With the college football regular season winding to a close in the coming weeks, there’s only so much time left for some 2020 NFL draft prospects to help their causes. With that in mind, we thought we would take a look at five prospects we feel have helped their causes in recent games — plus five more who are headed in the wrong direction as we reach bowl season.
We’ve already discussed the murky situation of Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa and what that means for the 2020 QB outlook in a separate post.
Utah QB Tyler Huntley
I’ll admit to not really having Huntley on my NFL draft radar back in August. But a strong final season for the Utes passer plus one conversation I had with Ryan Leaf a few weeks ago has me rethinking Huntley now. Leaf is a college football analyst for ESPN who keeps a very close eye on the Pac-12, and when I asked him the most improved QB in the conference he didn’t hesitate.
The 6-1, 205-pound Huntley was his pick. When I asked whether he thought Huntley had a shot as an NFL passer, Leaf was resolute in his response.
“I definitely think [he’s an NFL QB],” Leaf said. “He's a guy that ... he's not explosive with his feet as a Lamar Jackson, but he's a better thrower than he is, I think.”
I thought Leaf was messing with me a bit. But he clearly meant what he said.
“You saw him [against Washington], he's got a bum knee, he's wearing a flak jacket — it looked like he was pregnant with that thing — and he still gets it done,” Leaf added. “So yeah, I could see [in the] third round, maybe fourth round a team picks him up, and he's a guy that gets forced into action or puts himself in a position to play, and I definitely think that could be the case. He's definitely proven himself for a lot of people who didn't think he was going to be capable of doing the things he's doing.”
I might disagree with the third- or fourth-round projection, but Leaf was absolutely correct about that Washington game performance. Huntley was special in that one, especially down the stretch, needing to convert three big third downs of longer than six yards to go. The last one was my favorite from an NFL-throw perspective, recognizing the delayed blitz and finding a great matchup on the wheel route, beautifully leading his receiver with the ball:
Tyler Huntley under pressure. pic.twitter.com/7v4rZSEmeX— Derrik Klassen (@QBKlassClips) November 5, 2019
Huntley isn’t Jackson, but he plays with a similar swagger, toughness and elusiveness. I wish I could count the number of sacks Huntley has slipped out of this season and turned into positive-yardage plays. Right now, I forsee him in the latter stages of Day 3 next spring — somewhere in the mid-fifth round on. But if, say, Trace McSorley can be the 197th pick in the draft, then Huntley should go as high or higher than that.
The Utes simply would not be where they are, talented as this team is in so many ways, without Huntley.
“He means so much to this football team,” Kyle Whittingham said, via The Athletic. “He’s one of the elite quarterbacks in the country. I’ll stand by that.”
Clemson RB Travis Etienne
It’s almost stunning how little national buzz there has been for Etienne, who has been on fire the past six games — and no surprise, Clemson’s offensive resurgence has come right along with it. He’s even entered the Heisman Trophy discussion and is close to breaking some impressive records in his final three (or more) games before a likely NFL draft declaration comes down.
It’s as if Dabo Swinney realized how valuable a playmaker he has in his backfield and that he didn’t need to force feed Trevor Lawrence throwing deep every third play. During this time, both Lawrence (no picks in his past 111 attempts after eight INTs in his first 168 passes of the season) and Etienne have both seen their effectiveness increase dramatically. Who knew?
Etienne is truly a fascinating study from an NFL perspective. On the one hand, you wouldn’t be wrong calling him a “speed back,” in that he’s extremely fast and can gear up in a hurry. On the other hand, merely saying that short sells him as a player. Etienne is a tackle-breaking machine who finds ways to generate yards one way or another. This is a surprisingly powerful man who will blast through arm-tackle attempts on a weekly basis. That’s a valuable trait on the next level because few backs can survive by simply trying to outrun defenders.
Even Etienne’s greatest perceived shortcoming as a prospect entering the season — his receiving ability — has been muted some. Although he’s still largely a screen-pass catcher, his hands have been measurably better than in his first two seasons. After struggling to haul in passes consistently entering 2019, Etienne has caught 26 of the 27 balls thrown his direction.
My final grades are not yet in ink, of course. But there’s a chance Etienne is my RB1 when we arrive at that point.
Notre Dame WR Chase Claypool
After watching Claypool struggle against the quality secondaries of Georgia and Michigan this season, in which he came down with only eight of the combined 20 passes thrown his way, we wondered if Claypool had the separation skill necessary for the next level and wondered if he might need to bulk up and become more of a tight end type of pass catcher at the next level.
But the past three games, Claypool has come to life and shown more contested-ball production, thrashing Navy for four TDs and 117 yards on seven grabs. He also came up huge on the final drive against Virginia Tech in the thrilling, last-minute comeback victory.
In Claypool’s three November games, he has 20 catches for 332 yards and five scores. Compare that to his three previous games — not counting the one against a Bowling Green defense near the bottom of the FCS defensive rankings — where Claypool had only 11 catches for 129 yards and no scores against Virginia, USC and Michigan.
Along with a Senior Bowl invite received and accepted, Claypool’s stock clearly is on the rise.
Miami (Fla.) LB Shaquille Quarterman
The senior is gearing up for his final home game this week, and it’ll be his 50th straight start for the Hurricanes. For a program that has the linebacker tradition that Miami does, it’s borderline criminal that Quarterman doesn’t receive more national attention.
There’s some concern that Quarterman’s coverage ability might not be great on the NFL level, and there’s a belief that his workout numbers will only be ordinary at best. Who cares? He’s an outstanding football player with rare stamina — watch him compete in fourth quarters — excellent run-stopping instincts and, in my mind, very good lateral speed to cut off wide rushes.
Quarterman’s play over the past month or so has been nothing short of excellent, even with a few slipups in coverage the past two games. We could see him slipping a bit in the draft if Quarterman doesn’t test all that well, but we think he’s only raised the bar with his play as his terrific college career wanes to a close.
Minnesota S Antoine Winfield Jr.
Winfield has been a fascinating study, and he’s a player I’ve had to hurry up and study in recent weeks. One reason for that is that Winfield is actually a fourth-year sophomore, so he could return to school. But another reason is that he’s played too well not to get a jump start on his evaluation.
If you recognize the name, yes, Winfield is the son of the former Minnesota Vikings standout corner. And like his dad, Winfield has an excellent nose for the ball — seven interceptions, which is tied for the second most among FBS players. Winfield plays safety for the Gophers and brings the same toughness, intelligence and tackling ability his father had.
Of course, like the elder Winfield, size could be an issue. He is believed to be a shade under 5-foot-10 and might not quite reach the 200 pounds that are listed on the Gophers’ roster. There also are questions about Winfield’s raw speed and athleticism. But with momentum on his side following strong efforts against Penn State and Iowa, Winfield has saved some of his best play for down the stretch and possible put himself firmly in the 2020 NFL draft discussion.
Michigan State QB Brian Lewerke
The crop of senior quarterbacks this season has been more disappointing than not for NFL scouts on the whole, and Lewerke — a player some evaluators thought had a chance to change the narrative about him heading into this year — has been one of the chief members of that underwhelming group.
In a blowout loss at the hands of rival Michigan, the blame cannot all be placed on the senior QB. But his carelessness with the football is just too gross to overlook. Lewerke has nine interceptions on the season, with eight of them coming during the current five-game losing streak. Over the past two seasons now, Lewerke has a TD-INT ratio of 19-20.
Even with poor blocking, unreliable receivers (30 dropped passes — second most for any college QB, per Pro Football Focus) and Lewerke’s past health issues, those numbers give a pretty good indication of how things have gone for him.
There’s even a chance now in the final few games that MSU could opt to bench Lewerke and give Rocky Lombardi or one of the other young QBs a shot. Right now, it’s hard to picture Lewerke getting drafted barring some last-gasp blowup down the stretch or a particularly impressive pre-draft workout performance.
Arizona State RB Eno Benjamin
This one hurts, as we have led the Benjamin Bandwagon for much of the season, Style-wise, he’s one of our favorite backs who potentially could be in the 2020 draft crop, and Benjamin can be just so darned fun to watch as he grinds out extra yardage and bounces off would-be tacklers.
Those elements haven’t changed. But Benjamin’s draft rating is suddenly in some peril for reasons that are both out of and very much in his control. His recent production has slipped, and it’s clear that freshman QB Jayden Daniels has hit the rookie wall a bit. A porous offensive line hasn’t helped a bit toward that end. Watch the Utah game, for instance, and you’ll see what we mean.
Benjamin actually ran fairly well in that one, but in the three games since there have been two very worrisome developments. Not only has Benjamin seen his yards after initial contact go way down in that span, but his fumbling suddenly has become a major concern. In the most recent loss to Oregon State, Benjamin fumbled at the OSU 1-yard line on what might have been the game-tying touchdown late in the third quarter. The Sun Devils lost on a missed two-point conversion late.
Benjamin now has fumbled four times in the past three games — after fumbling only once in his first 23 college games. Against USC, Benjamin fumbled twice (losing one), was flagged for a tripping penalty that cost his team a net 55 yards and had a long run of 9 yards on 20 carries in the game.
Along with his less-than-ideal size (listed at 201 pounds, and he’s possibly less than that), Benjamin has a tough call on declaring for the draft amid his recent struggles.
Missouri TE Albert Okwuegbunam
All things being said, we just don’t see it with Albert O. Some folks really like him, and a weak TE class surely will benefit him. But it has been a tough season for Okwuegbunam, and he really hasn’t been able to showcase his receiving skills in a big way since 2017.
On the one hand, Okwuegbunam absolutely glides in a way that men his size — 6-foot-5 and 255 pounds — seldom do. His smoothness as a pass catcher is something that NFL scouts cannot ignore, the red-zone effectiveness remains strong and some of Okwuegbunam’s limited production in recent games (10 catches, 60 yards, one TD the past four contests) absolutely can be chalked up to some shaky play calling and the injury to starting QB Kelly Bryant.
But it’s hard to say that Okwuegbunam has improved since his breakout season as a redshirt freshman two years ago. Scouts have wondered about his toughness, and the blocking ability will never be a plus for him, especially in the run game. He’s basically a wide receiver in a tight end’s body, but when you can’t separate easily or come down with contested catches at a high rate (he’s caught only 26 of 42 targets, per PFF), there’s only so much appeal Okwuegbunam will generate on the next level.
Syracuse EDGE Alton Robinson
A highly touted pass rusher entering the season, Robinson put his name on scouts’ radars with a 10-sack, 17-TFL and three-forced fumble season in 2018. But starting with his game against Clemson — zero tackles, QB pressures or sacks in 51 snaps — and carrying through most of this season, Robinson has been a considerable disappointment in my eyes.
Clearly, scouts remain intrigued as he earned and accepted a Senior Bowl bid. The one-on-one pass-rushing drills will be big for him down there against what could be a solid group of blockers. But Robinson also will have to interview well, as some scouts have wanted to take a deeper dive on his character in an up-close setting away from the team’s facility.
And in the team drills in Mobile, Robinson must prove to be a far more reliable tackler than he’s been this season. PFF has credited him with 19 tackles and 11 missed tackles — a truly unsightly ratio.
LSU S Grant Delpit
Like with Benjamin, Delpit entered the season very high on our personal scouting list. His alley-to-alley range, coverage ability, toughness and intelligence all were roundly praised by observers coming into the season, and it appeared he could put himself in the top-10 discussion with a strong junior season.
For us, taking a safety in that range with the tackling concerns that Delpit has raised would be a giant risk and a potential reach. If an NFL team believe that his tackling problems this season — a whopping 19 this season, per PFF, which is tied for 10th most in the country among all defensive players. It’s been an issue since he missed a pair of big ones in the Texas game early on, but the concern only has grown. Delpit missed two or more tackles in seven of the eight games since then and had a brutal time at Bama, missing four tackles in that game.
In this regard, I view Delpit the same way I did former Indianapolis Colts first-rounder Malik Hooker coming out. Hooker made some breathtaking plays in coverage, able to span half a field in the blink of an eye with great timing and instincts. They both share great size for the position, too, but there was a reason Hooker slipped to the No. 15 spot. Hooker has been a good player in the NFL when healthy, but his development hasn’t been as fast as some folks thought it might be. The good news is that his missed tackles aren’t as big a story as they once were.
Delpit won’t escape the first round, and I still believe he’ll have a landing spot in the upper part of it. Is he playing hurt now? That certainly could change my perspective when I eventually stamp an iron-clad grade on him in a few months’ time.
But for a player whose appeal supposedly was his versatility — able to play up in the box or back deep with equal skill — Delpit carries some risk, even if he’s earned the reputation of being a hard-working and extremely gifted player over his three years in Baton Rouge.
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