It’s the midpoint of the college football season, and the NFL draft picture is starting to come into better focus. But by no means is anything set in stone, and there are several volatile player stocks still out there.
With that in mind, and being the positive-thinking folks we are, here are the 10 college players we think could boost their draft stock the most in the second half of this season prior to the 2016 NFL draft, including a few underclassmen who have some intriguing decisions to make.
Michigan State QB Connor Cook — Even while most of the country talked about Michigan’s failed punt, Cook’s reputation of being a clutch performer was enhanced with a good performance last week against the Wolverines’ top-rated defense entering the game. Sure, Cook missed on 21 of his 39 pass attempts, but he also delivered big throws, just as he did against Ohio State the past two seasons, against Baylor in the Cotton Bowl Classic and against Stanford in the Rose Bowl. Upcoming for the Spartans: games against Nebraska and Ohio State on the road, Penn State’s top-10 passing defense and a possible spot in the Big Ten title game, as well as a marquee bowl game. With Jared Goff opening the door on the 2016 QB discussion with a five-INT game and Cardale Jones being benched, Cook has every chance to reignite talk of him being the first quarterback selected in next spring’s draft.
Memphis QB Paxton Lynch — It’s not known whether the 6-foot-7 Lynch is considering entry into the 2016 draft, but the junior has put his best foot forward in the No. 18 Tigers’ 6-0 start. He has the frame NFL scouts gravitate toward, underrated athleticism and a quality arm. Lynch has made more big plays in the passing game this season and has shown steady growth over the past few seasons to the point where the NFL could be a tempting option. The Tigers’ hot start and quality games upcoming against Houston, Temple and Navy will have more eyes on Lynch, and he could really improve his stock with a few more big performances.
Ole Miss OT Laremy Tunsil — There’s actually a debate in scouting circles about whether Tunsil, by having to sit out the past seven games with an NCAA suspension, might actually have helped himself for next year’s draft. The thinking is that it has been a bit of a disappointing season for some of the top tackles available next spring (e.g. Jack Conklin has been banged up; Ronnie Stanley has good but maybe not great) and so Tunsil — by virtue of not playing — has not adversely affected a draft stock that was high entering the season. But we’ll choose to be positive-thinking in that he can remind scouts how good he is by showing he’s been staying in shape, taking mental reps with the Rebels offense and how he handles getting thrown into the first in his first game back against Texas A&M’s elite pass rusher, Myles Garrett.
Alabama TE O.J. Howard — After a few years of slightly underwhelming prospects at tight end and no clear-cut top option for the 2016 class, Howard can vault himself into that spot with a strong performance in the Crimson Tide’s final five regular-season games (especially in a crucial matchup against LSU in two weeks), as well as in the postseason — the SEC title game and the CFB playoffs are still possibilities — if Bama makes it back. The 6-6, 245-pound Howard is a quality run blocker and has the chops to emerge as a receiving option, but he has been a bit of a missing man in the passing game lately. If he can reemerge there, especially in the red zone, as defenses start to respect freshman receiver Calvin Ridley and aim to take away Derrick Henry defensively, Howard will improve his stock in the eyes of scouts.
Pitt WR Tyler Boyd — The bloom is off of his rose a tad even though the Panthers sit at 5-1 (with a quality loss to Iowa) as major ACC sleepers and Boyd has started to heat up. For the season, Boyd’s 9.1-yard receiving average — after marks of 16.2 and 13.8 the past two seasons — and a preseason DUI arrest that forced him to miss the season opener against Youngstown State have hurt his stock. There are some who wonder if Boyd will be nothing more than a possession receiver (albeit a darned good one) and a complementary receiver at the next level, but flip on the tape and you’ll see a hyper-competitive receiver with excellent body control, velvety hands and sharp route-running ability. The junior can remind folks how impactful he can be with a string of quality opponents — starting with the three-game run of North Carolina, Notre Dame and Duke — left on the schedule. Boyd still can be a first-round pick.
Baylor DE Shawn Oakman — Hey, remember him? Yes, the ab-flashing terror of 2014 has been a bit quiet this season, ranking 12th on the Bears in tackles, and logging only three sacks and 7.5 tackles for loss (with two sacks and 5.5 TFLs coming against Lamar and Rice) after being suspended for the season opener for a violation of team rules. Stats can be misleading, but after an 11-sack, 19.5-TFL season in 2014 it has been surprising to see the 6-9, 275-pound Oakman make such little noise in his final season. Now is the time. There is no defender in college football with so much to gain or lose on the field down the stretch, draft stock-wise, with the crucial run of Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and TCU looming as an ideal chance for him to reintroduce himself to the nation as the Bears aim for a slot in the CFB playoffs. If he plays his best ball while fellow NFL prospect Andrew Billings is battling through an ankle injury, Oakman will rise again.
Florida DE Jonathan Bullard — The Gators have had a wild ride in Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville, and he has leaned on a dominant front seven to put them in contention. Bullard has been the most dominant force up front after considering jumping to the league a year ago. The good news is that he has built on a strong junior season and been even more dominant this year. Despite the loss to LSU, the Gators remain in contention in the SEC East and have marquee matchups against Georgia and Florida State for Bullard to show he’s one of the most dominant D-linemen in the country. The early strength of the 2016 class appears to be at that position, so Bullard must continue doing what he has done.
Ohio State LB Joshua Perry — The Buckeyes’ defense is loaded, but Perry might be its most unheralded member. He led the team in tackles a year ago and is a roundly respected leader on the team, one who earns public praise from Urban Meyer and Perry’s OSU teammates. He suffered what looked to be a serious sprained right ankle very early against Ohio State but is expected to return this weekend against Rutgers, which shows his toughness. Perry might not blow anyone away with his game, but he’s an ultra-reliable and smart player whose value could be clear in the Buckeyes’ finishing stretch of games. He’s also fun to watch, with his all-out hustle visible to even the most casual viewers.
USC S/LB Su’a Cravens — Cravens already has won over evaluators with his transition toward the line of scrimmage as a linebacker, even as his pro position remains a bit unclear. But a creative defensive team will find a spot for Cravens, and the Kam Chancellor comparisons — fair or not — are quite prevalent. His Stanford tape is strong, displaying a versatile, impactful defender who is capable of stopping the run, rushing the passer and covering. If the Trojans are going to rescue what has been a lost season, they will need their leaders to step up amid the chaos. Cravens is that player on the defensive side of the ball, and this is his chance to stamp a first-round grade down the stretch.
LSU CB Tra’Davious White — In our mock draft 1.0 we intentionally left White (and a few other underclassmen) out of the mix because of information that led us to believe that even with a strong season he might opt to remain in college another year. That line of thinking has changed, according to a few folks close to the situation. As we understand it, White, who doesn’t turn 21 until January, has not made any decisions on his future but might be more open to considering declaring early if he continues to play as well as he has. This looks to be a top-heavy corner class with Florida’s Vernon Hargreaves and Florida State’s Jalen Ramsey the obvious top options, but do not overlook White who is the most talented corner the Tigers have had in a few years and has a great chance to be the third-best corner in the draft and a possible top-20 pick. He put himself on the scouting map last season with a strong effort vs. Alabama’s Amari Cooper and has more opportunities to impress against some good passing attacks down the stretch, starting with Saturday against Western Kentucky and quarterback Brandon Doughty.
– – – – – – –