2016 NFL Draft Prospect Matchup Preview – Week 1

Want to get to know the draft prospects for the 2016 NFL Draft? This weekly column breaks down the best matchups to watch on Saturday and what players to watch.

By Charlie Campbell.
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North Carolina vs. South Carolina; Thursday, Sept. 3, 6:00 PM ESPN

The top prospect to watch in this game is South Carolina junior wide receiver Pharoh Cooper. He was the engine of the Gamecocks’ offense last season with 69 catches for 1,136 yards with nine touchdowns. The sophomore also averaged 7.4 yards per carry on 27 attempts for 200 yards and two touchdowns. Cooper (5-11, 208) has serious play-making ability with the quickness to rip off yards in chunks.

North Carolina has a receiver to watch as well with Quinshad Davis. Early in his career, Davis (6-4, 205) looked like he could be a star, but it just didn’t happen in 2014 (38-440-6) or 2013 (48-730-10). Davis has been hurt by inconsistent quarterback play, but he needs a big senior year to move up boards.

South Carolina linebacker Skai Moore has flashed in his opportunities, but he looks like he’ll have to move to safety in the NFL. Moore’s worth watching as perhaps a mid- to late-round developmental project.

TCU vs. Minnesota; Thursday, Sept. 3, 9:00 PM ESPN

A sleeper player who has really impressed me over the past couple of seasons is Minnesota cornerback Eric Murray. He is a gritty defender who is tough and physical. Murray will see a tough test in the Horned Frogs’ point-machine offense. The TCU passing attack is led by wide receiver Josh Doctson, and he is the highest-rated prospect in this game. Doctson had an excellent year in 2014 (65-1,018-11). The 6-foot-3, 195-pounder has size and quickness, plus is tremendous in the red zone. This will be a good matchup for NFL scouts to gauge Murray and Doctson. Entering this season, Doctson has early-round potential.

TCU quarterback Trevone Boykin (6-2, 205) looks like more of a college quarterback than a pro prospect, but if he shows pocket-passing skills as a senior maybe he could change some minds.

Another defender to watch is Minnesota defensive end Theiren Cockran. The 6-foot-6, 255-pounder had 23 tackles, seven for a loss and four sacks with a forced fumble in 2014. He enters this year as a mid- to late-rounder.

Michigan State vs. Western Michigan; Friday, Sept. 4, 7:00 PM ESPNU

Even though Western Michigan doesn’t project as a tough opponent, this will be an interesting test for Michigan State quarterback Connor Cook. He enters the year as one of the top prospects and a possible high first-round pick. Even though Cook makes some brilliant passes into tight windows, he has accuracy issues on the routine throws. Against Western Michigan, it will be important for Cook to show he improved over the offseason on completing those routine passes.

Michigan State left tackle Jack Conklin and center Jack Allen are worth watching as well. Spartans senior defensive end Shilique Calhoun is an early-round pass-rushing prospect but he got 2014 off to a slow start. Calhoun needs to put more consistent heat on the quarterback this season.

Louisville vs. Auburn; Saturday, Sept. 5, 3:30 PM CBS

Auburn is a favorite in the SEC in part because of some good talent in the defensive front seven. Linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy have the potential to start on Sundays. Bobby Petrino’s offense should provide a good test for them.

Perhaps the best defensive prospect in this game is Louisville defensive end/outside linebacker Devonte Fields. The TCU transfer Fields was the Big XII Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago as a freshman, but is said to be out of shape by Petrino. Fields (6-4, 245) has a lot of rehabbing to do on his draft stock, and the only way to do that is stay out of trouble and produce on the field.

If Fields can get heat on the quarterback, that would help Louisville to limit Auburn wide receiver Duke Williams. In speaking with scouts, they have compared Williams’ game to Anquan Boldin, but they have major character concerns about Williams. After getting suspended during training camp, there are questions whether Williams will start, or even play, against Louisville.

BYU vs. Nebraska; Saturday, Sept. 5, 3:30 PM ABC

Nebraska has underrated defensive tackle Maliek Collins, who will have the challenge of chasing down BYU’s mobile quarterback Taysom Hill. Collins is going to have to be the difference-maker up front after Nebraska lost Randy Gregory. Sources with teams say Collins really impressed them when watching tape of Gregory.

Another player to watch is BYU senior linebacker Bronson Kaufusi. He had seven sacks in 2014.

Texas A&M vs. Arizona State; Saturday, Sept. 5, 7:00 PM ESPN

The Aggies have a lot of talent for the 2017 NFL Draft, but for next May, the top players to watch are once again are on the program’s offensive line. Right tackle Germain Ifedi and center Mike Matthews could both be early-rounders. In speaking with scouts, they feel that Ifedi is a better fit at guard in the NFL, but perhaps, he can prove otherwise during this season.

Aggies redshirt sophomore wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones is also a play-maker to watch, although few redshirt sophomores declare for the NFL draft.

The player to watch from Arizona State is running back/wide receiver D.J. Foster. He was a real weapon last year as a runner and receiver out of the backfield. The Sun Devils are reportedly playing him at receiver this year, but for the NFL, his body type would fit better in the backfield.

Wisconsin vs. Alabama; Thursday, Sept. 3, 8:00 PM ABC

This will be a great matchup in the trenches. Wisconsin always has a tough running game led by a big offensive line and a talented tailback. Even though Melvin Gordon is in the NFL, that won’t change due to Corey Clement taking over as the feature back. Center Dan Voltz and left tackle Tyler Marz are NFL prospects who will be tested by a loaded Alabama defense.

The Crimson Tide has a potential high first-rounder in defensive tackle A’Shawn Robinson. Middle linebacker Reggie Ragland was superb in 2014 and is a future NFL starter. Defensive linemen Jarran Reed and Jonathan Allen are also NFL talents.

On the other side of the ball, Alabama, once again, has one of the best running back prospects in Derrick Henry. The big, powerful Henry will take over as the feature back with T.J. Yeldon in the NFL. With breaking in a new quarterback and losing Amari Cooper to the pros, Henry is going to be the focal point of the Crimson Tide offense. He should have a huge season.

Ohio State vs. Virginia Tech; Monday, Sept. 7, 8:00 PM ESPN

The Buckeyes will be out for revenge against a Virginia Tech team that upset them last year, and there will be tons of pro talent on display. Ohio State is absolutely loaded with NFL starters. The top consensus prospect on either team entering the season is Buckeyes defensive end Joey Bosa, but he will be suspended for this contest because of academics or a positive drug test for marijuana.

Even though Ohio State has more NFL talent, the second-best prospect could be Virginia Tech cornerback Kendall Fuller, the youngest of the Fuller brothers – the other three have been starting in the NFL in recent years. The Buckeyes have two future NFL wide receivers to test Fuller in Michael Thomas and Jalin Marshall. It isn’t clear how Ohio State will use its quarterbacks, but junior signal-caller Cardale Jones has the physical skill set to be an NFL starter. Jones could help his draft stock if he lights up Fuller and the Hokies’ tough secondary.

At the point of attack, the Buckeyes are led by running back Ezekiel Elliott. The junior runner was tremendous to close out 2014 and has first-round potential. Trying to stop him will be Virginia Tech defensive lineman Dadi Nicolas. Ohio State has NFL talent on the offensive line led by Taylor Decker. If Nicolas and Decker match up head to head, the victor could see a nice boost in his draft stock.

Another player to keep an eye on is Virginia Tech redshirt sophomore Bucky Hodges. He turned in the best season ever for receiving production (45-526-6) by a freshman tight end at Virginia Tech last year. He will be a good test for Ohio State linebacker Darren Lee and safety Vonn Bell, two more NFL prospects who are draft eligible.

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