Whenever I get an opportunity to see a blue-chip prospect play in a major conference championship game, I pay close attention to his performance because the speed, intensity and urgency mirrors NFL competition. I'm a firm believer that how a player plays in this environment will give evaluators a glimpse of how he will perform at the next level when the pressure and intensity is at a fever pitch.
I can't wait to tune into this weekend's games to see if some of the top prospects in the country can answer some of the pressing questions that have popped up in NFL circles this fall. Although a big-game performance doesn't wipe away a season-long evaluation, it inevitably leaves a lasting impression when discussing top prospects in team meetings leading up to the draft. With that in mind, here are some of the questions I'm hoping a few blue-chip prospects will address with their play this weekend:
Marcus Mariota, Oregon, QB
Question: Can Mariota win from the pocket?
There is no doubt the NFL scouts are fascinated by Mariota's combination of athleticism and arm talent, but the recent struggles of "running quarterbacks" will prompt evaluators to take a closer look at his ability to win from the pocket. Despite ringing up ridiculous numbers as the director of the Ducks' fast-paced offense, scouts will monitor Mariota's poise, awareness and anticipation to see if he can develop into a polished pocket passer. Evaluators will look to see if Mariota possesses the composure and confidence to deliver pinpoint passes while standing in the midst of chaos or if he will flee the pocket at the first sign of penetration.
In addition, scouts will see if Mariota has the patience to fully work through his progressions to get to the second and third option of a route when his primary receiver is covered. To become an elite quarterback in the NFL, Mariota must be able to consistently defeat defenses with his passing skills from the pocket. Scouts will want to see how well he adapts to an Arizona defense that will attempt to take away some of the "pop" passes and quick play-action throws that are staples in the Ducks' offense. If Mariota throws it well in the Pac-12 Championship Game, he can eliminate some of the concerns scouts harbor about his game translating to the next level.
Jameis Winston, Florida State, QB
Question: How will Winston bounce back from his worst performance at FSU?
Character concerns aside, Winston is the most pro-ready quarterback of the potential 2015 class. He not only possesses all of the physical tools scouts covet in the position, but he is one of the few quarterback prospects playing in a pro-style offense that features several of the concepts used by NFL teams on Sundays. Winston will enter the NFL familiar with changing pass protections, identifying hot reads/sight adjustments and orchestrating the entire operation at the line of scrimmage. From a playing standpoint, Winston has already shown scouts that he possesses the natural arm talent and big-game moxie (confidence, poise and clutch factor) to handle the rigors of the position, but decision makers will look closely at his performance in the ACC Championship Game to see if he has the mental toughness to bounce back from disappointing moments.
Coming off a four-interception performance against Florida, Winston must show onlookers he remains confident and courageous in the pocket. Evaluators will closely monitor whether he hesitates before making a tight-window throw over the middle of the field or if he pulls the trigger and lets it rip when he sees a receiver working open in traffic. If Winston plays loose and carefree against Georgia Tech after his horrendous showing a week ago, scouts will feel better about his mental toughness and ability to handle adversity as a potential franchise quarterback.
Amari Cooper, Alabama, WR
Question: Does Cooper have the skills to be a No. 1 receiver as a pro?
When scouts consider placing a top-10 grade on a pass catcher, the prospect must exhibit the blue-chip qualities -- size, speed, ball skills, running skills and explosiveness -- needed to blossom at the next level as a dominant player. Cooper has certainly checked off the boxes in each of those areas, but astute scouts will take a closer look at his play in big games to determine if his dominance is sustainable against elite defenders in the NFL. Although he is coming off a 13-catch, 224-yard effort in the Iron Bowl that suggests he is spectacular playmaker on the perimeter, the best receivers in the game consistently deliver those kinds of performances in big games.
Thus, scouts are tuning in to the SEC Championship Game to see what Cooper does for an encore against a Missouri defense that will make it a top priority to minimize his impact as a playmaker. Whether it is facing an aggressive bump-and-run scheme or working through constant double teams or bracket coverage, Cooper's every move in the game will be monitored to see how he handles dealing with the bull's-eye on his chest. If he continues to make an impact in the passing game despite facing a number of exotic looks designed to make him work for completions, evaluators will rave about his perseverance, toughness and overall ability. Moreover, scouts will look at him as a game-changer capable of shouldering the burden of being a WR1 as a pro and worthy of consideration as an early selection in the draft.
Shane Ray, Missouri, DE
Question: Is Ray more than a "one-trick" pony off the edge?
Ray has been one of the fastest risers on draft boards around the NFL after notching 13.5 sacks against SEC competition. He has blown away evaluators with his first-step quickness and overall athleticism off the edge. Additionally, Ray complements his natural movement skills with a relentless motor and non-stop spirit that makes him a monster to deal with in one-on-one situations. While Ray's athletic prowess and dynamic rush skills make him a disruptive player at the collegiate level, scouts will dig deeper into his game to see if he possesses a repertoire of pass-rush moves that will enable him to win consistently against elite NFL offensive tackles. Scouts will want to see how Ray sequences his rush moves to see if he has an effective set of counters to win when a blue-chip blocker takes away his fast ball.
In addition, scouts will pay close attention to how Ray reacts against a physical running game directed at him. Elite edge defenders are also capable of disrupting the run with their speed, quickness and athleticism, so it is important for Ray to show observers that he isn't a one-dimensional player at the point of attack. If Ray puts on a show against an Alabama offensive line that relishes physical battles at the point of attack, he will continue to see his stock soar as one of the top defensive prospects in the 2015 class.
Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin, RB
Question: Is Gordon tough enough to run between the tackles as a pro?
NFL scouts love home-run hitters in the backfield, but the speed and quickness of NFL defenders make it imperative for a dynamic runner to also thrive between the tackles. Gordon is the most explosive running back prospect in college football. He is averaging 8.0 yards per carry and enters the Big Ten Championship Game with 29 rushes of 20-plus yards. With the majority of Gordon's work done on the perimeter because of his remarkable speed, quickness and acceleration, scouts will want to see if the Badgers standout is gritty enough to grind out the hard yards on inside runs. Evaluators will look closely at his elusiveness and ability to create in traffic while also watching how he finishes runs at the second level. The elite runners in the NFL run through contact in the secondary and consistently fall forward at the end of runs. In addition, they are willing to dole out contact rather than absorbing hits in the hole.
Given the disappointing track record of Wisconsin running backs, evaluators will closely scrutinize every aspect of Gordon's game, particularly his creativity and inside running skills, to see if he can develop into an elite runner at the next level. If Gordon can put on an impressive showing against an Ohio State defense loaded with explosive athletes in the Big Ten Championship Game, he can silence some of the doubters questioning his potential as a pro.