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.
Gator Bowl #17 Wake Forest vs. Rutgers – 10:00AM CST ESPN
The Scarlet Knights replace the Texas A&M Aggies to keep the Gator Bowl alive for Friday morning in Jacksonville where they will face off against The Wake Forest Demon Deacons. Rutgers will have a couple of draft hopefuls to watch in this game including WR #16 Bo Melton and LB #3 Olakunle Fatukasi. Melton is a 5’11, 195lb senior who excels as a deep threat that can stretch the seam as well as a threat to create YAC on short routes and screen passes. Fatukasi is a 6’2, 240lb senior who has been productive in the tackling department the last three seasons, having the ability to chase after the QB as well as drop in coverage. Expect both guys to be late Day Three prospects.
For Wake Forest, WR #5 Jaquarii Roberson has already announced that he will be opting out of the bowl game. However, his signal caller QB #10 Sam Hartman is expected to play in this one. The 6’1, 208lb redshirt sophomore lacks ideal height and size, but has torn it up this season through the air, throwing for 3,924 yards and 36 TDs to 14 INTs while chipping in 111 carries for 342 yards and 11 scores on the ground. Hartman can attack defenses vertically, relying on the deep ball heavily in this offense to produce big plays while also having the athleticism to get out of the pocket and create with his legs. Hartman will likely be a mid-round pick if he decides to declare.
Another name to watch for the Demon Deacons is WR #9 A.T. Perry. The 6’5, 206lb redshirt sophomore has had a great season for the Demon Deacons, hauling 61 receptions for 1,166 yards and 14 TDs as Hartman’s top target. Perry has the length to win the jump ball but also is a viable deep threat, getting on top of defensive backs regularly to win down the field. Perry could decide to return in 2022, but should he have a stellar performance, he may decide to declare as a mid-round draft prospect.
Sun Bowl Washington State vs. Central Michigan – 11:00AM CST CBS
The Cougars will face off against the Chippewas in El Paso, Texas Friday morning. Central Michigan replaces Miami in this game and brings a few draft prospects to the table including OT #76 Bernhard Raimann. The 6’7, 305lb senior has phenomenal size and the athleticism to match, moving well in space and when climbing to the second level as a run blocker. He looks to finish defenders to the ground and is a capable pass protector, having the arm length and patience to stay engaged on his man to keep the pocket clean. The Senior Bowl invite has been garnering hype from several scouts over the last few months and could see his draft stock rise this spring with good testing.
Washington State has had several of its top draft prospect opt out of the Sun Bowl including RB #21 Max Borghi, OT #72 Abraham Lucas, and CB #0 Jaylen Watson. Lucas would likely be the most coveted name on this list, as he has played 2,195 pass blocking snaps in his career at Washington State and has graded out with a 91.0 pass blocking grade according to Pro Football Focus. His run blocking will have to be examined more in the pre-draft process, but quality pass protectors come at a premium, meaning Lucas should find himself somewhere in the middle rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Cotton Bowl (CFP Semifinal) #1 Alabama vs. #4 Cincinnati – 2:30PM CST ESPN
The first of the two CFP Semifinal matchups will feature the Crimson Tide against the Bearcats in Jerry’s World on Friday afternoon. While Alabama hasn’t had any opt outs to date, they will be without WR #8 John Metchie III and DB #28 Josh Jobe. Metchie suffered a torn ACL in the SEC Championship Game against the Georgia Bulldogs and Jobe is recovering after having surgery on a turf toe injury that has been affecting him all season. Jobe figures to be a mid-to-late round draft pick and Metchie was looking like a Top-50 selection before the injury. It remains to be seen whether he will declare or return to Alabama next season, but Metchie profiles in a similar light to Browns WR Jarvis Landry.
OT #73 Evan Neal projects as the likely highest selection for the Crimson Tide in this year’s draft. The 6’7, 350lb junior is a mammoth of a man, having the strength, power, and athleticism scouts salivate over in OT prospects. He started his career at OG and played at RT last season before moving to the blindside in 2021. Neal has the size and skillset to bulldoze defenders in the run game as well as the length to be viable in pass protection. Still, Neal seems to run hot-and-cold at times on tape and can struggle with speed of the edge. He will have to have a good game to keep Bryce Young upright against an aggressive Bearcat defensive front.
Metchie’s running mate, WR #1 Jameson Williams, has enjoyed a breakout campaign for the Tide after transferring from Ohio State this spring. The 6’2, 189lb junior torched defenses all season long to the tune of 68 receptions for 1,445 yards and 15 TDs. Williams is the definition of a burner on the outside, having the speed and explosiveness to stack defenders vertically and get behind the defense for deep bomb TDs. However, Williams can run a full route tree and is also quite the gunner on special teams, presenting scouts a well-rounded player. Williams has played himself into the first round as a player that will add juice to a passing attack and keep opposing DCs up at night.
Other defenders you must keep an eye on for the Crimson Tide include S #9 Jordan Battle, LB #8 Christian Harris, DL #48 Phidarian Mathis, LB #10 Henry To’o To’o, who all expect to be early-to-mid Day Two selections if the declare as well as DL #94 D.J. Dale, DL #47 Byron Young, and DL #18 LaBryan Ray who all have a chance to get drafted or sign as a UDFA. Battle and Harris have a chance to sneak into the back of Round One, whereas Mathis is a name that deserves more recognition as a productive pass rusher that isn’t getting a lot of national media attention.
On the offensive side of the ball for the Tide, keep an eye out for RB #4 Brian Robinson Jr., TE #19 Jahleel Billingsley, and OG #55 Emil Ekiyor as players who could go in the middle-to-later rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft.
Now the Bearcats boast a ton of NFL talent for being considered a “Group of 5” school. The name that will garner the most headlines for Cincinnati is QB #9 Desmond Ridder. The 6’4, 215lb senior has been a four-year starter for the Bearcats, having his best season to-date throwing for 3,190 yards and 30 TDs to nine INTs while chipping in 150 carries for 572 yards and five TDs. Ridder has shown signs of development during his college career, having the arm strength to attack defenses downfield while also having moments where he displays impressive touch. He also has good mobility for the position as a dual threat but will have to be more consistent as a passer as he transitions to the league.
The Bearcats player that may likely go the highest in the draft come April will likely be CB #1 Ahmad “Sauce” Gardner. The 6’3, 188lb junior has been a lock-down CB since he stepped foot on campus, recording nine INTs and 18 PBUs in his college career, having never surrendered a TD in coverage Gardner has fantastic length and the athleticism to match, having the wingspan to minimize passing lanes and contest passes even when he is out of position. He can stand to add mass to his frame, but he is an aggressive tackler coming downhill. Gardner will have to learn to be less grabby at the top of routes in the league, but his intangibles and knack for finding the football make him a likely Day One lock.
Gardner’s running mate CB #7 Coby Bryant is also quite the accomplished cover man in his own right, picking off ten passes and deflecting 35 more in his time in the Queen City. It was Bryant who won the Jim Thorpe Award this year as the best DB in the country, and he will make opposing offense pay for trying him rather than Sauce in coverage.
The Bearcats defense is stacked at all levels, having the likes of EDGE #21 Myjai Sanders, LB #0 Darrian Beavers, S #6 Bryan Cook, and DL #92 Curtis Brooks all likely going to be drafted in the middle-to-later rounds of the 2022 NFL Draft. Beavers especially is an intriguing prospect I expect to rise throughout the draft process, as the UCONN transfer and EDGE convert stands 6’4, 255lb and is a natural on his feet, showing great pursuit to the football as a run-and-chase defender. He has the ability to drop into coverage effectively, and his DL experience make him a solid stack-and-shed defender who can put his hand in the dirt and rush the passer off the edge as well as from the box.
On offense, the Bearcats have several names that could make an impact on Sundays including RB #24 Jerome Ford, WR #12 Alec Pierce, and TE #81 Josh Whyle. Ford especially will be looking to have a big game as he transferred from Alabama to Cincinnati for more playing time, The 5’11, 220lb redshirt junior runs with power in-between the tackles as the focal point of the offense, but has the burst in the open field to home run you if defenses aren’t careful.
Orange Bowl (CFP Semifinal) #2 Michigan vs. #3 Georgia – 6:30PM CST ESPN
The Michigan Wolverines will face off against the Georgia Bulldogs Friday night in a must-watch spectacle for the other CFP Semifinal game. For the Wolverines, the premier name to watch is EDGE #97 Aidan Hutchinson. The 6’6, 265lb senior has had a breakout season for Michigan, totaling 58 tackles, 26.5 TFLs, 14 sacks, two forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three PBUs. Hutchinson really came into his own this season, converting his disruptiveness into production as a man hunting the opposing QB. He has a relentless motor in pursuit, being able to win with speed or power off the edge. Look for Hutchinson to be a Top Ten pick come April.
Hutchinson’s running mate on the opposite side, EDGE #55 David Ojabo, also has played himself into the First-Round conversation. The 6’5, 250lb junior had no real experience playing before this season, but racked up 35 total stops, 12 TFLs, 11 sacks, five forced fumbles, a fumble recovery and three PBUs. Some might say Ojabo had the benefit of the doubt playing across from Hutchinson, but Ojabo is a dynamic pass rusher in his own right, going from playing soccer in high school as a Nigerian native and spending his youth in Scotland to dominating tackles around the corner with speed and bend. Ojabo is still very raw as a prospect, but the ceiling is the roof for a player just scratching the surface.
The Wolverines boast several other draft prospects including DB #30 Daxton Hill, RB #25 Hassan Haskins, DB #2 Brad Hawkins, DL #15 Christopher Hinton, and OL #76 Ryan Hayes. Hill projects as a Swiss Army Knife-type of defender that can play deep middle field or in the box as a safety, in the slot as a nickel/dime defender, or even on the outside as a boundary corner depending on what the defensive scheme asks of him. His talent and versatility should get him selected early in the 2022 NFL Draft.
The Georgia Bulldogs have rolled out a historically dominant defense this season, holding opponents two season-low yardage totals while pitching several shutouts. The name most will recognize from this defense is big DL #99 Jordan Davis. The 6’6, 340lb junior is a giant in the middle of the defense, having the size and strength to take on double teams in the run game to free up LBs to run to the football. Davis also has surprising quickness and agility for a man of his size, showing pursuit of the football of a player 50lb lighter. It remains to be seen whether Davis can make a consistent impact on passing downs to be a three-down defender, but his contributions in the run game warrant early consideration.
While Davis gets recognized for his size, LB #17 Nakobe Dean is known for his instincts and playmaking ability The 6’0, 225lb junior is the leader of the Bulldog defense, making an impact as a run defender, pass rusher, and coverage linebacker. He has 61 total stops, 6.5 sacks, one forced fumble, five PBUs, and two INTs on the season. He is considered undersized for the position and can struggle with getting off blocks at times, but Dean flies to the football both downhill and sideline-to-sideline. He is one of the top-graded coverage LBs in the nation according to PFF and is effective on twists and stunts as a blitzer. Expect Dean to go in the Top-50 selections this spring.
It’s unfair to try not give all the members of the Bulldogs defense their due, as almost the entire defense can expect to hear their names called on Draft Day if they declare. DL #44 Travon Walker, S #16 Lewis Cine, DL #95 Devonte Wyatt, CB #11 Derion Kendrick, EDGE #4 Nolan Smith, LB #41 Channing Tindall, LB #7 Quay Walker, and S #23 Tykee Smith could all expect to hear their names called this April if the underclassmen declare. Wyatt especially is an interesting name as he has been more disruptive at times upfront than his running mate Jordan Davis. At 6’5, 315lb, the senior DL can move up and down the LOS, being able to rush the passer as a potential draft value.
On the offensive side of the ball, guys like RB #3 Zamir White, RB #4 James Cook, WR #1 George Pickens, and OL #54 Justin Schaffer are all likely NFL draft picks this spring. Cook and White provide the perfect complement of “Thunder and Lightning” in the backfield, while Pickens was well on his way to potentially being WR1 in this draft class before tearing his ACL this spring. The 6’3, 200lb junior somehow managed to rehab enough to comeback to play in the SEC Championship game and seems probable to play this Friday night. Should he get back to where he was pre-injury, look for Pickens to be legitimate threat at the NFL level.
Also, punters are people too, and you should pay attention to P #90 Jake Camarda who has a heck of a leg and can flip field position in an instant for a special teams unit.
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!