2021 NFL draft: 10 prospects with most to prove in conference-championship weekend

Eric Edholm
·10 min read

Conference title games begin Friday night and run through Saturday as a grand stage for several NFL draft prospects.

You’ll first want to read more in-depth on the games from a handicapping standpoint, via our intrepid college football bloggers. And then, to get you into draft mode — we’re a little more than four months away from Round 1 — we’d like to set the stage for the prospects who potentially have the most to gain or lose.

We’re not listing the 10 best prospects here, necessarily, but rather 10 whose stocks appear to have the most volatility heading into the games. (Other prospects in the games are in bold face.)

Florida quarterback Kyle Trask looks still has lots to prove heading into a showdown against Alabama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Florida quarterback Kyle Trask looks still has lots to prove heading into a showdown against Alabama. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Florida QB Kyle Trask vs. Alabama

Trask is not universally viewed as a first-round prospect in NFL scouting circles, and he was left out of our first-round mock draft from Thursday.

Can he make that jump? Time could be running out, even as he’s set to play in this big game — plus the Senior Bowl next month. Both stages could be big for Trask’s ultimate landing spot.

Alabama’s pass defense was fairly loose and giving the first few games of the season, but it has tightened up since the Ole Miss shootout in early October. In the seven games since then, the Crimson Tide have allowed 77 points, five TD passes and 186.3 pass yards per game. It also has 22 sacks, nine interceptions and nine forced fumbles.

Trask is coming off a two-pick game after throwing only three in his first 321 attempts of the season. There seems to be more NFL buzz on his Alabama counterpart, Mac Jones, heading into this game. This should be a prime matchup on Saturday afternoon.

Alabama C Landon Dickerson vs. Florida

Dickerson has been one of the best blockers in college football this season. His performance against Georgia showed that he’s more than just a smart, tough lineman and should be considered a legitimate top-50 overall prospect. We even found a spot for him at the end of Round 1 in our latest mock draft.

Dickerson will lock horns with the Gators’ massive nose tackle, Tedarrell Slaton, who is listed at 340 pounds (and might be more). Although Slaton’s play appears to have leveled off in recent games, he’s a massive man who isn’t easily moved.

What we love about Dickerson’s game is that it’s fully steeped in the kind of power you’d imagine from a 6-5, 344-pound man. When he gets his nearly 11-inch hands on defenders, the battle is usually over.

Dickerson also plays with a high level of recognition, keeping his head on a swivel for late rushers and stunts, can get out on the move better than you’d imagine and maximizes his leverage and balance in tight spaces.

He might be a guard at the next level, but Dickerson’s ascension has been a fun ride.

(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
(Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

Cincinnati QB Desmond Ridder vs. Tulsa

There’s no QB consensus this year, but the top six possible prospects appear to be — in some order — Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields, Zach Wilson, Trey Lance, Jones and Trask.

There’s room for another name in that mix.

Ridder has been a bit forgotten in the big picture despite the Bearcats’ terrific season. (The playoff committee sure seems unimpressed with the team, anyway.) So assuming Ridder and Cincy are shut out of the playoff picture, this AAC title game against a quality Tulsa team figures to hold some pretty good value for his draft stock.

Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder has made big strides this season. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Cincinnati quarterback Desmond Ridder has made big strides this season. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

Ridder’s high notes this season have been impressive, and the 6-4, 215-pounder has improved his accuracy, taken fewer sacks, become a more effective runner and avoided the scattershot games that were all too frequent in years past. He uses his legs to create plays outside of structure and can fire off some impressive dimes, especially on the move.

Tulsa got the best of Ridder a year ago, and the Golden Hurricane defense is even better this season with several NFL prospects, including potential first-round LB Zaven Collins and intriguing CB Alie Green IV.

But Ridder clearly has improved since then, too. How will he and the offense run after a three-week layoff? We’ll see if that’s a factor in their fluidity. His raw skill has more than one scout intrigued with his ultimate upside. We think he has a chance to go on Day 2 if he comes out in this draft class.

Northwestern CB Greg Newsome II vs. Ohio State

The 6-1, 190-pound Newsome is a player we first mentioned back in mid-November, and he’s been pretty tremendous this season.

After Nebraska and Purdue tried to test him early, the Wildcats’ three opponents since then have learned their lessons. Wisconsin, Michigan State and Illinois have targeted him a total of 11 times. Newsome has allowed one 7-yard catch and has four passes defended.

He’s a physical corner, prone to grabbing and playing through the whistle, so it will be interesting to see how the Big Ten title game against the Buckeyes is called. Last year, we were treated to a showcase matchup of Wisconsin WR Quintez Cephus vs. OSU CB Jeff Okudah in this game, and Newsome against either Chris Olave or Garrett Wilson should be just as entertaining.

We think Newsome has a chance to be a Day 2 pick, even in a good CB class, if he declares. We recently connected him to the Carolina Panthers in our “Draft Makeover” series.

Clemson RB Travis Etienne vs. Notre Dame

All eyes will be on Trevor Lawrence after he missed the first game against the Irish this season, but we believe this will be an excellent opportunity for Etienne to atone for his sub-par effort in that earlier meeting.

Etienne tied a season- and career-high in that game with eight receptions, including one huge catch to convert a third-and-long. He also scored to give Clemson the lead late in the fourth quarter and nearly ran back a kick-six on a missed field goal, displaying his impressive, game-changing burst.

Notre Dame held Clemson RB Travis Etienne in check in their earlier meeting this season. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)
Notre Dame held Clemson RB Travis Etienne in check in their earlier meeting this season. (Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images)

But he was held to 28 rushing yards on 18 carries, fumbled a goal-line exchange with freshman QB D.J. Uiagalelei and — most critically — ran out of bounds to stop the clock as Clemson was trying to ice its lead late. That was a critical error, one week after Etienne coughed up a ball that was scooped and scored by Boston College.

These are the things that keep evaluators up and night and prevent teams from taking running backs in Round 1. A strong, error-free game against a great Irish defense (led by likely first-round LB Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah) could help ease scouts’ minds a bit.

Iowa State TE Charlie Kolar vs. Oklahoma

It’s a good but perhaps not great TE class the way things are shaping up. But Kolar is part of a second tier of prospects who could be in the mix to go off the board early on Day 3 if he chooses to enter the upcoming draft class.

The nearly 6-foot-6, 257-pound Kolar has extremely reliable hands, especially in traffic. He has only three dropped passes in three seasons, on 147 targets. Following a tepid start this season, Kolar has five TDs in his past seven games and dropped a 112-yard effort against Texas that featured some clutch grabs.

The Sooners threw the kitchen sink at Kolar, matchup-wise, in their meeting earlier this season, and he still managed an impressive four catches (all netting first downs) for 66 yards. He’s not exceptionally fast, doesn’t change direction all that quickly and isn’t an impact blocker. But he’s tough after the catch and just has a knack for making catches down the seam.

Kolar gives us some Dalton Schultz vibes, making him a very respectable TE2 prospect for a team that uses a lot of “12 personnel” packages.

USC OT Alijah Vera-Tucker vs. Oregon

Friday night’s Pac-12 title game pits a struggling Ducks team against the comeback-artist Trojans, and there will be a great battles on both sides of the ball.

But we wanted to highlight the matchup of Vera-Tucker vs. Oregon pass rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux, as it could be a really impactful one for two possible first-round picks. (Thibodeaux isn’t eligible until the 2022 NFL draft at the soonest).

USC OT Alijah Vera-Tucker has looked good this season after moving to left tackle. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
USC OT Alijah Vera-Tucker has looked good this season after moving to left tackle. (Photo by Kevin Abele/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Vera-Tucker has made the switch beautifully from left guard to left tackle this season, thriving despite great length and good but not elite athletic traits. His light feet, mirroring and recovery skills and competitive toughness all are top-notch. NFL evaluators are having the guard-vs.-tackle debate with Vera-Tucker, but we placed him in Round 1 of our recently dropped mock.

Thibodeaux and Vera-Tucker really didn’t match up in last year’s game (in which both played well independently), so this matchup should be a blast.

UAB EDGE Jordan Smith vs. Marshall

Another Friday night matchup worth tuning in for, the Conference-USA title game pits another NFL-caliber, pass-rusher-vs.-blocker battle with draft implications.

The 6-foot-6, 255-pound Smith has worked his way into the top-100 picture (and possibly as high as Round 2) with back-to-back strong seasons for the Blazers. He had 2.5 sacks in a strong performance last week and faces an even stiffer test this week.

Marshall OT Josh Ball stands in Smith’s way. The nearly 6-foot-8, 304-pound Ball has played well as the Thundering Herd’s starting left tackle. He was given some third- and fourth-round grades this summer from NFL scouts despite starting only starting one game last season and has improved on that performance this year.

Interestingly, Smith’s and Ball’s former teams faced off when they were the rosters of Florida and Florida State, respectively, back in 2017, although they didn’t square off on the field. (Ball was FSU’s starting left tackle, but Smith didn’t play in that game for the Gators.)

Both players were dismissed from their former programs for off-field allegations, but each have rebuilt their reputations at their current destinations. Now they get to face off in a terrific matchup on the field.

Ball State CB Antonio Phillips vs. Buffalo

We highlighted Phillips prior to the MAC getting its 2020 season back on track, and he’s responded with a solid performance so far. Phillips is still looking for his first pick this season after four a year ago, and he’s been flagged four times in six games.

The Bulls are a run-heavy team, but leading receiver Antonio Nunn is a 5-10, 191-pound playmaker with deep speed who will try to test Phillips and the Cardinals vertically.

Phillips looks like a possible Day 3 pick. Nunn is a borderline draft pick and possible priority free agent.

Buffalo RB Jaret Patterson vs. Ball State

It has been a transcendent junior season for Patterson, who ranks eighth in FBS in rushing yards (1,025) despite every other rusher in the top 10 having played 10 or more games to Patterson’s five outings this season.

Patterson has ripped off a 40-yard run in six of his past eight games, dating back to last season, and has really improved his draft status despite being on the smaller side at 5-foot-9 and roughly 195 pounds. His vision, quickness and ability to pick through tight spaces has impressed onlookers.

Ball State’s run defense allowed nine rush TDs and an average of 147.8 rush yards per game but has held opposing backs to 3.9 yards per carry and is averaging nearly six tackles for loss per game.

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