Rivalry Week has a special feel to it, and there’s a lot NFL scouts can glean from this week’s games. They always want to watch how prospects perform in the biggest games, the most tense atmospheres and against the best competition.
And for some players, this will be the final time they suit up in college football, so the bar is raised just that much more. Here’s a look at five 2020 NFL draft prospects we think have a lot on the line in this weekend’s action:
Michigan QB Shea Patterson vs. Ohio State
Michigan quarterbacks — fairly or not — are most often judged by what they do against Ohio State. Now NFL scouts don’t quite look at the the same way, but it’s clear that Patterson’s NFL draft stock is volatile enough that he certainly could use a banner performance against one of the best defenses in college football.
But in case you’ve tuned out, Patterson is playing some of his best football lately. The read-option series, which looked so clunky to begin the season, is back in good form. The run-pass option (RPO game added by once-maligned new coordinator Josh Gattis has come on lately.
And Patterson just has better feel and timing in the passing game of late, which has led to some impressive performances. In his past four games, Patterson has completed 63 of his 100 pass attempts for 1,001 yards, 12 TDs and one INT, which was his first in a 17-quarter span.
One other huge factor: Patterson isn’t holding the ball as long as he was early in the season. That has led to fewer sacks, hits, fumbles and missed connections with the Wolverines’ talented pass-catching group (whom we look at a little lower down in this story). When Patterson has smelled single coverage, he’s attacked it recently with more authority and let those wideouts make plays for him.
Patterson still has some scouts he needs to make believers. But a strong passing performance and even leading a win over the Buckeyes, which enter the game with a seven-game win streak over Michigan, could go a long way toward that end. I still believe Patterson has the skillset, arm talent and athleticism to be a solid Day 3 pick, but that’s no iron-clad lock either.
Washington State QB Anthony Gordon vs. Washington
When we last wrote about Gordon — one of the pleasant surprise stories of the college season — it was early on and Gordon was still a mystery man. The NFL is still putting Gordon under the microscope a bit, but scouts are well aware of his exploits this season, throwing for 4,920 yards and 45 TDs while completing 71.3 of his passes.
Gordon’s 14 INTs are a bit high, but Utah State’s Jordan Love — a possible first-round pick — has more (15) in fewer than half of Gordon’s pass attempts. Gordon has a whopping 585 passes thrown this season, while Love has but 235. And here’s one more wild stat for you: Gordon also has 417 completions; the next-highest total in FBS this season is LSU’s Joe Burrow with 291.
Gordon is facing a Washington defense that has NFL talent on all three levels. Performing well in the Apple Cup would go a long way toward solidifying an NFL draft slot for Gordon and make it three straight years that a Cougars QB was drafted.
Both Gardner Minshew and Luke Falk started games in the league this season, and their success can only help Gordon. He’s got an easy release, throws a pretty deep ball and has nice calm and poise in the pocket. Gordon also can slide within the pocket, change his arm slot and throw well on the move. He’s not especially big or athletic, and he doesn’t possess a cannon, but his touch and placement are shockingly good for a zero-star recruit and a quarterback who had all of five college pass attempts coming into this season.
He’s nothing short of a fascinating study and a likely draft riser over the coming weeks and months. Gordon will have this rivalry game and a bowl game to finish off his senior season in style.
Michigan WRs vs. Ohio State secondary
We could write 800 words on this matchup alone (but our boss would send us a snarky Slack message if we did).
On the one side, you have an extremely talented group of Wolverines receivers, led by Nico Collins, Tarik Black, Donovan Peoples-Jones and Ronnie Bell — and only Bell of that quartet isn’t able to declare for the 2020 NFL draft. In addition, they also have two respectable tight ends (Sean McKeon and Nick Eubanks) and have been getting their backs more into the passing game of late.
On the other, you have a Buckeyes secondary that has three cornerbacks who could end up in the top 40 picks next spring (Jeffrey Okudah, Shaun Wade and Damon Arnette) along with a solid safety in Jordan Fuller. If any of the corners go down, Sevyn Banks — who could be next year’s breakout star — would be the next man up.
Peoples-Jones and Black have been somewhat steady producers this season, albeit underwhelming in terms of production. The other two receivers, however, have stepped up as the main target with some breakout games. Both Bell and Collins have stepped up with big performances, with Collins fresh off a six-catch, 165-yard, three-TD performance against Indiana last week.
OSU has the top-ranked defense in the country in yards allowed, and yes, Chase Young and a great front seven have a lot to do with that. But the Buckeyes’ coverage can’t be overlooked at all in that equation. Okudah is the best draft-eligible man-cover corner in the country. Wade can blitz, cover the slot or play deep — a true do-it-all player. Arnette mostly plays outside and is the most underappreciated of the group.
How they match up with Michigan’s size and acceleration will be fascinating to see. Do they sprinkle in some zone or stay in mostly man? Can Peoples-Jones finally flash in a big game? Or does Okudah put a stamp on a single-digit draft spot with a big performance?
Auburn OT Prince Tega Wanogho vs. Alabama
In addition to having a fascinating backstory — his family moved from Nigeria to Birmingham, Alabama, for Wanogho to chase NBA dreams — he also has emerged as a talented NFL prospect now, despite not knowing the game of football growing up.
The long-armed, fairly athletic left tackle flashes a fast punch and can use his length to keep rushers at bay. Wanogho also has good recovery ability, keeps rushers at bay with varied hand work and has shown he can get up to the second level in the run game and on screens.
But those hands will be full against Alabama’s rushers, most notably Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings, who can flip sides on any snap. There are times when Wanogho will set up too wide and allow inside rush lanes, which is something that Lewis especially excels at. The Bama game was not Wanogho’s best last season, allowing two pressures in 32 pass-block snaps, per Pro Football Focus.
Nick Saban also can look at how Georgia (and former protege Kirby Smart) attacked Wanohgo two games ago. The Bulldogs’ rushers were waiting for Wanogho’s punch and were able to slip it, getting Wanogho to reach and stall his feet, and win a fair number of individual battles. That was one of his worst pass-blocking games of the season, so you can bet Bama’s edge players will be schooled.
Wanogho will have a great chance to help himself with a week’s worth of one-on-ones at the Senior Bowl. But a poor outing here might limit his appeal some. Scouts have been a bit ambivalent on his projection, citing some questionable football instincts as a big sticking point. We see Wanogho as a top-100 pick right now, but he could slide up into the top 50 or 75 by finishing his season strong and performing well in the postseason circuit.
South Carolina DT Javon Kinlaw vs. Clemson
Ever since about the Alabama game, Kinlaw has been a man possessed. The 6-6, 310-pound scheme wrecker has been playing hard — and effectively — even with the Gamecocks’ season going off the rails the past two months.
In our mind, Kinlaw is a clear-cut first-round pick. But in his final college game at home against their heated rivals, Kinlaw has one final chance to show what he’s made of. Having a particularly disruptive game against one of the five or six best offensive lines in the country could even vault Kinlaw into the discussion of being a top-10 or top-15 player regardless of position.
Against the Tigers last season, he was fairly quiet — one tackle, two assists and one pressure on 25 pass-rush snaps, per PFF. What we need to see from Kinlaw is a performance such as the one he put up against Bama, Georgia, Florida, Vanderbilt or last week against Texas A&M, when he registered nine pressures in 36 pass-rush opportunities.
Clemson’s interior of OGs Gage Cervenka and John Simpson and C Sean Pollard (and sometimes Cade Stewart) all have NFL potential, so this is a great test. This is Kinlaw’s final shot to not only beat his rivals in what would be a huge upset but also to win individual matchups vs. quality blockers, especially with the tandem blocks that are sure to come his way.
Wisconsin EDGE Zach Baun at Minnesota
When we first got a deep look at Baun, he was busy trashing Michigan’s offense back in late September with a banner performance that put him on our radar as an NFL prospect. The fifth-year senior’s pass-rush technique has really developed this year, and he recently was named as one of six finalists for the Butkus Award, which is given to the best linebacker in college football.
It’s been a pretty remarkable transition — and yet another high-school quarterback whom the Wisconsin coaches have turned into a quality linebacker and/or edge defender. Other recent examples include Ryan Connelly (2019 fifth-rounder of the Giants who started before landing on IR), Andrew Van Ginkel (2019 Dolphins fifth-rounder) and T.J. Edwards (undrafted rookie who made the Eagles’ roster).
Baun was a bit quiet during the middle part of the season as the Badgers’ defense as a whole took a step back. But in recent games, Baun once again has flashed in wins over Nebraska and Purdue. The 6-3, 235-pounder can rush the passer, play the run with good leverage and even walk out in coverage on the slot.
Baun and the Badgers talked this week about having a bad taste in their mouths from last year’s loss to the Gophers in which they ran for 201 yards and three touchdowns at Wisconsin. If Baun can shine against a top-10 opponent on the road, it will only improve his simmering draft stock. At this point, we think he can be a Day 2 pick if Baun tests well.
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