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Why NFL teams will be closely watching the Cotton Bowl

Ohio State is stacked with pro talent, while the NFL awaits Sam Darnold’s decision.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Southern California vs Stanford Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

More so than any other player eligible, the NFL is closely watching what decision Southern California quarterback Sam Darnold makes leading up to the Jan. 15 deadline to enter the 2018 NFL Draft.

Darnold, just a redshirt sophomore, could go either way and will be an early pick whenever he decides to go pro. He enters the Cotton Bowl with questions about his decision-making and ability to read a defense. Purely as a passer, Jameis Winston had many of the same issues coming out of Florida State in 2015. He still went first overall, even though he threw 18 interceptions in 2014. Like Winston, Darnold can be turnover prone because he’ll throw the ball into tight double coverage or get stripped of it.

Darnold got better as the season progressed, throwing just three interceptions in his final seven games after having nine in the first seven. Still, he could return to USC for another season to continue smoothing out his game.

If Darnold does go pro this year, teams will love his arm and his confidence in the pocket. The Cleveland Browns, owners of the first-overall pick in the draft, would love that he seems to actually want to be picked first overall.

"Honestly, yeah, it would be awesome," Darnold said on Thursday about getting picked first overall. "But at the same time, I look at it holistically and I'm going to factor everything into it. But, yeah, to be the No. 1 pick, that would be so special."

Meanwhile, there are reports that UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen doesn’t want to play for the miserable Browns and would rather be drafted with a lower pick by the “right team” than go higher.

Beyond the intrigue surrounding Darnold, there are plenty of players who make the Cotton Bowl the best bowl game outside of the College Football Playoff for NFL talent evaluators.

Cornerback Denzel Ward has emerged as a junior, becoming Ohio State’s top NFL prospect and a likely first-round pick. With Gareon Conley and Marshon Lattimore off to the NFL, Ward stepped up with 13 pass breakups and an interception. He’s not the biggest at 5’10 and 191 pounds, but he can be put on the outside by himself thanks to his combination of speed and intelligence. He should be one of the fastest players at the NFL Scouting Combine in February.

If Ward isn’t Ohio State’s top prospect, that honor belongs to senior offensive lineman Billy Price. After beginning his Ohio State career at guard, he’s moved to the center position as a senior. It’s the same thing Pat Elflein did before getting picked in the third round this year. Elflein has been one of the NFL’s top rookies this season, and that should help Price a little bit. He should be a plug-and-play rookie in the NFL at center.

“He’s one of the best center prospects I've seen in the past decade,” former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah recently said of Price. “He has tremendous upper body torque, quick feet and outstanding awareness.”

Those three certainly aren’t the only players in the Cotton Bowl who will get plenty of attention from NFL teams in the coming months.

Arguably the nation’s most loaded defensive line

Along with Clemson, Ohio State has arguably the most NFL talent on the defense in the nation. That can make evaluation hard at times because the Buckeyes play so many different players. And the best of them, Nick Bosa, is just a sophomore who is poised to be a top-five pick in 2019. The draft-eligible players for the Buckeyes up front are pretty good in their own right.

End Jalyn Holmes is off to the Senior Bowl next month, and he should be joined by fellow senior defensive end Tyquan Lewis. At the Senior Bowl, teams will want to see Holmes show off his athletic ability. At 6’5 and 270 pounds, his size for a pass rusher will be coveted by teams that primarily play in a 4-3. He’s never put up huge sack numbers at Ohio State (just four in his career), but he has coachable traits.

Lewis is more of a sack artist for Ohio State. The former Big Ten defensive lineman of the year has 22 12 sacks in his career coming into the game. He’s good at lining up wide at left end and using power to get into the backfield. He’s not going to beat tackles with speed and technique. Instead, he’s more prone to bull rush his way through.

While Holmes and Lewis are more traditional ends at Ohio State, junior Sam Hubbard can be used all over the field. Hubbard is an impressive athlete who was a high school safety and converted down to end in college. Ohio State has used him at end, inside at tackle, and even standing up inside and outside. That sort of versatility will be coveted by certain teams. There was some speculation last year that he’d go pro after just his redshirt sophomore season.

Reporters covering Ohio State this season think defensive tackle Dre’Mont Jones could head to the NFL after just his redshirt sophomore season. Jones doesn’t get a ton of playing time on third down in nickel situations, but he flashes pro pass-rush skills on the interior, and NFL teams will love his length and athleticism on the inside. Already a two-year starter, Jones could play inside or outside in the NFL at 6’3 and 295 pounds. If he goes back to school, Jones could really rocket up draft boards as he gets a better opportunity to show off his pass-rush ability.

Linebackers and the running backs they want to stop

The shine came off Ohio State linebacker Jerome Baker a little bit this season, and 83 tackles and 9 12 tackles for loss as a sophomore to 67 tackles and 6 12 tackles for loss as a junior. He’s not quite the prospect as former Ohio State stars Ryan Shazier and Darron Lee, but he profiles similarly as an athlete. He’ll be tasked with chasing down USC running back Ronald Jones.

The 2018 draft features several intriguing Day 2 running backs with players like Nick Chubb and Sony Michel of Georgia, Derrius Guice of LSU, Kerryon Johnson of Auburn, Bryce Love of Stanford, and Rashaad Penny of San Diego State. Jones is right in there with that group. Jones is averaging 6.1 yards per rush this season and goes into the Cotton Bowl with 1,486 yards and 18 touchdowns on the ground. That includes 814 yards and 10 touchdowns in his last five games. Jones is an explosive runner with a long frame at 6’0 and 200 pounds. While he has a slimmer frame, he’s good at breaking tackles working through traffic. He’s not a bulldozer, but with his agility and foot quickness to change direction, he doesn’t need to be.

The Trojans rely on one running back, while Ohio State goes with the combination of true freshman J.K. Dobbins and redshirt sophomore Mike Weber. Because Weber has become more of a second option to Dobbins, there’s some speculation he could enter the draft. He’s a solid back with some speed and ability between the tackles.

Trying to stop them will be USC linebacker Cameron Smith. Anchoring the USC defense, Smith enters the game with 102 tackles and 10 tackles for loss. He’s a classic thumping middle linebacker at 250 pounds, and if a team needs a run stuffer, Smith will get some looks likely on the third day of the draft. He’s effective working up the middle and has some range to make plays outside the tackles. There is speculation that Smith wants to return for another season at USC.

But wait, there’s more

Ohio State quarterback J.T. Barrett is headed to the East-West Shrine Game after the Cotton Bowl. He’s not highly regarded as a quarterback prospect, but he’s tough and could be a solid backup in the NFL. One of his top receivers, Parris Campbell, struggles at times holding onto passes, but he could have a future as a special teams player with his speed and ability to make defenders miss in the open field. Buckeyes tight end Marcus Baugh isn’t utilized much in the offense in Columbus, but neither were Nick Vannett or Jeff Heuerman, and both former Buckeyes were picked in the draft. Baugh has good size at 6’5 and 250 pounds and could stick as a second or third tight end on the roster.

For USC, the best player up front on defense is senior outside linebacker Uchenna Nwosu. He doesn’t lead the Trojans in sacks or tackles for loss, but he is really good at getting his hands up and batting down passes. He has a team-high 13 passes defended, and that can be attributed to quickness and ability to read a play. He’ll often be going up against Ohio State senior left tackle Jamarco Jones.

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