Top 15 2022 NFL Draft prospect performances in 2021 college football bowl games

Charlotte, NC, USA; North Carolina Tar Heels quarterback Sam Howell (7) looks to pass in the second quarter during the 2021 Duke's Mayo Bowl at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With opt-outs becoming the norm for anyone sniffing the first three rounds of the NFL draft, there weren’t a ton of prospects to watch in the bowl games. 

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Even still, we picked out 15 prospects who (potentially) ended their college careers on the proverbial right foot.

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1. QB Sam Howell, North Carolina Tar Heels

PFF Grade: 92.4

Don’t pin this loss on Howell, as he was balling up a storm vs. the Gamecocks. He was downgraded on only two of his 27 dropbacks. While 12-of-20 for 205 yards with a score doesn’t sound particularly special, his receivers dropped four of his passes, which cost him 61 air yards. His ball placement was impeccable all day en route to a 92.4 overall grade. He’s firmly in the mix for QB1.

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2. CB Ahmad Gardner, Cincinnati Bearcats

PFF Grade: 71.4
Opponent: ALABAMA

Gardner was matched against a likely first-round receiver on the biggest stage and came away with the upper hand. On 34 coverage snaps, he was targeted four times and allowed three catches for just 14 yards. The Bearcats didn’t change their gameplan at all, putting Gardner in press on 24 of his snaps, and he responded by eliminating routes before they started all game. Gardner could be a top-10 pick after his performance against the Crimson Tide.

3. OT Daniel Faalele, Minnesota Golden Gophers

PFF Grade: 85.6

After paving the way for scores all season, Faalele took a handoff and scored one himself against West Virginia. However, that's not why he made this list, as the redshirt junior offensive tackle earned the second-highest grade of his career (85.6). He consistently moved the line of scrimmage against the physically overmatched Mountaineers. 

4. RB Brian Robinson, Alabama Crimson Tide

PFF Grade: 86.5

Robinson is the answer against light boxes. He ran through the Bearcats defense like a hot knife through butter in the College Football Playoff (CFP) semifinals. The redshirt senior toted the rock 26 times for 204 yards while breaking 12 tackles in the process. Robinson is the bruiser teams want in the later rounds.

5. LB Nakobe Dean, Georgia Bulldogs

PFF Grade: 90.0
Opponent: MICHIGAN

Dean single-handedly shut down Michigan’s wide-screen game in the other CFP semifinals. In foot races against Michigan's running backs, Dean won every time. He finished with five total pressures, including a sack, from 10 blitzes and all five of his tackles resulted in defensive stops. Dean is a future first-rounder.

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6. QB Malik Willis, Liberty Flames

PFF Grade: 92.1

He didn't face the stiffest competition, but Willis’ arm talent was on full display against Eastern Michigan. He finished with four big-time throws from only 33 dropbacks while recording 65 rushing yards and two touchdowns from seven carries. The talent is undeniable, but he could fall to Day 2 due to his inconsistent play.

7. WR Wan’Dale Robinson, Kentucky Wildcats

PFF Grade: 86.9
Opponent: IOWA

Robinson finished his breakout junior campaign with a bang, hauling in 10 passes for 170 yards in the Wildcats' 20-17 victory. Over his final five games in 2021, the shifty slot receiver caught 46 passes for 689 yards.

8. RB James Cook, Georgia Bulldogs

PFF Grade: 76.3
Opponent: MICHIGAN

Sure, he only finished with six carries for 32 yards. Big whoop right? Cook ain’t a bell cow, though, he’s a home run hitter. He caught four passes for 112 yards and a score to break the Wolverines' back. Cook is like a mini version of his brother Dalvin Cook, as he boasts some of the best receiving ability at the position in the class. 

9. RB Tyler Allgeier, BYU Cougars

PFF Grade: 83.6
Opponent: UAB

Allgeier looked like a grown man running through UAB’s defense. When the dust settled, Allgeier finished with 194 yards, three scores and eight broken tackles from 26 carries. His 76 broken tackles on the season were the fifth-most in the country.

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10. TE Sam LaPorta, Iowa Hawkeyes

PFF Grade: 86.7
Opponent: KENTUCKY

The infrequently utilized LaPorta posted a career day against Kentucky, as he tied his career-high with seven receptions and set a new career-high with 122 receiving yards. He put his big-play ability and sure hands on display for the Hawkeyes.

11. LB Chad Muma, Wyoming Cowboys

PFF Grade: 90.3
Opponent: KENT STATE

While a lot of career days made this list, Muma’s nine stop bowl performance was just another day at the office. His 68 stops in 2021 were the most of any FBS linebacker, and his 90.3 overall grade ranked third. Don’t expect him to last past Day 2 in the draft.

12. LB Terrel Bernard, Baylor Bears

PFF Grade: 77.1
Opponent: OLE MISS

After a promising redshirt senior season, Bernard's performance assured him a draft spot come April. He made his impact felt against Ole Miss as a blitzer, finishing with two sacks and four other hurries on 12 blitzes. His eight stop performance was a career-high. 

13. EDGE Nolan Smith, Georgia Bulldogs

PFF Grade: 83.4
Opponent: MICHIGAN

The former five-star recruit has a career day against Michigan. Smith racked up a career-high six pressures from only 24 pass-rushing snaps. He’s unlikely to come out this year, but it bodes well for him to become a top prospect in 2022.

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14. LB Leo Chenal, Wisconsin Badgers

PFF Grade: 78.1

Chenal is the best linebacker in the class when coming downhill, proving it week after week. Against Arizona State, he recorded a sack, a QB hit and three hurries from only six blitzes while adding four more stops on the day. Chenal finished the season with a ridiculous 94.1 run defense grade. He won’t leave the top-100 picks in April.

15. QB Bailey Zappe, Western Kentucky Hilltoppers

PFF Grade: 84.2

Setting the single-season passing yardage and touchdown records will earn you a spot on this list, and Zappe went for 422 yards yards and six scores to give himself 5,967 yards and 62 touchdowns on the year. He racked up five big-time throws and no turnover-worthy plays in the win.

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