The big NFL news from Sunday outside of the playoff race was that the Jacksonville Jaguars will be picking first in the 2021 NFL draft — the first time, believe it or not, that they’ve earned the top overall selection.
Decent year to land it, too.
Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence is perhaps the most anticipated QB prospect to come out in many years, maybe since Andrew Luck in 2012.
Wonder how many of these sell this week?
Up the coast, New York Jets fans aren’t sure which jerseys to buy yet — or burn. And just when it looked like Sam Darnold was going to be a trade target this coming offseason, he’s now strung three quite respectable games together.
The Jets are locked into the No. 2 spot in the draft, no matter what they do in Week 17 against the New England Patriots. Darnold could use that game to play well and make it a tougher call for GM Joe Douglas this coming offseason.
BYU QB Zach Wilson appears to be the most likely QB option at No. 2 if the Jets stay there. Wilson has displayed star power this season and appears to have the confidence, arm talent and outside-of-structure playmaking ability to be worth the investment.
Simply put: If Douglas believes Wilson is a better prospect than what he’s seen from Darnold, then Wilson easily could be the pick.
Trading down certainly is an option, even if the Jets aren’t hurting for picks. They currently have six of the first 98 overall selections in 2021 and even own the Seattle Seahawks’ 2022 first-rounder, plus other additional picks.
They also could stick at two and take the best non-quarterback. Would taking Oregon OT Penei Sewell there be too much of a luxury after selecting OT Mekhi Becton 11th overall last year? That’s a fair question, even if Douglas likely wouldn’t shy away from that blue-collar approach if he feels Sewell is a transcendent talent.
The defensive options that high in the draft aren’t quite as cut and dry. It would be more likely they go that route by moving down. But that would require the Jets sticking with Darnold — or finding another veteran starter in the free-agency period prior to the draft.
Darnold’s statistics over the past three games (52 of 89 passing, 514 yards, three TDs; 13 rushes, 41 yards) are fairly unimpressive. But he’s played turnover-free ball in that span and has cut down his self-inflicted sacks a bit. A strong game at New England, against whom he’s struggled in two career games, could help make a stronger case for the Jets to keep him.
On the flip side, Darnold hasn’t been asked to do much in that period, either. He’s looked better as a game manager type, but is that what’s best for the Jets or Darnold going forward?
A lot will depend on the Jets’ next head coach, too. How that person feels about Darnold — who has a year left on his rookie contract — certainly should be taken into consideration.
Now let’s take a look at the early winners and losers from the first round of bowl games, most of which featured non-Power-5 teams and more Day 3 prospects than Day 1 or Day 2 options.
Nevada QB Carson Strong
It’s been strangely quiet, buzz-wise, around the Wolf Pack program in general this season, and especially around Strong.
But now that they’ve completed a 7-2 season, capped by a bowl-game win over Tulane, there has been a little more attention paid to what they’ve done. And Strong is considered the favorite for Mountain West Offensive Player of the Year.
The redshirt sophomore was the triggerman for the Wolf Pack’s Air Raid system, completing more than 70 percent of his passes despite throwing the ball nearly 40 times per game.
The 6-foot-4, 215-pound Strong notched a 27-4 TD-INT ratio and averaged a healthy 8.1 yards per attempt in nine games despite losing their leading receiver from 2019, Elijah Cooks, in the opener. In the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl win over the Green Wave, Strong completed 22 of 28 passes (78.6 percent) for 271 yards, five TDs and no picks.
Strong has at least two years of eligibility remaining, if he chooses, but there’s at least a chance he sniffs around at his draft stock before making a call on that. More likely, he returns as a 2022 draft prospect and enters next college season as one of the more intriguing QB prospects.
BYU wide receivers
We’ve spilled endless ink on QB Zach Wilson, and we’ve even touched on the Cougars’ other interesting prospects, including on the offensive line and on defense.
But one spot we’ve not gone into depth on has been at wideout. BYU has at least three who could end up getting looks in the NFL: Dax Milne, Gunner Romney and Neil Pau’u.
All three have eligibility remaining, and it would not be surprising to see Romney return to school with his brother, Baylor, would be a leading candidate to replace Wilson if and when he vaults to the league.
The 6-1, 190-pound Milne has been Wilson’s security blanket most of the season. He’s a very clean route runner with late separation, and his hands are very reliable, sort of in the Cooper Kupp-Jakobi Meyers mold.
The one who has helped his cause the most this season has been Pau’u, who was arrested for a DUI last June and had to be readmitted onto the team after a yearlong suspension. He finished his redshirt junior season with 45 receptions for 603 yards and four TDs, stacking his three biggest yardage games in the final three games of the season.
Our guess is that Pau’u is the most likely of the three to leave early, even if he’s no guarantee to land in the top 100 picks. If they all return to school, the Cougars should be loaded again on offense. Underclassmen RBs Tyler Allgeier and Lopini Katoa and TEs Isaac Rex, Carter Wheat and Masen Wake also are expected back, even if the offensive line will suffer heavy losses.
Louisiana RB Elijah Mitchell
The 2021 RB crop isn’t quite as sexy a group as we imagined back in the summer, but it’s by no means a disappointing one, either.
And Mitchell is a player we like a lot in the middle rounds of the draft, a highly productive back despite sharing the carries every year for the Ragin’ Cajuns. Mitchell and Trey Ragas split work this season, and those two also did so with 2020 Tampa Bay Buccaneers seventh-rounder Raymond Calais (now with the Los Angeles Rams).
Mitchell carries his 218-pound frame well, with smooth, easy acceleration and soft hands as a receiver. He isn’t a speed back, and some NFL scouts actually gave the 222-pound Ragas higher grades over the summer.
But we believe Mitchell has helped his cause a bit more this season and projects to be a more universally appreciated prospect of the two. Against UTSA in the First Responder Bowl on Boxing Day, Mitchell ran 19 times for 127 yards and a touchdown and caught two passes for a team-high 45 yards. For that effort, he was named the game’s MVP.
We’ll next see Mitchell at the Senior Bowl, where he joins a tightly packed group of prospects that includes UCLA’s Demetric Felton, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, North Carolina’s Michael Carter, Missouri’s Larry Rountree and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert. The Senior Bowl might not always be a RB showcase, but we think that game and the week of practice prior will help start to separate a few of them.
Style-wise, we see a little of 2020 Los Angeles Chargers fourth-rounder Joshua Kelley and 2020 New York Jets fourth-rounder La’Mical Perine in Mitchell and believe he could be taken in a similar range next spring.
Memphis OT Obinna Eze
The nearly 6-foot-8 Eze has shown some nice potential this season after taking a bit to develop early on for the Tigers after the Nigerian-born prospect was a four-star high-school recruit.
Eze stood out a few times in the bowl-game win over Florida Atlantic, and his draft status has been simmering a bit after a nice 2020 season. He had a little trouble handling speed rushers against Cincinnati and Tulane, but Eze projects to be an interesting Day 3 option should he enter the draft mix.
It’s a pretty deep group at tackle this season, but Eze’s length, mass and finishing ability make him the perfect later-round developmental prospect.
Day 3 wide receivers
Like it was in the 2020 NFL draft, the wide receiver crop in the upcoming draft looks special again.
This past spring, there were six first-round wideouts and seven second-rounders. The 2021 version might not be quite as top-heavy this year, but the talent at the position appears quite commensurate.
The problem for the draft’s WR talents is twofold: One, with so many teams using higher picks at the position a year ago, there might be some reticence from those teams to do the same this coming draft. And two, the free-agency crop at the position is considered unusually strong, as well.
The group will include Allen Robinson (Chicago Bears), Chris Godwin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers), Juju Smith-Schuster (Pittsburgh Steelers), Kenny Golladay (Detroit Lions), A.J. Green (Cincinnati Bengals), Corey Davis (Tennessee Titans), Will Fuller (Houston Texans), Nelson Agholor (Las Vegas Raiders), T.Y. Hilton (Indianapolis Colts), Curtis Samuel (Carolina Panthers), Sammy Watkins (Kansas City Chiefs), Allen Lazard (Green Bay Packers), Marvin Jones Jr. (Lions) and others.
And that list doesn’t include the annual list of salary-cap casualties, trade candidates and restricted free agents (such as the Denver Broncos’ Tim Patrick).
In short, it’s a crowded field. Teams might fill up their WR spots early, which could cause a trickle-down effect for the draft prospects. And receivers who might normally be be top-100 candidates could slide to Day 3.
Donovan Peoples-Jones had to wait until Round 6 to hear his name called last year, but his talent clearly indicates he should have gone earlier. The same could be said for 2020 Buffalo Bills fourth-rounder Gabriel Davis and 2020 Chicago Bears fifth-rounder Darnell Mooney.
Expect some really great WR values in Rounds 4 through 7 in April. The talent is there, and yet the opportunities to go higher might not be.
UCF WR Tre Nixon
Nixon’s 2020 campaign got off to a rousing start, with two TD catches in the season opener against Georgia Tech. But his day ended with an ambulance ride following a broken collarbone he suffered in the game.
The 6-1, 181-pound Nixon returned to the field for the Cincinnati game a month ago, but outside of a few nice grabs against South Florida it has been a tough comeback. Nixon admitted he was “in a dark spot” during his rehab but should be credited for his toughness in fighting back to hit the field again in 2020.
Still, his production suffered, and Nixon’s drop rate — perhaps one of his bigger concerns as a prospect — remained high. In the bowl-game loss to BYU, Nixon caught five passes (on 10 targets) for 48 yards, with one drop and a false-start penalty on a third-and-short play after the Knights fell behind 21-0.
We don’t know Nixon’s plans for the draft, but coming back and letting his collarbone completely heal could be the best plan of action. He’ll have Dillon Gabriel throwing him passes and could boost his draft stock with a more fruitful 2021 season.
North Texas DT Dion Novil
We highlighted the intriguing Novil earlier in the season as a player who had fallen below the radar, despite it being an underwhelming DT class in the 2021 draft.
But Novil had a very quiet performance in the Myrtle Beach Bowl, failing to register a tackle and playing only 27 of the team’s 61 defensive snaps. He also let a few would-be tackles slip through his 33-inch arms in what was a disappointing showing in the Mean Green’s season-ending loss.
Listed at 6-4 and 330 pounds, Novil earned first-team all-Conference USA honors this season with eight tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles in 10 games. But his play down the stretch seemed to wane following a monster game against Rice, with only five tackles and no big plays in his final four outings.
Also, scouts believe he’s closer to 6-foot-1 and around 320 pounds than his listed weight. Even in a shallow DT crop, Novil has work to do to firm up his draft stock.
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