Stock Up, Stock Down on 10 Notable 2021 NFL Draft Prospects
The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic could make the 2021 NFL draft more unpredictable than ever.
"It's rough—it's an inexact process, even when we have all the information," an AFC scout told Yahoo Sports' Terez Paylor in August. "So this is going to muddy the water quite a bit."
Although every major conference will squeeze in at least a few games this season, multiple prospects opted out and have already declared for the draft. As such, NFL evaluators won't have recent film for those players.
"Scouts who, last fall, were able to scout for 2020 players and take note of 2021-plus players will really show their value," an NFC executive told Paylor.
Among the conferences playing, scouting departments can see which players are exceeding or performing below expectations. Five prospects fall on each side of that coin based on how they were viewed coming into the current cycle, with a pair of quarterbacks leading the way.
Stock Up: QB Zach Wilson, Brigham Young
Heading into the 2020 season, Clemson's Trevor Lawrence, Ohio State's Justin Fields and North Dakota State's Trey Lance—more on him later—were earmarked as top-10 prospects regardless of whether they played this fall. All three have or will to varying degrees.
There appeared to be a clear drop-off beyond that point, but BYU's Zach Wilson is quickly changing that narrative.
The underclassman currently ranks among the top five in all but one major statistical category, with a 78.7 completion percentage (first), 1,641 passing yards (third), 12.1 yards per attempt (second) and a 207.7 quarterback rating (second). His 12 touchdown passes are tied for seventh.
At 6'3" and 210 pounds, Wilson boasts an intriguing combination of efficiency, football intelligence and playmaking ability. His ball placement, willingness to throw into tight windows and ability to lead receivers extend beyond his off-the-charts efficiency.
Preparation and an intimate understanding of BYU's offense as well as opposing coverages help Wilson with his on-field confidence. Those things weren't necessarily apparent last year, as he underwent shoulder surgery in January 2019 and suffered a broken thumb in the Cougars' fifth game.
His comfort level also shows in his ability to push the ball downfield and create outside of structure. Last weekend, he posted a perfect passer rater on throws 20 or more yards downfield, per Pro Football Focus. He also leads the team with six rushing touchdowns.
Wilson is expanding the Big Three quarterback prospects in next year's draft to a Big Four.
Stock Down: QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State
It's somewhat unfair to say North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance is trending down. It isn't his fault that the Missouri Valley Conference shuttered its season and the Bison played only one game against Central Arkansas.
Even so, the potential top-10 pick has uncertainty swirling around him in scouting circles after starting one-plus season behind center.
"His biggest knock is he hasn't played a lot of football, and that's not his fault," an anonymous scout told The Athletic's Ben Standig. "Just needs experience, but if you're talking about tools to work with as a developing NFL quarterback, he's a good athlete, he runs well. He was really efficient."
In Lance's lone performance this fall, he completed only 50 percent of his passes, yet he dazzled by running for 143 yards and two scores. Last year, he completed 66.9 percent of his passes for 2,786 yards with a 28-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio. The Walter Payton Award winner as the most outstanding offensive player at the FCS level led the Bison with 1,100 rushing yards as well.
Lance's natural athleticism, escapability and home run potential as a runner complement an efficient orchestrator of North Dakota State's traditional offensive scheme. Everyone would have liked Lance, who already declared for next year's draft, to show out from the pocket during his only game this season, but his raw potential is obvious.
Lance could still be drafted early. But the possibility of him dethroning Trevor Lawrence as the top quarterback prospect or even surpassing Justin Fields seems less likely today than it did prior to the season.
Stock Up: QB Mac Jones, Alabama
Alabama's Mac Jones and Florida's Kyle Trask deserve credit for their outstanding play so far this season. But Jones gets the edge over Trask as an ascending prospect while he puts together a Joe Burrow-esque effort in his second year as a starter.
Last year, Jones completed 68.8 percent of his passes while averaging 10.7 yards per attempt and posting a 14-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in 11 games. Thus far this season, he has a staggering 78.3 completion percentage, 13.2 yards per pass attempt and a 14-to-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Jones' 220.1 quarterback rating would rank first all-time if it holds up as the season progresses.
Alabama is loaded with talent, but any dynamic skill-position group needs a good triggerman. Head coach Nick Saban told reporters that Jones' decision-making has largely been spot-on this year:
"Every play, the quarterback makes a read in terms of where should I go with the ball and what should I do, relative to what the defense has planned. So, Mac has done a really really good job of that there's only been a couple occasions this year where we didn't feel like his eyes were in the right place where he wasn't making the right decision. He's been very consistent with that. And that's really what has made and helped him be very effective in what he does."
According to Pro Football Focus, Jones is the nation's highest-graded quarterback through seven weeks of play. He's consistently making the right reads and delivering the football. It may not be flashy, but quarterbacks deserve more credit for doing the little things to keep their offensive chugging along.
"Don't make the same mistake these other analysts are making about Mac. He's no caretaker. He's a playmaker," an SEC assistant coach told The Athletic's Dane Brugler.
Stock Down: WR Reggie Roberson Jr., SMU
Injuries happen. Some are more costly than others.
SMU wide receiver Reggie Roberson Jr. looked unstoppable at points during the first four games of the Mustangs season, including a 243-yard, two-touchdown performance against the then-nationally ranked Memphis Tigers.
Unfortunately, Roberson suffered a season-ending knee injury during that breakout performance.
In what looks to be yet another fantastic wide receiver class, the West Virginia transfer could get lost in the shuffle after playing like an early-round option.
Much like Clemson's Justyn Ross, teams will have to evaluate both the short- and long-term ramifications of a major injury. Before Roberson's knee gave out, he led all wide receivers with 233 yards after the catch, per Pro Football Focus.
The ability to create in space is more valuable than ever. If a team believes it can withstand the short-term ramifications of not getting an instant return on a pick, Roberson could wind up being a draft-day steal.
A healthy Roberson will bring a legitimate vertical threat to any offense with some return potential as well. He displays soft hands and route-running awareness, though he's often limited in what he's asked to do.
While other teams sink significant investments in the likes of LSU's Ja'Marr Chase or Terrace Marshall Jr., Alabama's Jaylen Waddle or DeVonta Smith, Purdue's Rondale Moore, Minnesota's Rashod Bateman, Wake Forest's Sage Surratt and a host of others, Roberson should be available later in the draft with significant upside for general managers who remain patient.
Stock Up: Edge Patrick Jones II, Pittsburgh
There appears to be a drop-off among edge-rushers after Miami's Gregory Rousseau, who opted out of playing this fall and declared for the NFL draft.
Pittsburgh's Patrick Jones II has made a strong case as the next-best edge-rushing prospect.
Jones currently ranks first in the nation with seven sacks and is tied for fourth with 8.5 tackles for loss. He's well on his way to eclipsing the 8.5 sacks and 11 tackles for loss he finished with last year.
The 6'5", 260-pound defensive end is a good athlete with a wide array of pass-rushing moves and the ability to bend and flatten toward the quarterback. His length and strength also make him a solid run defender.
Jones became the focal point of Pitt's defensive line after defensive tackle Jaylen Twyman opted out of this season. He's also playing well off his bookend Rashad Weaver, who is experiencing a career resurgence after missing the entirety of the 2019 campaign with a torn ACL.
When a team looks for an edge-rusher, it should want someone who consistently creates havoc and wins one-on-one matchups. That forces opponents to concentrate on him, which creates a positive ripple effect along the rest of the defensive line.
Jones is in the same tier as Miami's Quincy Roche, Wake Forest's Carlos Basham Jr., Penn State's Jayson Oweh and Michigan's Aidan Hutchinson and Kwity Paye to hear their name called after Rousseau's.
Stock Down: LB Dylan Moses, Alabama
Opinions aren't as high on Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses, who suffered a torn ACL last season, within league circles compared to his lofty public standing.
"I don't think he's at that Devin Bush or Roquan Smith level," an NFL executive told AL.com's Mike Rodak and Matt Zenitz in September. "But he's a really good player."
Bush and Smith were both top-10 selections. Penn State's Micah Parsons appears to be the only off-ball linebacker for next year's class in that range, though not all evaluators see Moses in the same manner.
Different scouts told Rodak and Zentiz that Moses looks more like a second-round option. His play so far hasn't exactly disputed that opinion.
Moses' defensive breakdowns probably had as much to do with his making a comeback from injury as much or more than his actual ability to execute. The transition back onto the field isn't always automatic.
"I thought he played extremely well in this last game," Alabama head coach Nick Saban told reporters after Saturday's victory against the Georgia Bulldogs. " ... I think it was by far his best game."
If Moses continues on his upward trend, his draft stock should start rising again. Teams are always searching for true three-down linebackers, and he has that ability. With fewer mistakes and a greater emphasis on playmaking, Moses can turn things around and once again be viewed as a Day 1 option.
But as of now, he hasn't made a strong enough case to dissuade those who aren't as bullish on his potential.
Stock Up: CB Derion Kendrick, Clemson
Quality cornerbacks are worth their weight in gold, and their value always tends to rise as the draft nears. Instead of trying to delay the inevitable, it's better to identify more-than-capable prospects with the upside to become potential first-round selections.
A handful of corners—Alabama's Patrick Surtain II, Virginia Tech's Caleb Farley, Ohio State's Shaun Wade and Georgia's Tyson Campbell—are already in the mix as possible Day 1 targets. Expect a few more to enter the conversation, starting with Clemson's Derion Kendrick.
The wide receiver convert is a work in progress, but he has been making a strong weekly case of why he should be counted among the top corner prospects. Some teams may value his upside more than others since he's played well while not coming close to reaching his full potential.
The junior transitioned to the defensive backfield last spring because the Tigers desperately needed secondary help, but he went on to earn second-team All-ACC honors. The relative ease of that transition shows how gifted Kendrick is.
"(Former Clemson wide receiver) Adam Humphries could do it—he could have started for us on either side of the ball, for sure. Ray-Ray (McCloud) could have started for us on either side of the ball, but he didn't really want to," head coach Dabo Swinney told reporters. "DK, he's like, 'Put me in, Coach. I just want to play ball.' And I love that."
Kendrick's willingness to do anything for the team complements his exceptional athleticism. He survived and thrived last season based on his raw ability. The 6'0", 190-pound cover man is more comfortable in his role this year, and it shows.
Entering last weekend's contest against the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, who managed only 81 passing yards, Kendrick ranked first in press-coverage grade, per Pro Football Focus. The junior's true coming-out party occurred a week earlier, when Miami Hurricanes quarterback D'Eriq King targeted Kendrick eight times with no catches, five forced incompletions and an interception, per PFF's Anthony Treash.
The scary part is that Kendrick is still improving and learning how to play the position.
Stock Down: DT Marvin Wilson, Florida State
The defensive interior class isn't too exciting compared to the depth found at other positions. Florida State's Marvin Wilson, who was considered the best defensive tackle prospect, started this season slowly.
Wilson didn't look fully invested in a game until this past weekend's contest against the North Carolina Tar Heels. More often than not, the 2019 first-team All-ACC selection became stagnant at the line of scrimmage and didn't provide the impactful plays required of a top-flight defensive tackle.
The spark of life seen during Saturday's upset victory could get Wilson's and the Seminoles' season back on track, though.
"Marvin is a tremendous player, and he showed up big today," head coach Mike Norvell told reporters. "Tonight in those key moments, I thought he showed up at a very high level. Marvin is an extremely hard worker and I think that showed tonight in a big-time moment."
For a defensive tackle to be worth a first-round pick, he must consistently reestablish the line of scrimmage as a run and pass defender. Wilson has those capabilities, as he showed earlier in his career. But consistency is a big factor as well.
Defensive tackle is an oft-thankless position, and frequent disappearing acts diminish the value of those being considered for high draft selections. Defensive coordinator Adam Fuller even told reporters the effort and execution from his front hadn't been what the coaching staff wanted until this past weekend.
Wilson can carry the position class if he plays at a consistently high level, but he hasn't showed that so far this fall.
Stock Up: CB Jaycee Horn, South Carolina
Promising prospects often get overshadowed by a bigger name on the roster. That's the case for South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn.
Horn's bookend, Israel Mukuamu, is one of the class' most interesting defensive backs since he stands 6'4" with overwhelming length at the position. The second-team All-SEC selection led the team with four interceptions last season as the breakout star in the Gamecocks secondary.
Now, it's Horn's turn to draw attention to his skilled performance.
The 6'1", 205-pound corner exploded onto the scene Saturday with a stellar performance against talented Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams. According to Pro Football Focus, Horn allowed only two catches on eight targets, forced five incompletions and snagged a pair of interceptions.
"You want a cover corner? Go get Jaycee Horn," reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year Stephon Gilmore tweeted.
Gilmore would know exactly what a great cover corner looks like. Horn has the size and strength to stymie receivers before and through their routes.
Some concerns will linger about Horn's ability to handle quicker and craftier route-runners. But whichever team drafts him can put him on opposing X-receivers and let him go to work.
The son of former NFL wide receiver Joe Horn isn't going to back down from anyone.
Stock Down: DT Tyler Shelvin, LSU
Tyler Shelvin opted out before the season began, which means he won't have a chance to address potential concerns about his weight. LSU listed the nose tackle at 346 pounds last season.
Less than two years ago, Tigers head coach Ed Orgeron discussed the defensive lineman's problem with weight fluctuations and learning how to put in the proper work.
"I think he's coming along ... He lost his weight. He learned how to practice," Orgeron said, per James Moran. "He's had a bumpy road and learned how to do everything right every time ... He's going to be a heck of a football player."
Orgeron told WAFB's Jacques Doucet in September that Shelvin was 375 pounds but needed to be around 330 pounds to play his best.
When motivated and in shape, Shelvin is an elite defender at the point of attack and nearly impossible to move. Pro Football Focus had him graded as the SEC's best run defender coming into this season. Had he played, he could have showed off his improvement as a pass-rusher as well.
As of now, Shelvin is a two-down run defender with little value against the passing game. Questions about his weight aren't going away, either. They'll only intensify as the draft process begins in earnest.