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With the NFL playoffs starting and the college football bowl season in full swing, we at RotoViz are transitioning our focus to 2014. In particular, we’re in the middle of a series of Bowl Game Previews calling your attention to intriguing players in each contest. Here are the ones we’ve done so far (they still make for good reads):

As the bowl season approaches its end, more previews (and other pieces) may be found at my RotoViz Author Page. Want to compare one college WR with another? Check out our College Career Graph WR App. Want to talk about other college prospects? Hit me up on Twitter. And, yes, my name is really Matt Freedman. No, I’m not nine years old.

Hope you all had a fun and safe New Year’s celebration. Let’s get to it!

Allstate Sugar Bowl

Oklahoma (10-2, Big 12)
I don’t know if a 10-win Big 12 team has ever been so prospectless. Blake Bell makes Collin Klein look like Colin Kaepernick. Neither Brennan Clay nor Damien Williams have looked like legitimate NFL-caliber RBs this season—and their stats seem to support that assertion. The one guy on this team who still has some draft hype is lead WR Jalen Saunders. The 5’9” and 157-lb 21-year-old true senior transferred from Fresno State to Oklahoma in 2012. Here are his college stats:

Year

School

Rec

Yds

Avg

TD

DR Rec

DR Yds

DR TDs

Total DR

Games

*2010

Fresno State

30

462

15.4

3

0.13

0.17

0.13

0.15

13

2011

Fresno State

50

1065

21.3

12

0.18

0.3

0.46

0.38

13

*2012

Oklahoma

62

829

13.4

3

0.22

0.26

0.13

0.20

9

2013

Oklahoma

56

654

11.7

6

0.29

0.29

0.3

0.30

12

After a fantastic sophomore season, Saunders has been fairly unexceptional at Oklahoma. In 2012, he was highly unexceptional, and in 2013 he’s been productive but not efficient with the receptions he’s captured.

So why is this incredibly small receiver getting any sort of draft hype? 1) Because he was really good two years ago, and people still have that guy in mind. 2) People tend to focus on receivers from BCS conferences and on winning teams. 3) Saunders is a good returner who has averaged 24.2 yds/kick return and 15.8 yds/punt return in his career and has scored 3 return TDs while at OU. 4) Perhaps most importantly, Saunders provides an opportunity for certain people to say things like, “Size, speed, and stats are overrated in football—route running and winning are what matter, and Saunders is a winner who can run routes.”

Whatever. Saunders has a decent DR, but he would need to run perhaps the fastest 40 ever timed for me to imagine that a 157-lb slot receiver/return man could turn into more than just an NFL role player—and even then I still wouldn’t want to draft him. If you combined Anthony Armstrong as a receiver with Brandon Banks as a returner, the resultant amalgamated player would represent what Saunders is likely to be in the NFL. I just don’t get the hype.

Alabama (11-1, SEC)
Amari Cooper, T.J. Yeldon, and Kenyan Drake are strong prospects, but they’re all true sophomores and thus ineligible till the 2015 Draft. One non-QB skill player who might attract some (small) attention in the draft process is Kevin Norwood. The 6’2” and 195-lb redshirt senior has never been an integral part of Alabama’s offense, but sometimes role players on championship teams end up in the NFL because GMs like “winners,” and at least Norwood was a WR who played on championship teams and saw his stats increase each year. Here are his 2013 stats:

Rec

Yds

Avg

TD

DR Rec

DR Yds

DR TDs

Total DR

Games

36

538

14.9

7

0.18

0.21

0.27

0.24

11

Norwood’s not a great NFL prospect, but I could see him catching on somewhere as a seventh-round pick, backup WR, and special teams ace. Exciting.

And then there’s A.J. McCarron. The guy gets bashed as a “game manager,” and maybe he was two years ago, but in 2013 the 6’4” and 214-lb redshirt senior won the Maxwell Award and finished second in Heisman voting—and based on what I’ve seen the type of game he presumably has is the kind I would’ve wanted back in my playing days: Game manager got game. Despite any perceived athletic deficiencies he may possess, he’s really been a good QB for the last two years. Here are his stats for the last three seasons:

Year

Cmp

Att

Pct

Yds

Y/A

AY/A

TD

Int

RuTDs

Games

*2011

219

328

66.8

2634

8

8.3

16

5

2

13

*2012

211

314

67.2

2933

9.3

10.8

30

3

1

14

2013

207

306

67.6

2676

8.7

9.7

26

5

0

12

He’s not a scrambler, but his passing numbers are pretty good—and especially his 2012 stats. Maybe his stats are inflated because he’s playing with a great offensive line, but SEC defenses are pretty good, and it’s not as if he has the benefit of throwing to Julio Jones. Even with the slight regression in 2013, McCarron’s been pretty good this year—and I think any statistical regression is the result of playing on a 2013 team that’s slightly less talented than the championship squads of the two previous years.

How does McCarron’s 2013 performance compare to those of his peers? To analyze QBs, I’ve started looking at large collegiate peer groups (all the QBs in a three-year span) and calculating Z-Scores for efficiency metrics, such as completion percentage, yards/attempt, adjusted yards/attempt, and TD:INT ratio. Then, I average these separate Z-Scores into a couple of different composite Z-Scores. (For more details, see my Las Vegas Bowl Preview.)

Here’s a table (organized by the last column) that compares McCarron with some of the other current draft-eligible QB prospects who have received first- or second-round hype within the last couple of seasons:

Year

Player

Z-Score Pct

Z-Score Y/A

Z-Score AY/A

Z-Score TD:INT

Avg Z-Score Pct-AY/A

Avg Z-Score Pct-Y/A-TD:INT

2013

Teddy Bridgewater

1.85

1.87

2.05

2.8

1.95

2.17

2013

Marcus Mariota

0.44

2.06

2.25

2.67

1.35

1.72

2013

Derek Carr

1.69

0.74

1.23

2.3

1.46

1.58

2013

A.J. McCarron

1.24

1.3

1.66

1.47

1.45

1.34

2013

Zach Mettenberger

0.76

2.91

2.31

0.2

1.54

1.29

2013

Johnny Manziel

1.51

2.06

1.67

0.09

1.59

1.22

2013

Blake Bortles

1.33

1.87

1.67

0.4

1.50

1.20

2013

Tajh Boyd

1.24

1.87

1.73

0.45

1.49

1.19

2013

Keith Price

0.89

1.21

1.28

0.85

1.09

0.98

2013

Aaron Murray

0.74

1.5

1.34

0.27

1.04

0.84

2013

Brett Hundley

1.28

0.93

0.83

0.04

1.06

0.75

2013

David Fales

0.62

1.21

1.08

0.09

0.85

0.64

(Note that some stats include bowl game performances; some don’t.)

By the second averaged Z-Score, McCarron was one of the best college QBs this year—and his 2012 averaged Z-Scores are even higher, better than Bridgewater’s.

McCarron shouldn’t be a first-round pick in 2014 Draft, but he could be a great second-round pick. He seems to have arm limitations, but so does Andy Dalton, and he just finished his third NFL season as a top-5 QB. McCarron has that kind of potential. Of course, he could just as easily be the next Jimmy Clausen. I think the real key to his future will be the team that drafts him.

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