We’re a week away from the Big Ten (Illinois at Wisconsin, Oct. 23) kicking off and about three weeks away from the Mid-American Conference (six games on Nov. 4) and Pac-12 (six games on Nov. 7) taking the field for the first time in 2020.
In the meantime, we still have plenty of prospects to feast on elsewhere. Here are some 2021 NFL draft talents we’ll be eying in this weekend’s action.
Alabama receivers vs. Georgia secondary
There is no better matchup on the docket this weekend in college football (fingers crossed), and there probably is no better prospect-viewing game than this one.
There will be future NFL players all over the Bryant-Denny Stadium field on Saturday, but it will be hard for us to take our eyes off Bama’s receivers matching up against the Bulldogs’ tremendous secondary. It matches Georgia’s physicality against Bama’s athletic explosion.
WRs Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith figure to follow in the footsteps of Alabama’s Henry Ruggs III and Jerry Jeudy as first-rounders next year. (Sophomore John Metchie III, with the way he’s started the season, might follow suit in the 2022 draft.)
Waddle is compactly built at 5-foot-10 and 182 pounds, but he wins consistently with explosive separation speed. There has been a renewed interest in the smaller, more dynamic receiver — think Ruggs, Tyreek Hill and Marquise Brown — for NFL offenses looking to add juice, so Waddle is peaking at the right time.
He has been terrific so far this season in a crowded offense, catching 19 passes on 22 targets (zero drops) for 396 yards and three scores. Waddle quickly developed a rapport last season with QB Mac Jones after he replaced an injured Tua Tagovailoa, catching four TDs in the final three games from him in 2019, and they’ve kept it going this season.
The comp I keep coming back to for Smith is Brandon Lloyd — remember him? Smith’s lean frame and lack of elite speed will worry some. He also will face some character questions from some NFL teams, although Smith has said to have matured over the course of his Bama career.
Smith also is a dangerous playmaker in the Lloyd mold, able to catch passes outside his frame and keep his stride. He can rev up to top speed vertically and also contort his body to make some circus grabs, flashing very good hands and concentration.
He has been almost as efficient as Waddle this season, as Smith has 27 catches on 33 targets (zero drops) for 316 yards and two scores. The one knock so far is his lack of plays downfield; he’s 0-for-4 catching targets 20-plus yards downfield in 2020 and has a long reception of 36 yards.
Standing in their way is a Georgia secondary that features five eventual NFL prospects. Depending on who you ask, the Bulldogs’ top DB prospect is either CB Tyson Campbell or Eric Stokes.
Campbell — who picked the Dawgs over Bama as a five-star recruit — checks off all the boxes for athleticism, length and raw ability. He has come back strong after missing a big chunk of last season with turf toe and has a pass breakup in each of Georgia’s first three contests, although he was beaten for a score against Tennessee.
This will be Campbell’s first extensive action in his career against Bama, as he was benched a few weeks prior to facing the Tide in the SEC title game his freshman season. How he handles the speed of Alabama’s receivers will be telling.
Like Campbell, Stokes is highly regarded in NFL circles — despite, amazingly, neither recording an interception in their first two seasons combined. This year, Campbell is still waiting for his first pick, but Stokes has two so far (one each against Arkansas and Tennessee).
Stokes has allowed only two grabs so far this season. He’ll be looking for some revenge in this game after being flagged twice in the red zone in his only other game against Alabama as a freshman.
Senior CB D.J. Daniel earned some third-round grades over the summer but has been relegated to a reserve role as an outside corner behind Campbell and Stokes. Daniel can play in the slot, but underrated senior Mark Webb is outstanding in that spot.
Although Daniel is not as physically blessed or as experienced as the two underclassmen, he’s a very solid athlete with decent instincts. Daniel hasn’t had as many chances to make plays this season, and he has been a tad up and down when he has been out there.
Safety Richard LeCounte is undersized at 5-foot-11 and 189 pounds and might lack ideal NFL athleticism. But he’s a heady middle-field defender with two INTs in three games who earns high marks for his intangibles, toughness and smarts. LeCounte earned mainly third- and fourth-round grades over the summer.
Grab your popcorn for this matchup. If you’re a draft junkie like we are, this game is chock full of interesting NFL talent.
BYU QB Zach Wilson vs. Houston
Through four games this season, Wilson has looked like one of the best QB talents in the country. Granted, his shocking effectiveness — 80.4 completion percentage, 1,241 passing yards, 8-1 TD-INT ratio — has come against fairly middling competition.
But at the risk of looking silly later, we’ll throw it out there: The idea of Wilson working his way into the first-round picture this season isn’t crazy. We’re card-carrying members of the Wilson fan club and believe he’s squarely in that top-50 picture with the potential to rise.
“There’s a lot of buzz right now with him,” one scout told Yahoo Sports.
The NFL has known all about his ability since Wilson’s raucous debut as a freshman in 2018, but he took a step back last season, which was marred by a hand injury that caused him to miss four games and struggle down the stretch.
Wilson has a freewheeling style, able to make plays on the move and when the structure breaks down. But there’s also plenty of great tape of Wilson working through his progressions and making NFL-caliber reads that has scouts excited.
Here was a play against Louisiana Tech where Wilson — who accounted for five TDs in the game — goes to Gunner Romney on a “sail concept” where BYU is trying to flood one side of the field with a three-level passing plan against a two-deep zone.
Wilson is likely looking at slot WR Neil Pau'u (No. 2) on the deep out route, or even checking down to TE Isaac Rex (No. 83) on the short flat route. But Wilson read it high to low, realized the corner could fall off on the sail route and saw that Romney had found the honey hole between the corner and the safety in zone.
This is a great read and throw (at the 6:18 mark), nearly impossible to defend:
We can’t wait to see Wilson — operating behind a very good offensive line — take a step up in competition against Houston on Friday.
Notre Dame QB Ian Book vs. Louisville
After an unimpressive showing in the opener against Duke, throwing a pick and taking three sacks, Book has been better the past two games — even though most of his passes have tended to be short and in the middle of the field.
The 6-foot, 202-pound Book is not for everyone as a prospect, and he profiles as a borderline draft pick. He needs to stack as many consistent performances this season, no matter the opponent, to help boost his stock. Even performing well against a lesser defense such as Louisville’s will help.
Book played his best ball last season down the stretch, starting in about the fourth quarter against Virginia Tech. His game is incomplete now, and he’s prone to some maddening moments. Although Book won’t win any beauty contests with his style of play, he can frustrate defenses with his ability to extend plays and pull the occasional rabbit out of his hat.
As a prospect, he reminds us a bit of 2019 Los Angeles Chargers fifth-rounder Easton Stick. Book won’t be drafted as a prospective starter but has enough creative skill that is worth a team attempting to develop him in a reserve role. Some also have compared him to a slightly cleaner Shea Patterson, who is looking to get back on the NFL radar in The Spring League, a developmental circuit that kicks off in a few weeks.
Ole Miss’s Big Three on offense vs. Arkansas
After last week’s shootout loss to Alabama, Ole Miss’ passing offense ranks fourth in FBS and the Rebels are averaging 41.7 points per game, good for 10th nationally. They’re doing it thanks to an innovative offense run by Lane Kiffin and a trio of players — QB Matt Corral, WR Elijah Moore and TE Kenny Yeboah.
Moore has tried his best to move on from the Egg Bowl fiasco last season, and he has done a bang-up job of it with a hot start. He’s one of the most dangerous slot receivers in the country who has caught 31 passes on 34 targets (zero drops) for 462 yards and a touchdown against three talented secondaries in Kentucky, Florida and Alabama.
Corral is also off to a hot start, and the redshirt sophomore is just now starting to earn some draft buzz. We’ll spend more time on him down the road, as the feeling is that he’s likely to stay another year. Along with sophomore RB Jerrion Ealy, Corral has the future of Rebels football looking bright.
Yeboah is in his final season in school, a grad transfer from Temple who is receiving the Kiffin boost at tight end. Last year, Kiffin mentored 2020 Cleveland Browns fourth-rounder Harrison Bryant to a John Mackey Award-winning final season.
Moore torched Bama last week for 11 grabs for 143 yards. Yeboah was even more effective, with seven catches for 181 yards and two touchdowns, including a 68-yarder. He also had a 52-yard grab in the game; check out the nice little move he put on Alabama safety Daniel Wright for the big gain:
Yeboah already has set career highs for receiving yards in a season after being lightly used as a pass catcher in four years with the Owls. He gives blocking effort and has a background on special teams. If there’s a fast-rising senior tight end in this class, it’s Yeboah, who could be a top-100 selection when it’s all said and done.
Arkansas’ defense, coordinated very well so far by Barry Odom, hasn’t faced a tight end of Yeboah’s caliber yet this season.
Two intriguing EDGEs squaring off
We’ve written a few times this year about Western Kentucky’s DeAngelo Malone, who has been off to an uneven start this season after being named 2019 Conference-USA Defensive Player of the Year. But he’s made plays in the backfield in each of the Hilltoppers’ first four games, has electric athleticism and was receiving second- and third-round draft grades this summer.
UAB’s offensive tackles have been a bit quivery handling outside pressure this season, so Malone could be on tap to have a big game.
And across the field is another edge prospect who is opening a lot of eyes — and he is a completely different style of rusher than Malone is. The 6-foot-7, 255-pound Jordan Smith had his breakout season at UAB in 2019, with 17.5 tackles for loss, 10 sacks and four forced fumbles. He has continued his reign this season with two more sacks in four games.
If he declares, Smith will be the first UAB player drafted since 2015. He also has an outside chance to be the Blazers’ first first-round pick since Roddy White in 2005. The redshirt junior, who has come a long way since disciplinary issues at Florida in 2017, will be a top-75 pick at the least once he puts on a testing clinic at the NFL scouting combine.
Smith’s tape against Tennessee last season was fantastic, as he all but pitched a tent in the Vols’ backfield, registering a sack, six QB hits and two more pressures on only 24 pass-rush snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
His length and explosion are exciting traits. He reminds us a bit of Aaron Lynch, now on the Jaguars.
We also had planned this week to spotlight another exciting Group of 5 defender, Tulsa’s exciting LB-EDGE prospect, Zaven Collins. That was before the Tulsa-Cincinnati game was canceled for COVID-related reasons.
We’ll be circling back with Collins soon as there’s an exciting element to his game.
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