10 NFL prospects to watch in the College Football Playoff
A team doesn’t make the College Football Playoff without NFL talent on the roster, and there’s certainly no shortage of it present this postseason. Defensive line is the overriding theme here, but there are a handful playmakers that have the opportunity to shine in the playoff.
This list only includes players that are draft eligible and that we expect to make the leap — so DeShaun Watson, Marlon Humphrey, Malik McDowell, and Charles Walker will have to wait til next year.
- DE Shilique Calhoun, Michigan State
Calhoun really opened my eyes in the Cotton Bowl at the end of last season, when he put a hurt on Baylor left tackle Spencer Drango like no one had before and no one has since. In that game he had two sacks, three hurries, and a +8.0 overall grade. He would finish 2014 as our fifth-highest graded edge defender and only built on that performance in 2015. The senior led the nation this year in total pressures with 72 and graded out only slightly behind Joey Bosa as a pass rusher. Calhoun’s has elite length and even though he’s graded out as an average run defender in college, he has all the tools to excel in that area at the pro level. Calhoun may not be a freak athlete, but he still has attributes that you can’t teach.
- DE Shaq Lawson, Clemson
Unlike Calhoun, Lawson is a true throwback 4-3 defensive end at 6-3, 270 pounds that impacts both run and pass equally. Not many edge rushers can match Lawson’s power, just ask North Carolina left tackle Bentley Spain whom Lawson abused in the ACC title game. In that one he had a sack, two hits, and three hurries for a season high +7.0 grade. He might not be the dominant pass rusher teams are looking for at the top of the draft yet with the 13th best pass rushing grade in the Power 5, but Lawson is a complete player with NFL ready athleticism.
- DT Jarran Reed, Alabama
Arguably the best run stuffer in all of college football, he didn’t face an offensive lineman that could control him this season. His pass rushing left something to be desired though with a pass rushing productivity right around average. So the real question becomes how much is a dominant run stuffer worth at the next level? There is little doubt that his skills will translate as he’s done it two years in a row now in the SEC. Reed made a top on 13.4 percent of the run plays he was in on, the best rate in the nation.
- OT Jack Conklin, Michigan State
Conklin is the absolute perfect left tackle for what the Spartans offense does and it’s the reason why he’s been right at the top of our tackle grading back-to-back seasons. That doesn’t make him a slam dunk at the top of the draft though as he doesn’t quite have the natural bend and athleticism you’d like to see out of a top-five pick. Conklin is a bruiser in the mold of Joe Staley and would work best going to a gap scheme offense in the NFL. In that scheme the sky is the limit as the junior proved he could hang earlier this year in a back and forth matchup with Oregon’s DeForest Buckner.
- CB Mackensie Alexander, Clemson
Alexander has the possibility to move higher on this list the more work we do on him. Not many cornerbacks will mirror the opposing teams number one receiver, but that’s what Alexander did at times this year. The Clemson cornerback was still statistically one of the best in the NCAA though. His performance against Notre Dame where he tracked Will Fuller and held him to 37 yards on the day was one of the more impressive on the season. For the year allowed only .68 yards per coverage snap and only 16 of his 50 targets resulted in completions for the lowest catch rate in the FBS (32 percent).
- DT Jonathan Allen, Alabama
Another Alabama defensive lineman — big surprise. Allen may not head to the draft after seeing only 339 snaps this season, but he could end up being the best of the bunch. As a pass rusher he’s certainly already the most productive. The junior notched 11 sacks on only 212 pass rushes to go along with four hits and 13 hurries. Like teammates Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams, Allen’s limited snap count may keep him at Alabama another season, but all three look like early-round NFL talents.
- WR Sterling Shepard, Oklahoma
Shepard might not “wow” on tape, but he keeps getting open and keeps catching balls. At 5-10, 193 pounds he profiles as a slot receiver in the NFL which will no doubt hurt his draft stock, but it’s hard to see him not being productive there. Shepard took 73 percent of his snaps from the slot this year, and averaged 3.12 yards per route from there, the fourth-best rate in the nation. His five drops on 133 catchable passes over the past two seasons make him one of the most reliable targets in the country.
- ILB Reggie Ragland, Alabama
The next installment in the Alabama middle linebacker factory. The senior rounded into a truly complete player this year after lapses in coverage at times in 2014. He finished with the fourth highest grade of any inside linebacker in the country and finished in the top 25 for run defense, coverage, and pass rushing. At 6-2, 252 pounds Ragland has surprising quicks and athleticism for a linebacker of his size.
- WR Aaron Burbridge, Michigan State
After losing Tony Lippett to the NFL a year ago, Michigan State didn’t skip a beat at wide receiver. Burbridge isn’t a the true “X” receiver that teams covet highly in the draft, but like Lippett, Burbridge is extremely smooth and coordinated. His leaping touchdown catch against Air Force this year was one of the most impressive of the season and displayed the body control that puts him on this list. On deep passes, Burbridge had the fifth-highest catch rate and 11th most yards in the country.
- DT A’Shawn Robinson, Alabama
Alabama interior linemen are a tad difficult to project because they aren’t asked to play many snaps so they are almost always fresh. They won’t shoot into a gap off the ball and do a lot of reading/reacting so their pass rushing numbers can suffer. That being said I still think we are lower on Robinson than most because in relation to his teammates Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen he graded out lower. He was so average as a pass rusher with only 17 pressures all season long that it’s difficult to see him ever developing into a threat in that area at the next level. Still, he offers game-changing, run-stuffing ability and that can’t be overlooked.