This weekend they have a trip to New York. But in the years to come they will wind up in the NFL.
Four standout college football players will attend Saturday night's Heisman Trophy presentation, but NFL scouts already have attended their games, studied videotape and formed opinions.
Before one player is crowned the best in college football, one successful NFL front-office executive offered his take on how each player will fare at the next level:
" Auburn quarterback Cam Newton: "Tough to bring down. Like Ben [Roethlisberger] and [Josh] Freeman in terms of his ability to stay on his feet and make plays. Strong arm. Inconsistent with accuracy. Can beat you with his feet and his arm. Too talented for the college level. Biggest issues will be adjusting to speed of [the NFL] game and being able to make consistent plays on the move as a passer. Misses some throws but has huge arm. A top-15 pick."
" Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck: "Tremendous poise and accuracy. Arm is good, not great. Different release, which some view as a negative. Athletic. Very cerebral. Able to go through his first and second progressions. What I love is, he plays in a pro-style offense. Knows where to put the football to avoid interceptions. Lots of touch. Gutsy. Plays well in the fourth quarter. Reminds me of Matt Ryan and Peyton Manning. He's got the 'It' qualities. A top-five pick, maybe the first overall pick."
" Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore: "Lacks some measurables you want. But guy is a winner. A smart player, very smart player. Makes good decisions. Accurate and mobile. Can make plays with his feet. In terms of those other two, he doesn't have their physical skills. Doesn't play in a pro-style offense and I don't know that he's a great NFL prospect. I'd compare him to a Colt McCoy. Has a sense for the game, for being a winner. Not big and not a big arm, but a chance to develop. A third- or fourth-round pick."
" Oregon running back LaMichael James: "Explosive player. Undersized. Shifty. Good vision. Home run ability. He's a disinterested blocker. He's built differently than Maurice Jones-Drew or Ray Rice; he won't pound you between tackles. Like him better on the edges than up the middle. I'd even try him as a kick returner. Not a 25-carry per week guy. He's a little like Jahvid Best, just not as fast. He's a second-round pick."
The talent will be on display Saturday night, just as it was all season -- and will be for seasons to come.
On to this week's 10 Spot:
1. It's a good time to be an interim coach. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones kept repeating that his research showed changing to an interim head coach didn't work. His research proved unreliable. Vikings owner Zygi Wilf debated firing Brad Childress in early November. Wilf chose wrong. Jones' conviction and Wilf's indecision cost their teams a chance to go to the playoffs. But they also proved that, in the right situations, with the right people, interim coaches are the right men for the job.
Cowboys interim coach Jason Garrett and Vikings interim coach Leslie Frazier have led their teams to a combined 5-1 record. The only loss came in a game in which Cowboys wide receiver Roy Williams fumbled on a play in which New Orleans stripped the ball and the game from him. Otherwise, this season's interims are unbeaten. Not only are their teams' performances working in their favor, but so is the labor situation. With a potential work stoppage looming, teams that change head coaches risk putting themselves at a distinct disadvantage. New head coaches may not be able to use offseason drills to install their offensive and defensive systems. They may not have that time to get to know their players and have their players get to know them. In these uncertain times, owners are going to need coaching continuity more than ever. Interim coaches, and even coaches on the hot seat, have an advantage this year that they've never had before.
Frazier's in a great situation. His interim head-coaching contract with the Vikings is scheduled to run through Feb. 28, 2011, according to a team source. He still is under contract to the Vikings as their defensive coordinator until Jan. 31, 2012. But any team that wants to hire Frazier as its head coach must call Minnesota and request permission to speak with him. Frazier and Garrett are in good places. They will be unable to lead their teams to the playoffs this season, but they're quickly proving they have the capabilities to get their teams there in future seasons.
2. Another interim coach joins the group. Another interim coach is Eric Studesville, whose first game as the Broncos' head man will come Sunday in Arizona. Studesville will be doing his new job because of what Josh McDaniels didn't do in his old job. McDaniels got into trouble for not informing the Broncos that Denver's former director of video operations, Steve Scarnecchia, had recorded the 49ers' walk-through practice before the teams' game in London, a violation of league rules. McDaniels was adamant that he neither ordered the video nor watched it. But what bothered the Broncos' brass was that McDaniels didn't tell them about it. They had to find out about it from a third party. They could live with the fact that McDaniels had a 5-17 record since a 6-0 start. But they could not live with the fact that the integrity of the organization had been compromised. Broncos owner Pat Bowlen had planned to give McDaniels the season's final games to see whether the situation could be salvaged. But the more Bowlen thought about it, the more he thought it could not. Thus Studesville gets his chance Sunday.
3. Maurice Jones-Drew has arrived. The Jaguars' running back has never won a rushing title. The closest he came was last season, when he finished fourth overall, 615 yards behind Tennessee's Chris Johnson. Remarkably, in each of his first three NFL seasons, Jones-Drew finished 25th in the league in rushing. But this season, Jones-Drew is leading the Jaguars' drive to an AFC South title. Since Oct. 1, no one in the NFL has more than the 960 rushing yards that Jones-Drew does. While doing things like catching a career-long 75-yard pass against Cleveland and stiff-arming Titans Pro Bowl safety Michael Griffin, Jones-Drew has run himself into the NFL MVP conversation.
4. Chicago's new strategy is working. To beat New England, Chicago must do exactly what it has done in the five-game win streak it has cobbled together since its Week 8 bye. Since their bye, the Bears have had 164 rushing plays and 137 passing attempts. Before their bye, when they were 4-3, the Bears had 156 rushing plays and 215 passing attempts. By now the Bears know that in games this season when they've had at least 28 rushing attempts, they're 7-0. The Bears have learned to lean more on the run than they did in the first half of the season. Even more impressive, offensive coordinator Mike Martz has called these plays behind a remade offensive line. Center Olin Kreutz has been the only Chicago offensive lineman to remain in the same position where he started the season. Chicago has adjusted its line and its play calls and, consequently, has positioned itself for the playoffs. But the Bears' run game and entire team is about to get tested. Their next four games are against New England, at Minnesota, the New York Jets and at Green Bay in a game that could decide the NFC North champion.
5. Gary Kubiak is impressed. The Texans' coach once roomed with former Broncos quarterback John Elway, then coached 49ers quarterback Steve Young and then coached Elway before moving on to coach Houston quarterback Matt Schaub. But what Kubiak saw last Thursday night in Philadelphia from Michael Vick impressed him like nothing before. "This young man is playing as good as anybody I've seen play in the NFL and I've been doing it for a while," Kubiak said. Vick leads the NFC with a career-high 105.7 passer rating. He leads NFL quarterbacks with 467 rushing yards. If he maintains his passer rating and rushes for 33 more yards, Vick would join Young as the only qualifying passers in NFL history with a rating of 100 or better to rush for 500 yards in a season. It's up to Dallas on Sunday night to try to slow him.
6. Missouri, the Show-Me State, has become the NFL's Turnaround State. One year after the St. Louis Rams and Kansas City Chiefs each finished last in their divisions, each has positioned itself to make the jump from worst to first. At 6-6, the Rams already have equaled their win total in 2007-09, and before the season is over, the Chiefs might do the same. The 8-4 Chiefs need two more wins to match the number of wins they compiled the past three seasons (10-38). This NFL postseason, Missouri could have something other than college basketball to follow.
7. Plenty is riding on Vernon Gholston's first sack. The Jets' defensive end, New York's 2008 first-round pick, keeps getting closer and closer to the first sack of his NFL career. According to NFL Players Association documents, Gholston needs only one sack to trigger a $9.1 million roster bonus that the Jets would have the option to pick up next March. Gholston also could activate the $9.1 million bonus with 20 percent play time this season or one fumble recovery. If the Jets declined to pick it up, Gholston then would become an unrestricted free agent. This is an escalator that the Jets worked into Gholston's contract last offseason, when the two sides agreed to restructure his deal. So one sack, one fumble recovery, one interception or 20 percent play time could mean a big payday -- or it could punch Gholston's ticket out of New York.
8. The Giants have found another pass-rusher. From Michael Strahan to Osi Umenyiora to Justin Tuck, the Giants have a knack for drafting pass-rushers. It looks like they have found one again for the key stretch run that will determine the winner of the NFC East. Last April, the Giants used their first-round pick on former South Florida defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Some questioned the pick, but Pierre-Paul is answering those questions. In the Giants' past two games, Pierre-Paul has four sacks, two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery and multiple tipped passes at the line of scrimmage. "He's starting to really play well," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin. Just in time, too.
9. A rookie CB is making strides. Last Friday, Browns defensive coordinator Rob Ryan said rookie cornerback Joe Haden has made more progress in his first year than Raiders cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha did as a rookie. "I missed Nnamdi's rookie year, but no, he wasn't [where Haden is]," Ryan said. And this was before Sunday, when Haden replaced a healthy Eric Wright in the starting lineup and intercepted a pass for the fourth consecutive game. Haden also broke up three other passes, including one in the end zone, showing why Cleveland used its first-round pick on the cornerback last April. After Cleveland upset Miami last Sunday -- and meted out a little revenge for the city that lost LeBron James -- one Browns official sent a text that read, "Joe Haden is going to be a stud!"
10. It's tough to come back from appendectomy. I had laparoscopic surgery to remove my appendix on July 7, 2003. My first day back in the gym was 24 days later. So if Chiefs quarterback Matt Cassel can make it back for Sunday's divisional showdown at San Diego, he vaults into the discussion of the league's toughest players. More likely than not, Kansas City will turn to Brodie Croyle, who has not fared well as an NFL starter. Croyle has made nine NFL starts -- and lost all of them.
The Schef's specialties
" Game of the week: Patriots at Bears. Mike Ditka would be proud: A Super Bowl XX rematch with two of the league's best.
" Player of the week: Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno. A running back tries to get his former position coach, Eric Studesville, his first win as an NFL head coach.
" Upset of the week: Redskins over Buccaneers. Tampa Bay has lost some key starters to injury the past two weeks.
Adam Schefter is an ESPN NFL Insider.