Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects You Can Still Watch This Fall

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystAugust 21, 2020

Top 10 NFL Draft Prospects You Can Still Watch This Fall

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    Clemson QB Trevor Lawrence
    Clemson QB Trevor LawrenceGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    With the Big Ten and Pac-12 having postponed their college football seasons this fall, the NFL scouting community is facing an unprecedented challenge.

    Take Trevor Lawrence, for example. He is widely projected to be the 2021 No. 1 pick, but what if Clemson's star quarterback struggles? Does Ohio State's Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance jump ahead of him despite not playing this fall? Or will it go the other way, with Fields and Lance gradually slipping while guys like Sam Ehlinger and (if he even starts for Georgia) Jamie Newman move up the draft board by virtue of actually playing?

    For those interested in watching future NFL prospects suit up this fall, consider this your condensed cheat sheet.

    I combed through six recently published mock draftsone from our Matt Miller, one from ESPN's Todd McShay, one from Yard Barker's Seth Trachtman, two from Pro Football Network (Matthew Valdovinos and Oliver Hodgkinson) and one from

    Anyone^ from the ACC, Big 12 or SEC* who appeared in the first round of at least four of those six mock drafts was given an initial seat at the table. From there, I found the average of each player's projected pick—with an assumed projected pick of No. 45 in mocks where the player was not listed in the first round. Sort those averages from least to greatest and, presto, here are your top 10 NFL draft prospects to watch this fall.

    *Players from the AAC, Conference USA or Sun Belt would have been eligible for consideration, as those leagues have not yet thrown in the towel, either. However, no one from those conferences has a first-round grade.

    ^Miami's Greg Rousseau and Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley were not included, as they have opted out of the season.

10. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson

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    Travis Etienne
    Travis EtienneKarl B DeBlaker/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 25.3

    2019 Stats: 207 carries, 1,614 yards, 19 touchdowns; 37 receptions, 432 yards, 4 touchdowns

    Travis Etienne topped 1,600 rushing yards for the second consecutive year and has now eclipsed 4,000 yards in his college career.

    That evidently wasn't enough, because he's coming back for more.

    Perhaps he wanted to further hone his skills as a receiver out of the backfield. He caught only 17 passes across his first two seasons before thriving in that role as a junior. And with Tee Higgins out of the picture and Justyn Ross out with a potentially career-threatening spinal injury, it would stand to reason that he'll be more involved in the passing game as a senior.

    Or maybe he just wanted to show he has the strength and durability to be an every-down back in the NFL. Etienne's career rushing average (7.8 YPC) is sensational, but he has had more than 20 touches in a game only twice in his career.

    Most likely, he just didn't want to end his college career with that national championship loss to LSU.

    Whatever the reason, we should be headed for a third consecutive season of ACC defenses floundering in their attempts to contain this star running back and a third consecutive year with Etienne placing among the top 10 in the Heisman vote.

9. Carlos Basham Jr., DE, Wake Forest

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    Carlos Basham Jr. (9)
    Carlos Basham Jr. (9)Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 23.7

    2019 Stats: 57 tackles, 18.0 tackles for loss, 11.0 sacks, 3 forced fumbles, 3 passes broken up

    Carlos Basham Jr.'s rise to a potential first-round pick is a fascinating tale of unexpected, exponential growth in player development.

    Most of the players featured here were highly touted recruits who lived up to the hype. But Basham was a nobody, ranked 1,698th in the nation in the 2016 recruiting class, per 247Sports. Aside from Wake Forest, Cincinnati, Old Dominion and Pittsburgh were the only schools that even extended him an offer.

    He redshirted the 2016 season, played sparingly in 2017, had a breakout year in 2018 with 64 tackles and 11.0 tackles for loss, then had a second breakout year last season, ranking second in the ACC (behind Miami's Greg Rousseau) in both sacks and tackles for loss.

    If he continues that upward trajectory, he's going to end up posting the types of numbers that Ohio State's Chase Young had last season.

    But whereas Young had a few gargantuan performances against marquee opponents, Basham was more of a consistent menace, accounting for at least 0.5 tackles for loss in all 13 games, but never more than 3.0.

    Wake Forest also had four other players with at least 6.0 tackles for loss last season, and all four of themJaCorey Johns, Ryan Smenda Jr., Jacquez Williams and Tyler Williamsreturn for what should be an excellent pass-rushing group led by Basham.

8. Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas

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    Samuel Cosmi
    Samuel CosmiRoger Steinman/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 22.7

    2019 Stats: No counting stats for O-linemen

    Much like Basham, Samuel Cosmi was also a big unknown coming out of high school.

    Ranked 1,123rd in the 2017 recruiting class before redshirting that year, Cosmi quickly became a mainstay in his second season with the Longhorns. By Week 2, he was cemented as a starter on Texas' offensive line. He made 13 starts at right tackle as a redshirt freshman and made the switch over to left tackle this past season without missing a beat.

    Cosmi certainly has the size (6'7", 309 pounds) not only to survive but thrive in the NFL, and draft scouts have had mostly great things to say about his hands, feet and strength.

    His awareness and instincts are perhaps his most impressive traits. It isn't easy to defend the blind side for a quarterback like Sam Ehlinger, who likes to scramble to extend plays but doesn't have the preposterous elusiveness of a Lamar Jackson or Kyler Murray. Yet Cosmi has excelled in that role, and he's regarded by most draft evaluators as either the second- or third-best tackle in the 2021 draft class.

7. DeVonta Smith, WR, Alabama

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    DeVonta Smith
    DeVonta SmithVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 19.0

    2019 Stats: 68 receptions, 1,256 yards, 14 touchdowns

    DeVonta Smith easily could have declared for the 2020 NFL draft after leading Alabama in both receiving yards and touchdowns. However, he wanted to finish what he started with regard to the first half of his role as a student-athlete. In his Instagram post announcing he'd be back for his senior year, he stressed the importance of graduating and getting his degree.

    He certainly has nothing left to prove on the athlete side of things.

    In three years, Smith went from a scarcely used freshman who made the national championship-winning reception to a key cog of what was a five-man 'Bama receiving machine in 2018 to the top Crimson Tide threat this past season.

    Some have questioned whether he'll be as good in 2020 with fewer weapons in the receiving corps and with Mac Jones at quarterback instead of Tua Tagovailoa. (Jones made several starts last year, but Smith's three most incredible performances came from the arm of Tagovailoa.)

    But if anything, expect further improvement from a guy who already ranked 11th in the nation in receiving yards last year.

6. Marvin Wilson, DT, Florida State

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    Marvin Wilson
    Marvin WilsonMark Wallheiser/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 15.5

    2019 Stats: 44 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 5.0 sacks, 4 passes broken up

    Not a whole lot has gone well for Florida State in the past few years.

    After going more than four decades without posting a losing record, the Seminoles enter 2020 on a two-season sub-.500 skid. The offensive line has been a gong show. The secondary has had considerably more disastrous performances than promising ones. Quarterback play has been inconsistent to say the least. And between the struggles and the multiple coaching changes, recruiting is a far cry from the steady stream of top-10 classes it used to be under Jimbo Fisher.

    At least they have a sensational defensive tackle in Marvin Wilson.

    Despite missing the final four games of last season because of a hand injury, Wilson was named to the All-ACC first-team defense.

    Similar to Auburn's Derrick Brownwhom the Carolina Panthers selected No. 7 overall in the 2020 NFL draftWilson had some games where he was quiet and others in which he was an absolute wrecking ball. In the September win over Louisville, he had 10 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in the process of leading one of the only defenses to stifle Louisville's star running back, Javian Hawkins. And in his last healthy game of the year, he had another 3.0 tackles for loss and 2.0 sacks in a win over Syracuse.

    He may not always show up in the stat sheet, but keep an eye out for No. 21 in the trenches any time you watch a Florida State game. He's usually getting double-teamed and still manages to get into the backfield on a semi-regular basis.

5. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama

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    Dylan Moses
    Dylan MosesRic Tapia/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 13.2

    2019 Stats: Missed season (knee injury)

    Heading into last season, Dylan Moses was a potential top-10 draft pick. As a true sophomore, he was one of the biggest stars of Alabama's 2018 defense, leading the Crimson Tide in tackles. He was expected to dominate throughout his junior year before hearing his name called fairly early during the 2020 NFL draft.

    Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL four days before Alabama's season opener, missed the entire season and likely would not have been anything close to 100 percent health for the draft combine, considering it began less than six months after he suffered the injury.

    He probably still could have been a first-round pick, but the top 10 almost certainly wasn't happening. Besides, who wants to end their college career with a blowout loss in the national championship followed by an entire season lost to injury?

    Instead, he's back for his senior year, ready to do for Alabama's defense in 2020 what he had planned to accomplish in 2019.

4. Patrick Surtain II, CB, Alabama

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    Patrick Surtain II
    Patrick Surtain IIVasha Hunt/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 13.0

    2019 Stats: 42 tackles, 2 interceptions, 8 passes broken up, 3 forced fumbles

    Patrick Surtain was the No. 44 pick in the 1998 NFL draft, but it looks like his son is going to go even earlier in the 2021 draft.

    It's little surprise that Patrick Surtain II is so high on the NFL's radar, considering he was highly touted out of high school (No. 6 overall recruit in 2018) before attending the NFL draft factory known as Alabama. He was a key contributor almost immediately, making 12 starts as a true freshman.

    Granted, the Crimson Tide were in the unenviable position of replacing basically their entire secondary from the 2017 season, but a dozen starts as a true freshman at Alabama is quite the testament to a player's potential for greatness.

    Why wouldn't Alabama want Surtain out there as soon as possible, though? The 6'2" corner sticks to receivers like glue and has an impressive propensity for jarring the ball loose, breaking up 15 passes and forcing four fumbles in only 79 career tackles.

    In what will almost certainly be his final season at Tuscaloosa, don't be surprised if teams focus their passing attack on the opposite side of the field from Surtain. The Crimson Tide lost Xavier McKinney, Jared Mayden, Trevon Diggs and Shyheim Carter this offseason, which meansaside from Surtainit's a very inexperienced secondary.

3. Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama

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    Jaylen Waddle
    Jaylen WaddleButch Dill/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 10.5

    2019 Stats: 33 receptions, 560 yards, 6 touchdowns; 20 punt returns, 487 yards, 1 touchdown; 5 kick returns, 175 yards, 1 touchdown

    That's right: Alabama players are at Nos. 7, 5, 4 and 3. And OT Alex Leatherwood just barely missed the cut. He would have been No. 11 with an ADP of 26.0. 

    You might be surprised to find Jaylen Waddle at the top of the Crimson Tide's crop, though.

    His receiving numbers weren't much better than those of running back Najee Harris (27 receptions, 304 yards, seven touchdowns) last year. But watch this chef cook in open space—or, better yet, create open space with his speed and elusive maneuvering—and it becomes obvious why none of the six mock drafts surveyed has Waddle going later than No. 13 overall.

    There's just no way half the league is going to pass on the chance to draft Tyreek Hill 2.0.

    Don't worry about last year's receiving stats. Alabama didn't run as many 4-WR sets in 2019 as it did in 2018 when Waddle racked up 848 yards as a true freshman, and he saw a bit less playing time as a result. But with Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III gone, there's no question he'll be a frequently targeted starter in 2020. He may well lead (what's left of) the FBS in receiving yards.

2. Ja'Marr Chase, WR, LSU

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    Ja'Marr Chase
    Ja'Marr ChaseGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 5.8

    2019 Stats: 84 receptions, 1,780 yards, 20 touchdowns

    This is hardly a comprehensive study, but guys who rack up 1,500 receiving yards and then come back to a different QB haven't fared well in recent history.

    There are only three examples in the past decade of such a phenomenon.

    South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery was Stephen Garcia's favorite target in 2010, but with Connor Shaw primarily running the show in 2011, Jeffery's receptions and yards were nearly slashed in half. Colorado State's Rashard Higgins had 1,750 receiving yards and 17 touchdowns with Garrett Grayson starting in 2014, but he plummeted to 1,061 and eight, respectively, after Grayson left. And USC's Marqise Lee had to deal with a QB change, a coaching change and an MCL sprain, but his 2013 numbers paled in comparison to what he accomplished in 2012.

    Could Ja'Marr Chase be headed for a similar fate with Joe Burrow now throwing passes in Cincinnati?

    The mock drafting community doesn't seem too concerned about it, and, frankly, any significant drops in statistics would probably be written off as minimal concern this year given external circumstances. Even if Chase dips from 6.0 receptions for 127.1 yards per game to something more like 3.5 and 75.0 with Myles Brennan throwing the ball, well, at least 75 yards per game is better than the zero that Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, Purdue's Rondale Moore, USC's Amon-Ra St. Brown, etc. will be putting up while the Big Ten and Pac-12 sit out this fall.

    However, Chase is so ridiculously talented that he's still plenty capable of averaging 100 yards per game, even in the SEC with an unknown at quarterback.

1. Trevor Lawrence, QB, Clemson

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    Trevor Lawrence
    Trevor LawrenceGerald Herbert/Associated Press

    Average Draft Projection: 1.3

    2019 Stats: 65.8% completion, 3,665 yards, 36 touchdowns, 8 interceptions, 166.7 passer efficiency rating; 103 carries, 563 yards, 9 touchdowns

    Long before a global pandemic became an inescapable part of our daily lives, some people were suggesting that Trevor Lawrence should sit out the 2020 season. Heck, the Wall Street Journal's Brian Costa wrote in January 2019 that Lawrence should have considered skipping both the 2019 and 2020 seasons since he had already proved as a true freshman that he was the most talented player in the 2021 draft class.

    But he didn't sit out the 2019 season, and he has already said he intends to play this fallperhaps in part because Tua Tagovailoa was selected fifth overall and signed a four-year, $30.3 million contract in spite of suffering three major injuries in less than a year. That was proof that teams are willing to take a chance on a gifted quarterback even if there are injury concerns, so it stands to reason that Lawrence isn't actually risking much (in draft stock) by trying to guide Clemson to a third consecutive national championship game.

    It bears watching how he does without his two favorite targets, though.

    Tee Higgins (now in the NFL) and Justyn Ross (out for the year with a spinal issue) combined for 125 receptions, 2,032 yards and 21 touchdowns last season. Guys like Frank Ladson Jr. and Joseph Ngata will need to take huge steps forward, because running back Travis Etienne had more receptions and yards in 2019 than any other returning Tiger.

    But if receivers can get an inch of space, Lawrence will find them. That's why he's likely going to be the No. 1 pick next spring.