It may have come sooner than anyone hoped but after being eliminated from the postseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers are officially in off season mode. That means preparing for free agency and more importantly, preparing for the 2020 NFL Draft. The Steelers can get a head start on their playoff counterparts by viewing the bowl games that will take place today.
First Responder Bowl: Western Kentucky vs. Western Michigan – 12:30 p.m. EST, ESPN
Western Kentucky defensive lineman Juwuan Jones can technically declare for the NFL Draft but it remains to be seen if he will. Jones is a rising star on the Western Kentucky defense as he has taken big steps in his development year after year. He was originally a linebacker before transitioning to the defensive line and it shows on the field, as he brings a rare athleticism to the position. He has recorded 11 sacks and 17.5 tackles for a loss in the two seasons since changing positions.
While Jones enjoyed a great season, his numbers still pale in comparison to Western Kentucky pass rusher DeAngelo Malone. The junior defensive end recorded 11 sacks this season, second most in the USA conference. He has a lot of burst and explosiveness which he uses to blow past tackles. Malone could be selected around the middle portions of the 2020 NFL Draft if he declares.
On offense, expect receiver Lucky Jackson to make more than a few plays for Western Kentucky. Jackson led the USA conference in receptions this season with 77 and also recorded 985 receiving yards.
Western Michigan will counter Western Kentucky’s defense with running back Levante Bellamy. A small but electric runner, Bellamy rushed for over 1400 yards and 23 touchdowns this season and was named MAC Offensive Player of the Year. Bellamy could be an effective change of pace running back at the next level, though his ceiling could be much higher. Watch his vision and speed on the play below.
Music City Bowl: Louisville vs. Mississippi State – 4 p.m. EST, ESPN
Louisville offensive tackle Mekhi Becton is pretty much what a 21st century rendition of Goliath would look like. Standing at 6’7 and 369 pounds, Becton is a near seven-foot wall on the edge of Louisville offensive line. Luckily, Mississippi State will not have to deal with him as he will sit out the Music City Bowl after declaring for the NFL Draft. He will likely be in play on day two.
Another play on the Louisville offensive line to monitor is center T.J. McCoy. After spending much of his career at Florida, McCoy transferred to Louisville for his last season and will likely be another mid round pick during next year’s draft.
In the middle of the Louisville defense stands linebacker C.J. Avery. The junior linebacker led the team in tackles this season with 84 while also notching one sack.
Mississippi State’s offense will flow through running back Kylin Hill. He could be another change of pace back or third down back as he is not only quick but he also has experience catching the football. Hill has rushed for over 2400 yards during his collegiate career while also adding five receiving touchdowns.
Cornerback Cameron Dantzler is going to be a nifty development project for the team that drafts him. He has great size (6’2) and has recorded two interceptions in each of his last two seasons. Dantzler has also placed in the top ten in the SEC for passes defended in both 2018 and 2019.
Brian Cole II’s journey to the Music City Bowl has been a very inspiring one. After transferring from a junior college, Cole red shirted the 2017 season due to academic reasons. He then only appeared in five games last season. In his final year, Cole needed to make an impact and that is exactly what he did this season. The Mississippi State safety made 67 tackles, with 7.5 going for a loss and also recorded two sacks and one interception. Cole put a stamp on this defense in a big way and as a result, he was also invited to next year’s Senior Bowl.
Redbox Bowl: California vs. Illinois – 4 p.m. EST, FOX
It is very disappointing that Cal safety Ashtyn Davis has already been declared out due to injury as he is another player that has had a very noteworthy climb to the top. Davis is a champion hurdler that walked on at Cal during his freshman year. Now four years later, Davis is still hurdling, just this time he is hurdling his way up draft boards. The Cal safety has recorded seven career interceptions and 12 passes defended. While he will not participate in the RedBox Bowl, Davis should be a full-go for the Senior Bowl.
Cal linebacker Evan Weaver will join Davis at the Senior Bowl but unlike his team mate, he should participate in the Redbox Bowl. Weaver led the NCAA in tackles this season with a whopping 172 tackles on route to being named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. He is a tough, downhill linebacker that should find a home in the later portions of the 2020 NFL Draft.
While Weaver led the Pac-12 in tackles, the man beside him also made his mark throughout the west coast as linebacker Kuony Deng finished with 113 tackles. The duo gave Cal one of the most formidable linebacking duos in the Pac-12. If Weaver is the thunder then Deng is the lightning as he is a very athletic inside linebacker.
One second he’s there, the next second he’s gone. That is the best way to describe Illinois running back Reggie Corbin. The Illinois running back is very elusive and shifty, making it tough for defenses to wrap him up. While his yardage fell this season, Corbin is still a very talented running back that has rushed for over 1700 yards and 15 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
The Redbox Bowl will feature the top two tacklers in the NCAA this season. I already mentioned Weaver earlier but finishing right behind him was Illinois linebacker Dele Harding. The senior linebacker recorded the second most tackles in the NCAA this year with 143 tackles. He also recorded 12 tackles for a loss and three interceptions.
One player that quarterbacks must always keep an eye on is Illinois pass rusher Oluwole Betiku. The Illinois edge rusher averaged nearly a sack per game this season, with eight sacks in nine games and is a raw player with a lot of upside. Betiku was a five-star recruit and was at USC for two years before transferring to Illinois. He missed most of 2018 after recovering from a hip surgery but his 2019 season reminded everyone why he was such a heralded recruit many years ago. He flashes a lot of strength, which he shows on the play below.
Orange Bowl: No. 9 Florida vs. No. 24 Virginia – 8 p.m. EST, ESPN
Florida’s top prospect, cornerback C.J. Henderson will not play in the Orange Bowl as he has already declared for the NFL Draft. Henderson has recorded six career interceptions and 20 passes defended. He will likely be one of the first cornerbacks off the board next spring.
Four seniors from Florida that will have made an impact in the NCAA this year are running back Lamical Perine, receiver Van Jefferson and pass rushers Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga. All four have also accepted their invites to participate in the Senior Bowl.
Perine’s 2019 season was not his best as he took a slight step back from his 2018 numbers. After rushing for 826 yards last year, Perine currently sits at 539 rushing yards though he has grown as a receiving option out of the backfield, recording 35 receptions this season.
Jefferson finished his last two years at Florida after transferring from Ole Miss and has been a consistent source of offense for the Gators. In two seasons with the Gators, Jefferson has recorded 1031 receiving yards on 78 receptions and 12 touchdowns.
Greenard rolled the dice on himself when he transferred from Louisville to Florida after the 2017 season but the move has paid off as the Florida edge rusher has made his name a hot topic in the SEC. In just ten games, Greenard has recorded nine sacks and 15 tackles for a loss. He also has the athleticism and burst to make some noise at the next level. Expect to see him selected early on day two.
While Greenard had a monster season, Zuniga has not enjoyed the same luck. The Florida pass rusher has only appeared in four games this season as injuries have robbed him of a sustainable opportunity to showcase himself. He will get one more crack at it in front of a national audience at the Orange Bowl. Zuniga was off to a great start as well, recording three sacks in the four games he has played this season but do not count him out yet. There is no doubting Zuniga’s ability and with the world of football being all about recent results, if he is able to finish strong, his draft stock will shoot right back up.
Injuries have also robbed football fans from seeing Virginia cornerback Bryce Hall for majority of the season. Hall is another player that has been on my radar dating back to last season but he has only been able to dress for six games this year after an injury ended his season. With his injury concerns, it is still to early to project where he will be taken but if he can come back healthy, he is a player that brings first round ability.
Virginia quarterback Bryce Perkins has been a fun player to watch since he took over as starting quarterback in 2018. Hall has compiled 43 touchdowns and 20 interceptions over two seasons while also rushing for 1668 yards. He also led Virginia in rushing this season as Hall is a very dynamic player. He will likely be a mid round project that a team will see a lot of potential in.
Safety Joey Blount will be the face of the Virginia defense as neither Hall nor linebacker Jordan Mack will be able to play. A senior, Blount led Virginia in interceptions this season with three and also recorded 90 tackles and 3.5 sacks. He was also named to the third team All-ACC after putting together a strong junior season.