Inside The War Room: College Football Playoff Edition

This week’s Inside the War Room by John Blair features a look at the two College Football Playoff games, the draft risers and fallers, an assessment of whether Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche is worth the risk of a first-round draft pick, and reveals Blair’s top senior offensive guards in the 2016 NFL Draft.

Orange Bowl Preview

The Orange Bowl showcases two of the top offenses in college football in Oklahoma and Clemson. This game also spotlights a couple of interesting NFL prospects, including an underrated wide receiver and one of the best pass rushers in the college game.

The Oklahoma Sooners are led by Sterling Shepard, who I currently rate as the third best senior wide receiver in the 2016 NFL Draft. Shepard has excellent hands, and also shows nice agility when it comes to making sharp cuts on his routes. Eric Striker is the top defensive prospect on the Sooners. Striker is a quick, undersized outside linebacker who has shown the ability to get after the passer. Another senior defensive prospect to keep an eye on is defensive end Charles Tapper, who would be a good fit in a 3-4 defensive scheme at the next level.

While the Clemson Tigers don’t have any standout senior prospects they do have one of the best pass rushers in junior defensive end Shaq Lawson, who has already stated he will enter the 2016 NFL Draft. In 2015, Lawson led the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in tackles for loss with 22.5, and also recorded 9.5 sacks on the season. When evaluating Lawson, the first thing that stands out is his quickness off the line, and his overall effort level. The Tigers do have a pair of seniors who could see their name called on day three of the draft in offensive guard Eric Mac Lain and defensive tackle D.J. Reader.    

Overall, look for this to be a high-scoring game with both Oklahoma QB Baker Mayfield and Clemson QB Deshaun Watson putting up impressive numbers. However, we expect the Sooners to move on to the championship game as they have more overall defensive talent.

Cotton Bowl Preview

The other College Football Playoff game is the Cotton Bowl, which matches two of the best defensive teams in the nation in Alabama and Michigan State. The Crimson Tide are led by the best run defense in college football, holding opponents to 74 yards rushing per game. The Spartans have proven they are more than capable of stopping the run as well, ranking as the ninth-best rushing defense in FBS at 113.1 yards per game. This game also features several players who could see their names called on the first or second day of the draft.

The Crimson Tide’s outstanding rush defense is led by senior linebacker Reggie Ragland, who was named the AP SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Ragland is a very savvy player who plays the run extremely well yet can still hold up in pass coverage. Defensive tackle Jarran Reed is another senior to watch. He is a player who holds up well against the run, having recorded 53 tackles in the regular season. He also moves well for someone who comes in at 313 pounds. One more Alabama senior defensive prospect to look at is cornerback Cyrus Jones, who projects as more of a developmental prospect, having moved from wide receiver in 2013. While he develops the finer points of his game as a cornerback, look for him to make an impact in the return game – he returned three punts for touchdowns this season.

The top senior prospect on the Crimson Tide’s offense is center Ryan Kelly, who shows great consistency and is also one of the smarter linemen in the 2016 NFL Draft. Kenyan Drake is another offensive prospect who should hear his name called in this year’s draft. Drake is a quick change of pace back, who excels in the passing game. The last senior prospect to watch is quarterback Jake Coker. Alabama also has a ton of junior prospects to watch, including defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson, and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry.  

While the Spartans don’t boast the big names of Alabama, they do have some under-the-radar prospects to watch. This includes underrated wide receiver Aaron Burbridge, who led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns. Burbridge is sure-handed and shows nice overall athletic ability. The Spartans have one of the better centers in college football in Jack Allen, who has been impressing scouts with his run blocking ability and his outstanding work ethic.

The biggest name on Michigan State’s offense also might be one of the most overrated senior draft prospects: quarterback Connor Cook. While he has put up solid numbers in 2015, including throwing for 24 touchdowns and only five interceptions, some scouts have plenty of doubts about him, including his throwing accuracy.

The top senior defensive prospect for Michigan State is defensive end Shilique Calhoun, who has shown the ability to get after the passer and recorded 10.5 sacks this season. In terms of underclassmen, the Spartans have one of the better offensive linemen in tackle Jack Conklin.

While Michigan State is currently a 10-point underdog in this game, look for the Spartans to keep the game close. Their outstanding rush defense should be able to keep Henry in check, and Alabama has yet to prove it is an effective passing team, averaging only 214 yards per game this year – 71st in FBS. In the end, I don’t think Michigan State will be able to move the ball against the Crimson Tide’s defense either, and I look for Alabama to win a low scoring defensive battle.

Is He Worth the Risk?

One of the most polarizing prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft is Ole Miss defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. He is an immensely talented player who has the ability to be one of the top defensive tackles in the NFL. On the other hand, he is a player who has shown numerous red flags off the field, raising the question of whether he is worth the risk of a first-round draft pick.

When watching Nkemdiche, the first thing that stands out is his excellent burst off the line of scrimmage. He is one of the quickest of any defensive lineman in the draft and shows an ability to penetrate into the offensive backfield on a consistent basis. He holds up against the run as well, playing with good pad level for a 1 gap defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end. On the negative side, that pad level is not consistent, which allows him to be contained at the line of scrimmage. His struggles against double teams have hurt his production as well. While at Ole Miss, he has never recorded more than three sacks in a season and has recorded just 19 tackles for loss total during his three years with the Rebels.

While Nkemdiche’s tape leaves me with a few questions about how he plays the game, the more difficult questions about this prospect are off the field. On Dec. 14,  he was arrested for marijuana possession and suspended from the Sugar Bowl after a puzzling incident where he fell from a 15-foot wall while staying in an Atlanta hotel. He had already drawn the attention of scouts for his behavior prior to this incident. One scout told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “He’s really a different kid. He may scare some people. He’s strange strange.” Another scout called Nkemdiche a wild card, according to CBS Sports. These are not the type of reports you want to hear about a possible top-10 pick.   

Draft Stock Market

Stock Up

Tarik Cohen, running back, North Carolina A&T

Cohen took the spotlight and ran away with it in the Celebration Bowl. He rushed for 295 yards and three touchdowns on 22 carries. He also caught two passes for 53 yards in the game, which gave him 348 total yards on the day. While he is only a junior, he is definitely a player who could get drafted late in the 2017 NFL Draft despite his lack of great size (5’6”; 173 pounds).

Jeff Driskel, quarterback, Louisiana Tech

In the New Orleans Bowl, Driskel again proved that he was a victim of an infective Florida offense, more than he was a bad quarterback during his time in Gainesville. Against Arkansas State he threw for an impressive 457 yards and three touchdowns. Look for Driskel to prove he has the skills to play in the NFL during Senior Bowl week.

Kenneth Dixon, running back, Louisiana Tech

Dixon is another Bulldogs prospect who had an outstanding New Orleans Bowl last week. He scored a total of four touchdowns, with two coming on the ground and two through the air. He also set a FBS record for most total career touchdowns with his strong performance. For more on Dixon, check out Dan Hatman’s appearance on Matt Waldman’s RSP Film Room.

Cayleb Jones, wide receiver, Arizona

Jones lit up the New Mexico secondary in the New Mexico Bowl last weekend catching  four passes for 182 yards and a touchdown. The junior wide receiver declared himself for the NFL Draft the last week of December. and will be an interesting prospect to track through the Combine.

Stock Down

Alex McCalister, defensive end, Florida

McCalister was dismissed from the Gators last week for a violation of team rules. This is not the first time he has found himself in trouble with the team this year, also being suspended for the opening game of the season for a violation of University of Florida Athletic Association policy. He has also battled a foot injury, which caused him to miss the last three games of the regular season, and would have forced him out of the team’s bowl game even had he not been dismissed from the football team.  

Corey Coleman, wide receiver, Baylor

Coleman missed the team’s bowl game against North Carolina because of  a sports hernia. The injury could affect his pre-draft training, as he has already stated he will be entering the 2016 NFL Draft. While this was not how he likely wanted to end the season, it should not hurt his draft stock too much as long as he is healthy by the time the NFL Combine rolls around.

Jacobi Green, running back, Richmond

After rushing for 137 yards and three touchdowns in a Football Championship Subdivision playoff victory against Illinois State, Green garnered some attention. He then followed that up with a poor performance – 32 yards on 11 carries – in a semifinal loss to North Dakota State.

Tre Madden, running back, USC

Madden will miss the Holiday Bowl with a sports hernia. This is not the first injury he has suffered through this season either, having missed four games, and limited in two others games, because of a knee injury. He will need to prove to scouts he’s had bad injury luck, and isn’t injury prone.   

Top Senior Offensive Guards

Overall, the 2016 draft has a very solid crop of offensive guards. The group is led by Joshua Garnett of Stanford who was named this year’s Outland Trophy Award winner. The group also consists of several offensive tackles who will more than likely switch to offensive guard, including Joe Dahl of Washington State and Vadal Alexander of LSU. A sleeper to keep an eye on is California’s Jordan Rigsbee who is one of the more tenacious guards in the draft. Listed below are all the senior offensive guards who carry a draftable or priority free agent grade on John Blair’s Inside the War Room Draft Board.

Rank Name College
1 Joshua Garnett Stanford
2 Joe Dahl Washington State
3 Vadal Alexander LSU
4 Cody Whitehair Kansas State
5 Landon Turner North Carolina
6 Spencer Drango Baylor
7 Jordan Rigsbee California
8 Willie Beavers Western Michigan
9 Sebastian Tretola Arkansas
10 Christian Westerman Arizona State
11 Rees Odhiambo Boise State
12 Jordan Walsh Iowa
13 Nila Kasitati Oklahoma
14 Clint Van Horn Marshall
15 Donald Jackson III Sam Houston State

Follow John on Twitter @nfldraftitwr.

Inside The Pylon covers the NFL and college football, reviewing the film, breaking down matchups, and looking at the issues, on and off the field.

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