Bowl season is here and as teams prepare to play their final games of the year the NFL Draft "season" is almost officially underway. There's a ton of news on underclassmen entering the draft as well as more announcements on players attending both the East-West Shrine Game as well as the Senior Bowl (we will be covering both events here at PhiladelphiaEagles.com). This week on the College Draft Podcast with Ross Tucker, I broke down all the best matchups from some of the top games of the week, but let's look at five more matchups that fans should keep their eyes on in this weekend's action.
1. Houston QB Greg Ward vs. San Diego State Defense
Las Vegas Bowl, Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas - 3:30 p.m. - ABC
Certainly the most intriguing matchup in terms of draft prospects this weekend is the Las Vegas Bowl between Houston and San Diego State. A year ago, quarterback Greg Ward was one of the most productive and impactful signal-callers in the country for the upstart Cougars. Injuries kept him from hitting his stride this season, but Ward's athleticism still makes him one of the more intriguing athletes at the quarterback position in this draft. It was recently announced that Ward would attend the NFLPA Game this January as a quarterback. He may need to change positions at the next level, but he's still worth checking out against this San Diego State team.
The San Diego State defense has a couple of prospects worth keeping an eye on in this game. Cornerback Damontae Kazee is the best of the bunch, and he'll get to show off his wares at the Senior Bowl in January. Linebacker Calvin Munson led the team in tackles (108) while posting 3.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss and three pass breakups on the year. He is considered a third-day draft prospect.
2. Toledo RB Kareem Hunt vs. Appalachian State LBs Kennan Gilchrist/John Law
Camellia Bowl, Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama - 5:30 p.m. - ESPN
One of the best offensive players in the MAC the last couple of years, Toledo's Kareem Hunt is also considered one of the top senior rushers in the entire country. At nearly 5-11, 237 pounds, Hunt is a pretty competitive runner, decisive with the ball in his hands approaching the line of scrimmage and has the ability to make people miss as well. The conference's leading rusher in 2016 with 1,355 yards on the ground, Hunt looks to finish his career strong against Appalachian State before his trip to Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl in January.
The Mountaineers' front seven has a tall task defending Hunt and keeping him out of the end zone. They're lead by two of their senior linebackers in Kennan Gilchrist and John Law. At just over 6-0, Gilchrist was viewed as a late-round pick by most analysts entering the season. He finished his senior campaign as the team's second-leading tackler (80) and first for most tackles for loss on the squad. Law wasn't as productive and missed some time due to injury, but this past summer was seen as potentially a better pro prospect by experts than his Gilchrist. Both players will have a proper stage to show scouts why they belong further up the board on Saturday afternoon.
3. Houston WR Chance Allen vs. San Diego State CB Damontae Kazee
Las Vegas Bowl, Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada - 3:30 p.m. - ABC
At 6-3, 218 pounds, Chance Allen has NFL size and has been a game-breaker for the Cougars all season long. The Oregon transfer, who was named to the Senior Bowl Watch List because of his NFL potential this offseason, led the team with five touchdown catches this season. I'd look for him to try and use his size to his advantage if he's planning on being productive in this game against Kazee, who has already been confirmed for the all-star game next month.
At 5-10, 181 pounds, Kazee has a smaller frame (which is why Allen could try to leverage that mismatch on Saturday), but he's a better overall athlete than Allen and is very competitive at the catch point. A team captain, Kazee is a three-year starter for the Aztecs on the outside, but projects better as an inside player in the NFL. Still, he's really quick in and out of breaks, brings a physical presence despite his lack of size and was one of the most productive corners in the country this year with seven interceptions and eight pass breakups. This will be a big challenge for Kazee.
4. Toledo TE Michael Roberts vs. Appalachian State S Alex Gray
*Camellia Bowl, Cramton Bowl, Montgomery, Alabama - 5:30 p.m. - ESPN *
Western Michigan wide receiver Corey Davis, a potential first-round pick in April's draft, led the MAC with 18 touchdown catches this season. Right behind him, however, was Toledo tight end Michael Roberts. At 6-5, 270 pounds, Roberts has legitimate NFL size and with that kind of production he will certainly be studied closely entering the draft process. This is an absolutely stacked tight end group in the upcoming draft, so it's not a surprise that Roberts will be at the Shrine Game instead of the Senior Bowl. However, this is another opportunity to help his stock in the final game of his career for the Rockets.
Senior safety Alex Gray posted 42 tackles and an interception in 2016 after being named to the Senior Bowl Watch List this past summer. At 6-3, 222 pounds, Gray has good size for the safety spot and may have enough length to contend with Roberts at the catch point. The production wasn't great for Gray this year, but a big performance against Roberts would be a big boost to his stock.
5. San Diego State G Nico Siragusa vs. Houston DL Tyus Bowser/Ed Oliver
*Las Vegas Bowl, Sam Boyd Stadium, Las Vegas, Nevada - 3:30 p.m. - ABC *
San Diego State, with Senior Bowl-bound running back Donnel Pumphrey, will try to get things going on the ground. Nico Siragusa is one of the catalysts for its rushing attack. At 6-4, 326 pounds, Siragusa has NFL size and the look of a pro lineman. Watching him block for Pumphrey, Siragusa is a smart, tough prospect with decent athleticism. He's further along with his hands than most players his age. Siragusa, who will also be at the Senior Bowl, is a three-year starter at left guard who is looking to close his career out on a high note against one of the biggest tests of the entire season.
Houston edge rusher Tyus Bowser who got some love in the preseason by being named to the Senior Bowl Watch List. He responded with 10.5 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Bowser is a solid prospect in his own right, and there will be opportunities for Siragusa to match up against him in both the run and pass game. The Aztecs' biggest worry, however, is freshman defensive tackle Ed Oliver. A former five-star recruit who stayed home with the Cougars, Oliver wrecked the first game of the year in Houston's upset of Oklahoma and turned that performance into a first-team All-America selection by season's end. He was the nation's only true freshman to garner such an honor. Siragusa has a fight on his hands with Bowser, but even more so inside with Oliver, on Saturday afternoon.
A couple of years ago, everyone in the country was excited about Mychal Kendricks' little brother Eric, a linebacker with the UCLA Bruins. This year, another UCLA front seven prospect is getting some love in the media on his way to the Senior Bowl - defensive end Takkarist McKinley. At 6-4, 265 pounds, McKinley has an NFL body, but what really stands out when you watch him is the way he moves for a player that size. The Richmond, California native has a very good first step, displays natural flexibility off the edge and has the athletic profile of a standout edge rusher in the NFL. McKinley will be at the Senior Bowl next month to put a show on for NFL scouts. The first-team All-Pac-12 performer will need to continue to show that:
- He's able to get stronger in the run game.
- He can improve with his hands as a pass rusher.
If he interviews well enough to give teams the impression that neither of those issues will be a concern a year from now, he could be a top 20 pick in the 2017 NFL Draft.
There's always a handful of small-school players in attendance at the Senior Bowl who seemingly come out of nowhere on their way to stardom during the week of practice. A lot of people think that player this year will be quarterback Antonio Pipkin from Tiffin University. At 6-3, 225 pounds, the Division II All-America boasts NFL size, a very quick release and the athleticism to make plays outside the pocket. Some analysts have even gone as far to compare him to Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott from a physical skill set standpoint. I'm not ready to go there quite yet because there is a pretty hefty learning curve that Pipkin will have to get through, but he's a good athlete with decent physical gifts. There could be something there with a lot of seasoning and development over time - but he's just not there yet. However in a thin quarterback class, he's a name that a lot of people are buzzing about as the Senior Bowl quickly approaches.
Fran Duffy is the producer of "Eagles Game Plan" which can be seen on Saturdays during the season. Be sure to also check out the "Eagle Eye In The Sky" podcast on the Philadelphia Eagles podcast channel on iTunes. Prior to joining the Eagles in 2011, Duffy was the head video coordinator for the Temple University Football team under former head coach Al Golden. In that role, he spent thousands of hours shooting, logging and assisting with the breakdown of the All-22 film from the team's games, practices and opponents.