Inside The War Room: National Championship Edition

In this week’s Inside the War Room, John Blair takes a look at both the Football Bowl Subdivision and Football Championship Subdivision title games, highlights the draft needs of the Tennessee Titans, talks about whose draft stock rose and fell during the bowl season, and lists his top centers in the draft.

National Championship Key Matchup

In last week’s Inside the War Room we discussed the top prospects from both Clemson and Alabama, so this week we will take an in-depth look at a key matchup in the National Championship. The game will feature plenty of interesting matchups between Clemson’s offense and Alabama’s defense: Will Alabama be able to keep quarterback Deshaun Watson from making big plays with his feet? Can Clemson keep their quarterback upright, after the Crimson Tide recorded four sacks against Michigan State in the semifinal? However, the most interesting matchup between potential prospects in the game is Alabama quarterback Jake Coker attempting to throw on Clemson’s secondary, led by Mackensie Alexander.

Coker was able to carve up Michigan State’s secondary, throwing for 286 yards and completing 83% of his passes ‒ including several long completions when the Spartans sold out to stop the run. Coker showed great accuracy on the deep ball against the Spartans, and has his share of playmaking options in the passing game. Freshman wide receiver Calvin Ridley set the Alabama freshman record for receiving yards in a season with 1,031, while junior tight end O.J. Howard will likely be among the top tight ends in the 2016 NFL Draft if he declares.

It won’t be as easy for the Crimson Tide in the championship game. The Clemson Tigers have one of the best secondaries in college football. They are allowing just 177 yards per game through the air, which ranks 11th in the nation. This secondary is led by Alexander, an athletic player who could be a first-round pick if he decides to enter the draft. Alexander led all ACC defensive backs by allowing only 31% of the passes thrown against him to be completed, and also allowed only one touchdown pass this year. On the negative side, he has allowed 18.9 yards per reception, a figure that suggests Ridley could find a way to get behind Alexander and make a big play.

Look for the Crimson Tide to win a close, exciting game. Alabama’s defense will be able to keep Clemson’s high-powered offense in check, and the Crimson Tide will make enough plays on offense to come away with the national championship.

FCS Championship Game

While the FBS National Championship got most of the attention this week, another championship game will be played this weekend, as Jacksonville State and North Dakota State vie for the FCS crown. The Bison are after their fifth consecutive national championship against a high-powered Gamecocks offense. This game also offers several draft prospects worth keeping an eye on.

North Dakota State is led by two of the top FCS prospects in the 2016 NFL Draft: quarterback Carson Wentz and offensive tackle Joe Haeg. Wentz is the highest rated senior quarterback on my board, and could sneak into the late part of the first round of the draft. He has outstanding size at 6’6” and 235 pounds, and is surprisingly athletic for someone his size. He shows nice arm strength as well and should have no trouble throwing any pass in an NFL offense.

The issue surrounding the quarterback at the moment is whether he will be able to see the field on Saturday. Wentz suffered a broken wrist earlier in the season and has missed the last 13 weeks. He has been cleared to practice but is currently suffering from an illness, which kept him away from the media on Thursday.

Haeg is a nimble offensive lineman who has the footwork to play tackle in the NFL. Look for the Bison lineman to be selected around the fourth round. Additionally, the Bison have a few prospects who could sign as priority free agents, including punter Ben LeCompte, fullback Andrew Bonnet and cornerback C.J. Smith.

While Jacksonville State lacks any prospects who might expect to be drafted this year, they do have a few players who could end up signing as undrafted free agents. This group is led by running back Troymaine Pope, who finished 3rd in the FCS with 1,757 yards. Defensive end Chris Landrum and defensive tackle Devaunte Sigler are two linemen who have piqued scouts’ interest: Landrum is a proven pass rusher who recorded 8.5 sacks on the season, while Sigler is more of run defender who holds up well at the point of attack. Another senior prospect who may get a look on Jacksonville State is linebacker Dawson Wells, who has put up some impressive statistics this year, including 91 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, and three interceptions.

One of the biggest questions going into this game is whether North Dakota State’s Wentz will play in the game, and if so, how will he look. If Wentz is able to play and return to his old form, look for the Bison to win this game and their fifth consecutive national championship.  

Tennessee Titans Draft Breakdown

With the NFL regular season now over, Inside the War Room will start our weekly breakdown of teams’ draft needs. We start our team previews with a look at the Tennessee Titans, who hold the number one pick in the draft.

The Titans face a potential decision between two excellent linemen: Ole Miss offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil and Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa. While both of these players make sense, I expect Tennessee to take Tunsil with the pick, since he fills the team’s biggest need at offensive tackle: Provide protection for quarterback Marcus Mariota. Overall, Tunsil is a great athlete who shows quick, nimble feet and also has the aggression teams love to see in an offensive lineman.

Although Tennessee would love to snag Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland at the top of the second round to address a key need for the team, I expect him to be taken in the latter part of the first round. This means the Titans will have to go in another direction with this pick, and I expect them to look at the safety position. A safety who would make sense is Ohio State’s Vonn Bell. Bell shows excellent speed, and should have the skill set to play either free or strong safety in the NFL.

Look for the Titans to go back to the offensive side of the ball with their third-round pick, selecting Florida running back Kelvin Taylor. While Taylor didn’t put up outstanding rushing numbers at Florida, averaging only 4.0 yards per carry, he has the skill set to be a more productive pro running back. He shows nice explosion through the hole, and also is a threat catching the ball out of the backfield.

On day three of the draft, look for Tennessee to address needs at inside linebacker and speed wide receiver. An inside linebacker who would help fill this need in the fourth round is Scooby Wright III of Arizona, and a deep threat receiver who may be available in the fifth round is Kolby Listenbee of TCU.

Draft Stock Market

Stock Up

Jared Goff, quarterback, California

Goff lit up the Air Force defense in the Golden Bears’ 55-36 win in the Armed Forces Bowl. He threw for 467 yards and six touchdowns with no interceptions. He also broke the Pac-12 conference’s single-season passing yardage and passing touchdown marks in this game.

Michael Thomas, wide receiver, Southern Mississippi

In the Golden Eagles’ Heart of Dallas Bowl loss against Washington, Thomas caught nine passes for 190 yards and two touchdowns. This included one touchdown reception of 56 yards and another of 27 yards. On the season, he caught 71 passes for 1,391 yards, averaging 19.6 yards per catch, while also catching 14 touchdown passes on the season. Look for Thomas to hear his name called on day three of the draft.

Ezekiel Elliott, running back, Ohio State

Elliott proved yet again why he is the top running back on my board with his performance against Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Against the Fighting Irish he rushed for 149 yards and four touchdowns on 27 carries. He also caught one pass for 30 yards in the game.

Jake Coker, quarterback, Alabama

Coker had his best game of the season against Michigan State in the Cotton Bowl Classic. He had season highs in both yards (286) and completion percentage (83%). He also had a quarterback rating of 185, which is his second-highest quarterback rating of the season. It will be interesting to see if Coker can have another great performance against Clemson in the National Championship.

Stock Down

Jaylon Smith, outside linebacker, Notre Dame

The most devastating injury of bowl season was the injury suffered by Smith, who suffered a significant knee injury. According to Fox 28, Smith suffered damage to multiple ligaments in his left knee. Also, according to this report, he will have a long recovery ahead of him, which could call into question his availability for training camp if he declares for the draft. This injury will obviously affect his status, as he was projected to be a top-10 pick, but will now likely slide to the middle or late part of the first round.


Reggis Ball, safety, Memphis

Ball may have been involved in one of the weirdest incidents of the season last week. After the team lost the Birmingham Bowl he tackled the Auburn ball boy, stole one of his footballs, and flipped off the crowd while running away. This idiotic act caused him to be kicked off the Memphis football team, and more than likely cost him any shot of getting an NFL tryout.

Paxton Lynch, quarterback, Memphis

Lynch struggled against the 13th-ranked defense in the SEC in Auburn in the Birmingham Bowl. On the day, he only completed 45% of his passes and  averaged only 6 yards per completion. He also threw one interception and did not have a touchdown pass on the day. This is not the performance you want to see from a player who most people predict to be a top-five pick in the draft.

Top Senior Centers

While this year’s senior crop of centers offers no standout players, it does offer several players who could be picked after the first day of the draft and eventually become starters in the NFL. This group is led by Max Tuerk of USC, who is an undersized, technically-sound mobile center. The second center of the group is Mike Matthews of Texas A&M, who is the younger brother of Atlanta Falcon Jake Matthews. One player who could be a steal on day three of the draft is Iowa’s Austin Blythe, who does a great job of staying on his blocks and shows nice overall mobility.

Listed below are all the senior centers who carry a draftable or priority free agent grade on John Blair’s Inside the War Room’s Draft Board. Please note we will start including underclassmen after the deadline for underclassmen to declare has passed on January 18.

Rank Name College
1 Max Tuerk USC
2 Mike Matthews Texas A&M
3 Nick Martin Notre Dame
4 Ryan Kelly Alabama
5 Austin Blythe Iowa
6 Jack Allen Michigan State
7 Joey Hunt TCU
8 Kyle Friend Temple
9 Evan Boehm Missouri
10 Marcus Henry Boise State
11 Matt Skura Duke
12 Nick Kelly Arizona State
13 Siaosi Aiono Utah
14 Garrett Clark Southern Illinois

Follow John on Twitter @nfldraftitwr.

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

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