Top 10 CFB Players Who Have Improved Their NFL Draft Stock so Far

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistNovember 16, 2020

Top 10 CFB Players Who Have Improved Their NFL Draft Stock so Far

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    While the ultimate team goal is a national championship, many college football players also have their eye on the NFL draft.

    But for every Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and Penei Sewell, there are dozens of prospects trying to grab more attention.

    Obviously, a player from any position can be labeled a riser. Given the importance of quarterbacks, though, signal-callers are always most notable. This year, in particular, three quarterbacks headline the group that has soared into the first-round discussion.

    To be clear, a "riser" is a subjective label. Some readers and analysts may have viewed a few of these players more favorably than the general consensus. But the prospects featured came into the 2020 season with a lower draft standing than they have now.

Quarterbacks: Zach Wilson, Kyle Trask and Mac Jones

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    One friendly suggestion: Get used to seeing Zach Wilson, Kyle Trask and Mac Jones grouped together.

    Before the season, none of them regularly landed in the top five of quarterback rankings. And depending on your source, sometimes only Trask or Jones appeared in the top 10.

    That has changed in a major way.

    Wilson is easily the biggest riser of all 2021 draft-eligible prospects. While leading BYU to an 8-0 record, he's totaled 2,670 yards and 30 touchdowns with only two interceptions. He has shown off excellent downfield touch, good mobility and adeptness at buying time to create a big play.

    He's risen from an afterthought to a first-round prospect, joining Trask and Jones in the latter conversation. At least right now, they're competing for the Nos. 4-6 slots behind Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields and North Dakota State quarterback Trey Lance.

    Through six games, Trask has tossed four-plus touchdownsincluding six in two gamesin each outing. He has averaged 10.3 yards per attempt with 28 scores and three interceptions so far. His arm strength, awareness and downfield touch are top attributes.

    Jones is an interesting study, but his outstanding efficiency and production have captured the attention of scouts. He's posted a would-be-FBS-record 12.4 yards per attempt with 2,196 yards and 16 scores to two picks through six games.

    Jones has taken full advantage of Alabama's receivers being the best players on the field, so his ability to carry an offense is at least worth considering. Still, his anticipation and touch are huge positives.

Terrace Marshall Jr., WR, LSU

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    After winning the national championship, LSU lost Justin Jefferson to the NFL. Then in August, star wideout Ja'Marr Chase opted out of the season. Their departures left a massive void, as well as a major opportunity for Terrace Marshall Jr. in 2020.

    The 6'3", 200-pounder has capitalized on his moment as WR1 even as the Tigers have struggled this fall.

    Marshall caught at least two touchdowns in four straight outings to begin the campaign, including a three-score showing with 235 yards at Missouri. Through five games, he's reeled in 31 passes for 540 yards and nine touchdowns.

    Although he doesn't create separation like Chase, Marshall is tough to handle in press coverage, rarely drops a pass and is comfortable making contested catches.

    This receiver class is deep, but Marshall should be a late first-rounder if he continues at this pace.

Kyle Pitts, TE, Florida

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Though he was already a respected prospect, Kyle Pitts has moved from a possible first-round pick to top-10 range.

    Yes, a tight end. Because yes, he's that special.

    In fairness, Pitts is more of a receiver than an in-line blocker. And while "matchup nightmare" is overused in analysisparticularly for tight ends who split out widePitts is incredibly difficult to defend because of his ball skills and catch radius. He'll often high-point the ball or snatch it from an area that seems impossible.

    Pitts has grabbed 24 passes for 414 yards and eight touchdowns in five appearances this season.

Christian Darrisaw, OT, Virginia Tech

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Oregon standout Penei Sewell is the top-rated offensive tackle, but Christian Darrisaw is making a run at the No. 2 spot.

    Darrisaw entered 2020 with plenty of experience, starting 25 games in his first two seasons at Virginia Tech. While he improved last season, the leap he's taken in his junior year is remarkable.

    Listed at 6'5" and 314 pounds, Darrisaw has emerged as a run-blocking force and has rarely allowed pressure in pass protection. Most recently, he played a key role in limiting Miami star and potential first-rounder Quincy Roche to four total tackles.

    Darrisaw has two challenges left on the schedule with Pitt and Clemson. If he continues to perform at this level against those disruptive defenses, he'll undoubtedly be worth a first-round choice.

Kwity Paye, DE, Michigan

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    Michigan is having a disastrous season, but Kwity Paye has still managed to stand out positively.

    Paye, who checks in at 6'4" and 272 pounds, contributed all over the defensive line before earning a full-time starting role for the Wolverines in 2019. The versatility is valuable, and it's only more attractive when paired with his explosiveness and strength. Paye should be an instant-impact player off the edge.

    Last season, he gathered a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss with 6.5 sacks. In three contests this fall, he has notched four and two, respectively, with four hurries, as well.

Azeez Ojulari, Edge, Georgia

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    Last season, Azeez Ojulari paced Georgia with 5.5 sacks. This year, he's earning a little more national recognition.

    The redshirt sophomore is leading the defense in both tackles for loss (6.5) and sacks (4.5). He's also collected 11 hurries and forced a fumble in six appearances.

    The biggest area of improvement for Ojulari in 2020 has involved becoming less predictable. After relying heavily on elite athleticism to beat a block, the edge-rusher has steadily shown a more refined pass-rushing arsenal. Pairing a few countermoves with explosiveness and speed has raised his effectiveness.

    Ojulari isn't necessarily a top-tier prospect, but he's moving toward being a popular first-round projection.

Zaven Collins, LB, Tulsa

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The lone Group of 5 prospect on the list, Zaven Collins has solidified himself as an early-round prospect.

    In both 2018 and 2019, he finished second on the team in tackles and totaled 17.5 for loss. This season, he has become an all-around playmaker with six stops for loss, four sacks, three interceptions, two pass breakups and two forced fumbles in five games.

    As with any player, versatility is important. Not only is Collins comfortable rushing the passer or dropping in coverage, but he's also producing at an absurd level in 2020.

    And when you consider his 6'4", 260-pound frame, it's no wonder NFL scouts are watching him closely.

Derion Kendrick, CB, Clemson

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Two years ago, Derion Kendrick played wide receiver and returned kicks. He caught 15 passes and averaged 23 yards per return on Clemson's championship-winning team.

    And then the Tigers switched him to defense to bolster their depth at cornerback. That decision was clearly the right choice.

    Kendrick earned a second-team All-ACC selection while tallying 43 tackles, two interceptions and five pass breakups in 2019. He struggled in the loss to LSU but has bounced back excellently in 2020. Other than one mistake against Boston College, he's rarely been beaten.

    While he's not at the level of Alabama's Patrick Surtain Jr., for example, that's no problem. Kendrick is still learning the position, yet he's already one of the ACC's best corners.