NFL Draft: Top prospects to watch in early bowl games

Culminating in the National Championship at SoFi Stadium on Jan. 9, no less than 42 bowl games will be played this winter, enough to satisfy even the most passionate of college football fans.

And while the big bowls on New Year’s Day also boast some of the most recognizable NFL prospects, do not make the mistake of overlooking the early bowl games that kick off this weekend — the scouts certainly will not be.

[Related: Schedule, picks for every bowl game]

Taking into account both injuries and opt-outs, the following is a list of the best NFL prospects suiting up one final time this weekend for their college teams, with players listed in the order in which their games will be played. 

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Bahamas Bowl
Thomas A. Robinson National Stadium, Bahamas
Miami (Ohio) vs. UAB, 11:30 a.m. ET

DeWayne McBride, RB, Jr., Alabama-Birmingham 

In leading the FBS with an eye-popping 1,713 rushing yards and ranking second in rushing touchdowns with 19 (one behind Pittsburgh’s Israel Abanikanda), McBride is the perfect player to kick off this article.

McBride signed with the Blazers as a three-star recruit, but while he may be somewhat anonymous to fans across the country, he certainly is not with talent evaluators. McBride is a verifiable superstar who has been consistently over his three years with the Blazers. The 5-foot-11, 215-pound true junior has racked up 3,523 yards and 36 rushing touchdowns in just 31 games — averaging nearly 114 yards per contest and 7.3 yards per carry. 

Fans will want to tune into the Bahamas Bowl, as this may be their last opportunity to see McBride as an amateur. A true junior who possesses admirable durability and consistency, McBride might feel he has little left to gain by returning for his senior season, especially given how the punishment catches up with running backs. McBride is an interesting evaluation for the NFL as he does not possess elite top-end speed or size. He is a better player than an athlete, showing excellent vision, toughness, and balance to bounce through holes and spin off of contact. McBride has deceptive speed, consistently surprising opponents who misjudge pursuit angles against him. He is not expected to put up dazzling workout numbers, however, and offers very little in the passing game, catching just five total passes over his career, including two receptions for 10 yards this season.

Cure Bowl
Exploria Stadium in Orlando, Florida
No. 25 UTSA vs. No. 24 Troy, 3 p.m. ET

Zakhari Franklin, WR, Sr., UTSA

While football remains a big man’s game, there has been a noticeable shift toward playmakers, illustrated by the fact that 17 wide receivers have earned first-round selections over the past three drafts — more than any other position. Franklin isn’t necessarily going to join them, but his statistics suggest he should, as he enters the showdown with Troy with 26 touchdowns scored in his last 26 games. The 6-foot-1, 185-pounder set school records a year ago with 81 receptions for 1,027 yards and 12 touchdowns, then promptly broke all of them in 2022 with 86 grabs for 1,100 yards and 14 scores. And that’s with a game left to pad his numbers. 

As Franklin’s lean frame suggests, he is more of a long-strider who has the build-up speed to challenge deep rather than the instant acceleration that typically warrants early-round NFL draft consideration. Along with above-average size and good speed, Franklin boasts terrific ball skills, showing the ability to snatch the ball out of the air, including with just one hand, as necessary. Franklin also may have the best post-TD celebration in college football, shaping his hands to form the letter “Z” after many of his scores, a move that could have scouts matching with a “thumbs up,” given his consistency.


Fenway Bowl
Fenway Park in Boston
Cincinnati vs. Louisville, 11 a.m. ET

Ivan Pace, Jr., ILB, Sr., Cincinnati

It is perhaps appropriate that this year’s bowl game matchup of Cincinnati and Louisville takes place in Fenway Park as there will be some big hitters on display. Certainly the most consistent of the bunch is Pace, who was one of just four players to be named a finalist for the Dick Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker, an honor ultimately bestowed upon Iowa’s Jack Campbell

Pace began his college career at Miami of Ohio, leading the Middle American Conference in tackles in 2021 with 125 stops, including 13 behind the line of scrimmage and four sacks. Though he left the RedHawks to jump to Cincinnati this past season, Pace certainly kept his instincts and speed, leading the American Athletic Conference in stops (119). Pace didn’t prove “just” a thumper against the run, however. His tackles included a jaw-dropping 18.5 behind the line of scrimmage (sixth in the FBS), as well as eight sacks, earning him AAC Defensive Player of the Year honors and making him arguably the preeminent invitee to this year’s East-West Shrine Bowl. 

Pace’s measurements there could prove interesting, as he is listed at 6-foot, 239 pounds, but appears to be shorter. His compact frame helps him hide behind the massive men playing along the line of scrimmage, and he is able to rack up tackles by surprising ball carriers in the hole, showing true knockdown power, as well as good burst laterally. Like many undersized linebackers, however, Pace struggles to disengage against bigger, longer-armed blockers and needs to beat them to the action to be most effective.

YaYa Diaby, Edge, redshirt Sr., Louisville

Along with size and speed, NFL scouts are always on the lookout for ascending players, especially those who come with positional versatility and have a track record of producing game-changing plays. Louisville’s 6-foot-4, 255-pound Diaby checks all of those boxes, which is why he has already been invited to the prestigious Senior Bowl. 

Diaby actually recorded more tackles in 12 games last season (39) than in the same number so far in 2022 (33) but his big plays have skyrocketed, jumping from three tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks to 11.5 TFLs and 7.5 sacks, good for third in the ACC. Diaby’s production might have been even greater had Louisville allowed him to focus on just one position. Instead, he was asked to slide inside to defensive tackle and alternate between left and right defensive end throughout his breakout 2022 campaign. Still, he notched impressive performances against Florida State (career-high seven tackles, including three for loss and two sacks) and Pittsburgh (5-2.5-.5). After a torrid start to the season, Diaby tailed off down the stretch, recording just one of his TFLs over the four games since Halloween, making this matchup against Cincinnati all the more important to his evaluation.

Diaby has the look of an NFL edge rusher, possessing a compact frame with good muscular development and long arms, which helps him break free of the grasp of would-be blockers, as well as lasso ball carriers out of the reach of other defenders. He is quick off the ball and shows the flexibility to turn the corner efficiently. Diaby is not currently big enough to hold up inside at defensive tackle, but his experience there has toughened him up, and he appears comfortable amidst the sea of humanity at the line of scrimmage, not relying on a runway the way some edge rushers do.

New Mexico Bowl
University Stadium in Albuquerque, New Mexico
SMU vs. BYU, 2:15 p.m. ET

Blake Freeland, OT, redshirt Jr., BYU

Freeland boasts long arms and light feet to go along with an imposing 6-foot-8, 310-pound frame, making it easy to see why he earned AP All-American honors this season at left tackle while protecting the blindside of star quarterback Jaren Hall (who is considered questionable for this game due to an ankle injury).

Technically a redshirt junior, Freeland is wrapping up his fourth season as a starter for the Cougars, dating back to his true freshman season of 2019, when he started the final seven games at right tackle. He has already accepted an invitation to the Senior Bowl, meaning that this will be his last game for BYU. Freeland moves well for a big man, easing out of his stance smoothly. He slides laterally while maintaining surprisingly good pad level for his height and getting powerful initial shoves on defenders to keep them at bay, which he used to hold up nicely in matchups against talented fronts for Notre Dame, Oregon, Baylor and others. 

That pad level is just as important in the running game, where Freeland does a nice job of extending his arms and generating movement, not just turning and sealing off defenders. His experience shows in his ability to feel twists, stunts and delayed blitzes, quickly switching off of his primary assignment to assist elsewhere, including when climbing to the second level in the running game. With Hall ailing and SMU star receiver Rashee Rice opting out of this game, Freeland is the top NFL prospect in the New Mexico Bowl. 

LA Bowl
SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California
Fresno State vs. Washington State, 3:30 p.m. ET

Jake Haener, QB, redshirt Sr., Fresno State

Haener began his college career at the University of Washington, opting to transfer to Fresno State when the former staff declared another player (Dylan Morris) the winner of a hotly contested quarterback competition. While he never had the opportunity to face Washington State in the Apple Cup, as fate would have it, Haener will end his college career against the Cougars, a team seeking a return to form after its highly-ranked pass defense (17 passing TDs allowed in 13 games) was scorched by Michael Penix, Jr. and the Huskies in this year’s matchup of the state rivals. 

With WSU’s star linebacker Daiyan Henley opting out of this game, Haener’s task is a little easier, though still formidable. Listed at 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds, Haener lacks an ideal build for the NFL and gets by more with anticipation and accuracy rather than velocity as a passer. He owns a career touchdown-to-interception ratio of 66 to 18, however, and has consistently played well against top competition, guiding the Bulldogs to a Mountain West Conference championship this season and a win in last year’s New Mexico Bowl. His current string of at least one touchdown toss in 28 consecutive games is a Mountain West Conference record. 

Haener was invited to the Senior Bowl a year ago — making him the first player from Fresno State to be invited to Mobile since Derek Carr — but he opted to return for another year with the Bulldogs. A fractured right ankle against USC kept him out of four games this season and Haener’s production dropped, but he has completed 72.6% of his passes despite his throws averaging nine yards per attempt, both career-highs.

Fresno State’s Jake Haener throws a dime

Fresno State's Jake Haener throws a dime

Jake Haener hit Zane Pope for a 22-yard touchdown against Boise State earlier this season.

Las Vegas Bowl
Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada
Florida vs. No. 14 Oregon State, 7:30 p.m. ET

Gervon Dexter, DT, Jr., Florida

Head coach Billy Napier may need an advanced copy of the program just to field a team with three of his program’s biggest stars — quarterback Anthony Richardson, guard O’Cyrus Torrence and receiver Justin Shorter — opting out to prepare for the NFL draft. Dexter is heading to the NFL, as well, but recently said competing in the Las Vegas Bowl against Oregon State was “never a question.” 

Another thing that appears unquestionable — at least on paper — is Dexter’s consistency, as his 2021 (50 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks) and 2022 statistics (50-4-2) are nearly identical. Listed at 6-foot-6 and 303 pounds, Dexter is a massive man capable of wreaking havoc along the line of scrimmage, but he is more of a pillar of granite than a penetrator. Dexter is often a step late off the ball and lacks the slipperiness to ever be much of a true pass-rush threat. He is very difficult to move, however, sprouting roots with his powerful lower half and tossing would-be blockers aside when running backs or quarterbacks get near, projecting nicely to a two-gap scheme as a nose guard or defensive end.

Rejzohn Wright, CB, redshirt Sr., Oregon State

The younger brother of Dallas Cowboys’ cornerback (and previous Oregon State teammate) Nahshon Wright, Rejzhon (pronounced Ray-zhawn) offers a very similar blend of size, speed and playmaking ability as his sibling, projecting as a possible Top 100 selection in the 2023 NFL draft.

Nahshon, you may recall, was selected 99th overall by Dallas in 2021 after spending just two seasons in Corvalis following his transfer from Laney College. If his brother’s success had not already made their name familiar to football fans, Rejzohn has also already earned plenty of attention, both for his role in the 2020 season of the documentary “Last Chance U” and the fact that he starred for the Beavers in 2021, earning Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 honors. He was especially good in matchups against USC (an interception and pass breakup), Stanford (interception) and Washington (career-high six tackles, including a sack). Pardon the pun, but opponents rightly threw away from Wright this past season, and yet he still posted a career-high nine pass breakups while matching his 2021 total of two interceptions.

Like his older brother, Rejzohn is a loose, confident athlete with a smooth backpedal and the loose hips to shuttle, shadow and accelerate downfield in coverage. Just as important, he plays every bit as big as his 6-foot-2, 191 pounds, providing quality run support and solid tackles against receivers, as well.

Frisco Bowl
Toyota Stadium in Frisco, Texas
North Texas vs. Boise State, 9:15 p.m. ET

JL Skinner, SS, redshirt Sr., Boise State

In a classic case of saving the best for last, Skinner could wind up being the first player from this article selected in the NFL draft. At 6-foot-4, 218 pounds, he possesses eye-popping size for a safety and has demonstrated throughout his career the ability to play in the box, as most would expect. Some, in fact, feel that he could continue to bulk up and handle outside linebacker duties. Defensive backs of his size who can also cover, however, are quite rare, and there is plenty of evidence that he can handle playing in space, which is why the Senior Bowl has already invited Skinner. 

For a big man, Skinner possesses impressive lateral agility, acceleration and ball skills, as his career-high four interceptions in 2022 can attest. A three-star recruit out of San Diego, Skinner bypassed offers from Pac-12 schools to join Boise State and has earned all-conference honors the past two seasons, culminating in First Team All-Mountain West accolades in 2022.

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Rob Rang is an NFL Draft analyst for FOX Sports. He has been covering the NFL Draft for more than 20 years, with work at FOX, Sports Illustrated,, USA Today, Yahoo, and, among others. He also works as a scout with the BC Lions of the Canadian Football League. Follow him on Twitter @RobRang.

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