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The 2021 NFL draft is barely in the rearview mirror, but we wanted to prime you for the college football season — and the 2022 NFL draft — with a look at some prospects we’re really excited about.
In lieu of a 2022 mock draft (LOL) or an early rankings list, we figured we might change it up and list some top prospects who especially caught our eyes and could be in line for big jumps in the upcoming season.
There are some names you won't find on this list, such as injured Clemson wideout Justyn Ross and others. Don't worry. We'll be keeping our eyes peeled to them as well.
We’ve split our 25 prospects into two lists — 15 non-quarterbacks and 10 (count ‘em, 10) quarterbacks we think are worth a darn.
Oregon EDGE Kayvon Thibodeaux
This recent draft class lacked a Nick Bosa-Chase Young level of edge rusher. That run ends in 2022 with Thibodeaux. He’s a star.
USC’s Alijah Vera-Tucker was one of our favorite offensive linemen to watch last season, and he was well worth the Jets trading up for him with the 14th overall pick. The one player Vera-Tucker struggled with last season: Thibodeaux, who pretty much owned AVT in their matchup.
LSU CB Derek Stingley Jr.
There’s a fascinating early battle to watch for CB1 honors with Stingley, Florida’s Kaiir Elam and Clemson’s Andrew Booth Jr. Either one could end up a top-10 pick — perhaps both.
Stingley’s true-freshman performance for the championship Tigers will go down in history, even if his injury-plagued 2020 season looms. Booth made some freaky plays last season, including an OBJ-like one-handed pick vs. Virginia.
Elam has great length and playmaking ability but could be more physical a tackler and less physical in coverage (four penalties last season).
Notre Dame S Kyle Hamilton
Pegged as a star from the minute he stepped on campus, the 6-foot-4, 218-pound Hamilton made some big plays in both games vs. Clemson last season. He also made some critical stops on key situations (third and fourth downs, fourth quarters, red zone, etc.). The only thing he seems to lack is elite speed, which could keep him closer to the line of scrimmage at the next level.
Alabama OT Evan Neal
Watch enough Crimson Tide tape over the course of a season, and you’ll inevitably have your eyes stolen away from the player you’re supposed to be watching and over to big No. 69. Neal is hard to miss at 6-foot-7 and 360 pounds, and he could rival Mekhi Becton as the biggest tackle in the league a year from now.
Texas A&M DT DeMarvin Leal
He was an absolute monster for the Aggies as a sophomore, especially in the bowl game. Leal has the kind of interior rushing skills and run-stopping ability that too few 2021 DT prospects seemed to have. Check out his tipped-ball interception and near pick-six vs. Alabama as a hint of what he can become.
Arkansas WR Treylon Burks
College football once again is loaded with high-end WR talent. Burks is one of our absolute favorites. The LSU staff took one look at him last season, we’re told, and said: “That’s what a future first-round pick looks like.”
A fascinating weapon at 6-foot-3 and 232 pounds, Burks scored seven TDs in nine games last season and has averaged 16.2 yards per catch over two seasons despite Arkansas trotting out six different quarterbacks over that span. He also is used a lot in the backfield (24 rushes, 110 yards), has returned kicks and punts and can throw the ball on trick plays.
Iowa C Tyler Linderbaum
Linderbaum fascinates us because he’s about as effective a mover and wrestler on the interior that exists in college football. His size — he’s listed at 289 pounds — could be a slight deterrent. Still, we love his aggressiveness and intelligence, and believe he should be the favorite for the Rimington Trophy, given to the nation’s best center.
Texas A&M TE Jalen Wydermyer
Wydermyer isn’t Kyle Pitts, but he has a big frame, a natural feel for getting open and tackle-breaking ability. At 265 pounds, Wydermyer moves extremely well and has 12 career TDs in 22 college games — including four two-TD efforts. He’s a first-round talent.
South Carolina EDGE Kingsley Enagbare
The 6-4, 260-pound Enagbare is a powerful rush end who returned for his senior season. He has disruptive hands and great effort getting to the quarterback. Following two solid seasons, Enagbare took a big leap as a junior in 2020, with six sacks and three forced fumbles in only eight games. He can be a more complete player, though, so we’re excited to see what he can become as a senior.
Texas A&M RB Isaiah Spiller
Perhaps the best back in college football (although Iowa State’s Breece Hall would like a word on that), Spiller is a power back who has a pro-ready frame. At 6-1 and 225 pounds, he nearly reached 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons, has run for 19 TDs in 23 games and has a combined 49 receptions, too. We’ll see how his production might be affected with a new starting QB and four starters gone from the offensive line.
Alabama LB Christian Harris
A high school wide receiver and DB, Harris has adjusted extremely well to his position switch and made several highlight plays last season — as a blitzer, in coverage and with some bone-jarring run stops. He still needs work in coverage but appeared better in that department by the end of last season. Harris has all the earmarks of being the next Bama star at linebacker.
Ohio State WR Chris Olave
A smooth operator, Olave returning to school was a surprise. He’s not the biggest receiver, but Olave is about as technically proficient a WR as you’ll see in college football this fall. He has a knack for gaining separation and playing with excellent body control. Olave and Garrett Wilson are two terrific Buckeyes receivers who can start in the NFL one day.
USC EDGE Drake Jackson
Jackson is a well-built, strapping end with great burst and quickness. He drops well for his 6-4, 255-pound frame and can finish in a hurry. Although Jackson tailed off last season and has only 7.5 sacks in 17 college games, he has some serious potential to break out for the Trojans this season.
Texas A&M OT Kenyon Green
The Aggies had a great line (finalists for the Joe Moore Award last season) in 2020, but four starters are now gone. Green is the only one returning, and he’s shifting from left guard to left tackle. That move could make him a first-round pick.
North Carolina State OT Ikem Ekwonu
The 6-4, 325-pound Ekwonu received votes at guard and tackle on the AP’s all-ACC team last season. He has put on nearly 40 pounds over the past few years and is a great run blocker but must tighten up his pass protection to be in the first-round picture in 2022.
Miami S Bubba Bolden
We’ve seen some shade thrown his way, and Bolden certainly can become more efficient in coverage and more impactful and consistent overall. The flashes are there, and he has NFL-grade size at 6-3 and over 200 pounds. At the very worst, Bolden will be a big factor on special teams (three career kick blocks) and will add a dose of physicality closer to the line of scrimmage.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Some will say he’s the favorite to be QB1 next year — and perhaps No. 1 overall. Rattler has a lot to clean up. His highs were immense last season as there were times he looked to be every bit of the caliber prospect as Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Jalen Hurts. Other times, Rattler’s youth was obvious.
Still, there’s some playmaking magic in the 6-1, 205-pounder, with a live arm, a daring approach and tremendous running ability.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
We’re not quite as enamored — yet — with the ultra-talented Howell, who put up big numbers (7,227 pass yards, 68 TDs, 14 INTs, 64.4% completions) in his first two college seasons. The reasons for hesitation: he has a bit of a funky throwing motion, is prone to some bone-headed mistakes, and will lose his top two receivers and backs next season.
Even so, he made a big jump in 2020 and has a boatload of talent, including some tough, instinctive running ability. He also has natural accuracy and could push Rattler for QB1 honors.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati
Our colleague Pete Thamel wrote a great piece recently on Ridder and how he almost declared for the 2021 NFL draft as he and his girlfriend are now tasked with caring for their young daughter. But he returned to the Bearcats with a chance to cap a terrific career that has seen him make big strides last season.
JT Daniels, Georgia
When the Bulldogs finally turned the ball over to the USC transfer, good things happened for UGA. He outgunned Ridder in Georgia’s Peach Bowl comeback, leading them to three fourth-quarter scoring drives, throwing for 137 yards in the quarter after two turnovers early in the game.
Daniels still has some work to do, but his four-game snapshot last season is proof that this former elite recruit hasn’t lost his chops despite a torn ACL in 2019 that indirectly led to his transfer to Athens.
Malik Willis, Liberty
A fascinating sleeper who has all kinds of talent to make a run at Round 1, Willis is a former Auburn castoff who flashed his gun for an arm and some tremendous running ability (14 TDs, 6.7 yards per carry last season) for the Flames in 2020.
He’s a bit on the short side at just a hair over 6-foot, but Willis showed in the win over Virginia Tech last season that he needs to be taken very seriously as a prospect. He’ll have the chance to showcase his skills in two prime matchups against Syracuse and Ole Miss next season and has most of his weapons returning.
Carson Strong, Nevada
Another name we believe you should familiarize yourselves with, Strong broke out in a big way last season with a 27-4 TD-INT ratio, 8.1 yards per attempt and 70.1% completions in Jay Norvell’s and Matt Mumme’s “Air Raid” attack, earning conference Player of the Year. Strong’s favorite target from 2020 returns in big-play threat Romeo Doubs, and the Wolf Pack also return fascinating TE Cole Turner and 6-4 WR Elijah Cooks.
Strong has missed the spring following knee surgery but is expected back at full health in the fall. They face a great schedule this fall, including road games against Cal, Kansas State and Boise State.
Matt Corral, Ole Miss
Lane Kiffin’s triggerman is perhaps the biggest wild card on this list. On the one hand, Corral took a huge jump in 2020, completing 71% of his passes, averaging nearly 9 yards per completion and gashing both Alabama and Florida. He is a big-play machine: 57 combined passes and runs for 20 or more yards and 11 completions for 50-plus yards.
On the flip side, he had 19 turnovers — including five- and six-INT games in losses to LSU and Arkansas, respectively — and has a slim, atypical build.
Phil Jurkovec, Boston College
The Notre Dame transfer really opened eyes in his first year as a starter and looks like a really fascinating player for 2021. The 6-5, 229-pound Jurkovich loses his top target, TE Hunter Long, but returns WR Zay Flowers and most of a terrific offensive line.
Kedon Slovis, USC
Slovis pushed Daniels into transferring with his strong play in 2019 but wasn’t quite as effective in 2020, seeing his interception rate rise and his yards per play decline despite having one of the deepest receiving groups in college football. The 6-2 QB still has Drake London and Bru McCoy has top targets this season but needs to be more efficient to enter the first-round discussion.
Jayden Daniels, Arizona State
An up-and-down 2020 campaign has cooled talk of Daniels’ NFL potential a smidge, but part of that had to do with a strange Sun Devils season that had three cancellations and a lot of COVID-19 setbacks.
The 6-3 Daniels is painfully thin at 180 pounds — if you thought the DeVonta Smith weight banter was exhausting, just wait for Daniels to be draft-eligible. But he’s got a loose arm, good running ability and has all the potential to put up a big 2021 season.
D'Eriq King, Miami
King won’t be for everyone. He’s under 6-foot, is built like a running back and remains a more natural runner than thrower. Some teams will want to ask him to change positions, we suspect. But there is still a fascinating talent in King, who really did finish strong prior to the ACL tear he suffered in the bowl-game loss to Oklahoma State. His health and 2021 play will be fascinating to watch play out.
Dillon Gabriel, UCF
We heard one NFL area scout call the Hawaiian-born lefty Gabriel “Tiny Tua” last season, and now we can’t unhear it. It’s a pretty apt nickname for the 6-foot, 185-pound Gabriel’s size and style, but it also reflects his passing skill. Gabriel has averaged 314 pass yards and nearly 9 yards per attempt in his first 23 college games. We’re not sure what the effect of Josh Heupel leaving and Gus Malzahn arriving will have, but Gabriel is already one of college football’s better passers.
Two MAC QBs
Long live the MAC. College football’s midweek darlings feature two very intriguing prospects to file away: Kent State’s Dustin Crum and Western Michigan’s Kaleb Eleby.
Crum was limited to four games last season and received late-ground grades before deciding to return. He’s a quality scrambler and decent athlete with nice touch and intriguing skills.
Eleby has a rocket arm, threw for two-plus TDs in five of six games last season and has some running skill (although he needs to cut back on fumbles). He’s still raw in some aspects but absolutely has NFL arm talent to invest in.
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