It's only appropriate that one of the season's most underrated college football bowl games includes two of the most underrated NFL prospects.
Northwestern–Pittsburgh is about more than two players but it's impossible to overlook one that pits an elite linebacker, Northwestern's Anthony Walker, Jr., against an elite running back, Pittsburgh's James Conner. And although all eyes will be on pair, as they should be, we can't overlook a slew of Conner's teammates seeking one final opportunity to bolster their draft stock.
Here are the top 2017 NFL Draft prospects in the Pinstripe Bowl, ranked:
|Anthony Walker, Jr.
It's been over a decade since a Northwestern linebacker was drafted (Tim Marigle, 2006) and 15 years since one was taken in the first round (Napoleon Harris, 2002). Walker should end both of those streaks, if he leaves after his junior year.
The little-known Walker exploded as a redshirt sophomore in 2015, leading the Big Ten in tackles for loss (20.5) to earn All-American honors (10 tackles for loss in 2016). He is aggressive, shoots the gap as well as any linebacker in the class and uses a rare combination of size and upper-body strength to effortlessly glide past would-be blockers.
After Walker, it's all about Pittsburgh's NFL prospects, with five of them in contention for the 2017 draft, led by running back James Conner. The 6-foot-2, 235-pounder's battle with Hodgkin's Lymphoma was highly publicized and though his off-the-field story is a remarkable one, it has somewhat overshadowed how dominant of a football player he is.
Conner has eye-popping lateral quickness and explosiveness for a man of his size and could be used in any role. His improved pass-blocking and receiving skills — 20 catches for 299 yards and four touchdowns in 2016 — significantly raised his stock, possibly to a second-day pick.
Joining Conner late on day two or early day three are two of his former blockers in guard Adam Bisnowaty (3rd-5th round) and tackle Dorian Johnson (4-5th). Bisnowaty (6-foot-6, 305 pounds) and Johnson (6-foot-5, 315 pounds) helped the Panthers' offense improved from the nation's 73rd-ranked unit in 2015 to 49th this season.
Bisnowaty and Johnson will likely remain at their respective tackle and guard positions, but defensive end Ejuan Pric, another mid-round prospect, could move to linebacker. The disruptive player ranked in the top five nationally in both tackles for loss per game (1.8) and sacks (1.0).
Lastly, quarterback Nathan Peterman isn't as highly regarded as his four teammates but he is bursting with pro potential.
A responsible passer and capable runner (524 yards), the 6-foot-2, 225-pound former Tennessee transfer must find a patient team willing to work out his accuracy kinks. Peterman remains composed under pressure, doesn't unnecessarily dance in the pocket and has a pro-style background that should warrant a third-day selection.