NFL draft: Top-tier SEC talent raises the bar for this week's prospects to watch

Eric Edholm
·10 mins read

Now we’re cooking with gas.

The past few weeks of college football — marred by canceled games — have been a pretty slow burn. But the main courses are starting to arrive, and boy, are we hungry.

With the SEC starting play Saturday and several big-game 2021 NFL draft prospects in action, this week’s prospect matchups feature some real heavyweight battles.

Auburn WRs Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz vs. Kentucky secondary

Auburn’s dangerous WR duo is back for at least another year, although it would not be stunning if both of them consider entering the 2021 NFL draft.

The 6-foot-3, 215 pound Williams has the chiseled body and contested-catch skill to make an impact on the next level. The 6-foot, 180-pound Schwartz has the blinding speed teams are seeking these days.

But both have clear room to improve their draft stocks. Williams must show that he has better movement skills and quickness, too often taking too long to gear down on routes or change directions. Schwartz must prove to be more reliable as a complete receiver, and his 2019 season was marred by hand and hamstring injuries that bookended his year and held him back.

Standing in their way is what should be a good Wildcats secondary again. It was a unit rife with questions a year ago, but S Yusuf Corker and CB Brandin Echols, two 2021 draft-eligible prospects worth keeping an eye on, helped make it the SEC’s statistically best pass defense a year ago.

Echols is an excitable defensive back who looked like he was just scratching the surface last season after arriving from junior college. And despite struggling early in the Belk Bowl against Virginia Tech, allowing a touchdown grab, Echols made the game’s signature play — a massive hit that forced a walk-off scoop and score by teammate Jordan Wright.

Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams has a penchant for making highlight-reel grabs. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams has a penchant for making highlight-reel grabs. (Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Echols lines up primarily outside. He’s likely to square off at times with the yoked-up Williams (who actually shed some weight this offseason, dropping from 224 pounds to 211, which should help with his quickness). Williams can make the highlight catch appear routine, with terrific physical skills and a big size advantage in this game.

Corker is UK’s best deep safety, but he also will man the slot. That means he and Schwartz could lock horns quite a bit. Schwartz operates inside and out but spent more time in the slot last season. Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has said he wants to move Schwartz around and feels that he’s ready for a breakout season now that he’s injury-free.

Schwartz’s deep speed — he’s sometimes called the fastest man in college football — will tax this secondary. The 6-foot, 197-pound Corker is a strong tackler with a cornerback background who has caught the eye of NFL scouts.

Florida TE Kyle Pitts vs. Ole Miss defense

Our preseason TE1 jumps into the fray. We’re big fans of Miami’s Brevin Jordan, and it’s exciting that we’ll see Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth this season. Both figure to be highly rated tight ends in the 2021 class.

But Pitts is the kind of rare physical specimen and difference-maker that, in our minds, pushes him to the top of the TE list this year. At 6-6 and 239 pounds, he’s built in sort of the Darren Waller mold of tight end — basically a king-sized, game-changing receiver who has the length and leverage to help as a blocker, too.

How a potentially overmatched Ole Miss defense, led now by new defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, will handle Pitts is anyone’s guess.

Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is too big to be covered by most defensive backs, and he can leave linebackers in his dust. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)
Florida tight end Kyle Pitts is too big to be covered by most defensive backs, and he can leave linebackers in his dust. (AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Make no mistake: Pitts is largely an in-line tight end in Dan Mullen’s system, although he does flex out into the slot or out wide on occasion.

But wherever Pitts lines up, he’s a mismatch. LSU put its best corner on Pitts, and he won several battles. South Carolina used safeties and its 6-4 corner, Israel Mukuamu, on Pitts; he still caught five balls and a TD. Missouri tried its fine linebacker (Nick Bolton) at times on Pitts with mixed results.

The fact that Pitts, who was 18 year old to start last season, led the Gators in receptions — catching two or more balls in every game, despite a QB change midseason — is fairly stunning. Florida, don’t forget, had three wide receivers drafted in 2020, along with a good receiving back in Lamical Perine.

Pitts, who doesn’t turn 20 until Oct. 9, is an absolute alien with his length, athleticism and explosiveness. He has a chance to become just the fifth tight end drafted in the top 20 since 2010 if he keeps progressing and chooses to come out early.

Mississippi State QB K.J. Costello vs. LSU LB Jabril Cox

OK, so perhaps this is a bit of a stretch in terms of a straight-up matchup. But we can’t wait to see the fellow senior transfers — Costello from Stanford, Cox from North Dakota State — line up against one another in their first games with their new SEC programs.

Costello will attempt to rebuild his stock in the eyes of NFL scouts, which was hurt last season when he struggled for the Cardinal and missed two stretches of 2019 with injuries. Prior to that, NFL scouts were intrigued with his mental makeup, downfield touch and work under duress.

How will Costello, who previously operated David Shaw’s pro-style system, look in Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme? It’s anyone’s guess, but Costello has a chance to be a big riser if he can thrive, much in the way Gardner Minshew came out of nowhere to be an NFL draft pick after one season in Leach’s scheme. (That is, assuming Costello is in fact the starter; he was technically listed as a co-starter with true freshman Will Rogers.)

QB K.J. Costello should look quite different in a Mississippi State uniform. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
QB K.J. Costello should look quite different in a Mississippi State uniform. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

The 6-foot-3, 231-pound Cox is the prototype for the modern linebacker in many ways. He possesses a longer, leaner frame, moves extremely well in coverage and can blitz with shocking effectiveness, registering a whopping 16 total pressures (five sacks, five QB hits and six hurries in 2019, per Pro Football Reference) on a mere 45 pass-rush chances last season for the Bison.

How he’ll be unleashed by the Tigers is speculation at this point. But it would not be surprising to see him add a new chapter to LSU’s recent success in developing NFL-made linebackers, following the recent tradition of Patrick Queen, Jacob Phillips, Devin White, Duke Riley, Kendell Beckwith, Deion Jones and Kwon Alexander.

Alabama RB Najee Harris vs. Missouri LB Nick Bolton

The 6-2, 229-pound Harris had an incredible 2019 season, rushing 209 times for 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns and catching 27 passes (on 33 targets) for 304 yards and seven TDs.

We frankly were surprised when he opted to return to school for his senior season after flashing receiving ability that he hadn’t previously. But given the depth in the Bama backfield the past few years, Harris still has good tread on his tires with only 424 touches the past three seasons combined.

The strength of Mizzou under new head coach Eli Drinkwitz is on defense, but even a unit that’s solid up the middle — two draftable defensive linemen, plus Bolton — is going to be taxed by the firepower the Tide can bring to this game.

After all, QB Mac Jones has two more first-round talents at receiver, Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith, a season after they placed two other receivers in Round 1. Missouri could be starting a true freshman at corner in Ennis Rakestraw. Handling those threats on the outside will be a tall order.

But this game is big for Bolton, who started earning some high praise in draft circles this summer. His high motor, athletic traits and football instincts all rate highly. The Tigers’ defense didn’t fall off the cliff when Cale Garrett was hurt last year and the sophomore linebacker slid from his “Will” LB spot to take over for Garrett in the middle.

How Bolton handles Harris and Co. could help give the redshirt junior some nice tape to kick off what could be his final season in Columbia. Last season, LSU’s Queen made some standout plays against the Crimson Tide that helped launch his ascension into a Round 1 prospect.

Florida State S Hamsah Nasirildeen vs. Miami playmakers

We’ve had to wait for the return of Nasirildeen, who missed the opener against Georgia Tech as he continued to rehab from his leg injury that ended his 2019 campaign. The hope is that Nasirildeen will make his 2020 debut on Saturday against the Hurricanes.

And boy, can they use him.

The 6-3, 220-pound Nasirildeen is an impact player wherever he lines up on the field. The Seminoles used him as a deep safety, up in the box, as a slot corner, covering out wide and even blitzing. His size, range, explosive athleticism and football temperament are all very good to excellent.

No, Nasirildeen isn’t the type of 99th-percentile athletic tester the way No. 8 overall pick Isaiah Simmons was this spring. But Nasirildeen shouldn’t be far off of that spectrum either … assuming he’s healthy. His medical evaluation might end up being his biggest NFL concern, along with some occasionally sloppy tackling technique.

Florida State needs a healthy Hamsah Nasirildeen back on defense in 2020. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)
Florida State needs a healthy Hamsah Nasirildeen back on defense in 2020. (AP Photo/Bill Sikes)

“Any time you have an impactful player like Hamsah that has the versatility in all that he does in both the run game, passing game, it’s such a great dynamic to add, as well as his leadership ability, just who he is as a person,” FSU head coach Mike Norvell said last week. “It definitely will be giving us a big boost, so we’re excited about it.

Nasirildeen was excellent against the run last season, and we like him best in a role closer to the line of scrimmage. Linebacker might ultimately be his best NFL position. He also played a good game in the loss to the Noles last season, tipping a third-down pass, recovering a fumble and nearly picking off another pass.

How Nasirildeen can help combat Miami’s playmaking trio of mobile QB D’Eriq King, exciting RB Cam’Ron Harris and dangerous TE Brevin Jordan could serve as a reminder of just how impactful this do-it-all defender can be.

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