Whenever blue-chip prospects play in championship games, scouts pay close attention to their performance because it provides a preview of a player's potential in a game with NFL-caliber talent and intensity. When reviewing their efforts in these contests, scouts will not only take notes, but they will also jot down letter grades to rate how well a prospect played in a red-letter game.
After touching on the pressing questions surrounding the top prospects in the 2015 class in my Friday column, I thought I would take the time to review their performances in their championship games to see if they sufficiently addressed the concerns about their respective games. Given some time to reflect on their efforts and make a few calls to some scouting colleagues in attendance, here are my thoughts on the play of five blue-chippers in critical games:
QB Marcus Mariota, Oregon
Pregame question: Can Mariota win from the pocket?
Postgame analysis: The Heisman Trophy frontrunner put on a sensational show for NFL scouts at the Pac-12 Championship Game. Mariota accounted for 346 total yards and five touchdowns in the Ducks' 51-13 win over Arizona. Although scouts have come to expect that kind of production from the explosive dual-threat playmaker, it was his timely improvisation and efficient pocket play that resonated with evaluators in attendance. Mariota picked apart the Wildcats' defense with a barrage of pinpoint throws to the perimeter while displaying the patience and poise to find the second option when defenders covered his primary target. While the simplicity of the Ducks' passing game makes it easy for Mariota to identify the open receiver, he deserves credit for consistently delivering the ball on time and on target to pass catchers on the perimeter. Some scouts harbored concerns about his anticipation and intermediate accuracy heading into the game, but he consistently delivered darts in the Ducks' biggest game of the season and showed evaluators that he could excel as a passer in a movement-based passing game that accentuated his talents as a mobile quarterback.
From a playmaking standpoint, Mariota's speed, athleticism and elusiveness make him a threat to score on designed quarterback runs or impromptu scrambles from the pocket. He repeatedly escaped the clutches of defenders in the pocket by slipping out the backdoor when the pocket collapsed. In addition, the Ducks used Mariota on a few zone-read and quarterback sweeps that put him on the perimeter in space. With the 6-foot-4, 219-pounder adept at avoiding or running past defenders in the open field, the selective use of similar plays could yield big gains for a creative offensive coordinator.
Overall, Mariota continues to perform at a high level as the director of the Ducks' fast-paced offense. Although he will need to acclimate to a pro-style offense, he certainly showed scouts that he has all of the tools to be a dynamic offensive weapon down the road.
QB Jameis Winston, Florida State
Pregame question: How will Winston bounce back from his worst performance at FSU?
Postgame analysis: Coming off a four-interception performance against Florida, there were plenty of concerns in the NFL scouting community about Winston's ability to bounce back from a bad game. Elite NFL quarterbacks possess the resiliency and mental toughness to remain confident and aggressive in the midst of adversity; how Winston played in the ACC Championship Game would provide a glimpse into how he will handle the rough patches at the next level. Based on his play against Georgia Tech on Saturday night, the Heisman Trophy winner from a season ago won't have any issues bouncing back from mini-slumps as a pro.
Winston was magnificent against the Yellow Jackets, completing 21 of 30 passes for 309 yards and three scores. He delivered accurate strikes to receivers at every level, including a pair of deep strikes to Nick O'Leary and Rashad Greene that resulted in touchdowns. In addition, Winston wisely targeted his running back (Dalvin Cook) on check-downs when the defense played soft to take away deeper throws. Given the importance of staying on schedule in a championship game, Winston's patience and judgment will earn high marks from coaches when they evaluate the tape. Most important, his superb ball security in the game (he ended a six-game streak with at least one interception) will squash some of the concerns about his turnover woes.
Overall, Winston played his best game of 2014 when the Seminoles needed a standout performance to clinch their spot in the College Football Playoff. Thus, he will continue to impress scouts who place a premium on the clutch factor in their evaluations.
WR Amari Cooper, Alabama
Pregame question: Does Cooper have the skills to be a No.1 receiver as a pro?
Postgame analysis: The impressive performance of the 2014 rookie wide receiver class will prompt decision makers to seriously consider taking a pass catcher early in the draft if he displays blue-chip qualities in big games. Thus, Cooper needed a standout performance in the SEC Championship Game to enhance his standing as one of the elite wide receiver prospects potentially in the 2015 class.
The 6-1, 210-pound junior certainly didn't disappoint with a 12-catch, 83-yard effort that showcased his dazzling array of skills on the perimeter. Cooper touched the ball in every conceivable way as the focal point of a Crimson Tide game plan designed to stretch Missouri's defense horizontally and vertically. He handled the ball on a variety of quick screens and jet-sweep tosses that allowed him to get the ball quickly in space. Although his total yardage doesn't jump off the stat sheet, the bevy of touches Cooper received early in the game forced the Tigers to monitor his whereabouts, leading to big-play opportunities for others on the perimeter.
From a skills evaluation standpoint, Cooper is not only an explosive athlete, but he is a polished route runner adept at creating separation from defenders with subtle fakes and moves at the top of his routes. He already shows a tremendous understanding of timing and patience as a route runner, which puts him ahead of the curve heading into the NFL. Additionally, Cooper is a power runner with the ball in his hands. He runs through arm tackles on the perimeter and appears very comfortable weaving through traffic. Although Cooper occasionally is plagued by the "dropsies," he has excellent ball skills and should develop into a solid playmaker as a pro.
In the end, Cooper's performance in the SEC Championship solidified his standing as the top receiver in the 2015 class. He is a prototypical WR1 with the tools to shine as a flanker or split end at the next level.
DE Shane Ray, Missouri
Pregame question: Is Ray more than a "one-trick" pony off the edge?
Postgame analysis: Scouts were excited to see how Ray would perform against an offensive line loaded with NFL-caliber blockers on the perimeter. The Missouri standout was well on his way to cementing his status as one of the premier pass rushers in college football prior to an ejection for targeting in the second quarter. Ray registered a sack to give him a SEC-high 14.5 on the season, which is indicative of his dominance off the edge.
From a scouting perspective, Ray's performance in his limited action confirmed his speed, athleticism and explosive nature as a pass rusher. He shows outstanding first-step quickness and acceleration off the corner while also displaying tremendous balance and body control. Ray's suddenness overwhelms offensive tackles, which allows him to win with inside counter moves when blockers overreact to his speed rush. To be fair, Ray was facing a talented freshman offensive tackle (Cam Robinson) still adjusting to the speed and tempo of championship-caliber football, but the performance against an All-SEC Freshman team member provided a glimpse of what the Tiger standout could do at the next level.
Some NFL scouts will ding Ray for the penalty that kept him from finishing the game, but defensive coaches and scouts won't bat an eye at his aggressiveness, particularly when most place a significant emphasis on getting hits on the quarterback. While Ray didn't get a chance to finish his work in the SEC Championship Game, the brief performance gave evaluators a glimpse of his potential as a pro.
RB Melvin Gordon, Wisconsin
Pregame question: Is Gordon tough enough to run between the tackles as a pro?
Postgame analysis: The measure of a running back's greatness is how he performs when an opponent commits to stopping the run by loading the box with at least eight defenders. Gordon has thrived in 2014 despite seeing a host of eight- and nine-man fronts throughout the season. Against Ohio State, however, scouts wanted to see if Gordon could put up big numbers against a defense chock full of NFL-caliber athletes along the front line, particularly when the Badgers directed their running game between the tackles.
Looking at the numbers, evaluators would come away disappointed that Gordon failed to surpass the 100-yard mark for only the second time this season. But his effort and toughness running against an impenetrable wall at the point of attack spoke volumes about his overall grit and toughness as a runner. Gordon relentlessly hit the hole with urgency; he didn't back down when the Buckeyes overwhelmed the Badgers' offensive line at the point of attack.
From a scouting perspective, Gordon's resiliency and tenacity are ideal traits in a franchise runner, which is why he is different than his predecessors at Wisconsin. In addition, Gordon flashed impressive vision and creativity in the hole, as he repeatedly made the initial defender miss before being engulfed by a wave of tacklers in the hole. Although his longest run against Ohio State netted only 13 yards, Gordon displayed the kind of short-area explosiveness, elusiveness and physicality to produce the "pro" runs expected of a franchise back. Granted, it didn't produce the kind of numbers that scouts have grown accustomed to seeing from the All-Big Ten performer, but Gordon didn't receive much help from his supporting cast in the backfield.
Overall, Gordon will get acceptable marks for his play in the Big Ten Championship Game, but his limited production in the game will certainly raise eyebrows when scouts convene in pre-draft meetings.