Top 10 prospects to watch in the National Championship game
The dominant manner with which Clemson and Alabama booked their places in the National Championship game, bears testament to the next-level talent on both rosters. Defense dominates this list, with outstanding players on both defensive lines.
Only draft eligible players, and those expected to declare for the draft, are included. That means no true sophomore’s, such as Clemson QB Deshaun Watson, and it also means there is no place for Alabama edge rusher Tim Williams, who has stated his intention to stay in school.
Shaq Lawson, DE, Clemson
A 4-3 defensive end with the size (6-3 and 270 pounds) and power to be a force against both run and pass, Lawson has been one of the most impressive defensive ends in the nation. Lawson rushed almost exclusively from the right, meaning that he typically faced the opponents’ best pass protector — not that it mattered, as few could contain him. Lawson’s 10.6 pass rushing productivity ranked eighth-best among 4-3 ends who rushed predominantly from the right. He generated at least six pressures in three games, with his two sacks and 11 pressures against Louisville a highlight. He was forced out of the game against Oklahoma with a knee injury, but there is optimism that Lawson will be fit to play against Alabama, which is good news for Clemson fans and neutrals alike — the game would be poorer without him.
Jarran Reed, DT, Alabama
An elite run-stuffing defensive tackle, Reed has been a destructive force along the line of scrimmage in every game he’s played this season, following on from a strong finish to 2014. He earned a run defense grade of at least +2 in all bar two games this season, and made a stop on 13.2 percent of the run downs he played, the best rate among defensive tackles. Reed’s moderate return as a pass rusher, two sacks and 23 total pressures, might keep him from the very top of the draft, given the premium placed on pass rushing. However, his overall talent will be attractive to many.
Mackensie Alexander, CB, Clemson
Alexander didn’t always stand out for us from a grading perspective, but that’s partially because opponents tend to not challenge his coverage — they certainly had little success when they did. Alexander allowed just 18 completions all season and zero touchdowns. He allowed opponents to complete just 32.1 percent of balls thrown into his coverage — the second-lowest rate in the nation. He tracked Notre Dame WR Will Fuller when they met, limiting him to just 37 yards. And while Oklahoma WR Sterling Shepard finished their game with seven catches, he was 0-for-3 when covered by Alexander.
Jonathan Allen, DT, Alabama
The second Alabama defensive lineman on this list, Allen may have the greatest appeal to NFL evaluators. Smaller, and less stout than his defensive line colleagues, Reed and Robinson, Allen also played less snaps, however he still led the team with 13 sacks, and racked up 30 total pressures. That gives him an 11.4 pass rushing productivity score, making him one of the most productive pass rushing 3-4 defensive ends in the country. Allen’s combination of power, burst and size allows him to impact the game as both an end and tackle. Allen could well choose to stay at Alabama for another season, when he would surely command a larger snap count — a terrifying prospect for SEC offensive linemen. However, if he does declare, his ability to get after the passer should make him a hot commodity.
Reggie Ragland, LB, Alabama
There had been talk of Reggie Ragland declaring early for the draft after the 2014 season, where as a two-down linebacker who struggled in coverage. he would likely have been a Day 3 selection. Going back to school turned out to be the correct decision as Ragland’s game improved in all aspects, helping him develop into arguably the most complete linebacker in the nation. he was the only linebacker to finish the season with a grade’s above +7 as a run defender, pass rusher and in coverage, his weakness one year earlier. That can only have improved his draft stock — linebackers who can’t cover are limited in the modern NFL.
A’Shawn Robinson, DT, Alabama
The best known member of the Alabama defensive line, A’Shawn Robinson didn’t grade quite as well for us as his teammates Reed and Allen, but he was still one of the most impressive run defenders in the nation, and a physically impressive pro prospect. Listed at 6-4 and 312 pounds, Robinson was one of the largest 3-4 ends in the country, and almost immovable in the run game, making a stop on 10.7 percent of run downs he was on the field for. Robinson’s best performance came against Georgia, when he helped shut down the Bulldogs ground game, earning a season-high +4.6 run defense grade. What limits his grade for us is his pass rushing — he played more snaps than any other Alabama defensive lineman, yet only recorded 19 total pressures. Even so, elite interior run stuffers are uncommon and Robinson will not be overlooked in April.
Kevin Dodd, DE, Clemson
That Clemson were able to cope just fine when Lawson went down against Oklahoma, was down to the performance of Dodd. With a ridiculous 12 total pressures, and a season-high +4.3 grade, Dodd delivered in the most important game of his career, so far at least. Dodd entered the season as something of an unknown, and quickly proved he belonged. Lining up opposite Lawson, Dodd rushed predominately from the left, generating 9 sacks and a team-leading 60 total pressures. Much like Lawson, Dodd, at 6-5 and 275 pounds, has the frame that NFL evaluators crave from a 4-3 defensive end. As a one-year starter, Dodd might opt to stay in school for another year, but performing as he did in the playoff semi-final will have done wonders for his stock.
Derrick Henry, HB, Alabama
As the Heisman winner, and new SEC single-season rushing yards record holder, Alabama running back Derrick Henry needs no introduction. Listed at 6-3 and 242 pounds, Henry is a powerful back who is at his best running downhill. He forced 72 missed tackles on runs, fifth-most among backs, but also led the nation with 359 rushing attempts, so that figure is a little less impressive on a per attempt basis. Henry has good straight line speed but lacks the shiftiness that could make him an elite prospect as a runner. He is inexperienced as a receiver, he was targeted just 20 times in the past two seasons, and has had some difficulties in pass protection, he gave up eight pressures on 94 pass block snaps in 2015, which likely limit his early role in the NFL. Even so, if he declares for the draft Henry is likely to be one of the first backs off the board in April, and his workload in college suggests that the time is right to move on.
Jayron Kearse, S, Clemson
Standing at 6-5 and 220 pounds, Kearse has rare size for a safety, offering teams a defensive back with the physical gifts to matchup with tight ends. Kearse has been a key performer for the Tigers, particularly in run support, where he grades out as one of the best among Power-5 safeties. Kearse spent much of his time at free safety and has good range, but while he graded out positively in coverage, he has had more issues with that part of his game and can be beaten in space, he had three missed tackles against Oklahoma.
Wayne Gallman, HB, Clemson
A redshirt sophomore, Gallman could choose to declare for the draft and would draw attention if he does. Gallman lacks Henry’s physical presence, but at 6-1 and 215 pounds he’s certainly big enough to carry a heavy workload, and he is a shiftier back. He forced 65 missed tackles on 287 touches and has considerably more experience in the passing game than Henry. Gallman was targeted 22 times as a sophomore, and 29 times as a freshman. He spent 164 snaps in pass protection in 2015, and gave up six pressures. Gallman could certainly return to school for another year in the backfield alongside Deshaun Watson, but his skill set and body of work are already enough to impress NFL evaluators.