- Steve Muench, Scouts Inc.
Bowl matchups heat up as the new year approaches, and there is always plenty of NFL talent on the field as higher-profile programs begin to take the field.
With that in mind, here are five prospects who piqued my interest when I looked at the games on tap for this weekend, and I include NFL players who offer good comparisons and teams that could be fits at the next level.
Rutgers OLB Khaseem Greene (Grade: 75)
Greene has 125 tackles, 10.5 tackles for loss, 5.5 sacks, six forced fumbles, two fumble recoveries and two interceptions this year. Rutgers hasn't played a particularly tough schedule, but Greene (6-foot-0.5, 239 pounds) has still shown the strength to take on blockers in the hole and impressive range both chasing the run and in pass coverage.
Rutgers takes on Virginia Tech in the Russell Athletic Bowl (Friday, 5:30 p.m. ET, ESPN), and pay close attention to Greene on pass-heavy downs. Hokies QB Logan Thomas didn't throw a pick in his last two regular-season games, but he's had a disappointing season in terms of accuracy and decision-making. Greene has the ball skills and burst to turn a mistake into an interception, and he times blitzes and closes well. The key will be getting the 6-5, 254-pound Thomas to the ground if and when Greene reaches him.
Greene can get engulfed by offensive linemen at times, but his instincts and quickness make it tough to reach him at the second level. And while he doesn't possess ideal length for a 3-4 outside linebacker, Greene has the tools to push for a starting role in a base 4-3 scheme early in his career and should make an immediate impact in sub packages. Teams in need of immediate help at weakside linebacker, like the New York Giants and New Orleans Saints, would do well to get Greene.
Syracuse OT Justin Pugh* (83)
Pugh hasn't decided whether to declare for the draft, but he has contacted the NFL advisory committee to see where he projects. At this point, we at Scouts Inc. put a second-round grade on him.
Pugh has all the tools to become a starting tackle in the NFL if he stays healthy. He is an excellent pass-blocker with above-average balance and initial quickness, and he's an effective positional blocker who plays with a mean streak and is strong for his size. However, Pugh (6-6, 292) doesn't have ideal bulk for an offensive tackle, and he did miss the first four games of the 2012 season after offseason shoulder surgery.
Pugh got the better of 2012 first-round pick Bruce Irvin in last year's game against West Virginia, and the Mountaineers don't have a pass-rusher anywhere near Irvin's caliber this season. Expect Pugh to finish 2012 on a high note in the New Era Pinstripe Bowl (Saturday, 3:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) and bolster his already-strong stock.
NFL comparison: Indianapolis OT Anthony Castonzo
Syracuse QB Ryan Nassib (70)
Nassib has steadily improved his completion percentage, touchdown-to-interception ratio and average passing yards per game in each of the past three seasons, and there's no reason to believe he's plateaued. He's also handled his business off the field and is an excellent student who is pursuing a master's degree in accounting.
In terms of his skill set, Nassib (6-2, 228) has adequate pocket mobility, but he will miss within the strike zone at times and puts too much zip on shorter passes at times. However, his arm strength is just a notch below elite, and he can drive the ball downfield. In addition, Nassib reads coverage well, and he gets through his progressions when given time.
Nassib is in excellent position to finish his collegiate career on a high note and make a splash heading into the pre-draft process. West Virginia ranks 123rd out of 124 FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game, and it should be noted that Nassib has thrown just one pick in the second half of the season. Continuing to take care of the ball will obviously give his stock a boost.
Ideally, Nassib would end up in a situation where he can sit behind a veteran quarterback and adjust to the speed of the NFL game before he pushes for playing time. That's why teams like the San Diego Chargers, Dallas Cowboys and Oakland Raiders (assuming Carson Palmer stays in town) would be good places for him to end up.
NFL comparison: Dallas QB Tony Romo
Texas S Kenny Vaccaro (93)
Vaccaro isn't the most reliable last line of defense in run support, taking inconsistent pursuit angles at times and missing tackles while trying to deliver the big hit rather than breaking down and wrapping. However, these are correctable flaws, and he'll be an above-average run-stopper if he can fix them.
The reason he projects as a first-round pick is his ability to bolster a team's pass defense. He has above-average range and plays the ball well, but it's his quick-twitch explosiveness and ability to match up with receivers that separates him from most safety prospects.
Against Oregon State in the Valero Alamo Bowl (Saturday, 6:45 p.m. ET, ESPN), Vaccaro will face a pair of speedy receivers who can stretch the field and produce after the catch in Markus Wheaton (80) and Brandin Cooks. The key for Vaccaro (6-0.5, 210) will be preventing the big play. He's capable of taking away the vertical passing game, but he can't afford to make any mistakes, and his ability to limit production after the catch will be tested.
There isn't a scheme in which Vaccaro couldn't become a starter, and that versatility would make him an excellent fit with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Current FS Ryan Clark is in the twilight of his career, and 31-year old Troy Polamalu has appeared in just six games this year and has dealt with several nagging injuries in recent years.
Vaccaro fits best at free safety, where his ability to cover ground on the back end and match up in coverage would allow Polamalu to freelance and line up nearer the line of scrimmage.
NFL comparison: New England FS Devin McCourty
Michigan State TE Dion Sims* (77)
Sims has also asked the NFL advisory board about his draft standing and has yet to make a decision about returning to school. He has dealt with hand and ankle injuries the past two seasons, but Sims (6-5, 276) has an impressive frame that mitigates durability concerns to some degree.
Sims also comes with some character flags and must interview well, but his size and potential make him a Day 2 pick at this point. He has the size, straight-line speed and hands to develop into an every-down tight end who can hold up as an inline blocker and make plays in the passing game.
Sims is a former star high school basketball player who knows how to box out smaller defenders, and in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl (Saturday, 10:15 p.m. ET, ESPN) his size will give TCU's linebackers and safeties problems underneath and in the red zone. In addition, Spartans RB Le'Veon Bell (Grade: 81) remains the engine that powers the Michigan State offense and makes it tough not to bite on play-action. If the Horned Frogs' safeties and/or linebackers take the bait, Sims is fast enough to make them pay.
NFL comparison: New York Giants TE Martellus Bennett
Steve Muench looks at five prospects to watch during upcoming bowl games, including early-round prospects Kenny Vaccaro and Khaseem Greene.