Top Future NFL Draft Prospects to Watch This Fall
From a college perspective, the NFL draft is a worthy sendoff for the players we enjoyed watching over the past few years. As those elite prospects head to the pros, though, it's easy to start thinking about the next wave of talent.
Entering the 2021 season, three quarterbacks are poised to punctuate the next draft-eligible group.
North Carolina's Sam Howell, Oklahoma's Spencer Rattler and Georgia's JT Daniels will headline the annual debate over which college standouts can become a franchise quarterback in the NFL.
The best overall prospect, however, may be a defender. And that conversation starts with LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. and Oregon edge-rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Perception will change throughout the next 12 months, but a consensus is building around top prospects. This list, which touts the best of the best, is based on a mix of college performance and early scouting rumors.
Sam Howell, North Carolina
Scouts are destined to praise Howell for his arm strength and downfield touch. Through two seasons at UNC, he's averaged 9.4 yards per attempt and totaled 76 gains of 25-plus yards. Overall, he's thrown for 7,227 yards and 68 touchdowns with just 14 interceptions. Howell isn't necessarily a dual-threat quarterback but rushed for more than 300 yards last season, excluding sacks.
Spencer Rattler, Oklahoma
Although he'll be knocked for his size, the 6'1" Rattler is listed at the same height as Howell. Besides, the Oklahoma star has a powerful arm and guided the Sooners to a sixth straight Big 12 title last season. Rattler, who accounted for 3,191 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2020, is a leading Heisman Trophy contender in 2021.
JT Daniels, Georgia
This is a massive year for Daniels, who initially went to USC and had modest success before a knee injury in the 2019 opener ended his season. His absence cleared a path for Kedon Slovis—another draft-eligible QB to know—and ultimately led to Daniels joining Georgia. He started the last four contests of 2020 and racked up 1,231 yards at 10.3 per attempt with 10 scores and two picks. Repeating that success over a larger sample is imperative for Daniels.
Offensive Skill Positions
Garrett Wilson, WR, Ohio State
Late in his freshman year, Wilson earned a more regular role. He finished the season with 30 catches for 432 yards and five touchdowns. Then, in an eight-game 2020 season, he collected 43 receptions for 723 yards and six scores. Wilson's ability to grab contested catches is a massive plus for his NFL scouting report.
Chris Olave, WR, Ohio State
Sort of unfair for the Buckeyes to have Wilson and Olave, right? Somewhat surprisingly, Olave passed up entering the 2021 draft to return for a final season in Columbus. Over the last two seasons, he's amassed 98 catches for 1,569 yards and 19 scores.
Justyn Ross, WR, Clemson
The huge, enormous, multimillion-dollar question is centered on Ross' medical evaluation. He missed the 2020 season after undergoing spinal surgery but still must be cleared for contact. Prior to the procedure, Ross posted a 1,000-yard season as a freshman and 865 yards as a sophomore with 17 total touchdowns. If he's healthy, Ross is a definite first-round talent.
Jerrion Ealy, RB, Mississippi
The former top MLB prospect has intriguing upside because of his versatility. While recording a couple of 700-yard seasons on the ground, Ealy also had 35 catches for Ole Miss. Another year in Lane Kiffin's offense next to quarterback Matt Corral could send Ealy's draft stock soaring.
Jalen Wydermyer, TE, Texas A&M
In today's NFL, hybrid tight ends are popular. Even if they don't block particularly well, explosive pass-catchers have immense value. Wydermyer, however, offers a great mix of both traditional and modern skill sets. He's a reliable blocker but also had 78 receptions for 953 yards and 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons.
Evan Neal, OT/OG, Alabama
Neal is a prime example of versatility. He started 13 games at left guard as a freshman, shifted to right tackle as a sophomore and should flip to left tackle in 2021. No matter if he projects as an interior lineman at the next level, Neal will be a coveted player if he declares for the 2022 draft.
Nick Broeker, OT/OG, Mississippi
While his past performance is more in the range of decent-to-good, Broeker has been a fixture on early 2022 watch lists. Broeker held a rotational role as a freshman and joined the starting lineup last year. The 6'4", 305-pounder may be pegged for an interior spot in the NFL but has a chance to prove himself as a tackle at Ole Miss.
Tyler Linderbaum, C/OG, Iowa
The second-team AP All-America selection had an opportunity to enter the 2021 draft but elected to return for another year. Linderbaum has started 21 straight games at center for Iowa, which has a strong reputation for producing NFL linemen. Not since 1993 has a center been a top-15 pick, but Linderbaum could be a later first-round choice.
Kayvon Thibodeaux, Edge, Oregon
Pac-12 linemen will be relieved to see Thibodeaux head to the NFL. In two seasons at Oregon, he's piled up 73 tackles with 23.5 takedowns for loss and 12 sacks. Because of his explosiveness off the line and production, Thibodeaux has a tremendous chance to be the first non-quarterback selected in 2022.
DeMarvin Leal, DE, Texas A&M
Leal is the rare talent who can play several spots on the defensive line and, most importantly, be effective. Texas A&M has deployed the 6'4", 290-pounder everywhere from between the guards and center to outside the tackles. Leal has totaled 75 stops with 12.5 for loss in two years with the Aggies.
George Karlaftis, DE, Purdue
Between a leg injury and positive COVID-19 test, Karlaftis managed just three appearances in 2020. As a true freshman, though, he tallied 54 stops with 17 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks. Karlaftis is an under-the-radar player nationally but not in NFL circles.
Christian Harris, Alabama
Similar to his SEC counterpart Nick Broeker, Harris has plenty to prove in run defense and coverage despite his early billing. According to NFL Mock Draft Database, he's the No. 12 consensus prospect right now. Granted, since he's notched 142 tackles with 14.5 for loss in the last two seasons, the attention is certainly understandable.
Owen Pappoe, Auburn
Pappoe, a 5-star recruit in the 2019 class who received a scholarship offer from Tennessee as an eighth-grader, has an extremely interesting skill set. Last season, he posted 93 tackles with six tackles for loss and regularly stood out as a rangy linebacker with good coverage ability. The key for Pappoe is harnessing his elite-level athleticism and becoming a consistent factor in run defense.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU
Had he been eligible to declare for the NFL draft following his freshman year, Stingley could've been an early pick. He intercepted six passes and earned first-team AP All-America honors in 2019. While his encore in 2020 wasn't quite as electric, Stingley quietly had a strong year for a mediocre LSU defense. Stingley should remain in the top-10 conversation for the 2022 draft.
Kyle Hamilton, S, Notre Dame
Star linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah made headlines for Notre Dame's defense, but Hamilton has provided steady production in the secondary for two seasons. The 6'4" safety tallied 41 stops and four interceptions as a freshman and recorded 63 tackles (4.5 for loss), six pass breakups and a pick in 2020.
Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Elam shared first-team All-SEC recognition with Stingley and expected 2021 first-rounder Patrick Surtain II last season. Along with 39 tackles, Elam broke up 11 passes and intercepted two. If he becomes a more reliable tackler, the 6'2" corner will be highly valued for his stature and ball skills.
Bubba Bolden, S, Miami
The USC transfer played five games in 2019 before a freak ankle injury while celebrating an interception ended his season. Bolden recovered and put together a fine 2020 with 74 tackles, four forced fumbles and two blocked kicks. He, like Elam, must improve his tackling, but Bolden is otherwise a well-rounded safety.