2021 NFL Draft: First-Round Surprises and Best Players Available

We hyped it up for months. The NFL draft delivered. After the first two picks went off as expected, San Francisco pulled the first surprise of the draft and we were off and running. Three receivers went in the top 10. Four if you count Kyle Pitts. The Raiders ruined everyone’s mock draft, as we have come to expect by now. In short, it was a wild and exciting night.

I will continue to say, it is too early to hand out draft grades. At some point in the near future, I will go back and regrade the 2016 NFL draft. You need about five years to evaluate a draft class, and even then, that might not be enough.

Still, there is plenty of room for initial reactions to everything that just went down in Cleveland. Let’s review the biggest surprises from Thursday and take a look at the best players still available.

San Francisco fooled (almost) everyone
Shortly after the 49ers traded up to the No. 3 pick, it came out that Kyle Shanahan loved Mac Jones as a prospect. For weeks, speculation ran wild that Jones was going to be the pick. He fit the mold of what Shanahan loved in a quarterback and would give San Francisco a chance to win now with a healthier roster. Jones is pro ready and brought a lot of similar traits to Kirk Cousins, whom Shanahan found success with in Washington. It just made sense. Then, the narrative started to change. Rumors started to circulate that the 49ers were undecided on the pick, weighing Trey Lance and Justin Fields as well. As it turns out, they were not set on Jones. My initial reaction is that John Lynch and the front office got this absolutely right. After a few years of feeling like they were leaking information, we all knew the 49ers liked Javon Kinlaw and Brandon Aiyuk last year, San Francisco kept a lid on their draft plans for this year.

Philly and Dallas made a trade with … each other?
What in the world just happened? Apparently, the Cowboys hate the Giants more than they hate the Eagles. Philadelphia sent a third-round pick to Dallas to jump New York, taking the Heisman trophy winner, DeVonta Smith. The move reunites Smith with his college quarterback back at Alabama in 2017 and part of 2018. Jalen Hurts was replaced by Tua Tagovailoa before Smith was really part of the starting lineup, but there is at least some familiarity there. It is an interesting move by Jerry Jones. I guess he decided that he would rather take the extra third round pick if he was going to play against Smith twice a year regardless. Overall, savvy move by both sides that forced Dave Gettleman to trade down for the first time ever as a general manager.

Why do we even bother mocking picks to the Raiders anymore?
Speculation about what Las Vegas could do with the 17th pick was all over the place. I thought Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was a great fit. My co-host on the Draft Season Never Ends podcast James Schiano predicted the Raiders would tab Teven Jenkins. He was closer, but Mike Mayock and Jon Gruden shocked everyone again by taking Alex Leatherwood. I had a late second-round grade on Leatherwood, ranking him 59th overall. ESPN showed a graphic that said its draft prediction algorithm gave the Alabama tackle a 60 percent chance of still being available when Las Vegas picked in the second round at 46. It was another head-scratching move, but this is what Mayock and Gruden do. In 2019, they stunned everyone by selecting Clelin Ferrell fourth overall. Last year, Las Vegas reached to draft Damon Arnette in the first round. This organization clearly has a very different outlook on the scouting process than everyone else in football.

Clemson backfield reunited in Jacksonville
Everyone and their fiancée had the Jaguars selecting Trevor Lawrence first overall in their mock drafts. It was a done deal. What we didn’t expect was for Jacksonville to take a running back with its second pick of the first round. Travis Etienne is an electric player in the open field and there was some speculation the team could look to add a complementary running back to support James Robinson. Taking Etienne in round one is a stunner though. As the league as a whole continues to devalue the position, Jacksonville suddenly has two starting-caliber options. Urban Meyer said he was going to take the best player available, but this is puzzling. Especially when you consider that Meyer told reporters that Etienne was going to be used as a third-down back. Excuse me? Very bizarre roster-building strategy indeed. Love the player, just wonder if maybe the Jaguars could have used the pick to fill a more pressing need on a roster with a lot of holes.

Payton Turner sneaks into the first round
I did not see this one coming. I had heard some buzz earlier in the day that Payton Turner could be a potential first-round pick, but I chalked that up to draft day noise. Turns out, it was spot on. He had been trending up recently, according to NFL Mock Draft Database. Only The Score had him ranked in the first round from what I can find, with his average ranking topping out at 68 overall. Turner was the second-to-last player to earn a third-round grade from me. He is long and agile though, so I can see the appeal for New Orleans, especially after losing Trey Hendrickson in free agency. Turner is also a really good fit in the Saints’ 4-3 system. However, considering that the team has Cameron Jordan and former first-round pick Marcus Davenport already on the roster, this has to go down as a bit of a surprise given the team’s other needs at corner, linebacker and receiver.

No JOK on Day 1
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah was viewed as a lock by many in the media to go in the first round. He was a rangy coverage linebacker who could line up at safety and nickel corner. He is my top-rated player still available heading into Day 2. Did Isaiah Simmons’ struggles as a rookie sour the whole league on Owusu-Koramoah? It seems unlikely, but I am unsure how else to explain why one of the fastest linebackers in this class fell out of the first round. As the NFL has trended more and more toward linebackers who are lighter and quicker, JOK felt like a perfect fit for the modern NFL defense. He could easily go No. 33 overall to the Jaguars, who could use someone with his coverage ability in their defense. Much as I said about Josh Jones last year though, it is unclear when exactly his slide will stop.

Best Players Available

That is what stood out to me from the first night of the NFL draft. There are still 227 more picks to be made though, so the draft is really only getting started. With that in mind, here are my top remaining prospects:

16. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, LB/S, Notre Dame
24. Christian Barmore, DL, Alabama
27. Trevon Moehrig, S, TCU (first-round cut off)
29. Samuel Cosmi, OT, Texas
30. Creed Humphrey, C, Oklahoma
31. Pat Freiermuth, TE, Penn State
32. Wyatt Davis, G, Ohio State
33. Liam Eichenburg, OT, Notre Dame
35. Carlos Basham, DL, Wake Forest
36. Jabril Cox, LB, LSU
38. Jalen Mayfield, OT, Michigan
42. Terrace Marshall, WR, LSU
43. Javonte Williams, RB, UNC
44. Azeez Ojulari, EDGE, Georgia
45. Daviyon Nixon, DL, Iowa
46. Tyson Campbell, CB, Georgia
47. Joseph Ossai, EDGE, Texas
48. Brevin Jordan, TE, Miami
49. Nico Collins, WR, Michigan
50. Dillon Radunz, OT, North Dakota State
51. Jevon Holland, S, Oregon
52. Paulson Adebo, CB, Stanford
53. Quincy Roche, EDGE, Miami
54. Rashad Weaver, EDGE, Pittsburgh
55. Teven Jenkins, OT, Oklahoma State
56. Patrick Jones II, EDGE, Pittsburgh
57. Andre Cisco, S, Syracuse
58. Ifeatu Melifonwu, CB, Syracuse
60. Kelvin Joseph, CB, Kentucky
61. Baron Browning, LB, Ohio State
62. Landon Dickerson, C, Alabama
63. Jay Tufele, DL, USC
64. Elijah Moore, WR, Ole Miss
65. Peter Werner, LB, Ohio State
66. James Hudson III, OT, Cincinnati (Second-round cut off)
67. Rondale Moore, WR, Purdue
68. Nick Bolton, LB, Missouri
69. Chazz Surratt, LB, UNC
70. Amari Rodgers, WR, Clemson
71. Richie Grant, S, UCF
72. Trey Smith, G, Tennessee
73. Ronnie Perkins, EDGE, Oklahoma
74. Asante Samuel Jr., CB, Florida State
75. Levi Onwuzurike, DL, Washington
76. Davis Mills, QB, Stanford
77. Benjamin St-Juste, CB, Minnesota
78. Walker Little, OT, Stanford
79. Shi Smith, WR, South Carolina
80. Spencer Brown, OT, Northern Iowa
81. Michael Carter, RB, UNC
82. Aaron Robinson, CB, UCF
83. Tylan Wallace, WR, Oklahoma State
84. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
85. Kyle Trask, QB, Florida
86. Marvin Wilson, DL, Florida State
87. Amon-Ra St. Brown, WR, USC
88. D’Wayne Eskridge, WR, Western Michigan
89. Dyami Brown, WR, UNC
91. Tommy Tremble, Notre Dame (Third-round cut off)
92. Tyler Shelvin, DL, LSU
93. Nolan Laufenburg, G, Air Force
94. Robert Rochell, CB, Central Arkansas
95. Monty Rice, LB, Georgia
96. Quinn Meinerz, C, Wisconsin-Whitewater
97. Cameron McGrone, LB, Michigan
98. Jackson Carmen, G, Clemson
99. Shaun Wade, CB, Ohio State
100. Kenny Yeboah, TE, Ole Miss

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NFL Draft Podcast – Senior Bowl preview, East-West Shrine Bowl recap and Travis Etienne

It is suddenly very busy in the build up for the 2020 NFL draft. Dozens of seniors, scouts and coaches have descended on Mobile, Alabama for the Senior Bowl. I break down the players to watch at each position. Plus, catch up on the East-West Shrine Bowl and I discuss the impact of Travis Etienne’s decision to return to school. Listen to the latest episode now on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. https://anchor.fm/theaftermath

Aftermath’s NFL Draft Podcast

Brand new episode of the Aftermath’s NFL Draft Podcast is here as Chris breaks down this week’s Studs and Sleepers. Check out which players have their draft stock rising and which players are seeing their stock slide. Also make sure you stay tuned for the game to watch this week. Subscribe now on Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.

The Flaw in Each Heisman Contender

This past weekend in college football was wild. Lots of top 25 teams fell and some Heisman hopefuls suffered major blows.

Just a week ago, I profiled the shallow group that makes up this Heisman race. This time around, I’m back to break down why each of the true contenders won’t win this years award. These are the front runners for the award and while it is still early, we are starting to see the full picture on the candidates. Let’s be clear, all of these players have had phenomenal seasons so far. This is explaining why they still might not win the Heisman.

Oklahoma LogoKyler Murray, QB, Oklahoma
Flaw: Offensive System
This might seem a bit unfair to Murray, as it isn’t his fault Lincoln Riley is a great head coach, but Oklahoma also produced Baker Mayfield last year. When you compare the two, Murray is putting up comparable numbers. Mayfield averaged 330 yards passing per game with three touchdowns and a completion percentage of 70.5 in 14 games. Murray is averaging 294 yards with 3.5 touchdowns and a 71.1 completion percentage. Murray produces more with his legs as he accounts for 62.8 yards per game rushing compared to Mayfield’s 22 yards per game during his Heisman season.

Riley is an offensive mastermind and playing in the wide open Big 12, this system is amplified an extra step. It is hard not to wonder if Murray is simply benefiting from the same system that turned Mayfield into a landslide Heisman winner. Voters will be wary of voting in a different player at the same position from the same school as they did the year before. Only once in the history of the award has a school had back-to-back winners. It happened back in 1945-46 when Army produced two different Heisman winners in as many years. These are all things Murray cannot control, but that does not mean they will not come into play when it comes time to vote.

Alabama Logo

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
Flaw: Importance to team
When was the last time it felt like a team could still win the national championship without its Heisman candidate? Alabama is dominating everyone who steps on the field with them. The Crimson Tide is outscoring opponent’s by an average margin of 40 points per contest. After years of being known as a defense team, Nick Saban is boasting an offense to match it. At the center of it is Tua Tagovailoa. He is putting up incredible numbers, putting up video-game-like numbers. He has completed 75 percent of his passes, averaging 14.8 yards per attempt and has the highest passer rating in the country at 258.4.

However, he barely has to play when it matters, because it often doesn’t for Alabama. He has attempted more than 20 passes in a game only once. Tagovailoa has not taken a single snap in the fourth quarter of a football game this season. By that point, the Tide has been up by enough that his services are no longer needed. ‘Bama is far and away the best team in the country and Tagovailoa might be the best quarterback in the country, but this team seems like it would easily make it back to the playoff if it was only relying on Jalen Hurts. In limited playing time, Hurts has completed 71 percent of his passes with five touchdowns and only one interception. If the system issue for Kyler Murray was bad, this seems almost worse in Alabama where there is another quarterback performing well in the same season. It is difficult to poke holes in Tagovailoa’s campaign, but equally hard to say he should be the Heisman winner when it feels like the team would be fine without him.

West Virginia logoWill Grier, QB, West Virginia:
Flaw: Gunslinger
Will Grier has had one heck of a year so far. He has thrown for at least 330 yards in every game. He is completing 71 percent of his passes. He is also averaging a ridiculous 4.2 touchdowns passes per game. Grier has proven he can toss it all over the yard. He has West Virginia up to number six in the polls, its highest ranking since 2012. While the level of competition the Mountaineers have faced is certainly a concern, they have yet to play another ranked team and likely won’t until November, the much bigger concern is Grier’s playing style.

Much like Kyler Murray, Grier plays in the wide open Big 12. It serves up opportunities for tons of passing yards and weak secondaries to feast on. Heading into the game, he had only thrown three interceptions. Against Kansas, Grier tossed three more. Throwing three interceptions in a game is not a good thing. Throwing three interceptions against Kansas. The Jayhawks are 2-4 this season, including a loss to Nicholls State, an FCS team. Grier’s now six interceptions rank him tied for sixth most in the country. That is not an awful thing, but when you compare him to the other Heisman candidates, it is a bad look. Haskins has four, Murray has two and Tagovailoa has yet to throw one. Each of those three has played one more game than Grier as well. It begs the question of how Grier will fare when faced with top tier teams like Texas and Oklahoma, both of whom West Virginia will play next month. If Grier turns it over against those teams, not only will it likely cost his team the game, it will certainly cost him the Heisman.

Ohio State LogoDwayne Haskins, QB, Ohio State
Flaw: Starting slow
If there is anyone in college football who is putting up the kind of number Tua Tagovailoa has, it is Dwayne Haskins. He has completed 71 percent of his passes en route to averaging 320 yards per game through the air. Haskins also leads the nation in touchdown passes through six games with 25. Looking at Ohio State’s schedule, it should relatively smooth sailing for them heading into their final game of the year against Michigan.

In the last two games for the Buckeyes though, the team has started rather sluggishly. Against Penn State, Haskins threw an early interception which lead to a field goal. Ohio State went down 13-0 and it probably would have been that score at halftime if not for a costly fumble from the Nittany Lions. Haskins played very well in the second half to lead Ohio State to a victory. Essentially the same script played out again at home against Indiana. Haskins threw a second quarter interception to kill the drive and set up a Hoosier touchdown, which put Indiana ahead at that point. He played lights out in the second half, but the lack of a complete game is troubling. The Big 10 is a tough conference to compete in and Ohio State has road games with Purdue, Michigan State and Maryland left. None of those poise serious threats, but going down early in games is not sustainable for any team. I guess if Haskins continues to do it, you could label as clutch, but it raises a red flag for me indicating he takes a little while to settle into a game.

Clemson LogoTravis Etienne, RB, Clemson
Flaw: Pass Catching
I said Etienne was getting close after his dominant performance against Syracuse. After thrashing Wake Forrest, Etienne earns himself the title of Heisman contender. He is fourth in the nation with 761 yards rushing, third for his yards per carry average of 9.2 and tied for fourth with 11 rushing touchdowns. His value cannot be overstated for a Clemson team that had its former starter Kelly Bryant transfer and now starts a true freshman under center. Against Wake Forrest, Etienne racked up 167 yards and three touchdowns on just 10 carries. He is an explosive playmaker on a top team in the country.

The one major concern Heisman voters will have with Etienne is he doesn’t fit the bill of a true Heisman back. He is not a powerful runner in the way that Mark Ingram or Derrick Henry, the last two running backs to win, were at Alabama. Much like Tua Tagovailoa, he is not a heavy usage player running the football as he has eclipsed 16 carries just once. We’ve seen plenty of running backs add to their candidacy by featuring as pass catchers out of the backfield on swings, screens and wheel routes downfield. On the season he has just five receptions for 27 yards and one receiving touchdown. It is not a requirement to be a good receiving back to win the award, Henry finished his winning season with just 11 grabs, but with Etienne not putting up nearly the same numbers running the ball as those that came before him, it is going to be difficult to outshine any of these quarterbacks without making an impact in the passing game.

2018 Heisman Hopefuls are Hard to Find

cappelletti_heisman_trophy_crop_1
Only quarterbacks and Alabama running backs have won the Heisman dating back to 2000. (Wikimedia Commons)

After five weeks of action in the 2018 college football season, the shortlist of contenders for the Heisman Trophy is shrinking. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa, Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins, West Virginia’s Will Grier and Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray are the clear front runners at this stage. All four of them are undefeated quarterbacks playing on Power 5 conference teams ranked in the top 10. At this stage, any of them could win the award, but it seems like there is not much chance anyone else manages to get their name into the running. Let’s break down who else was supposed to be in this race.

The Preseason Hopefuls
There were several other players who were supposed to challenge for the highest individual honor in the college game. Stanford running back Bryce Love and Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor headline this group. Love was the runner up for the award last season when Baker Mayfield took it home. Taylor finished sixth in the voting. The pair finished second and third in the nation in rushing respectively behind Seahawks first round selection Rashaad Penny. This season Taylor is fifth in the country for ground yardage, but hasn’t scored in either of his past two games and Wisconsin lost to an unranked BYU squad. Love has missed time with some nagging injuries.

Also in this group is Shea Patterson of Michigan and Kelly Bryant of Clemson. The two quarterbacks had rough starts to the season. For Patterson, he lost his season opener to Notre Dame and failed to throw a touchdown pass. He only has seven through five games this year. On the other hand, Bryant actually lost his starting job to freshman Trevor Lawrence and announced he plans to transfer.

The Sleeper Picks
Every year, there are a bunch of dark horse candidates to win the Heisman. 2018 was no different. The most popular sleeper pick this year had to be Penn State’s Trace McSorley. A true dual-threat quarterback, the senior has thrown for over 1,000 yards and rushed for over 450. Normally, that would put you right in the heart of the conversation. However, McSorley sustained a heavy blow to his candidacy with PSU’s loss to Ohio State at home. On top of that, he has a woeful completion percentage of 52 and had two games where he failed to eclipse 200 yards passing.

Alongside McSorely were Drew Lock and Jarret Stidham, two SEC quarterbacks with first round potential in the upcoming NFL draft. Lock was always going to have a tough road to the award being on an unranked team. He opened the season on fire, but came back down to Earth when Georgia drubbed Missouri. Lock failed to complete 50 percent of his passes against the Bulldogs, threw no touchdowns, one interception and for under 250 yards. For a quarterback who doesn’t run much, that pretty much ended Lock’s campaign. Stidham’s candidacy turned out to be mostly hype. Through five games, the Auburn quarterback has only thrown five touchdowns, lost at home to LSU and topped 200 passing yards twice.

400px-baker_mayfield_282934943606729
Mayfield became the first senior to win the award since 2006 and translated it into the first overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft. (Wikimedia Commons)

Still Could Join the Party
I have bashed the depth of the hopefuls pretty thoroughly, but it is still early and there a are a handful of players who could make some noise and draw Heisman attention before the season is over.

The first is Justin Herbert. The Oregon quarterback is making a case to be the first quarterback selected in May at the NFL draft. He could also sneak into the Heisman conversation, but it feels like he missed his best chance to assert himself. It will be hard for voters to shake the memory of him throwing four straight incompletions to lose at home to Stanford in overtime. He also has a couple of ugly statistical games on his record where he tossed multiple interceptions and completed fewer than 50 percent of his passes.

There is no way that only quarterbacks finish as finalists either. Travis Etienne of Clemson has a chance to thrust himself into the conversation before the season is out. He is currently seventh in the country in rushing with an outrageous 8.1 yards per carry. The sophomore running back also has eight touchdowns so far. Additionally, Etienne might have just had his Heisman moment as he carried Clemson to a comeback in Death Valley over Syracuse with the team’s third-string quarterback under center. He rushed for 203 yards and three touchdowns to keep the Tigers undefeated. Being the lead back on a team likely to make the playoff and having your starting quarterback transfer, Etienne has everything in place to take a stab at this.

One last one that is a bit of a unique case is Ian Book. The Notre Dame quarterback took over as the starter in the third game of the season. He threw the game-clinching touchdown against Wake Forest and has thrown for 603 yards and six touchdowns over his last two starts. He torched what is a good Stanford defense and has a stellar 74 percent completion rate. On top of all of that, he hasn’t thrown an interception. The Irish sit at sixth in the AP poll and have a chance to make the College Football Playoff. If Book puts up similar numbers and leads Notre Dame to an undefeated regular season, he could be in the mix.

The Longshots
Just because you aren’t at a big school doesn’t mean you can’t make some noise. Now, Kentucky is a big school, but you probably know them for basketball. However, Ben Snell Jr. is having an impressive year running the ball. He is fourth in the nation in both yards and touchdowns. Kentucky is also 5-0 and up to #13 in the AP Poll. He will get a chance to play some great competition as Texas A&M and Georgia are still on the schedule. He could be a late riser.

Even more of a long shot is John Ursua of Hawaii. He really doesn’t belong, but he leads the nation in receptions, yards and touchdowns. He is on pace to finish with 100 catches, 1500 yards and 24 touchdowns. That kind of production usually catches the eyes of Heisman voters, but the best team Hawaii has played all year is Army. Unless Ursua can step it up and start shattering some records along with Hawaii winning out, he won’t really draw much attention.

One last name to throw around is Steven Montez from Colorado. The Buffaloes are 4-0 this season for the first time in 20 years. Montez is completing 75.8 percent of his passes, which leads the nation. Colorado is 21st in the polls and has road games against USC, Washington and Cal. Montez has thrown for over 1,000 yards and nine touchdowns in four games so far. He still has two-thirds of his games left in his season. It will be interesting to see what he can do with it.

The season is far from over, but it seems like the majority of the whittling down for the Heisman Trophy has already occurred. We might get some fireworks by season’s end, but this feels like a four-man race with a lot of people wondering what could have been.