Heading into an offseason of labor uncertainty due to the lack of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, one of the few things we know for sure is that there will be an NFL draft. It will last three days for the second year in a row, and the first round will take place on Thursday, April 28.
The first big segment of the "pre-draft process" is Bowl Season. NFL coaches and GMs will get around to watching tape on draft-eligibles eventually, but first impressions can go a long way. During the pro season, NFL shot-callers are too consumed by weekly game preparation to intensely study college players. In many cases, Bowl Season is their first opportunity to watch the rookies they'll be selecting in April.
The college bowls began on December 18 and ended Monday night. Because this is a fantasy-based website, we'll focus on select offensive skill players who helped and hurt their draft stock over the last three-plus weeks.Bowl Season RisersNotre Dame WR Michael Floyd
Earning Sun Bowl MVP honors, Floyd continued to strengthen his early-round pick resume with 109 yards and two touchdowns on six receptions in the Fighting Irish's 33-17 win over Miami. Matched up with projected first-round cornerback Brandon Harris
for much of the contest, Floyd opened the scoring with TDs of two and 34 yards to cap each of Notre Dame's first two drives. Blocking fiercely as the Irish nursed a comfortable lead, Floyd helped Brian Kelly
's team rush for 196 yards while also passing Jeff Samardzija for the school record in touchdown catches. At 6'3/227, Floyd is a physical wideout with plenty of speed and leaping ability to dominate in the vertical passing game. He met with Kelly on Tuesday morning to ponder his future, and will likely officially declare for the draft before the January 15 deadline.
UPDATE: Floyd announced Wednesday morning that he will return to school for his senior season, ostensibly because he received a third-round grade from the Draft Advisory Committee. If Floyd is a third-round player, we'd love to know where the committee believes Harris should be drafted.
Alabama RB Mark Ingram
The Crimson Tide only needed 12 carries from Ingram in their 49-7 Capital One Bowl blowout win over Michigan State, but the 2009 Heisman winner made the most of them. Crashing through defenders on two touchdowns deep in the red zone, Ingram also created gains of 30, 12, 8, and 14 yards before being rested for good midway through the third quarter. The Spartans had one of the best linebacker corps in NCAA and surrendered under 3.8 yards per carry during the regular season, so this was no small feat. Ingram's numbers were down as a junior after preseason arthroscopic knee surgery, but he is a pro-ready back with NFL-caliber power, deceptive perimeter speed, and arguably the best vision of any runner to come out since Ray Rice. Ingram officially declared on January 6, and is the consensus favorite to be the first running back selected.
Hawaii WR Greg Salas
The Warriors played the Hawaii Bowl without top deep threat Rodney Bailey (academics), so it was up to Salas to pick up the slack against Tulsa. Usually a slot receiver, Salas recorded 13 receptions for a career-high 214 yards and two TDs, in the process breaking Ashley Lelie's school record for single-season receiving yards and Davone Bess' receptions mark. Hawaii had to throw to keep up after an early deficit, but Salas answered questions about his downfield receiving skills with six catches of 16-plus yards. He also generated a whopping 10 first downs. Salas still has to prove he wasn't the product of OC Nick Solovich's run-and-shoot offense, but he certainly looks the part of an NFL wideout at 6'2/210, and only Biletnikoff Award winner Justin Blackmon was a more productive receiver during the college season. A fifth-year senior, Salas could prove a late-round bargain.
Illinois RB Mikel Leshoure
A clear-cut No. 2 running back for the 2011 draft has yet to emerge, but Leshoure made a strong case during Illinois' 38-14 Texas Bowl romp. A 6'0/230-pound third-year junior, Leshoure rushed 29 times for 184 yards and three touchdowns, and chipped in 21 more yards on two receptions against Baylor. The dread-locked power back broke off 19 plays of five-plus yards, getting stronger as the game progressed with 54 yards and the third touchdown on his final seven rushing attempts (7.71 YPC). Leshoure's stock wasn't going to get much better in a weak running back class, so he smartly announced his intentions to enter the draft on January 11. He finished the season with 20 all-purpose touchdowns, a 6.04 yards-per-carry average, and nearly 1,900 total yards.
Boise State WR Austin Pettis
The Broncos whipped Utah 26-3 in the MAACO Bowl, and Pettis was the featured player for Boise. Out-muscling the Utes' defensive backs -- including possible first-round corner Brandon Burton more than once -- Pettis caught 12 balls for 147 yards and a touchdown. Though the 6-foot-3, 203-pound fourth-year senior will never be mistaken for a burner, Pettis may have the most reliable hands of any draft-eligible receiver in 2011. After two early incompletions, Pettis hauled in each of his dozen targets for a combined seven first downs, including gains of 46, 21, 18, and 17 in the second half. Long term, Pettis projects similarly to Michael Jenkins as a chain-moving receiver and willing blocker. His big bowl game should solidify a mid- to late-round grade heading into the Senior Bowl.
Syracuse RB Delone Carter
Carter was desperate for a big finish to a college career marred by off-field blunders and injury, and the fifth-year senior delivered with a career-best 198 rushing yards in Syracuse's Pinstripe Bowl win over Kansas State. Though Wildcats running back Daniel Thomas was more highly touted entering the game, Carter was more effective in this one, gutting K-State for a 7.33 yards-per-carry average and two touchdowns. A thick-legged power runner with exceptional balance, Carter put Doug Marrone's team on his back on the opening possession of the second half, racking up six rushing attempts for a combined 47 yards, including a seven-yard TD off right tackle. Picking up five or more yards 13 times, Carter added a 60-yard icer in the fourth quarter to set up Ross Krautman's 39-yard field goal, which ultimately proved the game winner in the Orange's 36-34 victory.
Bowl Season Fallers
Florida State QB Christian Ponder
Ponder was once considered a future first-round pick, but multiple surgeries appear to have Tim Couched his throwing arm. This was evident in the Seminoles' Chick-fil-A Bowl matchup with South Carolina, as numerous passes from Ponder either sailed well above the head of his intended target or went directly into the dirt. Ponder completed 1-of-5 passes for six yards, and was yanked in favor of sophomore E.J. Manuel early in the second quarter. Coach Jimbo Fisher attributed the benching to a concussion, but it's fair to wonder if Ponder's arm will ever be the same. The fifth-year senior underwent two surgeries on his right elbow in the matter of one month prior to the bowl game, and also separated his right shoulder while attempting a tackle after an interception as a junior -- another injury that required operation. Ponder may be damaged goods.
Arkansas QB Ryan Mallett
Mallett showed his cannon arm with 10 completions of 16 or more yards in the Razorbacks' 31-26 Sugar Bowl loss to Ohio State, but there were reasons for worry beyond the box score. Continuing to exhibit poor footwork, pocket presence, and a long delivery, Mallett took four sacks to lose 28 yards, and went 1-of-6 for four yards with an interception on his final six throws. This wasn't the first time Mallett threw a crucial game-ending pick, as he did the same in Arkansas' Week 4 loss to Alabama. With Bobby Petrino's team trailing 28-10 through two quarters, they needed a big second half from their quarterback. Receiver drops deserve plenty of blame, but Mallett's passing game simply didn't come through, producing just 92 second-half yards on 23 drop-backs. The team that drafts Mallett must be sure it can keep him upright, because he is dangerously short on mobility.
Washington QB Jake Locker
The Huskies pulled off an upset of Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl, but it wasn't Locker's throwing ability that made the difference. In fact, the athletic senior was more productive as a rusher (83 yards, TD) than passer, completing 5-of-16 attempts for 56 yards and no touchdowns. Locker did show toughness by returning to the game after a helmet-to-helmet hit in the first half, but started 0-for-8 and didn't complete a single pass until the third quarter. Locker's decision to forgo the 2010 draft for another year in coach Steve Sarkisian's pro-style offense was unsuccessful, as he statistically regressed across the board while often running scared behind Washington's sieve-like offensive line. It will take a strong Senior Bowl performance for Locker to rehab his stock.
Georgia Tech RB Anthony Allen
ESPN's Todd McShay called Allen a "potential third-round pick" entering the Independence Bowl, but that's not going to happen. Thoroughly unimpressive against an Air Force run defense that ranked 103rd amongst 120 FBS teams, Allen was stuffed for three or fewer yards on 15 of his 23 carries and also fumbled. Like his Yellow Jackets predecessor Jonathan Dwyer, Allen offers little in the passing game and is billed as a power back at 6'0/230. In coach Paul Johnson's triple-option offense, the redshirt senior should've trampled over a lightweight Falcons front seven. Instead, Allen may have pushed his draft grade into the latter round-to-priority free agent range.
Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi
Stanzi will leave Iowa with a 26-9 career record as a starter, but he continued to show why he's not much of a pro prospect in the Hawkeyes' 27-24 Insight Bowl win over Missouri. The fifth-year senior completed just 11-of-21 passes for 200 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions. Stanzi misfired on five of his final seven pass attempts during a game the Hawkeyes needed to come from behind, including both of the picks, one of which led to a Mizzou touchdown. Stanzi is well built at 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, and will get a chance to impress at the Senior Bowl later this month. He just isn't a natural passer, however, and is likely looking at a late-round selection in April.