Notable CFB Players Who Could Help Their Draft Stock in 2021
Sometimes, the NFL can wait, especially when big money is involved.
College football in 2021 is going to be full of guys who have the opportunity to surge up draft boards with big seasons. The vast majority of the ones who made this list eschewed the pros so they could return and play bigger roles.
Dollar signs could follow stat-packed seasons.
From high-profile quarterbacks to marquee pass-catchers whose names you already know, offensive playmakers are all over this list. A trio of talented linebackers and one star in the trenches round out the group, along with a ball-carrier.
Seniors and redshirt juniors pack this list, along with "super seniors" who are taking advantage of extra eligibility thanks to 2020's pandemic-altered season. You'd better believe scouts will be paying close attention.
Here is a handful of returning players who could have gambled with their futures this year but instead decided to come back to the amateur gridiron to elevate their stocks with another year in the spotlight.
Nik Bonitto, Oklahoma Linebacker
The job Alex Grinch has done in a short time as Oklahoma's defensive coordinator shouldn't be overlooked, and a prime example of that turnaround is Sooners linebacker Nik Bonitto.
At 6'3", 238 pounds, the redshirt sophomore is the perfect size to play outside linebacker and is also big enough to put his hand down and get after quarterbacks. During 2020, he was a first-team Pro Football Focus and second-team Associated Press All-American.
Rather than head to the NFL, though, the Florida native who finished the year with 33 tackles (19 solo, 14 assists), 11.5 tackles for loss, nine sacks, two pass breakups and a team-high 10 quarterback hurries is coming back to anchor an OU unit that could be one of the best in the Big 12.
He tweeted he had "unfinished business" and was coming back to help win a title. If he puts up the kind of season of which he's capable, a huge paycheck could follow. Bonitto could be the second pass-rusher to come out of Norman in as many years considering Ronnie Perkins is generating some buzz this year.
NFL Draft Room has Bonitto as a first-round pick in a way-too-early mock draft, so if he can surge that high, he would definitely have made the right choice.
JT Daniels, Georgia Quarterback
Talk about a career resurrection.
JT Daniels has found one in Athens. He's come a long way since the season opener in 2019 when he tore knee ligaments and missed the entire season, paving the way for Kedon Slovis to start an impressive career at USC and knock the former 5-star talent into the transfer portal.
After waiting his turn while his knee healed a year ago, he found his way onto the field for Kirby Smart's Bulldogs and turned around a stagnant offense. He threw for 1,231 yards, 10 touchdowns and two interceptions and decided to return for another season.
That may have been a bit surprising considering some analysts (such as CBS Sports' Chris Trapasso) had him as a '21 first-rounder. With stars like Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones and Kyle Trask in this year's group, though, Daniels may have slipped.
Next year's quarterback class is much less proven. Considering Daniels' immense talent, scouts are going to be drooling if he proves he is fully healthy and that his knee can withstand the rigors of an entire SEC season.
He could see himself at the very top of the '22 draft once everything is done.
Jahan Dotson, Penn State Wide Receiver
The first in a trio of Big Ten receivers who made this list, Jahan Dotson had a productive 2020 season despite his team's forgettable performance.
Penn State would love to move past the pandemic-shortened campaign even though it rebounded nicely during the second half of the season. The Nittany Lions finished with a losing record while working through Micah Parson's opt-out and Journey Brown's retirement after he was diagnosed with a heart condition.
Through it all, there was one glimmer of a diamond in the rough: junior receiver Jahan Dotson, who busted out for an outstanding year.
The 5'11", 182-pound Pennsylvania native finished with 52 catches for 884 yards and eight touchdowns. Not only was he the biggest playmaker for quarterback Sean Clifford, but he was also one of the best players across the whole Big Ten.
Though the Lions have a recent history of losing players to the NFL early, Dotson bucked that trend and elected to return to his home state for another year. His size is the biggest knock against him, but he can make plays with the best of them.
If he has a huge year and head coach James Franklin's team can turn things around, then scouts will take notice.
Ty Fryfogle, Indiana Wide Receiver
The Indiana Hoosiers were one of the best stories in college football during the '20 season, coming within an eyelash of playing for the Big Ten title despite quarterback Michael Penix Jr.'s season-ending injury.
Head coach Tom Allen's team had a pair of playmakers at receiver in Whop Philyor and Ty Fryfogle. Though the former left early, the latter is back to join a loaded stable of returning receivers.
Fryfogle finished the year with 721 yards and seven touchdowns in eight games, earning Big Ten Receiver of the Year honors. Considering the number of top-shelf pass-catchers in that league, that was a huge accomplishment.
If he can stand out the way he did in 2020, big things are in store for the 6'2", 210-pound pass-catcher from Lucedale, Mississippi. Thriving without Philyor around would be another major bonus.
Nothing about Fryfogle stands out physically. He is just a producer, big enough to make an impact at the next level and performing well in important situations, which he did against Ohio State's Shaun Wade by catching seven passes for 218 yards and three touchdowns.
That was a moneymaker game for Fryfogle, and more await.
Mohamed Ibrahim, Minnesota Running Back
Rodney Smith was the last elite Minnesota Golden Gophers running back to enter the NFL draft, but the Georgia native went undrafted in 2020 before landing with the Carolina Panthers.
The next one of P.J. Fleck's star backs to come out will almost certainly hear his name called.
At 5'10", 210 pounds, Mohamed Ibrahim has impressive size and was a major producer for the Gophers even during a disappointing '20 season.
During his redshirt junior campaign, Ibrahim was named the 2020 Big Ten Running Back of the Year and generated third-team All-American honors from the Associated Press. In seven games, he rushed 201 times for 1,076 yards and 15 touchdowns.
That kind of production will get you noticed, and it was a bit of a surprise he elected to come back to Minneapolis. But with another superb season, he's going to get plenty of offseason buzz.
Putting the same kind of season on film would boost his resume, and he may wind up zooming to the top of '22 NFL draft boards at his position without Travis Etienne, Chuba Hubbard, Najee Harris and others in front of him in the pecking order.
D'Eriq King, Miami Quarterback
First, D'Eriq King was a small-college superstar when he showed out for Houston. Then he didn't exactly mesh well with new Cougars head coach Dana Holgorsen and jumped ship, heading to South Beach to finish his career.
The 2020 season brought some serious highs and lows. On one hand, he was a major producer, clicking under first-year offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee to lead the Hurricanes to a superb bounce-back season. But in the Cheez-It Bowl loss to Oklahoma State, he tore his ACL.
That pretty much made it a no-brainer for King to come back for another season. The 5'11", 195-pound dual-threat signal-caller is, without question, a major playmaker with his arm and especially with his feet. But he will always face questions about his height.
If he returns from his injury and shows no ill effects while continuing to prove he's developing as a passer, somebody is going to roll the dice and give him an opportunity.
According to Tom D'Angelo of the Palm Beach Post, King was "not ranked on several NFL quarterback boards and is in the high teens and low 20s in others." With a big year in '21, he will probably hear his name called and continue making headlines, this time for all the right reasons.
Desmond Ridder, Cincinnati Quarterback
A bunch of Group of Five quarterbacks would belong on an expanded list. San Jose State's Nick Starkel, Louisiana's Levi Lewis and Kent State's Dustin Crum could see their stocks surge with superb seasons. But none of them have the name or program clout Cincinnati's Desmond Ridder enjoys.
The 6'4", 215-pound dual-threat quarterback hasn't proved he can sling it all over the field with the best of them yet, but he's got size, arm strength, athleticism and more. If he can put it all together, he would have the complete package at the position.
And he's a winner, too.
Ridder is exactly the type of player who could skyrocket up draft boards, especially considering the '22 quarterback class looks extremely shallow on paper. A year ago, he finished with 2,296 passing yards, 19 touchdowns and six interceptions, and he rushed for 592 yards and 12 touchdowns on 98 carries.
"With another strong season like he had this year, Ridder could find himself in first-round conversation," DraftWire.com's Jacob Infante wrote after Ridder announced he was coming back, noting he was considered a Day 2 pick at the time.
Chris Olave, Ohio State Wide Receiver
When Ohio State head coach Ryan Day needs a big play, he looks in Chris Olave's direction.
The 6'1", 188-pound San Marcos, California, native teamed with Garrett Wilson to provide quarterback Justin Fields with two of the best pass-catchers in the nation, and his return essentially guarantees the Buckeyes will have the nation's top returning group of playmakers at receiver in '21.
Olave is not the biggest receiver, but he is a burner who can get past even the best defensive backs. Last year, he finished with 50 catches for 729 yards and seven touchdowns. Now, it's just a matter of figuring out who's going to throw him the ball following Fields' departure.
If Olave has another massive season with a young signal-caller behind center, he could turn scouts' heads. He already has plenty of them looking in his direction given his playmaking ability, and he's a near-lock to land in the '22 first round.
"I was a little bit surprised that Olave decided to return," ESPN draft analyst Todd McShay said on ESPN's First Draft podcast. "I know he didn't have his best game in the National Championship Game, but he had a great season, and he's been a really consistent, good player. Plus, you know you're losing your quarterback and I know they've got the next one up at Ohio State—they always do—but to see Olave not on that list was surprising to me.
"I thought worst case, he was going somewhere in the second round in what shapes up as a pretty deep wide receiver class."
Next year's class might not be as deep, and Olave could leapfrog into the top 20 picks.
Brock Purdy, Iowa State Quarterback
Brock Purdy has a lot of ability and decent size, and he can make all the passes.
But he doesn't play in the sexiest offense as the Iowa State Cyclones' maestro. He's also had mental lapses such as last year's season-opening loss to Louisiana and a three-interception performance in a disappointing setback to Oklahoma in the Big 12 Championship Game.
When Purdy is on, he's exceptional. Though he's just 6'1", he is a thick, strong-armed playmaker who can make a lot of things happen. He has some ability to run even if he isn't the most athletic quarterback outside the pocket.
He's at least in the conversation with JT Daniels, Sam Howell, Kedon Slovis and Spencer Rattler.
Perhaps the biggest knock on the rising senior is his inconsistency. He is just as likely to throw a "what-were-you-thinking" interception as he is to lead the Cyclones on a game-winning drive. He needs a huge final season in Ames to put those question marks to rest.
Howell and Daniels are pretty much the only sure things at quarterback in next year's draft. Throw in Rattler, who is too exciting to pass up, and it's a wide-open race to surge into the top two rounds.
Purdy has the potential to do exactly that, and he'll have a strong runner in Breece Hall behind him with a loaded group of playmakers around him. It's time for him to lead Iowa State to a title. If he does, others will take notice.
Justyn Ross, Clemson Wide Receiver
Clemson superstar receiver Justyn Ross had to miss the 2020 season due to a congenital fusion condition of his neck and spine. For a while, it was uncertain whether the elite pass-catcher would ever play again.
But he's back in '21 after catching 66 passes for 865 yards and eight touchdowns in 2019.
Moving to the slot this year and flashing that type of versatility at 6'4", could prove to everybody he's ready to be a top-of-the-first-round talent. When healthy, he's too big, fast and talented to pass up. He could wind up as the first receiver taken.
"Justyn's a threat anywhere. ... But we've never really just played him at the 5-man [Clemson's slot] and asked him to really learn that," head coach Dabo Swinney said. "I think it'll be a great move for Justyn and his future, as well, because he's one of those rare guys with size that can be elite at any position."
Nobody seems too worried about Ross' future following the injury, but franchises need to know everything is OK before they commit huge money. He can show everyone he's the star pass-catcher he was pre-injury with a big 2021 season.
Edefuan Ulofoshio, Washington Linebacker
It's not often that a former walk-on winds up not only starring in college but also making the ultimate leap to becoming an NFL draft pick.
In the 2021 draft, a pair of former walk-on linebackers could hear their names called after starring for Power 5 programs.
One is Arkansas' Grant Morgan, who was third nationally in tackles in 2020. But Washington's Edefuan Ulofoshio is more anonymous right now and could still wind up becoming one of the top inside linebackers taken in next year's draft.
The 6'0", 230-pound prospect is from Anchorage, Alaska, which is hardly known as a football powerhouse. However, he made his way south to play for powerhouse Bishop Gorman High School in Las Vegas, and that got him noticed.
As a true freshman, he got on the field against Oregon State, registered two tackles and two forced fumbles in his first game and became a valuable special teams weapon. Since then, he's turned into an irreplaceable force for the Huskies.
With Elijah Molden off to the NFL, this is Ulofoshio's team, and he has the ability to be a playmaker and the attitude to be an emotional leader. If he can help Jimmy Lake's defense take a major step forward in '21, NFL teams are going to take notice.
They find talent no matter how many stars you had out of high school, and a big year could push Ulofoshio into the '22 draft's first two rounds.
Follow Brad Shepard on Twitter, @Brad_Shepard.