Although the bowl season isn't quite ready to kick off, there are still games being played each week. And even though the names might not be household ones, there are plenty of players who will be intriguing prospects for next year's NFL draft.
Question: Which players are worth paying particular attention to in the pre-Christmas bowl games?
Kiper: There are four players in particular I will keep an eye on, starting with UCLA safeties Dennis Keyes and Chris Horton. Keyes had an outstanding finish to the regular season with 19 tackles against USC. Horton also had a solid senior campaign. Another Bruin worth watching is linebacker Bruce Davis, who projects to be more of a pass-rushing linebacker in a three-four defense.
Boise State plays East Carolina in the Hawaii Bowl. BSU's Ryan Clady should be one of the top five offensive tackles taken in the draft if he declares. He has good footwork, solid balance in pass protection and has all the skills to be a left tackle in the NFL.
East Carolina RB Chris Johnson is fast, can catch it out of the backfield and has return skills. If he runs at the NFL combine like I expect him to, he should be no worse than a fourth-round pick.
Which non-Division I-A players will be worth paying attention to in next year's draft?
Kiper: You have to start with Delaware QB
Joe Flacco (6-6, 235). He started his career at Pittsburgh before transferring for his final two seasons. Flacco has great size which allows him to see the field and has a strong, accurate arm. He isn't real mobile so he will need to go to a team that has a very good pass-blocking offensive line. Still, Flacco is a possible second-round pick.
Tim Hightower was very productive and put up really good numbers this season (1,924 rushing yards, 20 touchdowns). He's probably a No. 2 running back in the NFL. He has good quickness, can break tackles and gets through holes quick despite his size (6-1, 225). Remember, the running back position historically drops in the NFL draft -- Brian Westbrook went in the third round out of Villanova -- so Hightower is a name worth watching in the late rounds.
Heath Benedict (OT, Newberry College) started his career at Tennessee. He dominated lower-level competition and I would expect him to play right tackle in the NFL. Other names worth remembering are: Chad Rinehart, OT, Northern Iowa; Brian Johnston, DE, Gardner-Webb; and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, CB, Tennessee State.
Which underclassmen do you think are on the fence for declaring for the NFL draft?
There are four running backs that come to the forefront, led by Arkansas junior Felix Jones. He's a great running back, can catch the ball out of the backfield and also returns kicks. If he comes out, he'll go somewhere in the middle to late first round. He could go back for his senior season and be the featured back (assuming Darren McFadden leaves early). But with a new coach -- who's yet to be hired -- you have to wonder if it's worth the risk to go back.
Juniors who leave early need to finish strong because they aren't eligible to play in all-star games. West Virginia's Steve Slaton did not have a strong finish to the regular season. He has great speed, but Slaton is a guaranteed first-round pick because he's not an everydown back, but more of a situational-type player. There are plenty of incentives for going back to Morgantown for his senior season -- he will have a chance to win the Heisman Trophy and the Mountaineers should be in the national title picture once again.
One player who is an everydown back is Central Florida's Kevin Smith. He's been a true workhorse at UCF -- 415 carries, including three games with at least 40 rushes. It will be tough to duplicate what he did in 2007 (2,448 rushing yards, 29 TDs) if he returns next season.
Rashard Mendenhall had an outstanding junior season, highlighted by an upcoming trip to the Rose Bowl. If he returns for his senior season, like Slaton, he will be in the Heisman mix. But running backs have only so much tread on the tires and Mendenhall is coming off a career season (1,526 yards, 16 TDs).
There are also two physically-gifted defensive players who didn't have spectacular seasons -- Miami DE Calais Campbell and LSU DE Tyson Jackson. At times they showed potential to be dominating pass rushers but weren't consistent from week to week. Both players will have to ask themselves if pro teams will roll the rice based on their potential or should they return to school in 2008?
There's an entire group of junior linebackers who will have decisions to make, starting with Ohio State's James Laurinaitis. In my mind, he's the first linebacker and a top-10 pick if he comes out. The other junior linebackers who could come out are: Rey Maualuga, USC; Darry Beckwith, LSU; Curtis Lofton, Oklahoma; and Jerod Mayo, Tennessee.