We are finally heading into the span of bowl games that features ranked teams with the top prospects that will make up the first few rounds of the draft. As he has throughout the bowl season, Joe Malfa has a list of the top names to watch in each of the biggest games.
Matchup: USC vs. Ohio St.
Time: 8:30 p.m.
1) QB Sam Darnold
2017 stats: 63.7% completion percentage, 3,787 yards, 26 TDs, 12 INTs, 8.7 YPA
Career stats: 65.3% completion percentage, 6,873 yards, 57 TDs, 21 INTs, 8.6 YPA
Darnold came into the 2017 anointed the next “chosen one” after his Rose Bowl performance for the ages against Penn State. That win capped off a 9-0 run as USC’s starter in which he put up crazy numbers and looked good doing it. He had people jumping off his bandwagon in the first few weeks of this season after three consecutive mutli-interception performances, but he found his rhythm down the stretch and looked like the star we saw last season. He needs to improve his decision making, but that will come with experience. He has the arm strength, accuracy, and mobility of a true number one quarterback. He also has that clutch gene, playing his best football under the lights in crunch time. I am reminded a lot of Matthew Stafford when I watch Darnold play, though he does not have the same rocket of an arm that Stafford possesses. He is worthy of the top overall pick, and I think the Browns’ decision will come down to Darnold and Josh Allen. It seems like they are scared away by Josh Rosen’s statements that he does not want to play in Cleveland. Darnold is sure to entertain in what should be his last game in a USC uniform.
2) RB Ronald Jones II
2017 stats: 242 carries, 1,486 yards, 18 TDs; 14 catches, 187 yards, 1 TD
Career stats: 572 carries, 3,555 yards, 38 TDs; 32 catches, 302 yards, 3 TDs
Jones has become the darling of our TOJ group chat. He has all of the tools of a number one running back that can be a true bell-cow for a team. He has the speed to hit home runs and the strength to pick up important yardage between the tackles. Whenever Darnold has struggled this year, Jones has picked up the slack and been a catalyst for this offense. He could be in play for the Jets with the second of their two second round picks, and he has the ability to be this year’s Kareem Hunt.
3) WR Deontay Burnett
2017 stats: 74 catches, 975 yards, 9 TDs
Career stats: 140 catches, 1,758 yards, 16 TDs
Burnett was the Robin to JuJu Smith-Schuster’s Batman last season, but he became Batman this season. He is on the smaller side measuring at just 6-feet, 200-pounds, which might put him in the slot in the NFL despite spending most of his time at USC on the outside. He has seen some time in the slot at USC, and his hands and knack for running very crisp routes would make the transition to the slot very smooth. He is not a number one type receiver, but he could be a a very effective number two who could come off the board in the second or third round to a team looking to give its quarterback a secondary or tertiary weapon.
4) MLB Cameron Smith
2017 stats: 101 tackles, 0.5 sacks, 1 INT
The quarterback of USC’s offense is among the best offensive players in the draft, and the quarterback of USC’s defense is among the best under the radar defensive players. Smith has the size, speed, instincts and IQ to lead an NFL defense. He seems destined for the middle of the second round at the moment, but his performance at the combine and his pro day could make him a late riser into the front of the second or back of the first.
5) DE Uchenna Nwosu
2017 stats: 71 tackles, 7.5 sacks, 1 INT
Nwosu brings a good combination of size (6-foot-2, 240-pounds), speed and athleticism to the outside of a defensive line. He has really blossomed into a good all-around football player over the course of his four years at USC after coming in as a raw, fast pass rusher. He does a good job in pursuit against the run and is comfortable with his hand in the ground or standing up. He reminds me of Calvin Pace and could be the same type of player in the NFL.
Side note: Back when we thought the Jets would land a top three pick, the idea of an all-USC first three rounds was tossed around in the TOJ group chat. Darnold in the first, Smith with the first second-round pick, Jones with the second second-round pick and Nwosu in the third. It would make sense — knocks out four positions of need with players we all believe will have success at the next level.
More names to watch:
- DL Rasheem Green (3rd-4th round pick)
- EDGE Porter Gustin (2nd-3rd round pick)
- S Chris Hawkins (6th-7th round pick)
- CB Iman Marshall (4th-5th round pick)
- S Mervell Tell III (6th-7th round pick)
Ohio State’s prospects:
1) CB Denzel Ward
2017 stats: 11 games, 37 tackles, 1 INT, 15 passes defended
Ward is going to draw a lot of comparisons to Marshon Lattimore throughout the draft process because it is going to be back-to-back years in which the draft’s top corner comes out of Ohio St. They are similar in the sense that they both have quick feet, good speed, ball skills, athleticism and the ability to take away one side of the field. Lattimore is a bit bigger and more inclined to bump receivers at the line. Ward could struggle against the bigger receivers like a Julio Jones, but there is no denying his skill level. I prefer Iowa’s Josh Jackson as the draft’s top corner, but there is certainly a case for Ward and he is going to have a lot of success in the NFL.
2) EDGE Sam Hubbard
2017 stats: 38 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 2 forced fumbles
Hubbard has drawn some criticism for his motor, or lack thereof, but he has the tools to excel on the EDGE in the NFL. He is quick off the ball and does a good job of blowing plays up in the backfield. Hubbard has 11 total sacks over the last two seasons and 18 tackles for a loss of yardage. The 6-foot-5, 265-pound junior will be a first round pick barring any setbacks during the draft process.
3) OT Jamarco Jones
Key stats: Two-year starter, 2nd-team All-Big Ten
Jones only took over at left tackle after Taylor Decker left for the NFL. He has experience playing other positions on the line and could potentially slide inside to guard depending on a team’s needs. The 6-foot-5, 310-pound lineman is equally steady against the pass and the run, and he is polished enough to be a day one starter for a team he spends a day two pick on him (likely second round).
4) DT Dre’Mont Jones
2017 stats: 11 games, 20 tackles, 1 sack
The numbers are not eye-popping, but the 6-foot-3, 295-pound defensive tackle has been very disruptive in 2017. When I traveled with Maryland to Ohio St. at the beginning of October, Jones missed the game with an injury (one of two he missed on the season) so I unfortunately could not get a good look at him in person. From the handful of Buckeye games I have been able to watch, however, I see a first-round talent that can stop the run and provide a rush from the inside on third downs.
5) C Billy Price
Key stat: 1st team All-American
I saved the best for last. Price will not be the first Buckeye off the board come April, but he is my favorite prospect in the program and the one I would most like to see in a Jets uniform next season. Ohio St. has been a center factory of late, and Price is the next perfectly polished center ready to start on day one in the NFL. There is definitely a chance he comes off the board at the end of round one, but the Jets cannot pass on him if he is there at the top of the second. He has All-Pro potential in the NFL and will allow a team to not have to worry about the center position for a decade.
More Names to watch:
- MLB Jerome Baker (2nd-3rd round pick)
- QB/WR J.T. Barrett (6th round-undrafted free agent)
- TE Marcus Baugh (3rd-5th round pick)
- OLB Dante Booker (2nd-3rd round pick)
- WR Parris Campbell (3rd-5th round pick)
- DL Jaylyn Holmes (3rd-5th round pick)
- DL Michael Hill (3rd-5th round pick)
- EDGE Tyquan Lewis (2nd-3rd round pick)
- DL Tracy Sprinkle (3rd-5th round pick)
- S Damon Webb (4th-5th round pick)
- RB Mike Weber (6th-7th round pick)
Photo Credit: SI.com