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Big Ten linemen could shine in bowls

12/27/2011

The Big Ten is sending 10 of its 12 teams to bowl games, and among those 10 only Purdue (Little Caesars Bowl) and Northwestern (Meineke Car Care Bowl) are without an NFL prospect who carries a draftable grade.

The remaining eight teams have plenty of next-level talent, though. Here's a brief look at the top prospect for each of those teams, including what to watch for in their bowl games and how they project to the next level. Eligible non-seniors are denoted with an asterisk.

Iowa LOT Riley Reiff (Scouts Inc. grade: 94) vs. Oklahoma (Insight Bowl)

There are some concerns about Reiff's footwork and his ability to handle the league's most explosive edge rushers, but he has the potential to develop into an effective left tackle and should push for immediate playing time at right tackle.

At 6-6 and 300 pounds, he's a powerful drive-blocker and effective pass-blocker who has above-average balance and rarely slips off blocks once locked on.
Reiff's matchup against Sooners DE Frank Alexander (63) is one of the keys in this game.

Alexander may not have the burst to challenge Reiff on the edge, but he is a relentless pass-rusher who will use his hands well and redirect inside when Reiff takes away the outside. Reiff has to counter with sound footwork or risk getting beaten.

NFL fit: Buffalo should be in the market for a tackle in the first round, and Reiff should be one of the top candidates. He would be an immediate upgrade over either of the Bills' current starters, and he's experienced playing in cold weather.

Illinois DE Whitney Mercilus* (87) vs. UCLA (Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)

Mercilus led the FBS with 14.5 sacks, in part because he is an effective hand fighter with a powerful upper body and nonstop motor. However, he doesn't have the burst or lateral agility teams covet in edge rushers, and so Mercilus projects in the second round.

The Bruins have been inconsistent in pass protection and don't have the athletes at tackle to match up, so look for Mercilus to make an impact rushing the passer. The Bruins' ground-heavy approach will also provide an opportunity for Mercilus to show scouts he's also an effective run stopper.

NFL fit: Mercilus is a perfect fit at left defensive end in a base 4-3 defense. Seattle is an interesting possibility because the Seahawks could be in the market for an end in the second round, and Whitney would be a good fit for the scheme.

Penn State DT Devon Still (91) vs. Penn State (TicketCity Bowl)

Still could be more consistent, especially with his pad level, but he's been dominant at times. At 6-5 and 307 pounds, he's tough to move off the ball with one blocker when he stays low, and he has the upper-body strength to shed blocks in time to make the play. And though Still is not a dominant interior pass-rusher, he's capable of collapsing the pocket.

Houston's interior offensive line is going to have a difficult time keeping Still out of the backfield on both running and passing plays. Keep an eye on his consistency and endurance, though. The Cougars' quick-hitting passing attack will force him to chase the ball and could wear him out.

NFL fit: Still can line up on the inside in a four-man front and outside in a three-man front. It will be interesting to see how Denver addresses the defensive tackle position in terms of free agency, but adding Still late in the first round or early in the second makes sense for a Broncos team that could strengthen its run defense. In terms of 3-4 defenses, Still would be a good fit for a team like Baltimore.

Michigan State DT Jerel Worthy* (83) vs. Georgia (Outback Bowl)

Worthy is a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde prospect. At his best he's one of the most disruptive interior run-stoppers in the country, and there's a lot to like about his upside as a pass-rusher. On the other hand, he will wear down and get caught out of position a little too often.

Playing against a Georgia interior offensive line that's anchored by the top center on our board -- 316-pound Ben Jones (78) -- gives Worthy a great chance to improve his draft stock somewhat. It will be a good challenge, though injuries have weakened the Spartans' depth at defensive tackle and Worthy might not get as much relief as usual.

NFL fit: The Saints should address the defensive tackle spot at some point, and adding Worthy with a late second-round pick makes some sense. He's a good value there, and he can improve their ability to get to the quarterback with the front four.

Nebraska CB Alfonzo Dennard (89) vs. South Carolina (Capital One Bowl)

There are some concerns about the undersized Dennard (5-10, 204) matching up with bigger receivers, and he's not a proven playmaker in coverage. However, he's strong and physical and plays bigger than his measurements indicate. He also has the speed and quick-twitch athletic ability to develop above-average man-to-man cover skills.

Scouts will be interested to see Dennard matched up against 6-4, 232-pound South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery in the Capital One Bowl. Dennard must use his hands to reroute Jeffery at the line and cannot allow Jeffery to get inside leverage on jump balls down the field.

NFL fit: New England took CB Devin McCourty in the first round in 2010 and CB Ras-I Dowling in the second last year, but the Patriots clearly need to continue to address the position. Dennard would be an excellent nickelback, capable of working in sub packages and filling in for injured starters, and he's capable of developing into a valuable cover man on special teams. The Patriots could get Dennard late in the first round.

Ohio State
LOT Mike Adams (83) vs. Florida (TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl)

The NCAA suspended Adams for the first five games of the 2011 season, and Ohio State previously suspended him for the first two games of the 2009 season, so there are some character concerns. There are also some durability issues, but overall Adams could prove to be a steal in the second round.

He has the initial quickness, balance and foot speed to develop into a starting left tackle in the NFL, and should handle Florida's edge rushers when the Buckeyes drop back to pass and create seams in the ground game. Don't be surprised to see Adams' stock continue to rise as the draft process progresses, because it's tough to find big men who move as well as he does.

NFL fit: Adams could move into the early second-round or late first-round conversation, and Minnesota would do well to land him early in the second. The Vikings need a left tackle who can keep 2011 first-round pick QB Christian Ponder upright, especially if RB Adrian Peterson doesn't bounce back from a knee injury as quickly as the team hopes.

Wisconsin WR Nick Toon (85) vs. Oregon (Rose Bowl)

Toon has just average burst, but he's a crafty and physical route-runner who creates enough separation to be effective working against underneath man coverage. He excels at locating seams in zone looks and is fast enough to stretch the field. And while Toon doesn't make many defenders miss, he is a tough open-field runner who can pick up some yards after contact.

It's unfortunate that Oregon dismissed CB Cliff Harris (69) earlier this season for violating team rules because Harris would have provided a good challenge for Toon. However, the Ducks have the size and athletes at corner in 6-1 Anthony Gildon and 6-foot Terrance Mitchell to get after Toon on the outside. Toon can help his stock by separating on short-to-intermediate routes and winning 50-50 balls working against these corners.

NFL fit: Chicago could use some help at receiver and Toon should be available in the middle of the second round. He'd give QB Jay Cutler a big target, and he's a playmaker with experience in big cold-weather games.

Michigan DT Mike Martin (64) vs. Virginia Tech (Sugar Bowl)

Martin has had some problems staying healthy and will give ground at times when he plays too high, but he has the potential to develop into a valuable No. 3 defensive tackle in a base 4-3 with his quickness, toughness and active hands.

Virginia Tech's commitment to the ground game will test Martin's ability to anchor when teams run at him. In addition, 6-6, 254-pound Hokies QB Logan Thomas is strong enough to break out of would-be sacks, so keep any eye on Martin's ability to take Thomas to the ground should he get home on the pass rush.

NFL fit: St. Louis needs to get stronger against the run and infuse some youth at defensive tackle, and Martin would be a good fit in the middle rounds as a defensive tackle in the Rams' four-man front.