Welcome in to 2016! I hope you had a terrific 2015, but now it’s time to flip the calendar to the new year that will bring new story lines, new prospects and ultimately, new members of the Pittsburgh Steelers.
There’s a good chance one or two future Steeler draft picks take the field today in the six New Years Day bowl games.
Outback Bowl — Northwestern (10-2) vs. Tennessee (8-4), Noon, ESPN
Once again, the linebacker position will shine bright as Tennessee linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin is the biggest name in this game.
Although Reeves-Maybin is still waiting for an evaluation from the NFL Draft Advisory Board, there’s a good chance he’s an early Day Two pick, which will force him to enter the draft in a strong class.
Reeves-Maybin is so strong at diagnosing the play quickly, allowing him to react quickly, get off blocks and make plays all over the field. He’s not flashy and isn’t a quick-twitch athlete who steals headlines, but his tape against Oklahoma this year was the best film I’ve watched out of any linebacker in this class.
Outside of Reeves-Maybin, watch out for Volunteer cornerback Cameron Sutton, who many have linked to the Steelers in mock drafts.
Prior to 2015, Sutton was a hot commodity who was expected to get even better during his junior season. The improvement wasn’t completely there as he’s still a question mark against the run game and is best served as a press corner. While that doesn’t really fit what the Steelers are looking for at corner, Sutton jumps a ton of routes, rarely gets beaten deep and shrinks throwing windows by crowding receivers.
Running back Alvin Kamara has been a revelation for the Vols this season as a solid counterpart to Jalen Hurd. Kamara is a redshirt sophomore, so he’d be smart to go back to school and continue to get better, but he could be a real bargain in the late rounds due to his explosiveness in space.
For Northwestern, cornerback Nick VanHoose, linebacker Anthony Walker and defensive lineman Dean Lowry lead the charge for a strong Wildcats defense.
Walker continuously stands out on tape as a guy who makes a ton of tackles, turning in six games with at least 10 tackles this season. The 6’1”, 235-pound redshirt sophomore likely returns to school for another year, but it will be interesting to see how he holds up against a strong Vols running game.
Lowry is a massive man along the defensive line at 6’6”, 285 pounds, but he could stand to put on some weight in the NFL, allowing him to hold up well in an odd-man front as a 5-tech defensive lineman.
VanHoose is a serious threat as a cover corner who will be a stud pick in the middle-to-late rounds. The senior corner has started since 2012 and is fourth in the country in passes defended.
The 6’0”, 190-pound corner is decent against the run and outstanding in coverage. He’s a real gem.
Citrus Bowl — Michigan (9-3) vs. Florida (10-3), 1 p.m., ABC
While Michigan has bounced back in a big way under Jim Harbaugh in year one, the Wolverines really don’t have upper echelon draft prospects to watch with the decision to go back to school by stud tight end Jake Butt.
Quarterback Jake Rudock has played very well under Harbaugh and could wind up as a sixth or seventh round draft pick, but he’s merely a game manager for the Wolverines.
Defensively, defensive end Chris Wormley and cornerback Jourdan Lewis are the big name defenders for Michigan, but Wormley has already announced he’ll return to school, while Lewis is likely to return as well despite leading the FBS in passes defensed.
That leaves Florida as the team loaded with draft prospects in this game, led by likely top ten pick, cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, and defensive lineman Jonathan Bullard.
Hargreaves III is a terrific cover corner who has outstanding ball skills and can play man, press or zone coverage at a high level.
Bullard is an intriguing talent who can play on the edge on early downs before moving inside on obvious passing downs where he can use his quickness, strength, length and technique to win one-on-one battles.
Linebackers Antonio Morrison and Anthony Harrell are ones to watch in the middle of the field for Florida as well.
Offensively, the Gators are led by tight end Jake McGee, running back Kelvin Taylor and receiver DeMarcus Robinson.
McGee isn’t a move tight end, but he’s a good in-line blocker who has soft hands in the passing game. At 6’6”, 250 pounds, McGhee could be an ideal fit for an offense like the Steelers. Add into the mix that he’s a former Virginia Cavalier and it makes sense that he could be the heir to Heath Miller.
Taylor is former Jacksonville Jaguars star running back Fred Taylor’s son, which is who you see when watching the Gators running back.
He’s a powerful runner who has quick feet and above-average vision. Taylor will have a tough day against the Michigan front, but a solid showing in terms of technique and fundamentals will serve him well for the NFL.
Robinson is a complete question mark who surprised a lot of people by sitting out the final game of the regular season without injury and then coming back for the SEC title game against Alabama.
The 6’1”, 205-pound receiver is intriguing for his size and speed, but he leaves a lot to be desired on tape.
Fiesta Bowl — Ohio State (11-1) vs. Notre Dame (10-2), 1 p.m., ESPN
This game might have more first round NFL prospects than the Michigan State-Alabama game from last night.
Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott and defensive end Joey Bosa are the headliners for the Buckeyes as Bosa is my No. 1 overall player in the class, while Elliott is head-and-shoulders above the rest of the RB class as my No. 1 player at the position.
Elliott isn’t on the same level as Todd Gurley was last season, but he’s a more complete back due to his pass catching ability out of the backfield.
He’s going to get drafted in the middle of the first round and will be a high-level starter in the league for the next eight to 10 years.
As for Bosa, he just dominates the line of scrimmage with his reach, speed and power at the point of attack.
Bosa gets off the ball quickly and has an arsenal of moves to win with his hands, but he’s coming off a down year in terms of sacks. That won’t hurt him at all at the next level in regards to his draft position.
Next to Bosa, Adolphus Washington is another early round pick due to his size, speed and versatility. Although he’ll miss this game due to a suspension, he’s put enough on tape to show he’s ready for the next level.
Linebackers Darron Lee and Joshua Perry are standouts for this defense as both are extremely athletic, rangy linebackers who make plays sideline-to-sideline and certainly fit the mold for the new-age NFL linebackers, similar to current Steelers inside linebacker, Ryan Shazier.
Safety Vonn Bell is another headliner who could draft first round buzz due to his coverage ability and physicality in the secondary. He’s very good covering sideline-to-sideline and could excel at the next level as a single-high safety.
Bell possesses elite ball skills as well.
Offensively for Ohio State, you know all about Elliott, but receivers Michael Thomas and Braxton Miller are explosive athletes to watch.
Thomas is a smooth route runner who is climbing up the boards as more an more tape becomes available. He’s not a burner, but he runs great routes, possesses strong hands and pulls away from defenders due to his long strides.
Miller is in his first full year as a slot receiver after switching from quarterback last season. He has a limited route tree, but get him the ball in space and he’ll make you pay.
That will make him a valuable pick in the middle rounds of the draft.
Up front, left tackle Taylor Decker is having a strong year and is a likely first round pick who will transition to right tackle in the NFL. At 6’7”, 315 pounds, Decker struggles to keep his pad levels low in the running game, but he has the ideal frame and enough athleticism to go with that frame to be an above-average starter in the league.
Notre Dame is just as loaded as Ohio State despite not having big names outside of tackle Ronnie Stanley and linebacker Jaylon Smith.
Just one year ago Stanley was thought of as a top five pick before heading back to school for his senior year. He struggled at times for the Fighting Irish, but he’s still a likely top ten pick at a valuable position.
At 6’5”, 320 pounds, Stanley is supremely athletic tackle who has gotten better each and every week. He’ll get a chance to go up against Bosa in a matchup of two top ten picks. That should be fun to watch in itself.
Along with Stanley on offense, running back C.J. Prosise is extremely underrated. He has excellent vision, runs very well as a balanced running back, allowing him to cut on a dime and get back to top speed quickly, and is a powerful running back.
He’s currently my No. 4 back in this class.
Center Nick Martin, younger brother of current Dallas Cowboys guard Zack, is a likely early Day Two pick because of his technique, physicality and mean streak on the interior of the offensive line.
Wide receiver Will Fuller is leaning towards heading back to school, but should he come out he’ll be a first round pick due to his size, speed and soft hands.
Defensively, Sheldon Day is very fast off the ball, is violent at the point of attack with strong hands and never stops in pursuit. I love that in a big guy. He’ll likely get picked in the mid-second, early third.
Smith is the standout in this unit. He won the Butkus Award against a strong class led by Reggie Ragland of Alabama and Deion Jones of LSU, but he’s an athletic freak who can play all three downs while holding up strong against the run.
It will be interesting to watch him chase down Elliott all game long.