Bowl games give scouts one final, critical opportunity to gauge prospects during their college careers. How they perform on the big stage, with all of the emotions that come with the end of their amateur careers, can spark what appears to be a dramatic rise or fall on draft boards.
Savvy scouts won't overreact to one game -- unless the performance reinforces prior evaluation. That's the case with young quarterbacks Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and Central Florida's Blake Bortles and, unfortunately on the flip side, Fresno State senior Derek Carr.
The Big Board isn't a mock draft. There is no attention given to team needs or the selection order. It is simply a ranking of the 32 best prospects potentially eligible for the 2014 NFL Draft.
1. Jadeveon Clowney*, DE, South Carolina (6-6, 268): There is no denying that Clowney failed to live up to expectations, statistically speaking. He also raised concerns about his maturity with two speeding tickets in recent weeks. Clowney's red flags are real, but so is his talent. Imposing, explosive and more technically sound than many realize, Clowney competes only with former No. 2 overall pick Julius Peppers (2002) as the most gifted defensive end prospect I have ever seen.
2. Teddy Bridgewater*, QB, Louisville (6-3, 220): In an era in which college QBs' numbers are often inflated by short passes and simplistic schemes, Bridgewater's sparkling production is due to Pro Bowl-caliber accuracy. His success (71 percent completions, 31 touchdowns, four interceptions) comes out of a pro-style offense that requires him to make adjustments at the line of scrimmage and complete NFL throws. Those traits make Bridgewater an ideal fit in new Houston Texans head coach Bill O'Brien's offense, making him the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick of the 2014 draft.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 305): The son of Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews proves the cliché -- the apple doesn't fall far from the tree. He has played well at left tackle this season after starring at right tackle over his first three years. Matthews is a terrific player, demonstrating impressive technique, strength and consistency. He is not an elite athlete and some view his future back on the right side in the NFL.
4. Anthony Barr, OLB, UCLA (6-4, 238): A running back until last season, Barr has emerged as one of the elite prospects in the country and is my top-rated senior at any position. A powerful and fluid athlete at his best rushing off the edge, Barr was named the 2013 recipient of the Lott IMPACT Trophy with 62 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and five forced fumbles during the regular season.
5. Sammy Watkins*, WR, Clemson (6-1, 200): With 85 catches for 1,235 yards and 10 touchdowns, Watkins erased any memories of his disappointing sophomore season. He is an explosive athlete with impressive body control and natural hands to pluck the ball. Unlike some of his teammates, Watkins played well against Clemson's top opponents this season, including Florida State and South Carolina.
6. Darqueze Dennard, CB, Michigan State (5-11, 197): Quick feet, loose hips and a fluid turning motion make Dennard a classic cover corner capable of shutting down half the field. Dennard allowed only three completions on 31 passes of 15-plus yards against him this season. His ability in coverage played a huge role in the Spartans' run to a Rose Bowl victory, and was recognized with Dennard winning the Thorpe Award as the nation's top defensive back. The only factor keeping Dennard from a selection in the top half of the first round is questions about his straight-line speed.
7. Khalil Mack, OLB, Buffalo (6-3, 248): With an FBS-record 16 career forced fumbles and record-tying 75 career tackles for loss, Mack's statistics jump off the page. Against the most gifted opponents he faced this year (Ohio State, Baylor, Connecticut), it was his game that jumped off the screen. His size, instincts and agility as an edge rusher make him equally intriguing to teams operating out of a 4-3 or 3-4 alignment.
8. Cedric Ogbuehi*, OT, Texas A&M (6-5, 300): Overshadowed by all of the talent on the Aggies' roster, Ogbuehi is an exciting prospect in his own right. A standout at right guard a year ago, Ogbuehi (pronounced ah-BOO-hee) took over for Jake Matthews at right tackle in 2013 and has excelled. With long arms and light feet, Ogbuehi offers higher upside than his more celebrated teammate and projects as a left tackle in the NFL.
9. C.J. Mosley, OLB, Alabama (6-2, 232): While a bit undersized, Mosley might be the best pound-for-pound player in the country. Athletic and instinctive, he is a true three-down linebacker capable of making plays against the run and pass. Mosley lacks the bulk scouts want in a pass rusher but his awareness in coverage is special. While the tape is phenomenal, Mosley has undergone multiple surgeries (knee, shoulder) over his career and could be the latest Alabama player to receive medical red flags from some evaluators.
10. Greg Robinson*, OT, Auburn (6-5, 320): Redshirt offensive linemen rarely earn more than a whisper in scouting circles, but the buzz generating around the Tigers' star left tackle is venturing into deafening. Physical and tenacious, Robinson is a grizzly bear in the running game, mauling opponents with an exciting blend of size, strength and athleticism. Auburn's reliance on the running game, however, has given Robinson few opportunities in pass protection, making him a bit of a boom-or-bust prospect at this point.
11. Marqise Lee*, WR, Southern Cal (6-0, 195): A nagging left knee injury hampered Lee for much of the 2013 season, robbing the '12 Biletnikoff Award winner of his trademark elusiveness and acceleration. Finally healthy in the Las Vegas Bowl against Fresno State, however, Lee showed off his playmaking ability, hauling in seven passes for 118 yards and two scores. Lee's relatively slight frame could lead to durability issues in the NFL, but his first-round skill set is undeniable.
12. Eric Ebron*, TE, North Carolina (6-4, 245): Ebron has a jaw-dropping combination of size and athleticism that has earned comparisons to 49ers star Vernon Davis. Like Davis, however, Ebron struggles with consistency, relying too much on his athleticism rather than dedicating himself to learning the finer techniques of the position. Ebron will forgo his senior season and enter the 2014 draft.
13. Derek Carr, QB, Fresno State (6-3, 215): Carr's staggering production (68.2 completion percentage, 50 TDs, 8 INTs) was inflated by head coach Tim DeRuyter's QB-friendly spread attack and talented receiving corps, but there is no denying his talent. His release and velocity are as impressive as any college quarterback in the country. Unfortunately, Carr's career ended with a thud in a disappointing performance against Southern Cal in the Las Vegas Bowl. Hit early by an athletic USC front, Carr developed happy feet and misfired often in the 45-20 beatdown. The loss left Carr 0-2 in bowl games and may add fuel to the speculation that he'll struggle with pressure in the NFL, just as his older brother David did after leaving Fresno State as the No. 1 overall pick in 2002 and playing behind a poor offensive line for the expansion Houston Texans. Derek Carr needs to restore his slipping stock with an impressive performance at the Senior Bowl.
14. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama (6-5, 312): Nick Saban questioned draft analysts for pegging Kouandjio as a first-round talent before the season, but given the junior left tackle's exciting skill set the projection has been confirmed. Long-armed, athletic and aggressive, Kouandjio boasts many of the traits scouts are looking for in a potential Pro Bowl offensive tackle. However, a lack of elite foot quickness was exposed by the Oklahoma Sooners' pass rush in their Sugar Bowl upset win over the Tide.
15. Ifo Ekpre-Olomu*, CB, Oregon (5-10, 190): Athletic, stout in run support and a natural playmaker (14 turnovers forced over past two seasons), Ekpre-Olomu is a legitimate challenger to Dennard as the top corner in the country. Despite reports to the contrary, Ekpre-Olomu has not yet announced whether he'll return for his senior season. He certainly looked ready for the NFL against Texas, helping limit the Longhorns to just 56 passing yards in a 30-7 Alamo Bowl victory.
16. Cameron Erving*, OT, Florida State (6-5, 310): Erving played 13 games as a redshirt freshman defensive tackle, but looked like a natural when moved to left tackle a season ago. He does remain a bit inconsistent. Long, balanced and athletic, he's a hidden factor in the dynamic play of freshman quarterback Jameis Winston and could enjoy a "quiet" ride into the top half of the 2014 draft just as former Texas A&M left tackle Luke Joeckel did a year ago while blocking for Heisman winner Johnny Manziel.
17. Johnny Manziel*, QB, Texas A&M (5-11, 210): Manziel's vision, elusiveness and accuracy on the move make him a mesmerizing prospect who will almost surely be drafted earlier than I rank him. While dynamic throughout his career -- including in the Aggies' thrilling comeback over Duke in the Chick-fil-A Bowl -- red flags were raised in mediocre performances against LSU and Missouri to end the regular season. Bottled in the pocket by both, Manziel couldn't throw his receivers open and he struggled. The NFL rule books have never been more accommodating to dual-threat passers, but consistent accuracy from the pocket remains the most critical element to quarterback play at the next level.
18. Mike Evans*, WR, Texas A&M (6-5, 225): Like Manziel, Evans is just a redshirt sophomore, but he has shown star ability in dominating the SEC. Deceptively fast with great body control as well as timing, Evans is an exciting split end prospect who reminds scouts of Tampa Bay Buccaneers star Vincent Jackson. A concern, however, is the fact that Evans does not have elite top-end speed and struggled when defenders matched his physicality.
19. Taylor Lewan, OT, Michigan (6-7, 310): Possessing an impressive combination of size, strength and toughness, Lewan has earned comparisons to former Michigan standout Jake Long throughout his career with the Wolverines. Lewan was one of the bright spots in an otherwise disappointing 2013 season in Ann Arbor. Before drafting him, however, NFL teams will want to investigate Lewan's role -- if any -- in an alleged assault on an Ohio State fan following this year's Big Game.
20. Jace Amaro*, TE, Texas Tech (6-5, 260): The NFL is looking for seam threats rather than extra blockers at tight end. There wasn't a more impressive prospect in the country in 2013 in this role than Amaro, who finished the regular season with 106 catches for 1,352 yards -- the most ever from a tight end in FBS history. Despite Amaro's size, he doesn't provide much as a blocker as he was split out as a virtual slot receiver through most of his collegiate career. In this role he has proven to be a Jimmy Graham-like matchup nightmare for defenders.
21. Stephon Tuitt*, DL, Notre Dame (6-5, 303): Clowney isn't the only highly regarded defensive lineman who struggled under the burden of monstrous expectations in 2013. After dominating as a sophomore, Tuitt began his junior campaign out of shape (after missing spring due to hernia surgery) and struggled with consistency all season. Highly athletic with the frame to star as either a 4-3 defensive tackle or 3-4 defensive end, Tuitt's upside is just too tantalizing to ignore.
22. Blake Bortles*, QB, Central Florida (6-3, 230): A prototypically built pocket passer with good awareness, athleticism and arm strength, Bortles looks the part of an NFL starting quarterback. He is methodical in his setup and delivery of the ball and is a bit inconsistent with his accuracy, but the mettle he showed in guiding UCF to several comeback victories in 2013 has scouts buzzing. Bortles isn't as polished as Bridgewater, Carr or Manziel, but should he enter the 2014 draft a top-10 selection is not out of the question.
23. Ryan Shazier*, OLB, Ohio State (6-2, 226): Shazier may be 10-15 pounds lighter than scouts prefer but his instincts, speed and bone-jarring hits make him a fearful defender that offenses must account for on every snap. No one played better for the Buckeyes against Michigan State in the Big Ten Championship Game than Shazier, who recorded 12 tackles, two pass breakups and a blocked punt against the Spartans.
24. Brandin Cooks*, WR, Oregon State (5-10, 186): Beavers coach Mike Riley has made a career out of finding undersized pass-catchers to star in his offense, but Cooks is a different level of athlete than Sammie Stroughter, Markus Wheaton and the Rodgers brothers (James and Jacquizz). Boasting a combination of elusiveness, acceleration and toughness that is earning comparisons to Tavon Austin, the Biletnikoff Award winner shattered school and conference records and has already announced his intentions to enter the draft.
25. Trent Murphy, DE, Stanford (6-6, 261): Used as a standup outside linebacker as a well as a down defensive lineman for the Cardinal, Murphy is equally impactful in the passing game, running game and on special teams due to his instincts, physicality and awareness. His play and production (62 tackles, 23½ tackles for loss, 15 sacks) should have earned him the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year award that went to Arizona defensive lineman Will Sutton. Though he has starred in Stanford's 3-4 scheme, Murphy projects best as a 4-3 defensive end in the NFL as he does not have ideal athleticism.
26. Ra'Shede Hageman, DT, Minnesota (6-6, 311): Blessed with an extraordinary combination of size and athleticism, Hageman could join Michael Brockers and Dontari Poe as recent big defensive tackles whose real rise up draft boards doesn't begin until the combine. Hageman has looked unblockable at times, but he struggles with consistency.
27. Jason Verrett, CB, TCU (5-10, 182): Verrett lacks the size so en vogue today, but agility and ball skills never go out of style for cornerbacks. Verrett led the Big 12 with 22 passes defended and six interceptions in 2012. Through the end of the 2013 regular season he led again in pass deflections (16) while recording two pass thefts. While light, Verrett is scrappy and tenacious, making him an ideal nickel corner with the tackling ability to threaten on an occasional blitz.
28. Kony Ealy*, DE, Missouri (6-5, 275): While teammate Michael Sam garnered more hype, scouts are increasingly intrigued by Ealy due to his impressive combination of size and athleticism. A highly versatile defender with experience inside and out for the Tigers, Ealy projects nicely to both the 4-3 and 3-4 alignments and the first-team All-SEC pick is just scratching the surface of his potential.
29. Justin Gilbert, CB, Oklahoma State (6-0, 200): In terms of size, agility and speed, no cornerback offers a more intriguing skill set than the Cowboys star. Gilbert, a Thorpe Award finalist, led the Big 12 with six interceptions this season and has returned that many kickoffs for touchdowns during his time in Stillwater.
30. Cyril Richardson, OG, Baylor (6-5, 335): A dominating drive blocker who projects best at guard but spent the entire 2011 season protecting Robert Griffin III at left tackle, Richardson is massive, powerful and shockingly athletic. Richardson was recognized with the Jim Parker Award as the nation's top blocker and headlines a strong class of interior linemen.
31. Travis Swanson, C, Arkansas (6-4, 318): If Richardson is the elite interior lineman of the 2014 senior class, Swanson ranks a close second. Athletic, powerful and versatile (some view him as a potential guard convert), Swanson will continue former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema's tradition of churning out quality NFL prospects along the offensive line.
32. David Yankey*, OG, Stanford (6-5, 314): Stanford may have met its match against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl, but don't blame Yankey for the loss. Athletic and powerful, the talented left guard is earning similar grades from some clubs as his former teammate, David DeCastro, the No. 24 overall selection in 2012 by the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Just missed the cutAustin Seferian-Jenkins*, TE, Washington
Will Sutton, DT, Arizona State
Vic Beasley*, OLB, Clemson
Bradley Roby*, CB, Ohio State
Ka'Deem Carey*, RB, Arizona
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Yawin Smallwood*, ILB, Connecticut
Allen Robinson*, WR, Penn State
La'el Collins*, OT, LSU
Xavier Su'a-Filo*, OG, UCLA
Jeremy Hill*, RB, LSU
Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
Aaron Donald, DT, Pittsburgh
Ego Ferguson*, DT, LSU
Kyle Van Noy, OLB, BYU