NFL Draft

NFL Draft Prospects – 2021 Bowl Game Preview: December 18

Throughout the 2021-2022 college football bowl season, we’ll be highlighting each game and the key 2022 NFL Draft prospects Pittsburgh Steelers’ fans should be keeping an eye on.

Boca Raton Bowl Appalachian State vs. Western Kentucky – 11:00 CST ESPN

The Hilltoppers square off against the Mountaineers in Florida to kick off college football action this Saturday. For Western Kentucky, your attention should fall on EDGE #10 DeAngelo Malone on the defensive side of the ball. The 6’4, 240lb senior is undersized for edge rusher standards, boasting a thin frame that will needs to add additional bulk to hold up at the next level, However, Malone excels as a pass rusher off the edge, having the speed and explosiveness to be a factor both when hunting the QB as well as pursuing the ball as a run defender.

Malone has quite the production on his resume, having 33 career sacks to his credit during his time at Western Kentucky. Projected to be a Day Three selection as more of a developmental pass rusher, Malone figures to provide a role immediately on special teams as he looks to add functional size and strength to hold his own on the edge as either an attacking 4-3 DE or a standup 3-4 OLB.

On offense for the Hilltoppers, the most prolific passer in the FBS this season will be taking the field one last time before making the transition to the pros. That would be QB #4 Bailey Zappe, who currently has completed 442-of-639 passes (69.2%) for 5,545 yards and 56 TDs with 11 INTS while chipping in another three rushing scores. Zappe transferred from Houston Baptist for his final season in 2021, and the decision has paid dividends as he ranked first in the FBS in passing yards and passing TDs.

A Senior Bowl invitee, Zappe will attempt to show that his statistical production wasn’t a fluke when he competes down in Mobile this spring. The 6’1, 220lb senior profiles more as a backup/game manager at the next level but operating in the Air Raid at the college level and having quality touch on his passes, Zappe should be able to carve out a career on the depth chart of an NFL team and potentially get his chance in-case of emergency to show he can be a spot-starter at the next level.

For the Mountaineers, the name to watch is CB #3 Shaun Jolly on defense. The 5’9, 175lb senior is definitely undersized at defensive back, but he plays with a ton of tenacity and feistiness that you love to see in a corner. He picked off five passes as a sophomore, and while his ball production hasn’t been the same since, his effort plays stick out on tape as a constant competitor.

A natural fit as a slot corner at the next level, Jolly is more than willing to stick his face in the fan against the run and will compete with receivers to make them earn any receptions on him. He is a fluid mover in space and has a natural feel for moving in coverage. Look for him to be a likely Day Three selection that can make an impact at the nickel in the league.

Along the defensive line for the Mountaineers, DL #9 Demetrius Taylor is a name looking to make name for himself as a potential late-round draft pick. Taylor is also undersized, standing at 6’1, 290lb, but he has been extremely productive in five seasons for Appalachian State, racking up 26 sacks, six forced fumbles, ten pass deflections, and an INT. They moved him up and down the Defensive line, using his combination of strength and explosiveness to win as a pass rusher inside and out on the edge.

He has impressive speed and quickness for a man weighing 290lb, making him project as a 1-gap penetrator at DT or an undersized 4-3 DE that can be used in the twist/stunt game for creative blitz packages. His lack of an ideal NFL frame will deter many teams from looking his way, but his twitchiness and versatility could make him a value pick later in the draft for a team that creatively deploys their defensive linemen.


Celebration Bowl Jackson State vs. South Carolina State – 11:00AM CST ABC

The Jackson State Tigers take on the South Carolina State Bulldogs down in Atlanta Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. While the game will feature upstart “Coach Prime” Deion Sanders who has led the Tigers to a 11-1 record in only his second season at the helm. The HOF defensive back left his mark on the gridiron and now is hoping to have the same success on the sidelines with a play sheet in-hand, coaching up aspiring young men in the game he excelled at in the NFL.

Coach Prime’s influence has taken a less-heralded HBCU and made it a legit contender for high-profile high school prospects as well as potential transfers. One transfer that has made his mark for Jackson State this season is former Florida LB #41 James Houston IV.

I had the opportunity to coach Houston back in 2018 with the Gators, characterizing him as a mild-mannered yet passionate player that could be emotional at times, but wanted to perform at his best in the weight room as well on the football field. The 6’1, 225lb senior has a versatile skillset, being used both as an off-ball LB as well as a situational pass rusher that can get after the QB. He projects as a late Day Three/UDFA, but his ability to crate splash plays (four sacks, four forced fumbles, two recoveries, and an INT for a TD) could get him looks on the backend of a roster as a core special teamer.

On the offensive side of the ball WR #7 Keith Corbin III is the name to watch for the Tigers. The 6’2, 200lb senior has returned for his sixth collegiate season and posted his best numbers of his career (65/897/6). The Houston Cougar transfer has made the most of his change of scenery, catching passes from Coach Prime’s son Shedeur Sanders. Corbin is likely a late-round flyer or UDFA as well but has the downfield skillset and experience to be ready to come in to play as a reserve receiver as well as a likely gunner on special teams.

South Carolina State is another HBCU that often doesn’t get recognized for its draft talent but has recently rolled out the likes of Javon Hargrave and Darius Leonard within the last few years. This season, the name to keep an eye on for the Bulldogs is DB #14 Decobie Durant. The 5’11, 180lb senior has a knack for taking the football away, having 12 picks under his belt in his college career including three this season. Durant has been recognized as the 2021 MEAC Defensive Player of the Year, leading the conference with 14 PBUs. A tad undersized, Durant has the competitive demeanor to hold up on the outside as he showed against Clemson this season but could become a quality nickel defender.


New Mexico Bowl Fresno State vs. UTEP – 2:15PM EST ESPN

When the Bulldogs kick off against the Miners Saturday afternoon, all eyes should be on the skill positions for both teams. For the Bulldogs, WR #5 Jalen Cropper is the name to watch for the Fresno State passing attack. The 6’1, 173lb junior figures to be a Day Three selection in April should he declare, having had his most productive season to date, tallying 76 receptions for 827 yards and 11 touchdowns. Cropper also has a runner during his time in Fresno, totaling 43 rushes for 430 yards and five scores on the ground. Having completed two TD passes as well in his college career, Cropper has a versatile skillset that could make for an intriguing depth receiver.

RB #20 Ronnie Rivers is a name to keep an eye on that headlines the Bulldog’s run game. The 5’9, 195lb senior can get it done on the ground (161/788/5) as well as through the air (34/364/2), posting over 1,000 scrimmage yards this season with multiple plays going over 50 yards. Given his frame and skillset, Rivers best profiles as a scat back/change of pace runner for an offense already having a featured runner on early downs to create a 1-2 punch in the backfield. Rivers likely will either be a late-round draft pick or UDFA but is a guy that can carve out a role for himself at the next level.

For the Miners, WR #6 Jacob Cowing is a name to watch as a potential early declare for the 2022 NFL Draft. The junior receiver only stands 5’11, 170lb thus he will have to likely kick inside to the slot if he doesn’t add mass to his frame. However, he has been productive since starting as a true freshman, tallying 67 receptions for 1,330 yards and seven TDs this season while throwing in another 72 rushing yards and a score. Cowing is a shifty receiver that excels at getting YAC, making him an intriguing late-round option should he end up declaring.


Independence Bowl #13 BYU vs. UAB – 3:30PM EST ABC

The 10-2 BYU Cougars look to finish their season strong against the UAB Blazers in Louisiana Saturday afternoon. The main attraction for the Cougars is RB #25 Tyler Allgeier. The 5’11, 220lb junior has been a force on the ground for BYU the last two seasons, surpassing the 1,000-yard mark in 2020 and in 2021 while scoring 33 rushing scores and throwing in 40 catches for 361 yards through the air in two years as the starter. The former linebacker convert plays with strength and power in-between the tackles, but has the vision and burst to win on the outside and pull away from defenders at the second level as well. Having feature back size, Allgeier is a great mid-round value that can contribute immediately.

One of the big uglies that clear running lanes for Allgeier upfront is OL #66 James Empey. Empey was recognized as a Freshman All-American and has manned the center position for the Cougars the last three seasons. He suffered a leg injury that caused him to miss some time, but the 6’4, 302lb redshirt junior was regarded as a middle-round draft prospect last year at center but returned this season to help boost his draft stock.

Another name to keep an eye on for the Cougars is TE #83 Isaac Rex. He hasn’t had a great season this year and is considered a fringe draft pick, but he excelled with Zach Wilson at the helm last season, catching 37 passes for 429 yards and 12 touchdowns. Standing at 6’6, 247lb, Rex has the size and skillset to be a viable red zone threat at the next level.

For the Blazers, TE #20 Gerrit Prince is the name to watch. The 6’5, 240lb senior is a great receiver at the TE position, having the fluidity to work all quadrants of the field paired with the run-after-catch ability to turn short passes into explosive plays. Prince has totaled 32 receptions for 656 yards and eight touchdowns this season, averaging over 20 YPR. He may need to add more strength and bulk to play as a traditional in-line TE, but Prince’s receiving prowess will garner consideration from scouts this spring, being a Shrine Bowl invitee.

On the defensive side of the football, EDGE #16 Alex Wright is a guy that scouts will have circled. Wright’s production is relatively average (11.5 sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, 5 PBUs in three seasons), but his measurables will be extremely enticing to teams looking for a raw prospect to groom as a backup or on their practice squad. Wright stands 6’7, 270lb, having the athleticism and explosiveness that flashes on film. He likely is a late Day Three selection, but an intriguing prospect that could rise with good testing.


Lending Tree Bowl Eastern Michigan vs. Liberty – 5:45PM EST ESPN

In this matchup between the Eagles and the Flames, the obvious main attraction will be QB #7 Malik Willis. The 6’1, 215 junior broke out last season for Liberty, garnering attention from scouts and the national media as the potential #1 QB prospect in the 2022 NFL Draft class. The Auburn transfer has totaled 4,955 yards and 45 TDs through the air along with 1,764 yards and 25 TDs on the ground in two seasons as the starter under HC Hugh Freeze.

While he has been a highlight reel at times playing against lower-level competition his completion percentage as a passer has been suspect (62.9% last two seasons) while having turnovers issues at times, having thrown 18 INTs, and lost five fumbles in the last two seasons as the starter. The talent with Willis is undeniable, but the intricacies of playing the QB position need to be developed more before he can be considered ready to take the reins of an NFL offense.

Some teams may be enticed by the physical tools and pull the trigger early on in Day One, but Willis projects more as a Day Two prospect that should sit and learn his first season for a team that is willing to mold its offensive system to capitalize his strengths while covering up his deficiencies.


LA Bowl Oregon Sate vs. Utah State – 7:30PM EST ABC

When the Aggies take on the Beavers out west in Los Angeles, the main attraction to watch for Utah State is WR #13 Deven Thompkins. He is small in stature, standing only 5’8, 155lb, but Thompkins plays half a foot taller on the football field. He is enjoying a breakout season, having 96 receptions for 1,589 yards and nine touchdowns, winning both in the slot with superb quickness as a route runner as well as out wide, elevating into the air and winning 50/50 balls like a receiver standing 6’5 would.

Having experience as a kick and punt returner, Thompkins has the ballcarrier vision to win on short screens and near the LOS as well as the vertical speed to take the top off the defense. He gives me Taylor Gabriel vibes when watching him, and while his size may keep him from getting drafted, Thompkins is a name to keep an eye on a guy NFL offenses should try and bring into camp as a potential slot receiver and return man.

For the Beavers, LB #34 Avery Roberts is a guy hoping to make his way to the NFL. The 6’1, 234lb redshirt junior earned 1st Team All-Conference honors this season, posting 123 total stops (65 solo), 2.5 sacks, one forced fumble, two pass breakups, and an INT. More likely a UDFA, Roberts will likely have to cut his teeth as a special teamer to make a roster and earn the role as a backup inside linebacker at the next level as a capable run defender, but may struggle when tasked with pass coverage.

 

New Orleans Bowl #23 Louisiana vs. Marshall 9:15PM EST ESPN

The Ragin’ Cajuns get a glorified home game against the Thundering Herd Saturday Night at the Caesars Superdome down in the Big Easy. Louisiana has made a name for itself rolling out NFL talent along the offensive line the last couple of seasons, and OT #74 Max Mitchell figures to be the next man up to make his mark in the pros. The 6’6, 297lb junior has played since his freshman season, developing into quite the run blocker who also holds his own in pass protection. Mitchell has a great long frame that can stand to add additional weight, but as a projected Day Two pick, he has the athleticism and movement skills paired with the size that NFL scouts fall for.

For Marshall, the name to watch here is CB #3 Steven Gilmore. The younger brother of All-Pro CB Stephon Gilmore, Steven has the length you love to see in a prototypical boundary cornerback (6’2), but only weighs 169lb, needing to add additional bulk to his frame to hold up against physical receivers on the outside at the next level. Despite being a featherweight, Gilmore is more than willing to come downhill as a run defender, throwing his body in the line of fire. Combine that with six picks and 23 PBUs in his tenure, Gilmore has the traits you are looking for in a developmental CB. A likely late Day Three or UDFA, Gilmore is a name to monitor throughout the draft process to see if he can get his weight up to come in an compete for a spot on an NFL roster with the bloodlines teams tend to look for.

Which of the names listed above will you be specifically watching this weekend? Do you think any of the prospects would be a good fit for the Pittsburgh Steelers? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below and thanks again for reading!

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