NFL draft: Bowl game prospects you need to know from the Dec. 30-Jan. 2 games

Last week we took a look at the 2017 NFL draft prospects to watch from the bowl games from Dec. 23-29, including a few first-round talents. But as we get into the final stage of the bowl season, the talent level has gone up a notch or two.

Here are the players you should be keeping an eye on in the bowls from Dec. 30 and on — not counting the College Football Playoff games (which we will look at separately).

In the case of underclassmen, we’re tending to focus more on senior players who already have declared or those widely speculated to be declaring.

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Dec. 30

AutoZone Liberty Bowl
Georgia vs. TCU

Prospects to watch:

Georgia S Dominick Sanders — With RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel surprisingly returning to school. The Bulldogs are in a surprising situation: They might not have a player who is drafted. The last time that happened — 1992. At best, UGA’s class for 2017 appears as uninspiring as the Arthur Lynch-Aaron Murray duo from 2014. Sanders is a junior and has said he will announce his intentions sometime after this game. He’s a 6-foot, 190-pound ballhawk with 12 career interceptions (three this season after six a year ago) and could opt to come out, although many feel he’d be best served returning to school.

TCU DE Josh Carraway — He has a quick first step and could fill the role of a pass-rush specialist in the NFL, but his shortcomings against the run likely make him a Day 2 or 3 pick. Watching him rush Bulldogs QB Nick Eason and try to stop Chubb and Co. will be a good test. This might not be a top-flight, SEC-elite line Carraway is going against, but he can help boost his stock by applying consistent pressure here.

When and where: 12 p.m., ESPN
Liberty Bowl Memorial Stadium, Memphis, Tenn.

Hyundai Sun Bowl
No. 18 Stanford vs. North Carolina

North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky, right, can help his draft stock with a big game against Stanford. (AP)
North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky, right, can help his draft stock with a big game against Stanford. (AP)

Prospects to watch:

North Carolina QB Mitch Trubisky — There’s no question that all eyes will be on the possible top-10 selection who has delayed his decision to enter the draft or remain in school. He’s a Cleveland-area native who grew up rooting for the Browns, so you know there’s a certain QB-needy NFL team that will be doing its extensive homework on him. Trubisky has had a few bust games this season (and couldn’t beat out Marquis Williams a year ago) but has all the talent and physical traits to be a first-round pick. Trubisky indicated that he received a first-round grade from the NFL Advisory Board and likely will come out, and a big game here against this defense would be an excellent launching pad for his draft hype train.

Stanford DL Solomon Thomas — With Christian McCaffrey sitting this one out, the Cardinal’s best prospect for 2017 could be Thomas, who has the look of a top-40 selection as one of the more underrated prospects from this class. The redshirt sophomore has played out of position because of the team’s need inside, and the 6-foot-3, 256-pounder has held up exceptionally well. That versatility and play strength will go a long way in the minds of NFL evaluators, who can envision him as an NFL end capable of setting a hard edge, playing the strong side against double teams and looping inside on stunts and twists for more complex systems.

When and where: 2 p.m., CBS
Sun Bowl, El Paso, Texas

Franklin American Mortgage Music City Bowl
Nebraska vs. No. 21 Tennessee

Prospects to watch:

Tennessee DE Derek Barnett — An All-America candidate, Barnett has put together a tremendous season and endeared himself to NFL scouts with a more polished, all-around game. His production suggests he should be drafted not too far after possible No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett, but Barnett isn’t considered to be in Garrett’s athletic area code. Still, with another big game in this bowl Barnett could put a stamp on a terrific college career and be projected as a top-20 selection in the spring.

Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs — The Huskers’ top senior prospect, S Nate Gerry, failed to fulfill his academic requirements and is ineligible for this game, so he’ll finish his Huskers career one interception short of the school record with 13. So Dobbs now should have an easier go of it with one of the better combination safeties in college football off the field. Dobbs has a lot at stake here in terms of his NFL draft stock, even after 34 starts in the SEC, and he can answer some questions starting with this game and later in the Senior Bowl. Dobbs is an excellent runner and has improved as a passer, but his downfield accuracy is suspect.

When and where: 3:30 p.m., ESPN
Nissan Stadium, Nashville, Tenn.

Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl
South Alabama vs. Air Force

Prospects to watch:

South Alabama TE Gerald Everett — The 6-3, 244-pound Everett is one of eight semifinalists for the John Mackey Award (given to the nation’s top tight end), which is quite an achievement given the smaller stage on which he plays. But there’s nothing small about his production: Everett averages more than 70 yards receiving per game and 15.5 yards per catch, which are among the leaders nationally at the position. He has a chance to be a top-100 selection next spring.

Air Force S Weston Steelhammer — One of the great names in college football the past few seasons, Steelhammer should be viewed as more than just a jersey you want to buy. The hard-hitting, high-character safety has the makeup of an NFL special-teamer and defensive reserve, but someone is going to give him a shot. It will be interesting to see if the Falcons ask him or fellow safety Brodie Hicks to cover Everett. Hicks really has emerged this season and also could be an NFL prospect to watch.

When and where: 5:30 p.m., Campus Insiders
Arizona Stadium, Tucson, Ariz.

Capital One Orange Bowl
No. 6 Michigan vs. No. 11 Florida State

Prospects to watch:

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook has a terrific test against a stingy Michigan defense. (AP)
Florida State RB Dalvin Cook has a terrific test against a stingy Michigan defense. (AP)

Florida State RB Dalvin Cook — This game could feature 15 or more draft picks this spring, but none are expected to go higher than Cook would if he declares. That’s a strong likelihood, and yet Cook chose not to go the McCaffrey or Leonard Fournette route. “Don’t you see me right now? I’m going to play [in the Orange Bowl],” Cook said. That’s good for us. He’s the most explosive back in this class (our highest-rated as of now) with shades of Edgerrin James in his game. Enjoy the show against a Wolverines defense loaded with NFL talent because this is very likely all you’ll get of Cook prior to the next NFL preseason.

Michigan DL Taco Charlton — A favorite in the scouting community, Charlton is a power end who also can slide inside with his big frame and project to multiple fronts in the NFL. After a slow start following an injury in the season opener, he began to dominate regularly as the conference season wore on. We think when it’s all said and done, Charlton will end up a first-round pick. The tape reveals a consistently disruptive, impactful edge player.

When and where: 8 p.m., ESPN
Hard Rock Stadium, Miami Gardens, Fla.

Dec. 31

Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl
No. 20 LSU vs. No. 13 Louisville

Prospects to watch:

Louisville S Josh Harvey-Clemons — Although pass rusher Devonte Fields might be the best-known defender (and perhaps NFL prospect) on the Cardinals, our eyes will be drawn to the freakishly tall Harvey-Clemons, a Georgia transfer who stands at 6-foot-5 and 228 pounds. He’s a hybrid safety with a bunch of tackles the past two seasons, but NFL teams are wondering: How and where do you play him? His athleticism is enticing, and he could be a tight end eraser for the right team, but it has been at least a decade since there was a safety that tall who played extensively in the NFL on defense.

LSU C Ethan Pocic — The Tigers will be without two of their best prospects, as Fournette and LB Kendall Beckwith (torn ACL) will be missing this game. But they’ll still be able to run the ball effectively with Derrius Guice, and especially behind Pocic, who has settled in well at center, where he led the team in snaps played and knockdown blocks with 92. He also allowed only one sack, which is impressive for a player who played two other OL positions (26 games at center, nine at right guard, one at left tackle) as a three-year starter. He’s 6-foot-7, too, according to the school, which makes him a possible OG or OT candidate in the NFL with terrific versatility.

When and where: 11 a.m., ABC
Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.

TaxSlayer Bowl
Georgia Tech vs. Kentucky

Prospects to watch:

Kentucky C Jon Toth — Unlike in recent years, this is actually a pretty good year for center prospects. Toth is a mauler who earned the respect of the NFL-caliber Bama defensive line with a feisty effort; top-10 pick Jonathan Allen spent most of the game brawling with Toth and the guards and called Kentucky one of the most physical lines Bama had faced this season. Toth is a four-year starter, and this will be his 48th consecutive start. We think he’ll be a sneaky-good Day 3 pick who outplays his draft status.

Georgia Tech C Freddie Burden — A late-round prospect, we think he has a chance because of his feistiness and run blocking despite a lack of great athletic traits or size. Paul Johnson only has had one offensive lineman drafted in the emerging Shaq Mason, and Burden isn’t on Mason’s talent level but could make a roster. He wrecked Vanderbilt in an impressive performance.

When and where: 11 a.m., ESPN
EverBank Field, Jacksonville, Fla.

Jan. 2

Outback Bowl
No. 17 Florida vs. Iowa

Prospects to watch:

Iowa CB Desmond King — Shorter corners who don’t run fast are tougher sells on NFL teams, but King’s production and coverage ability speak for themselves. He will be a fascinating study come draft time because it’s a deeper CB class and because others might test better athletically. But we love King’s ability to track passes in the air — and there should be plenty in this game against Florida QBs Luke Del Rio and Austin Appleby — and tackling in space. Really good player.

Florida DT Caleb Brantley, right, is a strong interior penetrator and possible first-rounder. (AP)
Florida DT Caleb Brantley, right, is a strong interior penetrator and possible first-rounder. (AP)

Florida DT Caleb Brantley — The Gators have three defensive backs who could be drafted, but we’re looking up front at Brantley, one of our favorite players to watch this season. In the mold of the undersized 3-technique that’s becoming more appreciated around the NFL, Brantley is a quick penetrator with low mileage thanks to the Gators’ deep DL rotation. We really like him (and underrated run stopper Joey Ivie) and think he has a chance to be a top-25 pick and at worst an early second-rounder. This Iowa O-line will be a nice test for this front.

When and where: 1 p.m., ABC
Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Fla.

Goodyear Cotton Bowl Classic
No. 15 Western Michigan vs. No. 8 Wisconsin

Prospects to watch:

Western Michigan WR Corey Davis — By now you might have heard his name. But have you watched him? At first blush, it’s hard not to think he’s an (on-field) clone of Brandon Marshall, another former big fish in a small, directional-school pond at Central Florida. Davis has all the physical traits you want, save for rare speed, and other than an occasional concentration-lapse drop he’s a top talent, perhaps even a top-15 pick. Watch Davis run routes; if he carves up the Badgers it could go a long way toward helping his stock.

Wisconsin OT Ryan Ramczyk — By playing through a hip injury that will require surgery soon after the bowl game, the former D-III transfer could show NFL teams that he has the toughness needed to be a first-round pick. Or the 6-6, 310-pound tackle could opt to return to school, for that matter, hoping that a full offseason of recovery could lead to a big senior season. Either way, we’ll be tuned into one of the better run and pass blockers in the country to see how he fares at less than 100 percent health.

When and where: 1 p.m., ESPN
AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas

Rose Bowl
No. 9 USC vs. No. 5 Penn State

Prospects to watch:

USC WR Juju Smith-Schuster — A slow start and a balky back held him back this season, but Smith-Schuster should be well recovered for this one with plenty of deep posts, over and go routes against a secondary that hasn’t faced a passing game as talented as this one. It’s almost certain he applies for the draft following this game and could go out with a big performance to cap off his final year as a Trojan.

USC CB Adoree’ Jackson — A polarizing prospect in NFL circles where the debate is where Jackson’s future NFL position will be. Corner is his most likely home, but he also has shined as a receiver and punt and kick returner. Jackson’s performance against Notre Dame was an all-timer: a 52-yard touchdown reception, a 55-yard punt return, a 97-yard kick return and a few passes defended on defense against possible top-10 QB DeShone Kizer. Jackson might have some great chances in this game to flash his game-changing ability in all three phases.

When and where: 5 p.m., ESPN
Rose Bowl, Pasadena, Calif.

Allstate Sugar Bowl
No. 14 Auburn vs. No. 7 Oklahoma

Prospects to watch:

Auburn DE Carl Lawson — When Lawson went through Senior Day ceremonies, it was a clear sign of his intentions as they relate to the draft: he’s coming out, even if Lawson hasn’t announced his intentions publicly. This matchup should give NFL scouts a terrific barometer of how Lawson can handle power and size in possible 2018 first-round left tackle Orlando Brown, who is staying in school another year. Lawson applies consistent pressure from his “Buck” position, and injuries have been the biggest thing to hold him back in his career. He’s two sacks short of the single-season Auburn record of 11.5 held by Nick Fairley.

Oklahoma WR Dede Westbrook — Prior to a story coming out about Westbrook being arrested twice for domestic violence complaints prior to arriving at OU, the discussion about his pro prospects centered around his lean build (178 pounds). The off-field questions will linger, and Westbrook will have his chances to answer them over the coming months. But the Biletnikoff Award winner and fourth-place Heisman Trophy finisher has a good on-field test here against a statistically strong Tigers pass defense. He has 16 total touchdowns, including a 71-yard punt return and five scores of 60 yards or longer.

When and where: 8:30 p.m., ESPN
Mercedes-Benz Superdome, New Orleans

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Eric Edholm is a writer for Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at or follow him on Twitter!