The 9 NFL draft prospects you need to watch during championship weekend
Championship week is always another great evaluation tool for the NFL Draft, as we get to see a number of the top players face off against strong competition. This year is no different, as one of the nation’s top quarterbacks faces one of the best secondaries in the country, a top receiving corps goes up against one of the best defensive backfields, and a number of other draft prospects will be counted on to live up to their billing in their teams’ biggest games of the season.
Here are the prospects who figure to play the biggest roles during championship weekend:
1. Deshaun Watson, QB, Clemson
When Watson is playing up to his potential, Clemson is nearly unbeatable, and he’ll need to be on his game against a tough Virginia Tech secondary in the ACC title game. Watson has underwhelmed for much of the season, missing more throws than usual and putting the ball in harm’s way more often than he has in the past. His turnover-worthy plays are up by 15 percent since last season, and it’s showing in his interception total, which now stands at 14, fifth-highest in the nation.
However, much like he did last season, Watson has put together a few dominant games down the stretch, most recently his game against South Carolina last week in which he completed 26-of-32 attempts — with four of his six incompletions coming on drops. It’s that kind of performance that Clemson will need in the ACC Championship as Virginia Tech boasts the No. 3 coverage grade in the FBS. If Watson can overcome perhaps his biggest challenge of the year, Clemson will repeat as ACC champs and be right back in the College Football Playoff for the second straight year.
2-3. Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon, CBs, Colorado
Colorado’s resurgence has been one of the biggest stories of the 2016 season, and the secondary deserves plenty of credit for the turnaround. It starts with Awuzie, who has been productive since PFF started grading college teams in 2014 and has improved in coverage every year. Witherspoon has been a breakout star this season, allowing only 32.9 percent of passes to be completed into his coverage, fifth-best among Power-5 corners with at least 30 targets.
— PFF College Football (@PFF_College) December 2, 2016
Awuzie and Witherspoon are aided by one of the top safeties in the country in Tedric Thompson and a rising star at corner in Isaiah Oliver, all adding up to the top coverage grade among FBS teams. They face their biggest challenge of the season against QB Jake Browning and his top wide receivers, John Ross and Dante Pettis. If at the end of the weekend we’re discussing Colorado’s upset over Washington in the Pac-12 title game, it will have started with Awuzie and Witherspoon’s ability to slow down Ross and Pettis on the outside.
4. Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
While Oklahoma State is not technically in a championship game, the Big 12 title will come down to their game against Oklahoma. Sooners QB Baker Mayfield gets most of the publicity on the other side, and rightfully so as he’s currently our top-graded quarterback and perhaps on his way to New York as a Heisman finalist.
[Check out our ranking of the 10 best quarterbacks in college football right now.]
But don’t sleep on Rudolph, who still doesn’t garner the national attention despite two straight years of top-notch production on a throw-for-throw basis. His 91.8 overall grade ranks right behind Mayfield’s, and his ratio of big-time throws to turnover-worthy throws leads all FBS signal-callers. Rudolph has a chance to carry the Oklahoma State passing offense with his downfield throwing and perhaps the nation’s best ability to throw the deep comeback outside the numbers with accuracy.
5. Josh Allen, QB, Wyoming
While he’s technically draft-eligible as a redshirt sophomore, we don’t expect Allen to declare for the draft this season. However, his size, athleticism, and arm strength will force his name to be uttered in the same sentence as Philadelphia Eagles QB Carson Wentz at some point in the near future. While I haven’t evaluated Allen with draft stock in mind, the top end of his game has been fascinating to watch. He leads the nation in percentage of big-time throws per dropback and every week he’s either dropping a pass in the bucket or making a pinpoint throw on the move.
While some of the nuances of the quarterback position are still developing, the raw tools Allen has displayed have been eye-popping. Since Week 8, Allen has the No. 4 overall grade in the nation, and if that trend continues, we are looking at a potential future first-round pick.
Allen has a chance to take another step forward in the national spotlight with a big game against San Diego State, a team Wyoming just defeated two weeks ago behind Allen’s best game of the season.
6. Ryan Ramczyk, LT, Wisconsin
It will take a full team effort to slow Penn State’s pass-rush, but Ramczyk will have to lock it down at left tackle against a rush that gets to the quarterback at the fifth-highest rate in the nation. Penn State’s signature win came over Ohio State when the Nittany Lions pressured QB J.T. Barrett on 28 of his 56 dropbacks — a strong recipe for defensive success.
Ramczyk has emerged as our top offensive tackle prospect in the latest PFF Draft Board, and he’ll have another top challenge this week against DE Garrett Sickels, who ranks 11th in the nation in pass-rush productivity among 4-3 defensive ends at 12.5. Ramczyk has yet to allow a sack this season while giving up just three QB hits and 10 hurries on his 330 attempts, so something has to give in this matchup with Sickels, who sacked Barrett three times in Penn State’s upset of Ohio State.
7. Forrest Lamp, LT, Western Kentucky
We take any and all opportunities to illuminate Lamp’s performance, and he’ll once again be a key player for Western Kentucky this weekend. While the entire line has performed well, ranking fourth in the nation in our latest ranking, Lamp will be matched up against Louisiana Tech’s Jaylon Ferguson, by far the team’s top pass-rusher. Ferguson has 14 sacks, seven QB hits and 23 hurries on 313 rushes this season, and those 42 pressures account for 25 percent of Louisiana Tech’s pressures this season.
Lamp has turned away top pass-rushers before, whether it was a one-pressure performance against Alabama’s loaded front or a clean effort against Florida Atlantic and edge defender Trey Hendrickson, who leads the nation with 78 pressures. On the year, Lamp has only given up two QB hits and a hurry on 346 dropbacks, and another top performance will set the tone for Western Kentucky’s offense.
8. Tim Williams, edge defender, Alabama
You can have your pick of almost any player on the Alabama defense, as there are a number of draft prospects who will have an impact in the SEC Championship game against Florida. However, Williams will be going up against true freshman right tackle Jawaan Taylor, who has been solid for a freshman for much of the year, but is coming off a performance in a loss to Florida State in which he gave up five pressures and two sacks.
With Alabama expected to get up early in the game, the Crimson Tide pass-rushers will be unleashed, and Williams is poised to have a big game and shut down any comeback attempt Florida tries to mount. On the season, Williams now has seven sacks, eight QB hits, and 31 hurries on only 204 rushes, bringing his three-year totals to 19 sacks, 17 QB hits and 75 hurries on 400 rushes.
9. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
An undefeated season is on the line for Western Michigan this weekend, as the Broncos look to take home the MAC Championship against Ohio. While the Broncos are loaded on both sides of the ball, the Corey Davis Show has only a few more stops on his way to the NFL. Look for another dominant performance to put the cherry on top of a great career, as the No. 1 receiver on the PFF Draft Board has the skills to win at any level of the defense.
Davis is the only receiver to rank among the top 10 at the position each of the last three years, and he leads the nation with 17 receiving touchdowns. Look for him to find the end zone once again to lead Western Michigan to its 13th win of the season.