Who are the top NFL Draft prospects in the Alabama vs. Cincinnati Cotton Bowl game?

·4 min read

Cincinnati meets Alabama in the 2021 Cotton Bowl on Dec. 31. It's the first time the two programs have played since 1990 and just the fifth time ever.

Cincinnati became the first "Group of 5" school to be selected to the College Football Playoff and they play the team that has been to all but one CFP final four.

Both of those things take talent, and UC and the Crimson Tide have plenty of it this season. Both programs are expected to send several players to the NFL via the draft next spring.

If a Bearcat gets drafted in the first round, it'll be the third time in program history that it has happened. It'll be the 75th time for Alabama. UC had produced 121 NFL Draft picks all-time, while Alabama has seen 384 players selected in the draft, which is sixth most.

So who are the players most likely to be taken in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft in the UC-Alabama game? Here's a look.

Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) places the leather helmet from the "Old Leather Helmet Torphy" on head coach Nick Saban's head after they defeated Miami in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Alabama offensive lineman Evan Neal (73) places the leather helmet from the "Old Leather Helmet Torphy" on head coach Nick Saban's head after they defeated Miami in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff NCAA college football game Saturday, Sept. 4, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Alabama offensive tackle Evan Neal

Neal, a junior, is No. 3 on ESPN's Mel Kiper Jr.'s big board of top prospects.

At 6-foot-7, 360 pounds, he plays left tackle.

CBS Sports currently projects Neal to be the No. 4 pick in the draft while USA Today has him going third. ESPN's Todd McShay has Neal as the No. 3 overall prospect.

Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad Gardner (1) celebrates a sack of Houston Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune (3) in the second quarter during the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.
Cincinnati Bearcats cornerback Ahmad Gardner (1) celebrates a sack of Houston Cougars quarterback Clayton Tune (3) in the second quarter during the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati.

Cincinnati defensive back Ahmad 'Sauce' Gardner

The star cornerback of Cincinnati is considered one of the best players at his position in the draft, though it's his teammate Coby Bryant up for the Thorpe Award this year. Gardner is predicted to be the No. 6 pick in USA Today's mock draft and is the 16th player on Kiper's board.

McShay has Gardner at No. 21 and CBS projects him as the 15th pick.

Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) slides into the end zone for a touchdown against the George Bulldogs during the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alabama won 41-24.
Alabama Crimson Tide wide receiver Jameson Williams (1) slides into the end zone for a touchdown against the George Bulldogs during the SEC championship game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Alabama won 41-24.

Alabama wide receiver Jameson Williams

Williams jumped on the scene after transferring from Ohio State this season. It was a smart choice. Williams is averaging 21.3 yards per catch in 2021. It sets up an intriguing matchup for Gardner and Bryant in the Cotton Bowl.

Williams is the No.6 player on Kiper's board, 10th on McShay's and the 16th pick on CBS's most recent mock draft.

USA Today has him as the 25th pick, five picks ahead of Ohio State's Chris Olave and 12 behind Ohio State's Garrett Wilson.

Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) raises the trophy of the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Houston Cougars, 35-20.
Cincinnati Bearcats quarterback Desmond Ridder (9) raises the trophy of the American Athletic Conference championship football game, Saturday, Dec. 4, 2021, at Nippert Stadium in Cincinnati. The Cincinnati Bearcats defeated the Houston Cougars, 35-20.

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder

Kiper lists Ridder as his 21st prospect. He had been off the board in previous weeks for Kiper, but returned in his most recent projection. McShay doesn't have him ranked and CBS doesn't project Ridder to be a first round pick. But USA Today sees Ridder as a second round pick.

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Alabama quarterback Bryce Young, a Heisman Trophy finalist who is expected to win the award, is not eligible to be drafted this spring as he's just a sophomore. But he could very likely be the odds-on-favorite to be the No.1 pick in 2023.

Kiper lists Ridder as the No. 2 draft eligible quarterback on his list, just behind Pittsburgh's Kenny Pickett.

Jerome Ford runs 79 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter Saturday against Houston in the AAC title game at Nippert Stadium.
Jerome Ford runs 79 yards for a touchdown in the first quarter Saturday against Houston in the AAC title game at Nippert Stadium.

Other players on Mel Kiper's list

The draft guru breaks down the 10-best players at each position. He ranks Alabama running back Brian Robinson Jr. as the 8th best available back and Cincinnati back, and former Alabama running back, Jerome Ford as the 10th.

UC wide receiver Alec Pierce is No.9 at his position, just behind another Alabama receiver, John Metchie, who is not able to play in the Cotton Bowl due to injury.

Cincinnati tight end Josh Whyle, defensive end Myjai Sanders, corner back Coby Bryant and safety Bryan Cook are all on Kiper's top position lists.

UC could see more players drafted in 2022 than ever before

The best draft night in program history came under coach Brian Kelly.

The 2008 team produced a record six Bearcats draft picks, including second round pick Connor Barwin and current Bengals punter Kevin Huber, a fifth round pick. The following season, the 2009 Bearcats went 12-1 and sent three more players to the NFL.

Before Paul Brown, left, drafted Greg Cook for the Bengals in 1969, he cut his coaching teeth at Massillon Washington, where he won six straight state titles.
Before Paul Brown, left, drafted Greg Cook for the Bengals in 1969, he cut his coaching teeth at Massillon Washington, where he won six straight state titles.

Which Bearcats were drafted in the NFL's first round?

If Gardner is selected in the first round he would be the first UC player to do so since defensive tackle Bob Bell was taken 21st by the Detroit Lions in 1971.

The other first round pick came in 1969 when the Bengals selected Greg Cook 5th overall. Cook is the highest UC draft pick ever.

September 12, 2009: University of Cincinnati's Travis Kelce runs the ball in the second quarter against Southeast Missouri State.
September 12, 2009: University of Cincinnati's Travis Kelce runs the ball in the second quarter against Southeast Missouri State.

Where did Travis Kelce get drafted?

Kelce, who has gone on to be one of the best tight ends in football, was taken in the third round of the 2013 draft by the Kansas City Chiefs, the 63rd pick that year.

Kelce is a three-time All-Pro. he caught 59 passes for 875 yards and 10 touchdowns for the bearcats.

This article originally appeared on Cincinnati Enquirer: UC cornerback Sauce Gardner among best NFL prospects vs. Alabama

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