want to see how players respond to playing top competition in marquee games, so the performance of QB1s during bowl season can certainly affect their final grades.
That's why all eyes will be on Clemson's Deshaun Watson (Fiesta Bowl, Saturday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN) and North Carolina's Mitch Trubisky (Sun Bowl, Friday, 2 p.m. ET, CBS) this weekend to see if either player has the goods to be a franchise quarterback for an NFL team in the near future. Trubisky has yet to declare his intentions for the 2017 draft and Watson has yet to make a formal announcement about his intentions, although his coach, Dabo Swinney, has said Watson intends to move on to the next level in 2017. The buzz surrounding both prospects will lead scouts to attend the Sun Bowl and Fiesta Bowl, respectively, in hopes of determining whether either player is ready for prime time as a QB1.
For Trubisky, the Sun Bowl might be the first time that much of the football world catches a glimpse of him, as the dual-threat playmaker has skyrocketed up draft boards throughout the fall. The 6-foot-3, 220-pound junior has become one of the favorites of the NFL scouting community after posting a 68.9 percent completion rate and a 28:4 touchdown-to-interception ratio during his first season as a starter.
Trubisky has impressed evaluators with his combination of size, athleticism and arm talent. He's not only one of the best pinpoint passers in college football, but he shows terrific timing and anticipation as a thrower. He's at his best throwing out-breaking routes, particularly "bench' routes (10-yard speed out from slot WR) and post-corners. Despite his exceptional skills as a passer, scouts are paying close attention to his performance in the bowl game to see how he plays in a big game after delivering a pair "so-so" performances against Duke and N.C. State to finish the regular season.
In addition, scouts want to get a better feel for his understanding of the game with only 12 career starts on his resume. Considering how much evaluators value reps at the quarterback position, Trubisky must put on a dazzling performance against Stanford to alleviate some of the concerns about his readiness for the NFL game.
Watson will attempt to use the bowl season to reverse the narrative that overshadowed his game for most of his junior season. Critics picked at his flaws (accuracy and decision making/ball security) throughout the season and suggested that he might need another year of seasoning despite posting nearly identical numbers to his sophomore campaign, for which he earned high praise (2016: 67.6 percent completion rate, 3,914 pass yards, 37:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio; 2015: 67.8 percent completion rate, 4,104 pass yards, 35:15 touchdown-to-interception ratio).
Despite those opinions, Watson is viewed as a "big-game" player with a knack for bringing his A game in primetime contests. He earned that reputation with a strong run through the 2015 ACC Championship Game and 2015 College Football Playoff (Oklahoma and Alabama) that showcased his talents as a dynamic run-pass threat on the perimeter. Watson's playmaking ability and poise befuddled some of the top defenses in college football, including a star-studded Alabama squad that featured NFL-caliber talent all over the field.
Although he got off to a slow start during the 2016 regular season, he picked up his play down the stretch and teased scouts with his swaggy performance in the ACC Championship game. Scouts rave about his confidence, poise and leadership skills, but Watson needs to be the best player on the field during his game (or games, if Clemson beats Ohio State). If he can dazzle evaluators with his playmaking ability while also showing better consistency with his ball placement, he can make it hard for scouts to overlook his promise as a franchise quarterback. -- Bucky Brooks
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Cream of the WR crop: The 2017 WR class is not quite as sexy as previous years, but scouts are excited about the talent and potential of the possible crown jewel of the group.
Clemson's Mike Williams has created quite a stir in the scouting community as the top pass-catcher in college football. The 6-foot-3, 225-pound playmaker is a classic WR1 with the size, strength and power to overwhelm defenders on the perimeter. Williams is a strong WR with excellent ball skills and a fearless demeanor on the field. He does the all of the dirty work between the hashes, as evidenced by his production on slants and "Bang-8s" (skinny posts). Williams mixes a deliberate release with a powerful two-hand swipe to create separation from defenders out of breaks. He also uses his strength and power to "box out" on back-shoulder fades along the boundary. With Williams also displaying terrific balance, body control and acrobatic footwork snatching balls in the red zone, the Tigers' star receiver is a potential touchdown machine at the next level.
"He's a body-beautiful kid with great speed and hands," said an AFC personnel executive. "He's had some drops, but he will make some dynamic catches, though. I like him a lot!"
In fact, when I looked at Williams' size, talent and rugged game on tape, I thought he looked like a Dez Bryant clone. From his route running to his playmaking skills as a jump-ball specialist, Williams is capable of dominating on the perimeter like the two-time Pro Bowler. -- Bucky Brooks
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These 4 Alabama players returned for senior year and it paid off for them and the team: The deadline for underclassmen to apply for early eligibility into the 2017 NFL Draft is less than three weeks away (Jan. 16). Last year at this time, several Alabama underclassmen faced the same decision. Surprisingly, several of their top players elected to return to Tuscaloosa for another season. Jonathan Allen, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster and O.J. Howard resisted the temptation of the next level and stayed in school.
All of these players have made improvements in their individual games and they have a chance to complete a perfect season and win another national championship. I believe all three of those defenders would've been first-round picks last spring, but each player bolstered his stock with NFL evaluators with their performances this fall. Foster has probably climbed his way into the top 10 of the 2017 draft class. Allen has been dominant in several big games, and Williams has earned more snaps this fall to showcase his rare explosiveness.
Howard was the biggest surprise returnee of the group. I went to both 'Bama playoff games last season and he was sensational. I thought he would ride that wave into the 2016 draft, but instead, he talked about the room for growth in his game and returned to Alabama. His stats didn't elevate like I expected, but he has become a very solid blocker in the run game. He's definitely in the mix to be the top TE off the board. -- Daniel Jeremiah
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The next Dontari Poe?: Washington has enjoyed a tremendous season, but most of the attention has gone to their young quarterback (Jake Browning), explosive receiver (John Ross) and their lockdown secondary. However, the player with the most NFL upside of the group lines up on the defensive line. Vita Vea is a physical freak. He's 6-foot-4 and weighs 345 pounds. For a man that big, he has incredible quickness and athleticism. His production doesn't jump off the stat sheet, but he sure does jump off the tape when you study him. He has the range to make tackles on the perimeter and he throws opposing lineman around like rag dolls.
When I asked a couple West Coast scouts about him, they both compared him to the same player -- Kansas City Chiefs DT Dontari Poe. That is high praise. Poe quickly emerged as one of the most dominant interior defensive linemen in the NFL after arriving from Memphis. He was very raw in college, but his physical traits were spectacular. The same can be said for Vea.
So, when the Huskies and Tide kickoff on Saturday afternoon, keep an eye on Vea. He will line up at several different spots on the line and maybe we'll see coach Chris Petersen incorporate him on the offensive side of the ball. We know Poe can throw the ball -- can Vea? -- Daniel Jeremiah
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Fiesta Bowl a DB showcase: I'm looking forward to seeing the future NFL standouts that will take the field in the Ohio State and Clemson defensive backfields when the Fiesta Bowl kicks off on Saturday. Each school has emerged as a pipeline for top NFL prospects with the likes of Bradley Roby, Vonn Bell, Eli Apple, Mackensie Alexander, T.J. Greene and Bashaud Breeland emerging as key contributors early in their respective careers. With scouts prone to fish in productive lakes and ponds, evaluators are casting their eyes on this collection of Buckeyes and Tigers to see which players are next to fill the pipeline.
For Ohio State, the attention deservedly goes to safety Malik Hooker and cornerback Marshon Lattimore based on their work and growing reputations as top-rated prospects at their respective positions. There's also bus growing around the Buckeyes' Gareon Conley on the island. The trio has played a major role on a defense that specializes in turing errant throws into "pick-sixes". With ballhawks coveted at a premium, the Buckeyes' defensive backfield will get plenty of attention from scouts.
Not to be outdone, the Tigers' secondary features a standout player in Cordrea Tankersley. The 6-foot-1, 200-pound senior is the next CB1 to make his way to the professional ranks after an outstanding career on the island. The aggressive cover corner possesses the size and length scouts covet while also displaying the versatile game that's needed to survive and thrive at the next level. Although he has a bad habit of picking up pass-interference and defensive-holding penalties, he is a feisty competitor with intriguing skills.
Overall, teams in need of ballhawks and playmakers in the back end should look long and hard at the talent that's on display at the Fiesta Bowl. -- Bucky Brooks
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Stay or go?: Much has been made about the lack of top-tier quarterback talent in the upcoming draft class. That dearth of top talent at the position has been a selling point by folks trying to convince underclassmen QBs to leave college early and jump to the NFL. "You could be the guy who comes out of nowhere and gets picked early!" That's what they say.
I studied the path of all 32 starting quarterbacks in the NFL. Here are a few things I discovered that prospects might want to consider before making that decision:
» 8 of the 32 starters exhausted their college eligibility and were selected in the first round.
» 12 of the 32 starters exhausted their college eligibility and were selected outside of the first round.
What does this mean? Well, based on this information, if you're going to come out early, you better have it on good authority that you'll be selected in the first round. There aren't any early declare QBs selected outside of the first round currently holding down a starting job.
There are a dozen starting quarterbacks that were picked outside of the first round but they utilized every rep in college to prepare themselves for success at the next level. The goal should be to start and have a long career. That's why these young signal-callers need to do their homework before making this important decision. -- Daniel Jeremiah