Scouting The Orange Bowl
As part of Football.com's coverage of all 35 bowl games, we will provide a draft prospect-primer, so you know whom to watch during every postseason game.
As far as BCS bowl games go, the Orange Bowl isn't the big one. But it's at least as big as the others in terms of the draft prospects on display.
There are as many potential first-rounders as any of the other big games. No fewer than four players -- a top-3 running back, cornerback and outside linebacker, as well as the top receiver in the draft -- have a shot at hearing their name called on Day 1.
Sammy Watkins, WR
DeAndre Hopkins' debut in Houston was fairly typical of the rookie seasons even big-time receivers tend to experience. There are flashes of brilliance, bookended by entire games' worth of disappearing acts. There's a level of inconsistency that even top-tier prospects have to fight through, and they have to learn to win one-on-one battles with the best cornerbacks they've ever faced. And still Hopkins made 52 catches for 802 yards, and he averaged 15.4 yards per reception, virtually the same as Demaryius Thomas and Jordy Nelson.
I mention Hopkins because Watkins is a better NFL prospect than his former Clemson teammate. Everything everyone liked about Hopkins -- the hands, the competitiveness, the straight-line speed, the toughness after the catch -- can be attributed to Watkins, and more. Watkins seems more explosive in short and intermediate routes, and he's probably faster than Hopkins when he hits full stride (Hopkins ran a 4.57 at the combine). Watkins, who can be used at any receiver spot, including in the slot, is a top-5 talent, and quite possibly the best offensive skill position player in the draft -- including the quarterbacks.
Tajh Boyd, QB
Boyd's career credentials are unimpeachable: 11,500+ yards passing, 1,000+ yards rushing, 102 TD passes and another 25 TDs rushing. When you talk about dual-threat quarterbacks, Boyd might just be the one prospect built enough like a running back (6-foot-1, 225 pounds) to play the two-way game at the next level. In fact, Boyd might be the quarterback most similar to Russell Wilson -- a prolific passer who has overcome any height disadvantage, who runs powerfully both by design and necessity. Still, Boyd is considered a marginal pro prospect, primarily because of his height (even though he's listed at the same height as Johnny Manziel) though he's had issues with his accuracy. He's completed 64% of his college attempts, but a great deal of credit must be given to the receivers he's been blessed to play with. If hundreds of his targets hadn't been to Watkins and Hopkins, that completion percentage might be south of 60%, and then we'd be looking at a late-round flyer at best. As it stands, Boyd is a Day Three prospect who could start moving up and down draft boards during Senior Bowl week, when he'll have a chance to compete alongside and be measured against Derek Carr, David Fales, Stephen Morris and Logan Thomas.
Vic Beasley, OLB
Boyd isn't the only Clemson prospect whose measurables aren't a red flag for scouts. Beasley is a natural pass rusher, who had eight sacks in a limited role in 2011 and blossomed into one of the nation's top rushers (12 sacks, 19 TFL) as an every down defensive end. His rate of one sack every 40 snaps is best in Clemson history. Most of his success has come as a speed rusher, which has helped Beasley avoid the physical mismatch he'd face as a 6-3, 235-pound end. That's way too small to play end at the next level, but he's not yet consistent enough in the run game for teams to feel comfortable moving him to outside linebacker. He'll play Will backer in the NFL, and may be a situational pass rusher in the early part of his career. He received a second-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee, which might affect his decision to return to school. If he declares, he's a Day Two pick.
Martavis Bryant, WR
The two best seasons by a pair of Clemson receivers came in 2011 and 2012, when Watkins and Hopkins teamed up. A couple of completions into the Orange Bowl, the combination of Watkins and Bryant will surpass the previous dynamic duo. Yes, Watkins is the common thread between all three, but Bryant is making his case for being as good a second banana as Clemson's had. At 6-foot-5, 200 pounds, he's a huge target, and every catch seems to be a huge gain. He's averaging more than 20 yards per reception this year, and 22.56 in his career -- second-most in ACC history.
Chandler Catanzaro, K
One of a handful of kickers who might warrant a last-day draft pick, Catanzaro has become a model of conistency. He's perfect on his PAT attempts, and has missed only two field goals over his last 41 attempts. He's hit 24 field goals of 40 yards or longer -- a school record -- showing that he's not just netting chip shots.
Ryan Shazier, OLB
In almost every game he plays, Shazier is the best football player on the field. Few prospects are as good at what they do as Shazier is. He has solid instincts, is intuitive in his angles of pursuit, has a great burst of closing speed and enough open-field to make plays from sideline to sideline, downfield and behind the line of scrimmage (22.5 TFL). He had 20 tackles, including 16 solo stops and 5 TFL against Indiana alone -- that's three weeks' worth for most linebackers. Shazier can stick with running backs in pass coverage and will stay on the field in every down and distance situation. The only problem -- and it's not insignificant -- is his size. He's listed at 6-2, 230; if those measurements hold up at the Combine, he's a top-15 pick. But if it turns out he's smaller or lighter than that, teams will be reluctant to spend a high pick on a linebacker prospect who could give away 80 pounds to an offensive tackle.
Bradley Roby, CB
The latest news is that Roby is unlikely to play Friday night, due to a bone bruise in his knee. If he does play, you'll see a cover corner prototype in terms of size, style of play and swagger. My two issues with Roby -- who I thought going into the year would be the best cornerback prospect in the country -- is that he doesn't show the takeaway ability you'd expect from a cornerback who always seemed properly positioned for a pick, and he's a below-average tackler, always looking to deliver a hit rather than tackle. More often than not, he's the one who seems to bounce off the contact. Still, he's a first-round cornerback with a ton of upside.
Carlos Hyde, RB
I was surprised to see in Ohio State's game notes that Hyde is the first running back to have a 1,000-yard season under Urban Meyer. But as I've been lobbying since November, I can see offenses in the NFL evolving to look a lot like what the Buckeyes did this year: spread the field, threaten the defense with multiple receivers and an athletic quarterback, and then use a big back to pound the smaller, stretched-thin defenders. Hyde has the potential to be that kind of punishing back at the next level, and his game has matured this year. He seems to run harder than he did earlier in his career, breaking more would-be solo tackles and driving piles forward, perhaps showing a newfound determination in the wake of the three-game suspension that sidelined him at the start of the season (that's right -- he missed three games and still rushed for 1,400 yards). He doesn't have that breakaway gear (most big backs don't), otherwise, he'd be a sure-fire first-rounder. More likely, he's an early Day Two pick.
Jack Mewhort, T
There's a top tier of tackle prospects this year, and then a group of four or five guys who will start coming off the board between picks 50-100. Mewhort is in the latter category, a technically sound tackle with prototype size (6-6, 308). His footwork help him overcome a lack of lateral quickness, which could make him vulnerable against the elite speed rushers he'll face in the NFL. But he's solid against the bull rush, and he's a capable force in the run game, having started at left tackle and both guard spots.
Michael Bennett, DT
An interior lineman with blossoming penetration skills, Bennett did not ask the Advisory committee for a grade, suggesting he plans to return. If he comes out, he's a mid-round prospect with the chance to contribute in pass rush situations. If he returns, he could develop into the premier 3 Technique tackle in the 2015 draft.
C.J. Barnett, FS
In a down year for safeties, Barnett has the chance to be among the first six or seven free safeties to come off the board, probably in the fourth or fifth round. He's a solid all-around player, with good size, good ball skills and good tackling technique. He lacks the speed to be a lone deep middle defender consistently, and he lacks the power to play in the box. Barnett will be a fine rotational Cover 2 or Cover 3 safety.
Braxton Miller, QB
I save the most compelling prospect for last. There are times when Miller looks every bit the professional passer, showing zip on his throws downfield that dare offensive coordinators to dream. But those are far too infrequent for anyone (aside from Miller himself) to consider Miller ready for the NFL. And it's not his inaccuracy or the footwork that contributes to it as much as it is the shortcomings common to the dual-threat quarterback. Yes, he has far better potential as a passer than, say, Terrelle Pryor, but he's less developed in reading defenses than, say, Johnny Manziel, Brett Hundley or Marcus Mariota. And, like those other guys, his second read is the green light to run. His pocket mobility is extraordinary, but until he learns to ignore the alarm in his head that tell him to evacuate the pocket before he gets to the second receiver in his progression, he remains too much a project. Manziel ignored my urgings, Mariota has heeded them, and the jury is still out on Hundley. But Braxton Miller needs to go back to school and spend another year developing as a pass-first quarterback. Otherwise, his NFL career will look a lot like Robert Griffin's Year Two.