We’re going to put a defensive spin on this week’s 2021 NFL draft prospect matchups of the week.
Yes, we have a quarterback in action this weekend who could end up a top-10 pick next spring — and no, we’re not talking about Trevor Lawrence. And the wide receiver talent across college football continues to be stunningly impressive.
But we wanted to shine a spotlight on what could be a very interesting group of defensive backs who will be tasked with slowing down some of that elite skill-position talent that’s popping up more now that the SEC is in full swing.
North Dakota State QB Trey Lance vs. Central Arkansas
If you want to get a look at Trey Lance, Saturday is your shot. Your only shot, it appears.
Lance is going to play one game this fall, on Saturday against the Bears in Fargo, and then — the assumption is — throw his hat into the 2021 NFL draft ring. So yeah, we’re going to watch … if we can.
🚨 PROGRAMMING ALERT: Likely 2021 first-round pick North Dakota State QB @treylance09 plays his only game of the season on Saturday against Central Arkansas and there’s not one national network smart enough to cover it. Who has these jobs?— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) September 29, 2020
We feel you, Jim. By hell or high water, we’re going to watch this game — as will NFL people, eventually.
Truthfully, there’s only so much we can glean from Lance in this singular 2020 outing against a so-so opponent. But do yourselves a favor and read Yahoo Sports’ Pete Thamel’s terrific feature on Lance this week, talking about this game and his NFL forecast. This is an extremely talented prospect with whom NFL teams are absolutely fascinated.
What the 6-foot-3, 226-pound Lance did as a redshirt freshman in 2019, leading his team to a 16-0 record, will make up the bulk of his tape evaluations. He displayed rare poise and athletic prowess — even for the FCS level — in completing 192 of 287 passes for 2,786 yards with 28 TDs and no interceptions, as well as rushing for 1,100 yards and 14 TDs on 169 attempts.
What Lance lacks in experience, he makes up for in raw talent and tantalizing upside. Lance can thread the ball all over the field and showed nice touch and ball placement routinely. But his accuracy, even on throws where he had a clean pocket, is about where you’d expect for a 19-year-old: inconsistent. The lack of game reps and experience and his level of play all could frighten teams that are considering taking him in, say, the top 10 overall next year.
For these reasons, he’s going to be one of the trickier evaluations for the 2021 class, assuming he comes out. Carson Wentz faced some of the same questions coming out in 2016. But Wentz had 43 college games (23 as a starter) under his belt and performed well at the Senior Bowl. Lance won’t come close to that for a body of work.
So does Saturday — against a team with an NFL-caliber corner in Robert Rochell — matter that much? It’s a piece of the puzzle on the fascinating Lance, but that puzzle will have a lot of pieces missing when an NFL team calls his name next year.
There are other prospects in this game worth watching, too.
Lance’s left tackle, Dillon Radunz, is a possible top-100 pick, and we feel his right tackle, Cordell Volson — who says he intends to play in a spring season — is very much under-appreciated. Also keep an eye on Central Arkansas EDGE J.W. Jones, who will give those tackles some nice battles.
South Carolina CBs Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn vs. Florida receiving weapons
Florida has a lethal offense, it appears. The development of QB Kyle Trask, the improvement of the offensive line and Dan Mullen’s expert play calling all were on display in the opener against Ole Miss.
And, yes, that skill-position talent — it’s remarkable. Florida TE Kyle Pitts, whom we spotlighted last week, could be a top-20 pick. WR Trevon Grimes, who entered the season earning mostly fifth-round grades, had a strong game with three grabs for 64 yards and a touchdown. And WR Kadarius Toney reminded us against the Rebels just how dynamic a playmaker he is when healthy.
The Gamecocks will counter with two of the best corners — and two quite different specimens — in the country.
The 6-4 Mukuamu was limited to 23 defensive snaps last week against Tennessee when he suffered groin discomfort and missed the second half of the loss. So far this week, it appears he’s moving around well, although head coach Will Muschamp put Mukuamu in the “day to day” category midweek.
If Mukuamu can play, it’s huge for South Carolina. Lining up mostly as the right-side corner, he saw time last season against both Pitts and Grimes and allowed a 32-yard seam pass to Jacob Copeland, but otherwise held up well. Mukuamu’s three-INT game against Georgia last year really put him on the map, but we’d like to see him use his rare length to his advantage a bit better.
The 6-1, 200-pound Horn — the son of former NFL receiver Joe Horn — is a favorite of ours. Lining up mostly at left corner, he has a feisty demeanor and a natural toughness we enjoy watching. He was terrific down the stretch last season and turned in an impressive performance against Clemson, despite the Gamecocks being outclassed talent-wise in that game.
Scouts question Horn’s long speed, and he has yet to haul in an interception in college, but Horn has a chance to crack the top 50 overall picks by testing well and showing out against the conference’s top receivers again this season.
Saturday is a big test for both corners.
TCU defenders vs. Texas offense
TCU’s defense had a tough day at the office at times in the opening-game loss vs. Iowa State. But there are two interesting defenders with NFL potential worth highlighting — S Trevon Moehrig and LB Garret Wallow.
The undersized Wallow is the heartbeat of the Horned Frogs’ defense. He’s a tackle vacuum who thrives on anticipation and film study to make up for his lack of elite traits. Wallow also is an accomplished blitzer and will stick fairly well with tight ends in coverage.
Wallow’s draft grades mostly fell in the third- or fourth-round range this summer entering the season.
Moehrig played receiver (and corner) in high school, and yet he’s transitioned into the QB of the back end for TCU. His range and anticipatory skills are top notch, and he rates as one of the top safeties in the 2021 class if he chooses to come out with a year of eligibility left.
Moehrig appeared to take a bad angle on Iowa State RB Breece Hall’s 75-yard TD run to open the scoring in last week’s shootout, and his work as a run defender is probably his biggest question right now. He tends to do his best work in coverage, covering a lot of ground and flashing his CB coverage skills, with an impressive four INTs and 12 passes defended last season.
The Longhorns have a diverse offense built around QB Sam Ehlinger, who can sting defenses with his hard running and improved passing skill. He’s totaled 11 TDs in two games so far. Joshua Moore has been the breakout player at receiver, with four TD catches in two games, but Brenden Schooler, Brennan Eagles, Tarik Black and Kai Money all do strong work in an extremely deep crop of receivers.
Texas also has options to dominate the ground with a good offensive line, two talented backs (Keaontay Ingram and Roschon Johnson) and Ehlinger’s toughness and tackle-breaking running.
Both TCU defenders had interceptions against the Longhorns last year. Wallow read Ehlinger beautifully on his pick, setting up a field goal early on in that matchup. It appeared to be a tape-study play, as Wallow crossed the face of the receiver who had cut off his route too soon.
Moehrig bounced back in that game after being beat early by 2020 Baltimore Ravens fifth-rounder Devin Duvernay for a touchdown and later missing a tackle on another long Duvernay gain. Moehrig baited Ehlinger into throwing a pick along the sideline on the final play of the third quarter. Those are the game-changing plays he makes that makes him an early-round prospect.
Texas A&M CB Myles Jones vs. Alabama’s elite receivers
The Aggies are going to have their hands full with the offensive weaponry the Crimson Tide can throw at them. Already shorthanded on defense with the late opt out of LB Anthony Hines II, A&M must find ways to short-circuit the game-breaking speed of WRs Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith.
Waddle and Smith, along with the intriguing John Metchie III, just torched Mizzou last week. Meanwhile, Texas A&M’s defense was just OK in the opener against Vanderbilt and freshman QB Ken Seals. Jones and the Aggies secondary will be tested thoroughly in this one.
At nearly 6-4, Jones — who switched uniform numbers from 10 last season to 0 this year — is easy to spot on tape. He’s most often lined up as the “field” corner, lined up on the wide side of the field. The Aggies will run some man pressures but often play a lot of cover-3.
In last year’s matchup against Alabama, Jones mostly lined up opposite (Las Vegas Raiders first-rounder) Henry Ruggs III and Smith. Although Jones played well on the whole — especially in the first 40 minutes of the game — Ruggs beat him on a “sluggo” route, using Jones’ leverage against him on the double move, for a touchdown late in the third quarter.
Jones is a classic Seahawks-style corner, with the height, arm length, hand size and athletic skill to play outside in that style of defense, even though he clearly lacks bulk at a listed 185 pounds. Recent NFL comps, size-wise, include Dre Kirkpatrick, Kevin King, Greedy Williams and Ahkello Witherspoon. Even Richard Sherman didn’t weigh 200 pounds when he came out as a fifth-round pick, though, so Jones’ bulk concerns might be a bit overblown.
Jones does a good job supporting the run on the edge, able to slip around blockers and make plays with his length. Long corners are always tricky to evaluate in general, as they seem to have a higher bust rate (think Johnthan Banks, Stanley Jean-Baptiste or David Amerson).
But we see a potential top-100 selection in Jones — if he can display better short-area quickness and improved hip-flipping — because he has top-tier traits. The grades entering the season on Jones were in the Day 3 range, but a good performance against Bama’s speedsters would help his cause.
Georgia’s defensive prospects vs. Auburn’s playmakers
We spent a good chunk of space last week profiling the Tigers’ complementary receivers, Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, so we won’t spend as much time on them here. But Williams was among the big winners last week with a banner game against Kentucky’s well-respected secondary: six grabs for 112 yards and two TDs.
But the Bulldogs’ loaded defense — namely a remarkable collection of talent in the secondary — could prove stiff resistance.
Georgia has talent on all three levels. LB Monty Rice is a three-down, run-and-chase defender. NT Jordan Davis’ tape outweighs his limited production to date. And EDGE Azeez Ojulari shouldn’t be overlooked as he grows into his frame and develops.
But that secondary! That’s where our eyes will be pulled all season, as the Bulldogs can smother passing games with their coverage.
They have four draft-eligible corners whom we think will end up in the league: DJ Daniel, Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell and the under-appreciated Mark Webb. Campbell looked terrific last week against Vandy, and Stokes had a pick. The entire group has good length and are versed in multiple coverages. Right now, Stokes (a redshirt junior) and Daniel (senior) have drawn the best NFL scouting grades.
Also making a very good first impression in the opener was senior S Richard LeCounte. He made two picks and deflected another against the Commodores, with his only black eye from that game a missed tackle. LeCounte is an extremely instinctive half-field safety who plays bigger than his listed size of 5-11 and 190 pounds.
Watching last year’s Auburn-Georgia tape, Daniel and LeCounte both stood out. Stokes matched up with Williams, who beat him several times for first-down grabs; that’s a possible reprise matchup we’ll be keyed in on, even though multiple DBs saw time against Williams.
Also, Schwartz seemed to tax Webb, who mostly mans the slot, a few times when they faced each other inside. That’s another battle we’ll be focusing on.
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