Like we did last year last year, we will take an in-depth look at some of the most talked-about NFL draft prospects from each week. Below, NFL Draft expert Matt Richner covers the prospects with the most to prove in the bowl season.
With the bowl season underway, there are a number of NFL prospects who can elevate their draft stock with their performances. Just like the NCAA basketball tournament where one player can have a few good games and go from undrafted to first-round talent, in college football one memorable play or game can cause a player to jump up the draft boards to become an early-round prospect.
Below are five prospects who, in some cases, have just one more opportunity to put the proof in the tape and in the box score and show scouts that they are one of the best at their position. Some of these players still have eligibility left and can return to school, while for others this is their last college game, and they will be signing with an agent (official) in the locker room right after the game. Once they sign, these players will be whisked away to some glorified training academy to prepare for the NFL combine and their individual pro days.
Ra'Shede Hageman (DT, Minnesota):
Syracuse vs. Minnesota. Texas Bowl, Dec. 27, 6 p.m.
At 6'6” and 311 lbs, Ra'Shede Hageman is a massive clog in the interior for the Minnesota Gophers. He has shown scouts glimpses of rare athletic ability for a player of his size and stature. He currently leads his team in tackles for loss on the season with 11, and he has an interception, eight pass break ups, two blocked kicks and two sacks.
On the other hand, scouts are going to be wondering why Hageman's production has dropped this season compared to last year. In 2012, Hageman showed great maturity as a pass rusher by logging six sacks and one forced fumble.
Syracuse comes into the Texas Bowl with the 38th
ranked rush offense, averaging 193 rushing yards and 1.8 rushing TDs a game this season, while Minnesota is ranked 51 in rush defense, giving up 154 rushing yards and 1.3 rushing TD a game this season.
Hageman is not an every-down type of lineman; he will need to show scouts that he can be the run-stuffing interior presence that most teams are looking for in a stout defensive tackle. He can answer a lot of questions amongst scouts who view him as a possible first-round talent with a top-level performance in this game.
Tevin Reese (WR, Baylor)
: Baylor vs. UCF. Fiesta Bowl, Jan 1, 8:30 p.m.
On the season, Reese had 33 receptions for 824 yards and eight touchdowns. A big play threat with his speed, Reese leads the nation in yards per reception at 25.0. Having played in only nine games, Reese will be making his return at the Fiesta Bowl after dislocating his wrist against Oklahoma on Nov. 7.
At 5'11” and only 165 pounds, no one is going to mistake Reese for Calvin Johnson, but his speed jumps off the screen. Most defensive backs are playing off coverage against him, wary of giving up the big play, but Reese can take a short pass and turn it into a big play in a flash.
While his big-play potential is evident, Reese's lack of consistency to stay healthy, along with his tendency to drop passes, has scouts worried about his long-term potential. He consistently lets the ball into his body, which is causing it to bounce off his chest.
Scouts are going to want to see if Reese is able and willing to go across the middle. With a small frame, there will be questions about his toughness and ability to withstand the punishment of an NFL season.
UCF boasts the 19th ranked overall defense, allowing just 6.4 yards-per-pass. With his speed, Reese should be able to show scouts
that he can take the short–to-intermediate passes and pick up some significant yards after the catch.
Baylor is starting to become a football program, capable of putting elite players into the NFL. They have had a run of success at the wide receiver position. Josh Gordon of the Cleveland Browns, Kendall Wright a former first round pick for the Tennessee Titans, and Terrance Williams a third round pick for the Dallas Cowboys, all have had a good deal of success in the early stages of their NFL careers.
Reese is likely a fourth- or fifth-round draft pick, as there are few players with his type of speed in college football. However, he could be a player whose draft stock will rise with an impressive showing in the Fiesta Bowl and at the NFL combine.
Justin Gilbert (CB, Oklahoma State):
Oklahoma State vs. Missouri. Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3, 7:30 p.m.
Justin Gilbert leads the Big 12 and is tied for fourth nationally with six interceptions this season. He has 11 career interceptions and 27 pass break-ups. A game changer on special teams, Gilbert has six career kickoff returns for touchdowns.
With one last game, the senior for Stillwater will have one final challenge—or really two final challenges—in stopping the big play wideout tandem of Missouri Tigers L'Damian Washington and the electric Dorial Green-Beckham, who combined for 103 receptions for 1,683 yards and 22 TD this season.
Gilbert, who is only 6'0” tall, will have to show scouts that he can play close to the line of scrimmage, play bump and run coverage and not allow his man to make the big play.
He has risen up a number of teams' draft boards, and a few scouts and GMs I spoke to over the past week say he is their top-rated corner.
Missouri has a number of weapons on offense, so they will challenge him early. If Gilbert can lock down his opponent, look for him to cement his place as one of the top corners in the upcoming NFL Draft.
Vic Beasley (DE, Clemson):
Clemson vs. Ohio State. Orange Bowl, Jan 3, 8:30 p.m.
Considered a ‘tweener at 6'2” and 235 lbs, Vic Beasley is more than adept at beating his man with speed and agility. He is most likely suited for an outside linebacker spot in a 3-4 defense.
He is tied for third in the country with 12 sacks this season. In just two short years, he has piled up 20 career sacks, six pass break-ups and five forced fumbles.
Beasley started the season by destroying his opponents with nine sacks in the first six games of the season. The last six games he has only registered three sacks, two of which came against in-state rival South Carolina to finish the season.
With two productive seasons under his belt, Beasley still has one season of college eligibility left before he has to declare. He will be lining up across from second team All-American Jack Mewhort, who has shown the versatility to play multiple positions along the offensive line. Mewhort projects as a possible late second-round or early third-round selection.
Beasley will need to show scouts that he can hold his ground against the 6'6” Mewhort, hold his edge on rundowns and create havoc in the backfield on passing situations. With an impressive performance, Beasley could rise to an early first round prospect.
Kelvin Benjamin (FSU, WR)
, Florida State vs. Auburn. BCS National Championship, Jan 6, 8:30 p.m.
After a moderately successful redshirt freshman season, including collecting 30 receptions for 495 yards and four touchdowns, Benjamin has burst onto the national scene with his stellar play and acrobatic catches this season.
At 6'5” and 235 lbs, he has the frame and size of a tight end, with the speed and athleticism of an elite NFL wide receiver. With a large wingspan that is comparable to a Larry Fitzgerald, Benjamin has a huge catch radius. He plays with a physical style and shows a willingness to outmuscle and outleap his opponent for the ball.
With 50 receptions for 957 yards and 14 touchdowns this season, he has been one of Jameis Winston's number one targets, especially in the red zone. A matchup nightmare, Benjamin is almost unstoppable when they target him with a back shoulder fade route.
Against Auburn, 103-ranked pass defense in the country, Benjamin should have some opportunities to continue his meteoric rise up teams' draft boards. Auburn has allowed an average of 259 passing yards a game this season.
While still only a redshirt sophomore, Benjamin could enter the NFL draft after this season. With a big game on national television, he could be one of the top-rated wide receivers on a lot of teams' draft boards. Few players can compare to his size and speed. While he has a lot to learn in terms of route running and being a dominant run blocker, he has the potential to be a dominant playmaker in the NFL.
Some scouts I've spoken to have even compared Benjamin to a young Andre Johnson. Johnson also only played two seasons, but in his last year in college, he had 52 receptions for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns. With a decent performance in the national title game, Benjamin will eclipse Johnson's numbers and could be a top-15 pick in the upcoming NFL draft.