NFL draft winners and losers: The Mississippi State prospect whom Mike Leach's arrival can help most

Eric Edholm
·13 mins read

It was hard not to look agape at Mississippi State’s passing numbers under Mike Leach in its stunning upset of LSU at Tiger Stadium on Saturday.

QB K.J. Costello smashed his previous high for passing yards and attempts in the third quarter, ending up with 623 yards, five TDs and two picks. And WR Osirus Mitchell, who could be MSU’s first wide receiver drafted since Eric Moulds in 1996, ended up with seven grabs for 183 yards and two scores.

That’s more yards and TDs in one game with the Bulldogs than Costello had in his first three games of what would be his ill-fated (and injury-marred) final season at Stanford in 2019. Mitchell’s numbers were all career highs, too; it was also more receiving yards than he had in his final five games combined last season.

We’ll have more time examining both of their draft statues as the season goes on. Costello, who is two days younger than the New York Jets’ Sam Darnold, had some shaky moments in Saturday’s game and remains a flawed prospect. Mitchell didn’t suddenly become a complete receiver overnight.

But the player who really made an opinion-changing impression in that game from our view was RB Kylin Hill.

Kylin Hill (8) made a huge impression in Mississippi State's upset of defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)
Kylin Hill (8) made a huge impression in Mississippi State's upset of defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

As a veteran evaluator mentioned to us this summer, “The one who benefits most from Leach being there is the running back (Hill). He’ll have more catches this season than he has the first three years combined. It’s great for him because he won’t be adding those hard carries to his body, and he still can show he can catch the football and pass protect for a whole year.”

In his first three seasons, Hill caught 44 passes for 394 yards and five scores. In his 2020 opener, Hill caught eight passes for 152 yards and a TD. Check out the fine grab on the wheel route, followed by the tackle-breaking finish for the house call.

His 10 targets in the game were double his previous high — five vs. Louisiana Tech in 2018. He carried it only seven times for 34 yards on Saturday.

In Leach’s eight seasons at Washington State, his leading ball carrier finished each season with 127, 122, 92, 102, 107, 87, 87 and 85 carries, respectively, for an average of 101.1 per year. In a 10-game SEC schedule, Hill might not break the century mark this season. That likely means he’d enter the NFL with less tread on his tires than had he been in a more traditional offense, like the one last season where Hill carried the ball 242 times.

There were questions about Illinois State’s James Robinson coming out after he had only 15 receptions for 80 yards in 15 games in 2019. Robinson also lacked top-end speed (a 4.64-second 40-yard dash at the NFL combine), which resulted in the physical back going undrafted.

Clearly, the Jacksonville Jaguars found a gem in Robinson, who — prior to Monday’s Ravens-Chiefs game — ranks sixth in the NFL in rush yards (210) and tied for third in rushing TDs (three). But most notably, he’s shown he can catch the ball effectively, despite not being asked to do it much in college.

Robinson has 10 receptions (on 11 targets) for 129 yards through three games. That’s more receiving yards than he had in his final 22 college games. Hill and Robinson have some overlaps to their games, too, making this comparison even more apt.

Hill is being afforded the opportunity to be the receiver Robinson never had a chance to be in college, and at a higher level. And Robinson’s case serves as a great scouting reminder: just because a prospect hasn’t been asked to do something doesn't mean he can’t.

If Hill can continue to showcase his receiving ability like he did against LSU, as well as display improvement in his pass-protection skills, it’s going to bode extremely well for his draft outlook in what appears to be yet another strong RB class.

More 2021 NFL draft winners

Three Gators way up

Florida’s offense was too much for Ole Miss in a 51-35 final on Saturday, and the play of three 2021 draft-eligible prospects especially caught our eye. The first two are fairly obvious.

TE Kyle Pitts was the star of the show, just as we suspected last week he might be, catching four touchdown passes on his eight grabs for 170 yards. Our TE1 at this point is in that spot because he’s a clear difference-maker with his athletic gifts and elite length — basically a receiver in a tight end’s body.

As we wrote in our prospect preview last week, think Darren Waller when you watch Pitts. It’s very early, but forecasting Pitts to land in the top half of Round 1 doesn’t look foolish at all.

If there is a Gators prospect whose stock was most volatile entering the season, it was QB Kyle Trask. While admitting that there probably won’t be a Joe Burrow-like QB ascension in this year’s class, Trask was one of the first prospects we mentioned who had that type of potential to move up. (Just do us a favor and skip over the Brock Purdy section. Yikes.)

There were times last season when Trask, getting his first real shot to showcase his abilities, forced some passes into traffic, struggled vs. zone coverage and lacked zip on his passes. But in Saturday’s game, Trask appeared poised, accurate and dangerous.

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has work to do as an NFL draft prospect, but his opening-game performance against Mississippi was terrific. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask has work to do as an NFL draft prospect, but his opening-game performance against Mississippi was terrific. (AP Photo/Thomas Graning)

It was one game, but a fine performance to kickstart his season. Trask has every shot to be QB4 in the 2021 NFL draft class if he keeps stacking strong showings for a team capable of reaching the College Football Playoff. Tests against Texas A&M, LSU, Georgia, Kentucky and Tennessee should provide ample opportunity for the redshirt senior to boost his draft status.

Our third Florida riser is WR Kadarius Toney. He’s a tricky player to evaluate because the former high school QB has transitioned to a ball-carrying role and because he’s been saddled with injuries. Toney missed seven games with a shoulder injury in 2019, limiting him to 15 touches, and he was suspended in the 2018 season for possession of a weapon.

But in his senior season, Toney has a chance to rewrite his story. Saturday’s game saw the 5-foot-11, 193-pound Toney line up in the backfield, the slot, out wide, in motion and as a returner. He ran twice for 55 yards, caught five passes for 59 yards and a 16-yard TD, and also return two kickoffs for 40 yards.

Toney is, simply put, a contortionist on the football field. His dead-leg move, mid-run hesitations and change-of-direction ability are just rare. Tony bounces off tackles with ease and twists his body into incomprehensible ways to make defenders miss.

He’s labeled as a “Joker” type of playmaker now, sort of in the hybrid runner/screen receiver mold of Parris Campbell or Tony Pollard. But a full season of running more NFL-type routes as a receiver bodes well for his draft stock.

Entering the season, Toney was receiving mostly Day 3 grades, mainly for his lack of a body of work (50 catches, 47 rushes and 10 returns over three seasons). We think a big final season could see those grades rise considerably. Toney is a big play waiting to happen.

Going beyond the box score for Louisville’s stud receiver

Not every NFL team will be enamored with Louisville’s undersized receiver, Tutu Atwell. His size — listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds — would put him in the bottom first or second percentile in the league next year, which could be a deterrent for some.

Don’t count us among the doubters.

We spoke last week with Courier-Journal writer Cameron Teague about Atwell’s NFL draft potential, and our feelings were not swayed a bit despite Atwell’s limited output in the loss to Pitt on Saturday.

Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell has game-changing speed, even if he's not getting the ball a ton. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Louisville wide receiver Tutu Atwell has game-changing speed, even if he's not getting the ball a ton. (Photo by Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Atwell caught four passes for 37 yards and a TD in a ho-hum box score game. But more than once we saw the blinding speed of Atwell — rumored to be a sub-4.3 40-yard runner — play out in the game. At least three times, he roasted the Panthers’ secondary on plays that didn’t result in Atwell getting the ball. On one occasion, he drew a pass interference call that set up a Cardinals TD on an underthrown ball.

Atwell did bobble a would-be touchdown catch on a play scouts would like to see him grab more naturally, and his actual touchdown appeared to come on a busted play.

But nonetheless, Atwell’s game-changing speed is tangible. Any NFL offense needing a home-run threat who can take a short pass a long way can use Atwell, and he’s done a good job of separating cleanly downfield — something he wasn’t asked to do a ton last year.

If he keeps this up, we think Atwell is destined to land in the top 50 overall selections next spring.

Sweet, fancy Moses

Alabama is always teeming with NFL talent, and one Crimson Tide prospect who reminded us Saturday of just how special he can be is their talented inside linebacker, Dylan Moses.

After missing the entire 2019 season with a torn ACL, Moses started off 2020 with a vengeance. He was everywhere in Bama’s 38-19 win over Missouri, making four tackles (two for losses) and looking spry in coverage. You’d have never known this is a player whose injury concerns are high atop scouts’ list, with last year’s knee injury plus a foot injury that ended his 2017 season prematurely.

Moses announced his arrival on a gorgeous fourth-and-1 stop for a loss on Missouri’s Larry Rountree, and the Bama middle linebacker later snuffed out QB Shaun Robinson behind the line after Mizzou entered the red zone in the second quarter.

Moses also had a 13-yard sack negated by penalty. Forget about that and check out how fast Moses closes on the Tigers’ QB.

For all the talk about Missouri’s Nick Bolton coming into the game — and he turned in a solid performance, all things considered — Moses just looks like the better NFL prospect on the whole. Other than Penn State’s Micah Parsons, there isn’t a 2021 LB prospect we’d rather have.

If his health holds up, Moses figures to be LB2 in this class with the potential to go somewhere in the top 20 picks. Following in the Bama LB tradition of Rashaan Evans, Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and Reuben Foster, Moses looks like the school’s next great at the position.

Losers

Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond

We’ve been pretty fair to Mond in the past, recognizing that he has NFL-caliber ability while also noting that his development has been anything but linear at this point.

In fact, you could argue he’s not much different now than he was during an eye-opening 2018 season. That statement holds up after a shaky performance in a 17-12 win over Vanderbilt.

Facing a defense with perhaps one NFL draft prospect on it, Mond fumbled three times (losing two) and overshot several open receivers in the narrow victory. It was a troublesome performance, even with WRs Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers declaring early before the 2020 draft and WR Jhamon Ausbon opting out of this season.

It was a tough opening game for Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond, who was ineffective against Vanderbilt. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)
It was a tough opening game for Texas A&M QB Kellen Mond, who was ineffective against Vanderbilt. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Mond’s final fumble on a read-option keeper opened the door for Vandy — a 31.5-point dog — to pull out a shocker. It didn’t happen, and Mond’s receivers certainly let him down, too, with five dropped passes. But overall, this was a pretty inauspicious to a season where last week he said he was “on a mission for myself and my teammates.”

Mond got a lot of attention at the 2019 SEC Media Days when he proclaimed he was the conference’s best quarterback. We wonder what Joe Burrow, Tua Tagovailoa and Jake Fromm might have thought about that. And, honestly, with those three QBs now in the NFL, there still were half a dozen draft-eligible quarterbacks who outperformed Mond in other SEC games on Saturday.

He’s got a lot of work to do to boost his suddenly very shaky draft stock, even in what looks like a very top-heavy QB class.

Florida State DT Marvin Wilson

A week after blocking two field goal attempts against Georgia Tech, Wilson had a forgettable game Saturday in a blowout loss to Miami.

Starting at left end and playing more head up over the tackle than we can remember from him, Wilson registered three tackles before making his one QB hit in the game. And it was costly.

Judge for yourselves on this one. Wilson does a good job defeating two blockers to get to Miami QB D’Eriq King and lay a big hit on him. But Wilson was ejected for targeting on this play and will miss the first half of this week’s game against Jacksonville State.

Chalk this up more as a missed opportunity than a stock-crushing event.

Wilson returned to school — to the surprise of some — this year. He was one of our favorite interior defensive linemen to watch last season prior to missing the final chunk of 2019 with a hand injury.

But after putting Wilson up very high in our early 2021 NFL draft rankings this spring, we spoke with some NFL folks over the summer who weren’t quite as enamored with him. In fact, Wilson’s summer grades ranged from Day 2 projections (second and third round) to as low as Rounds 4 and 5.

We feel the latter is just way too harsh on the 6-foot-5, 305-pound defender. His violent, tenacious style, powerful hands and good penetration ability offset some athletic limitations and occasionally undisciplined style.

But still, the NFL was more ambivalent about his stock than we were, and that’s all that truly matters. Now Wilson lost the second half of Saturday’s game and the first half of this week against a lesser opponent to help boost his production. He’ll need to pick it back up once FSU returns to ACC play.

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