When you're looking for 2011 NFL Draft talent, a good place to start is college programs that are performing at a high level. That description fits the 10 teams that have, or will soon, compete in BCS Bowls this season. With four of those five bowl games completed, let's take a look at some of the 2011 NFL Draft's hottest prospects and see how their respective draft stocks have changed based on their bowl performances. (Our full first round 2011 NFL mock draft.)
Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford (Sophomore)
There's not an awful lot to say that hasn't been covered ad nauseam throughout Luck's Heisman-worthy sophomore season. Luck faced a very respectable Virginia Tech defense and absolutely shredded them in Stanford's 40-12 blowout win, completing 18-of-23 passes for 287 yards, with four touchdowns and one interception.
He fit the ball into good coverage on two of his scoring throws, but didn't need to make a lot of 'wow' throws on the night. Good quarterbacks have great presence - understanding defenses, blitzes, and protection schemes, feeling pressure, and executing an offense - and Luck, as he has all season, displayed outstanding presence.
He still needs to polish up his overall game, particularly when he's throwing on the move or running, but it should be abundantly clear at this point that he is the best pro prospect in the nation. He's got everything one needs to succeed as an NFL quarterback right now, and he's a rare prospect because he's reached that point in just two seasons.
Cameron Heyward, DE, Ohio State (Senior)
Ohio State's defensive line needed a big performance to help control Ryan Mallett and Arkansas' top-flight passing attack. Heyward, a senior and the son of the late NFL running back Craig "Ironhead" Heyward, was at the center of the Buckeyes' dominating defensive performance in State's 31-26 triumph.
He spent most of his knight knifing through Arkansas' overmatched offensive line, disrupting plays in the backfield. His draft stock was solid as a rock entering the Sugar Bowl; now he's pretty much a lock to be a first-round pick.
Heyward is a surprisingly effective pass rusher for a man his size (6'5", 288), but his real strength as a pro will be using his natural power and length to control, then shed, blockers at the point of attack. Though it's unclear which pro position will be his best - he's rather limited to 3-4 defensive end, if you ask us - Heyward's maturity and production will surely make him a favorite for a lot of teams.
Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas (Junior)
Mallett's Sugar Bowl performance was a mixed bag. Ohio State had a great game plan and put serious pressure on the star quarterback throughout the contest, and Mallett struggled with his ball placement - and had some receivers drop some big passes - early in the contest. But Mallett came on and led Arkansas on a big comeback, making a few of the absolutely breathtaking throws that have made him such a hot prospect all season.
He threw for 277 yards and two touchdowns in the game, but also threw a pick to seal the Ohio State win. Yes, that was a very poor throw, and an even worse decision.
Mallett will be an early draft selection based simply on his golden arm. Athletically, mechanically and mentally, Mallett has a long way to go, and scouts will seriously question his ability to pick up a pro offense coming out of's simple-read, quarterback-friendly system. There's a lot to like about Mallett's physical abilities, and a lot more to be wary of when discussing his intangibles. People are still projecting him as a first-round pick, but don't be shocked when Mallett goes the way of circa 2010 should he declare.
J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin (Junior)
Watt didn't rack up a lot in the way of stats (three tackles, one batted pass) as TCU edged Wisconsin 21-19 in the Rose Bowl, but he played solid run defense up front for the Badgers as they held the Frogs to just 82 rushing yards.
Watt, a junior, has had an excellent season, flying under the radar a bit thanks to several bigger-name defensive linemen. His athleticism, fluidity and power were on display here as he competed against one of the 2011 NFL Draft's better offensive line prospects, TCU's Marcus Cannon. Watt has prototypical NFL size and plays harder than most defensive linemen you'll encounter, but he is not a particularly explosive athlete, which was evident against TCU, as well. He's going to be a solid starter as a 3-4 defensive end for a long time, and his excellent junior season could sneak him into the latter half of round one.
Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin (Senior)
Carimi came into the Rose Bowl with the reputation of being the most pro-ready offensive lineman in the nation, and he played like that player despite Wisconsin's losing effort. He had a nice matchup with steady TCU pass rusher(7 sacks in 2010) and completely dominated him, displaying good technique, balance and mirroring ability in pass protection.
Carimi plays left tackle at Wisconsin, but he lacks the foot speed to do so in the NFL. His ideal spot is right tackle, where teams can better mask his pass protection weaknesses. That position switch will suit him just fine, however, as Carimi's biggest asset is his run blocking, where his 6'7", 327-pound frame is put to excellent use. Carimi is extremely experienced, has a great deal of polish, and is a known commodity as a pass protector, meaning that a smart NFL team will cover up his weaknesses (i.e. lack of athleticism). In a weak year for offensive line prospects, Carimi has a shot to be the first one off the board - a rarity for a guy who won't be able to play on the left side.