The college bowl season is a great opportunity for us to get a look at the next crop of fantasy football stars. Pre-draft Combine and Pro Day workouts are fun, but nothing beats evaluating a player in live game action under the bright lights of a bowl game.
So get ahead of your competition and check out these 12 future fantasy football stars.
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
vs. Fresno State, Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl, Dec. 21 at 3:30 p.m. ET on ABC
Lee is the most NFL-ready WR on this list. He wins with short-area quickness, smooth route-running and reliable hands. Lee has the versatility to line up all over the field.
His numbers have suffered this season because of knee and shoulder injuries and shaky QB play. But he’s just a year removed from a huge 118-catch, 1,721-yard campaign. He went for 73 catches and 1,143 yards in his freshman year.
Lee isn’t a true game breaker, but his polish could result in big numbers in the pros. Think Marvin Harrison.
Eric Ebron, TE, North Carolina
vs. Cincinnati, Belk Bowl, Dec. 28 at 3:20 p.m. ET on ESPN
Ebron is more WR than TE. And that’s just fine for fantasy owners.
This guy has all the tools to post big-time receiving numbers at the next level. Ebron goes 6’4, 245 pounds with impressive speed, acceleration and change-of-direction ability. He’s averaged a sizzling 16.3 yards per catch as the focal point of North Carolina’s passing game this year. He’s had catches of 71 and 79 yards. You don’t see that type of explosive ability from many TEs.
Ebron’s athleticism will allow him to line up all over the formation for his NFL team. The junior is expected to declare for the 2014 draft and will likely be a 1st-round pick. It shouldn’t take him long to emerge as a fantasy factor.
Teddy Bridgewater, QB, Louisville
vs. Miami, Russell Athletic Bowl, Dec. 28 at 6:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
Bridgewater’s draft stock has taken a hit recently, and recent reports have him contemplating staying in school another year. But he remains the most polished and well-rounded QB prospect in college football. He’s tossed 55 TDs vs. 12 INTs over the past 2 seasons. That’s impressive -- even if Bridgewater isn’t facing elite competition.
He has NFL-caliber arm strength and accuracy. Scouts laud his quick release. But it’s his ability to read defenses and dissect coverages that will help him make a seamless transition to the NFL. Bridgewater is a pocket passer but can pick up yards on the ground when he needs to. That will add to his fantasy potential.
If there’s a concern here, it’s Bridgewater’s wiry 6’3, 196-pound frame. He at least does a good job avoiding hits when he scrambles.
Marcus Mariota, QB, Oregon
vs. Texas, Valero Alamo Bowl, Dec. 30 at 6:45 p.m. ET on ESPN
Mariota made a surprising decision to return to school for 2014. He might have been in the mix to go No. 1 overall had he declared. The kid’s game could still use some polishing, though. He’ll only be more ready to make a fantasy impact when he comes out in 2015.
The most obvious comparison for Mariota is Colin Kaepernick. That might be a bit lofty -- Mariota doesn’t have Kaepernick’s arm strength and might fall a bit short in the accuracy department, too. But he has a similar combination of passing and rushing ability.
Mariota threw 30 TDs vs. just 4 INTs in 2013. On the ground, he’s ripped off 1,334 yards and 14 TDs over the past 2 seasons. Former Oregon HC Mike Bellotti calls Mariota “a more natural runner” than Robert Griffin.
Mariota isn’t as safe a fantasy prospect as Bridgewater, but he certainly has more upside.
Jace Amaro, TE, Texas Tech
vs. Arizona State, National University Holiday Bowl, Dec. 30 at 10:15 p.m. ET on ESPN
This isn’t the next Jimmy Graham. But he’s the closest thing in the college game.
Amaro is a 6’5, 260-pound freak of an athlete. He’s projected to run the 40-yard dash in the 4.6-second range.
He’s posted some videogame-like numbers in 2013. Amaro sits 11th among all players with 1,240 receiving yards. His 98 catches rank 7th. (Remember that this is a TE we’re talking about.) He’s topped 100 yards in 5 of 12 games. Texas Tech’s pass-heavy spread offense has surely boosted Amaro’s production, but this guy is the real deal.
Amaro does damage as a traditional in-line TE or split out in the slot. He’s explosive off the snap with a size-speed combination that makes him a matchup nightmare. Amaro knows how to use his big frame to shield smaller defenders. And he has a pair of big, sticky hands.
In short, he’s everything NFL teams are looking for in a “new-age” TE. Amaro will be wildly productive in the NFL -- and a difference-maker in fantasy. The junior hasn’t officially declared for the 2014 draft but will compete with Ebron to be the 1st TE off the board if he does.
Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
vs. Duke, Chick-fil-A Bowl, Dec. 31 at 8 p.m. ET on ESPN
Johnny Manziel’s top target will likely emerge as a better pro than the 2012 Heisman winner.
Evans brings a mix of Anquan Boldin’s physicality and Vincent Jackson’s downfield playmaking ability. This is a 6’5, 225-pounder with excellent leaping ability, body control and vice-grip hands. Even when he’s covered, he’s open because of his dominant catch-point skills.
Draft Insider’s Tony Pauline ranks Evans as the top WR in the class.
“Large, game impacting receiver that physically beats defenders in the middle of the field or outraces opponents down the flanks,” Pauline wrote. “Has all the necessary talents to be a big time number one wide out in the NFL.”
Evans might not rack up huge yardage at the next level, but he could be a catch and TD machine.
Melvin Gordon, RB, Wisconsin
vs. South Carolina, Capital One Bowl, Jan. 1 at 1 p.m. ET on ABC
When you think of Wisconsin RBs, you usually think of big bruisers like Montee Ball or (gulp!) Ron Dayne. That’s not Gordon.
This guy is a home run hitter. Gordon has busted off runs of 65, 70, 71 and 80 yards this year. He’s totaled 1,466 yards on just 181 carries -- a juicy 8.1-yard average.
Gordon has drawn comparisons to Jamaal Charles as a 1-cut runner with elite speed and acceleration. While Gordon might not have Charles’ 4.3 wheels, he packs more punch at 6’1 and 203 pounds. If the redshirt sophomore declares for the 2014 NFL Draft, he has a chance to be the 1st RB off the board.
T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
vs. Oklahoma, Allstate Sugar Bowl, Jan. 2 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
‘Bama has sent a bunch of backs to the big leagues lately -- Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy -- with varying degrees of success. Yeldon might be more talented than all of them.
As a true freshman in 2012, Yeldon ripped off 1,108 yards and 12 scores on 175 carries. That 6.3-yard average was just a shade lower than Lacy’s 6.5 mark. Yeldon has had another efficient campaign this year, taking 190 totes for 1,163 yards and 13 scores. He’s also a capable pass-catcher, with 29 grabs for 291 yards over the past 2 seasons.
At 6’2 and 218 pounds, Yeldon is almost the same exact size as Adrian Peterson when he came out of Oklahoma. Like Peterson, Yeldon boasts an impressive combination of speed and power. He busts plenty of tackles and has recorded 9 runs of 30+ yards over the last 2 years.
Yeldon isn’t eligible for the 2014 draft but is the early favorite to be the 1st RB off the board in 2015. He has all the makings of an elite fantasy back.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
vs. Oklahoma State, AT&T Cotton Bowl, Jan. 3 at 7:30 p.m. ET on FOX
The comparisons to A.J. Green are warranted. Green-Beckham is a rangy 6’6, 225-pounder with scary athleticism and fluidity.
Rivals.com ranked Green-Beckham as the top prospect in the 2012 class. CBS’ Tom Lemming called him the best high school WR since Randy Moss.
“He's got everything,” Lemming said. “Height, super long arms, leaping ability, speed, and most of all, production.”
Green-Beckham hasn’t disappointed at Missouri. A drug suspension marred his freshman season, but he averaged 14.1 yards per catch and scored 5 times in limited action. That included TDs of 70 and 80 yards.
He’s taken a giant leap forward in 2012. Green-Beckham leads Mizzou with 12 scores and is tied for the team lead with 55 catches. He’s averaging 15.1 yards per catch and has 6 grabs of 35+ yards.
Green-Beckam has more fantasy upside than any of the WRs listed above him here. You’ll just need to wait until 2015 to cash in on it. He’s not eligible for this spring’s NFL draft but will more than likely be a high 1st-rounder in 2015.
Carlos Hyde, RB, Ohio State
vs. Clemson, Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Hyde totaled 1,408 yards and 14 TDs on a 7.7 yards-per-carry average this season. He heads to the Orange Bowl riding a streak of 8 straight 100-yard games.
The Buckeye doesn’t have the big-play ability of a Yeldon or Gordon, but he’s a big, bruising pile-driver. A 6’0, 242-pound tackle-breaking machine. Scouts are also high on his quick feet and vision. Hyde has been compared to Frank Gore. NFL.com’s Charles Davis believes Hyde might be better than Eddie Lacy.
While he doesn’t project to contribute much in the passing game -- just 14 catches this year -- Hyde could be a big-time producer in non-PPR fantasy leagues. He has the size and skill set to be a perennial 300-carry, 10-TD RB.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Clemson
vs. Ohio State, Discover Orange Bowl, Jan. 3 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
Watkins is by far the most explosive WR set to enter the big leagues in 2014. He has the speed to take the top off defenses but is at his best with the ball in his hands in open space.
“Watkins is one of the best ‘catch and run’ playmakers I've seen in the college game,” NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks wrote. “He excels at maneuvering through traffic with the ball in his hands, but also displays the toughness to run through arm tackles on the perimeter.”
Watkins is averaging 14.1 yards per catch for his college career. He’s made 15 grabs of 40+ yards, including 91- and 96-yarders this season. Watkins has topped 100 yards in 14 of 35 career games.
Watkins’ speed and explosion have drawn comparisons to Torrey Smith. And he’s probably a more well-rounded receiver than Smith was coming out of Maryland. Watkins is capable of making a 1st-year fantasy impact and should quickly emerge as a perennial stud.
Jameis Winston, QB, Florida State
vs. Auburn, BCS National Championship, Jan. 6 at 8:30 p.m. ET on ESPN
The best player in college football is a redshirt freshman. Winston has been dominant in his debut season at Florida State, setting NCAA freshman records with 3,820 passing yards and 38 TDs. He’ll only get better as a passer with more seasoning.
But it’s Winston’s combination of size (6’4, 228 pounds) and athleticism that makes him such an intriguing fantasy football prospect. He could make a Cam Newton-like impact with his legs at the pro level.
This article was written by Jared Smola and provided to Athlon Sports courtesy of DraftSharks.com. Online since 1999, Draft Sharks won the 2010 and 2012 FSTA awards for the most accurate fantasy football projections in the industry.