Montee Ball projects higher than Rose Bowl counterpart LaMichael James in the NFL draft but not as high as he'd like, although on a football level you can make a solid argument he should skip his senior year at the University of Wisconsin anyway.
At 5-foot-10 and change, UW's Russell Wilson would be the first quarterback drafted at that height in more than a decade and flat-out won't be considered by some franchises, but gives every indication he's worth a late-round pick for the right fit.
UW safety Aaron Henry will be the most athletic player selected outside of the top 50 picks, the Badgers could have three offensive linemen drafted for the second straight year and Oregon's top pro prospect, in terms of raw talent, is no longer on the Ducks' roster.
Those observations come from Chad Reuter, a Waunakee native who has carved out a niche as a draftnik and recently was hired by NFL Network as a senior researcher.
Reuter broke down the draft prospects for the Badgers and Ducks heading into their Jan. 2 matchup, based on conversations with NFL personnel executives, recent draft history and his observations.
In the big picture, the field is tilted toward UW because most of Oregon's top players are younger players. Of that group, only James has been reported to have made a decision to forgo his senior season, although also likely to enter the draft is suspended cornerback Cliff Harris — who was projected by many as a first-rounder before he was dismissed from the team in December after a series of off-field incidents that included a ticket for driving 118 mph.
In Reuter's evaluation, the top NFL prospect from this Rose Bowl pool on either side is Badgers junior center Peter Konz, whose status for the game in Pasadena is uncertain after missing the last three games with a dislocated ankle.
Like Ball, Konz has requested an evaluation by NFL personnel types to help him determine whether to enter April's draft.
"If injuries drop him, it won't be a surprise, but he's a first-round talent," said Reuter, who in his most recent mock draft for CBSSports.com had Konz going at No. 25 overall to the Houston Texans.
The 6-foot-5, 315-pound Konz is both an anchor and mobile, and "there's not much difference between him and the Pouncey brothers," Reuter said, referring to Pro Bowl second-year center Maurkice Pouncey of the Pittsburgh Steelers and rookie Mike Pouncey, who has started all 14 games for the Miami Dolphins.
While Konz has been mum about his intentions, Ball reiterated last week that if he projects in the middle of the second round or above, he's almost surely going to skip his senior season.
However, the devaluation of running backs in recent years due both to the wear-and-tear they absorb and the ever-increasing emphasis on the passing game leads Reuter to believe that Alabama's Trent Richardson will be the only running back selected in the first round.
After that, Reuter gives the edge to David Russell of Virginia Tech and Lamar Miller of Miami over Ball, even though they've had less productive seasons, because they are faster. Using the NFL evaluation guidelines he said he'd conservatively rate Ball as "no worse than a third-round pick" who likely will be picked between Nos. 50-80.
"If Montee Ball comes back next year, he's going to get at least as many touches as he did this year, and that's 300 touches that he's getting in college that he won't get in the NFL, because of the mileage," said Reuter, who noted that running backs' stock is more vulnerable to injuries than most any position. "Maybe he has a really big year, and he's that guy that winds up being a top-50 pick after all. but he would have to get faster. Chances are, you probably get picked around the same spot. ...
"On some level, if you're not a Top 20 guy -- where the real money is -- it doesn't matter, second-, third-, fourth-round, because you make your real money on the second contract anyway. I don't want to pooh pooh it, because you're talking about a difference of $100,000 or $200,000, but it's not millions, especially under the new CBA."
Ball is capable of being a three-down back in the NFL, said Reuter, who doesn't dismiss comparisons to the Minnesota Vikings' Chester Taylor. "He's really good at everything, but he's just not elite at everything, which you need to be a first-round pick," Reuter said. "You've got to peg him as, if not a starter, someone you'll use an awful lot."
One factor that that might work in Ball's favor is his potential as a kick returner, a skill set that Oregon's James has added to his repertoire this year. The chief question mark with the 5-foot-8, 180-pound James -- the Ducks' all-time rushing yardage and rushing touchdowns leader -- is whether he can pass-protect well enough against the likes of NFL middle linebackers.
"He's not contact shy, and he's done it when Oregon has asked him to do it, but you're not facing Ray Lewis coming up the middle -- and that's why Ball will probably be picked ahead of James," Reuter said.
Size is also the primary question mark facing Wilson. While Drew Brees and Michael Vick have been able to overcome the height bias -- both are listed at 6-foot -- Reuter noted that just three quarterbacks listed under that mark have received NFL combine invitations in the last 11 seasons. Only one, 5-10 Joe Hamilton of Georgia Tech, was drafted at that position -- in the seventh round in 2000, at that. His career stats, all as a rookie with Tampa Bay: zero pass attempts, one rush for minus-2 yards.
A notable exception to the rule is former Iowa State quarterback Seneca Wallace, who turned down an invitation to work out at receiver at the combine in 2003. Seattle drafted him in the fourth round, at No. 110 overall, and the 5-11 Wallace is now a relief starter for the Cleveland Browns in his ninth season in the NFL.
Reuter says Wilson compares favorably, in that he has shown enough arm strength and accuracy to compete on Sundays, and that "unlike Wallace, he's not looking to run -- but will take the opportunity if it's there."
There's also the issue of character, which Reuter said counts more heavily at quarterback than other positions -- as evidenced negatively last year when Arkansas' Ryan Mallett fell to the third round after admitting drug use. In that respect, Wilson is sitting pretty.
"Smart teams will still consider him on Saturday," Reuter said, referring to the last four rounds. "It's so hard to find a reliable backup or spot starter. That's what Saturday picks are for."
While Badgers receiver Nick Toon has been able to refute some doubts about his ability to attack the ball and play through nagging injuries, leading Reuter to believe he's a second-round selection with a slim chance of moving up, Henry remains an enigma.
"Scouts will like his form; he has decent ball skills and can close on passes in the flat. He can push athleticism and that he's still learning the position" after converting from cornerback, said Reuter, who believes Henry could be picked in the third or fourth round. "The biggest issue is a lack of awareness in coverage. The Rose Bowl will be a big stage for him."
Meanwhile, if Konz declares for the draft, right guard Kevin Zeitler is likely to follow close behind him in the draft as a third- or fourth-rounder. And despite his six knee surgeries and questions about his ability to handle athletic ends, senior right tackle Josh Oglesby remains an intriguing prospect because of his 6-foot-7, 330-pound frame and may be taken in the late rounds.
"Wisconsin linemen just have a good reputation with NFL people, that they're well-coached, intelligent players who know their assignments," Reuter said.