With 2019 just around the corner, there’s plenty to look forward to. Opening a new calendar not only represents a proverbial clean slate and an opportunity to set new goals, but signals—at least for me—the unofficial commencement of one of my favorite times of the year: NFL draft season.
The Senior Bowl is still a few weeks away and the NFL combine is a ways off, but the upcoming slate of college bowl games gives NFL fans an excellent chance to scout some of the most talented college players in the nation. The six biggest bowl games in particular—the Orange Bowl, the Cotton Bowl, the Peach Bowl, the Fiesta Bowl, the Rose Bowl, and the Sugar Bowl—will feature a throng of future pro talents and, likely, a handful of top-10 picks. So, for those of you just starting to brush up on the players set to headline the 2019 NFL draft, here’s a quick primer on some of the biggest draft-eligible names to watch in the New Year’s Six.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 4 Oklahoma: Saturday, Dec. 29, 8 p.m. ET
DL Quinnen Williams, Alabama
Alabama features a smorgasbord of potential first-round talent on both sides of the ball, but no one’s getting more hype right now than the team’s disruptive man in the middle. Williams, who won AP All-American first-team honors and the Outland Trophy as the best interior lineman in college football, has steadily gained ground on Ohio State defensive end and presumptive top pick Nick Bosa over the past couple of months as the most exciting pass-rushing prospect in the upcoming draft. In 2018, the 6-foot-4 289-pounder racked up 8.0 sacks and 18.0 tackles for loss while grading out among interior linemen as Pro Football Focus’s top pass rusher and top run defender.
Williams combines power, athleticism, and versatility with an innate ability to shed blocks and knife into opposing backfields. His hand use—how he times his punches, and his ability to redirect attempted blocks by opposing offensive linemen—makes him extremely hard to block, and the word that comes to mind most often in watching Williams go to work is “slippery.” Take it from his Alabama teammate Jonah Williams, who recently called Quinnen a “300-pound bar of soap.”
DT Raekwon Davis, Alabama
Lining up next to Williams on the Alabama defensive line will be another potential first-rounder in Davis, a mammoth, block-eating defensive tackle with extraordinary length. The 6-foot-7, 316-pound lineman broke onto the scene in 2017, grabbing a team-high 8.5 sacks while adding 10 tackles for a loss, and expectations were high heading into this year. But his numbers fell off—he registered just 4.5 TFL and a half-sack this season—dampening Davis’s hype and, potentially, his draft stock. The Orange Bowl should provide the 21-year-old lineman the chance to showcase his upside as an interior rusher. Failing that, there’s little doubt a few NFL clubs will look at his rare combination of size and athleticism and see a player they can mold into an impact lineman at the next level.
OT Jonah Williams, Alabama
Williams is likely going to be the top offensive tackle in this class—a distinction that makes him a near-lock as a top-10 pick, should he declare. The 6-foot-5, 301-pound tackle has started 42 games in his career in Tuscaloosa, and that experience shows in his game: He’s a technician as a blocker, showcasing solid fundamentals in his footwork and hand use, and he allowed just 10 pressures on 410 pass-blocking snaps in 2018, per Pro Football Focus. With natural power and athleticism in the run game, Williams has a scintillating skill set.
QB Kyler Murray, Oklahoma
Murray is the ultimate draft wild card. The question remains on whether the Heisman winner plans to play football at the next level: He’s publicly committed to playing outfield for the Oakland A’s, who selected him with the ninth overall pick in June’s Major League Baseball draft—but there’s ongoing speculation that the electric playmaker could change his mind and give football a shot. If he does declare for the NFL draft, he’d be one of the top passers in what’s looking like a shallow class at the position—and, likely, a first-round pick.
Murray checks in at 5-foot-10 or so, but makes up for his lack of height with elite athleticism and an accurate arm. He finished first in the nation with a 205.72 passer rating (eclipsing Tua Tagovailoa and Baker Mayfield for the new record), throwing for 4,053 yards with 40 touchdowns and just seven picks. Oh, and he tacked on another 892 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Some, er, more traditional NFL teams might balk at his frame, but it’s not too hard to imagine a modern scheme built around Murray’s ability to throw downfield with pinpoint ball placement and utilize his Tarik Cohen–like elusiveness as a runner. This matchup gives the 21-year-old signal-caller a chance to test his mettle against a slew of future NFL defenders.
WR Marquise Brown, Oklahoma
Like Murray, Brown could get knocked in the NFL draft process for his lack of size, but the first-team All-American speed merchant plays a whole lot bigger than his 5-foot-9, 169-pound frame might imply. He’s always a threat to take the top off of a defense with pure speed, but Brown—the cousin of NFL superstar Antonio Brown—is, much like his famous relative, surprisingly physical at the catch point. He’s a competitive runner after the catch too, where has averaged an impressive 8.5 yards after the catch per reception this year, per PFF. Brown’s status for the game is still up in the air because of a lower-leg injury sustained in the Big 12 championship game, but if he plays, don’t be surprised when he makes a big play down the field.
S Deionte Thompson, Alabama
Thompson is a wiry, athletic defensive back with long arms and a playmaker’s mind-set, capable of playing in the box in run support or dropping back deep in coverage. The latter skill will be the integral variable for how highly NFL teams value the Tide’s top safety in the upcoming draft—they’ll be looking for rangy coverage defenders to combat the explosion of passing we’ve seen this season—and the 6-foot-2, 195-pound junior will have his hands full against the Sooners’ explosive passing offense in this one. Thompson flashes plenty as an aggressive tackler and downhill defender, but his ability to flow from sideline to sideline deep down the field will be what I’m looking at most closely.
And Don’t Forget About …
There’s a handful more potential top-100 prospects on the Alabama roster, including center Ross Pierschbacher, tight end Irv Smith Jr., running back Damien Harris, and defensive linemen Isaiah Buggs and Anfernee Jennings. Pierschbacher won second-team All-American honors after allowing just four pressures all year and offers versatility at the next level with starts at left guard and at center for the Tide during his college career. Smith Jr. is an athletic tight end prospect who caught 38 passes for 648 yards and seven scores this year, regularly racking up yards after the catch. Harris, who’s gained 3,344 yards from scrimmage and scored 23 touchdowns in four years with the Tide, is a physical and dependable runner, and Buggs and Jennings add to an absurdly deep Alabama line. The latter duo, along with Williams and Davis, should give Oklahoma prospect Cody Ford—a mountain of a tackle who’s listed at 346 pounds—a run for his money.
No. 2 Clemson vs. No. 3 Notre Dame: Saturday, Dec. 29, 4 p.m. ET
The Entire Clemson Defensive Line
The Tigers boast a trio of potential first-rounders on their defensive front. That group is led by redshirt junior Clelin Ferrell, a first-team All-American defensive end who posted elite numbers in 2018 by notching 10.5 sacks, 17 tackles for a loss, and 49 total quarterback pressures, per PFF. Ferrell mixes great size (6-foot-5 and 260 pounds with long arms) with an explosive, springy first step to get off the line of scrimmage and into the backfield in the blink of an eye. Lining up next to him is versatile defensive lineman Christian Wilkins (another first-team All-American), who at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds can rush from the outside or provide disruption from the interior. Wilkins tallied 40 quarterback pressures this season, per PFF, on just 286 pass rushes. That duo is bound to give Notre Dame’s offensive line fits all game long, especially when you throw in 6-foot-5, 265-pound senior edge rusher Austin Bryant, who’s flown relatively under the radar this year (with 6.5 sacks and 11.0 TFL) but could see his stock rise throughout the draft process.
The anchor of the Clemson line all year has been 6-foot-4, 340-pound nose tackle Dexter Lawrence, whose status for the Cotton Bowl remains in limbo following a failed drug test. Clemson’s awaiting the results of a B sample that could clear Lawrence and two other players, and should the big man play, the Tigers will have yet another interior disruptor to throw at the Irish.
DT Jerry Tillery, Notre Dame
Tillery marries a quick first step, violent rip and club moves, and plenty of punch as a pass rusher. Per PFF, he racked up 7.0 sacks, 8.5 TFL, and totaled 44 QB pressures this year (which ranked third among all interior linemen), and will have a chance to boost his stock even further with a big game on Saturday against Clemson. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound defensive tackle’s sack production came in bunches—particularly in his dominant four-sack game against Stanford back in September—and that’s exactly the type of performance he’ll need as scouts from just about every NFL team descend on Dallas.
And Don’t Forget About …
Notre Dame cornerback Julian Love (5-foot-11, 193 pounds) has a chance to boost his stock in this one by showing off his knack for the pass breakup. The first-team All-American knocked down 15 passes in 2018—ninth nationwide—after ranking second in that category (with 20) the year before. Keep an eye out for playmaking Fighting Irish linebacker Te’von Coney, too. The 6-foot-1 240-pounder has racked up 6.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for a loss over the past two seasons. For Clemson, junior cornerback Trayvon Mullen (6-foot-2, 191 pounds) has top-100 potential should he declare for the 2019 draft.
No. 7 Michigan vs. No. 10 Florida: Saturday, Dec. 29, Noon ET
DE Jachai Polite, Florida
Polite is probably the biggest NFL draft draw in this game, a junior pass rusher who’s garnered plenty of first-round hype over the past couple of months. The 21-year-old defensive end exploded onto the scene in Gainesville this season, racking up 11.0 sacks, 18 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles (tied for most among players on FBS teams), and four pass deflections in 12 games. Polite is still undecided on whether he’s going to declare or return for another season at Florida, but the highly productive edge rusher will plan on being a menace for the Michigan offensive line.
DE Chase Winovich, Michigan
Michigan’s two biggest star defenders—tackle Rashan Gary and linebacker Devin Bush—are both skipping the Peach Bowl to prepare for the NFL draft, leaving Winovich as the Wolverines’ best NFL prospect in this game. The 6-foot-3 255-pounder is big, fast, and physical, bringing an infectiously aggressive mentality to the Michigan defense. After starting out in Ann Arbor as a linebacker, moving to tight end as a sophomore, then switching back to the defense as a junior, the senior defensive end has settled in on the edge, notching All-Big Ten honors in each of the past two seasons while racking up 32 TFL and and 12.5 sacks in that stretch. It won’t be hard to spot Winovich in this one: Just look for the guy with the Clay Matthews–esque blond hair flowing out of his helmet.
No. 8 UCF vs. No. 11 LSU: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 1 p.m. ET
LB Devin White, LSU
With cornerback Greedy Williams sitting this one out to begin preparing for the draft, linebacker Devin White becomes the only highly-touted prospect for this matchup. The junior linebacker—who’s being touted as a potential first-round pick—boasts range from sideline to sideline and a tone-setting physicality from the middle of the Tigers defense. The former running back was named a first-team All-American and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker after racking up 115 total tackles, 12 tackles for loss, 3.0 sacks, five pass breakups, and two forced fumbles.
And Don’t Forget About …
Watch for former five-star defensive lineman Rashard Lawrence, who will hope to boost his stock with a disruptive game from the middle for the Tigers. On offense, LSU guard Garrett Brumfield is an athletic prospect to monitor.
No. 6 Ohio State vs. No. 9 Washington: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 5 p.m. ET
QB Dwayne Haskins, Ohio State
With Justin Herbert deciding to stay at Oregon for another year, Haskins (should he declare) moves to the head of the line as the top quarterback in this year’s class. The underrated passer already received a first-round grade from the NFL Draft Advisory Board—and a strong performance next week against Washington’s stingy defense could push Haskins into the conversation as a potential top-5 pick. While this is Haskins’s first year starting for the Buckeyes, the redshirt sophomore put in a monster season, completing 70.2 percent of his passes and throwing for 4,580 yards, averaging 9.2 yards per attempt, and 47 touchdowns with just eight picks.
Haskins has started only 14 games in his collegiate career—a lack of experience that will likely be a red flag to some NFL teams—but he’s got all the tools a pro passer needs. At 6-foot-3 and 220 pounds, he’s got size, mobility in the pocket, the ability to go through reads, and a strong, accurate arm.
DT Dre’Mont Jones, Ohio State
On the other side of the ball, keep an eye out for Jones, a 6-foot-3, 286-pound defensive lineman who tallied 8.5 sacks and 13.0 TFL in 2018 for Ohio State. With Nick Bosa taking the Rose Bowl off, the Huskies will focus on styming Jones, who consistently provides push and disruption from the interior of the Ohio State defensive line. A big game on this big stage could do wonders for the junior pass rusher’s draft stock.
CB Byron Murphy, Washington
Speaking of a potential statement game, keep an eye on Huskies cornerback Byron Murphy, who will get his shot at shutting down Haskins and the Ohio State passing attack. The 5-foot-11 182-pounder has all the tools to become the next first-round cornerback out of Washington: He’s versatile—able to play man and zone, on the outside or in the slot—sticky in coverage, and a strong tackler.
And Don’t Forget About …
Murphy’s going to have some help in the coverage department, playing alongside a pair of All-American defenders in safety Taylor Rapp and linebacker Ben Burr-Kirven, both of whom could be picked in the top two rounds should they declare. Offensively, Husky running back Myles Gaskin, Husky tackle Kaleb McGary, and Ohio State receiver K.J. Hill each have a shot at the top 100 come April.
No. 5 Georgia vs. No. 15 Texas: Tuesday, Jan. 1, 8:45 p.m. ET
CB Deandre Baker, Georgia
Baker’s the first-round headliner for this game as a first-team All-American and winner of the Jim Thorpe Award (given to the best defensive back in college football). Baker hasn’t given up a touchdown in two seasons and finished with an opponent passer rating of just 40.2 in coverage in 2018, per PFF. The 5-foot-11, 185-pound senior picked off two passes and knocked away another nine this year, adding a forced fumble and two tackles for a loss.
And Don’t Forget About …
Baker will be tested, though, by Texas receiver Collin Johnson, a 6-foot-6, 220-pound pass catcher who reeled in 65 balls for 945 yards and seven touchdowns this year for the Longhorns. Size is Johnson’s biggest advantage, and the junior out of San Jose, California, knows how to box out and attack the ball at the highest point or stretch and dive to haul in an off-target pass. For Georgia, don’t be surprised if you see big plays out of receiver Riley Ridley (yes, he’s Calvin’s brother) on offense and from defensive end D’Andre Walker on defense.