After our preseason NFL draft preview before the college season began, we’ve seen several surprising changes in the rankings. As we enter November things will begin to really intensify in the college football season and prospects, in turn, will begin to separate.
Here’s a full update on who’s risen, who’s fallen, our updated rankings, and a spotlight on two local prospects who’ve significantly upped their stocks so far.
Malik Hooker, free safety, Ohio State
Only a redshirt sophomore and first-time starter Hooker has managed to be an upgrade on OSU’s two starting safeties from 2015 who are both in the NFL. Hooker’s instincts and range in coverage are truly impressive, making it look like he can cover the whole field. If we account for the large margins of growth that the young and relatively inexperienced Hooker still has, he’s potentially among the best high-safety prospects we’ve seen since Earl Thomas.
Takkarist McKinley, defensive end, UCLA
The Bruins have pumped out pass rushers with regularity since Jim Mora became the head coach in 2012. McKinley is next in line. With 14 tackles for a loss and 7 sacks, McKinley is one of the nation’s leaders in both categories and has been wrecking havoc in opposing backfields.
Still overlooked by several media types, McKinley has the physical/athletic profile at 6-2 265 to match his production this season. A former track runner, he’s run the 100 meters in under 11 seconds as a high schooler.
We’ll be keeping a close eye on him next Thursday in Folsom Field as we get a live look at the Bruins against Colorado.
The slot WRs: John Ross, Washington and Curtis Samuels, Ohio State
Ross was missed by the Huskies in 2015 as he lost the entire season due to a knee injury. He’s come back and had a huge impact on Washington’s big year so far. Ross is only 5-11, 190-pounds but he’s absolutely electric. He can burn just about anyone and get over the top of a defense in a hurry. He’s also a dynamic returner and runner after the catch.
Samuels has also risen up draft boards in his first year as a featured player with the Buckeyes. He’s both a third-down back and slot receiver. Aside from his explosiveness and open field ability that can drive defenders bonkers, he’s most impressive as a route runner. Samuels has a keen understanding of how to create space for himself underneath and a big time talent for shaking defenders off him to create said separation.
In a receiver class that’s disappointed so far, Ross and Samuels have emerged. After Tavon Austin, Brandin Cooks and Corey Coleman all got into the first round despite being under six feet, these two special slot wideouts could be next in line.
Mitch Trubisky, quarterback, North Carolina
Much like Ross, Trubisky’s stock has risen while other players at his position are faltering. Trubisky, a former top recruit, is a full-time starter for the first year as a redshirt junior and he’s shown terrific command of the Tar Heels’ explosive spread attack.
What impresses most are Trubisky’s footwork, particularly in navigating the pocket combined with his accuracy. He’s also flashed some tight window throws over deep-to-intermediate routes that are promising. He’s still far from perfect, the offense he plays in is hard to project, his deep ball accuracy is questionable and his ball placement when throwing to his left looks far worse than it does to his right, but Trubisky looks the part and has many translatable qualities, such as quality decision-making.
How high his ceiling is remains to be seen but Trubisky’s put himself firmly in the conversation as one of the top QBs in 2017 and could be poised for a big final couple months that could really propel him.
The N.2 Cornerbacks
How many times, whether it be in recruiting or scouting, do you hear about an evaluator going out to watch one player and then coming away impressed with another? It happens more often than you may think and it’s certainly happening with the 2017 draft-eligible cornerbacks.
Scouts are going to see Florida, Ohio State, and Michigan for their No. 1 CBs but have come away just as impressed with the guys playing across from Jalen Tabor, Gareon Conley, and Jordan Lewis.
All these corners have one thing in common, they’re big. Ohio State has Marshon Lattimore playing opposite Conley and both are looking extremely promising on a Buckeyes defense that’s full of NFL talent.
Opposite Lewis at Michigan is Channing Stribling, a raw and handsy corner who’s also 6-foot-2 with great ball skills. Stribling is light but he’s extremely physical and looks like a perfect fit as a press corner who’ll get his penalties but also his fair share of big plays.
Florida might have the best corner tandem in the country (though Alabama may have something to say about that) with some begging to be convinced that Quincy Wilson and not Tabor is the best corner on the team. Wilson is big and extremely physical with a powerful base, a perfect fit in press. He can cover the sideline well and will fight for the ball.
Wilson’s taken over for former top pick Vernon Hargraves III and the Gators haven’t lost a step.
Scouts in Boulder coming to see Chidobe Awuzie are also coming away impressed with another cornerback, but more with that in a second.
It should be said that this cornerback class, in general, is very promising as right now we have 18 CBs in our top 100. After a few years in a row of unreal depth at the WR position, this corner class should even out some of the talent gaps.
The players above haven’t just seen their stocks rise, they’ve come out of relative anonymity to now being legitimate high-level prospects. However, some more known prospects have also seen their stocks rise significantly since the beginning of the year.
Tennessee’s Derek Barnett has always been productive, but he’s showing more versatility and flexibility to bend the edge this season. A huge improvement. Barnett is now my second ranked edge rusher in this class.
Alabama’s Ruben Foster has clearly taken over the top inside linebacker spot by simply dominating this year. Not your typical Tide ‘backer, he can chase sideline to sideline, is explosive, can cover a bit, and is also a train downhill. He should be a top half of the first round pick.
Foster’s teammate and redshirt sophomore Marlon Humphrey is also taking over the top CB spot in a loaded class. Humphrey has size, instincts and is also terrific in run support and tackling outside on the boundary.
Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham is having a huge season. He’s terrorizing opposing backfields to the tune of 13.5 TFL’s in 8 games and already has 85 tackles. Cunningham is relentless and plays all over the field. While he isn’t used much in coverage he shows the athletic tools to contribute there as well, moving solidly into the first round conversation.
The top quarterbacks
In the preseason I highlighted the depth at quarterback in this class. So far more names have been added, plenty of interesting performances have been put on tape but few QBs are raising their stocks, while all the top guys have been disappointing.
Deshaun Watson isn’t looking like himself, his command and decision making not the same as recent years. Maybe more worrisome, his accuracy is looking significantly worse. Already without the most powerful arm, Watson needs his ball placement to be at a high level, so far it’s been inconsistent.
Deshone Kizer of Notre Dame started off really hot, becoming an early mock draft darling, but he’s been wildly inconstant and has recently been benched for a short stretch and openly criticized by his coach. Kizer’s flashed several intriguing tools but he looks far from NFL-ready.
Brad Kaya has now shown very little improvements from the high upside he flashed as a freshman. He still gives you flashes, but the consistency to carve up opposing defenses isn’t there.
No one is separating and aside from Trubisky, no one has really risen. This could be a rough draft class for teams in desperate need of a QB, buyer beware.
The offensive tackle class
People who follow the draft might know by now, but offensive line play is in a bit of a crisis in modern football. Whether it be the spread offense or the fact that now teams run 80 plays a game and that takes its toll on a big man, we’re just not getting the same level talent coming through the NFL pipeline.
The offensive tackle class this year is truly emblematic of this issue. We featured in the preseason how this was a particularly big class but that hasn’t translated to positive performances. Alabama’s Cam Robinson is really the only true first round prospect at this point and much of that is based on potential, as Robinson’s been very uneven the last two season while also having some off-field red flags.
The rest of the top candidates have been disappointing. There’s still time and other names are bound to rise, but so far the selection is looking bleak with few true candidates to even project to the left side. One name that’s risen as of late is Wisconsin’s Ryan Ramczyk, a classic Big Ten mauler with some surprising mobility in pass protection.
Raekwon McMillan, linebacker, Ohio State
McMillan showed tons of promise when studying the Buckeyes talented defense in 2015. With more duties in 2016, his stock is falling as he’s not looking nearly as athletic, instinctual, or apt in coverage as other inside linebackers prospects in this class who are passing him by.
McMillan remains a worthwhile two down linebacker, but his play, particularly in a loss to Penn State, was unimpressive. For a player that’s been a starter from day one in Columbus and hyped for a while, his on-field performance has been disappointing.
The outside wide receivers
While the little speedy slot type wideouts have impressed, the potential outside No. 1 type receiver prospects have been very disappointing. It should be said there were many players with potential but who still needed to put it all together and we really haven’t seen it yet from anyone.
Clemson’s Mike Willams has come back from a 2015 season lost to injury and been productive but he’s not looked all that explosive and is struggling to separate, mostly catching back shoulder fades and winning due to his size. Right now, he fits more the profile of a No. 2 possession WR, not a star.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is still a top prospect but hasn’t had the best year. The rest of the group have just been so-so; Travis Rudolph has had his moments, as have K.D. Cannon, and Jehu Chesson but no one is stepping up or looking worth a top pick in the first two rounds.
Local Prospect Focus
It’s important to give Colorado kids their attention, whether they played here as preps or are now as collegiate players we’ll be following local prospects all the way till April. This week it’s time to put the spotlight on two phenomenal cornerbacks at the University of Colorado.
Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Colorado
Awuzie was a well-known player coming into the season, being noted by many as a preseason All-Pac-12 selection and he hasn’t disappointed. Awuzie is exactly what the NFL is looking for: a versatile defensive back who could be used as almost a hybrid player. Chidobe is a nickel defender, where closer to the action he can impact the game as a physical run defender and explosive blitzer. He’s also physical in coverage and sticky.
Awuzie has the traits to be a scheme ace as a defender that can be moved around and be a defensive coordinator’s counter to big slot receivers or multiple tight end sets, allowing a play caller to switch formations without having to change personnel.
Given his complete and unique skill set, Awuzie may have a chance to slip into the late first round. In a deep cornerback class, he’s likely to go in the second round where he’d be excellent value.
Ahkello Witherspoon, CB, Colorado
As mentioned in the section about the No. 2 cornerbacks, Ahkello Witherspoon has also become a player worth knowing in the NFL draft. He has outstanding size at 6-foot-3 and 195- pounds, and he uses his length well. Witherspoon has shown promise as a press defender and can really blanket his opponent down the sideline.
I had the pleasure to see him live against Arizona State and he didn’t leave any room to opposing receivers. He needs to be sharper in closing on underneath cuts but he already shows some good short area quickness.
On top of his length, Witherspoon has shown some terrific balls skills as he’s tied for second in the country with 13 passes deflected. He’s already been tested by some top WRs and come out on top, having great games against Oregon’s Darren Carrington and Michigan’s talented receiver tandem.
As soon as more people find out about Witherspoon and his size, expect his stock to rise significantly as he has all the skills to be considered in the top three rounds. Ahkello has taken over for Ken Crawley, who’s started for the New Orleans Saints this season, and has been a significant upgrade for the Buffs defense.
The best secondary in the Pac-12 is lead by these two stud cover corners; NFL evaluators should soon take notice.
Updated Big Board Top 50
1. Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
2. Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
3. Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
4. Jabrill Peppers, DB, Michigan
5. Malik Hooker, FS, Ohio State
6. Malik McDowell, DT, Michigan State
7. Marlon Humphrey, CB, Alabama
8 Reuben Foster, ILB, Alabama
9. Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
10. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Stanford
11. Dalvin Cook, RB, Florida St.
12. Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
13. JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, USC
14. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
15. Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
16. Tim Williams, OLB/EDGE, Alabama
17. DeShaun Watson, QB, Clemson
18. Sidney Jones, CB, Washington
19. Takkarist McKinley, EDGE, UCLA
20. Solomon Thomas, DL, Stanford
21. Budda Baker, DB, Washington
22. Jarrad Davis, OLB, Florida
23. Quincy Wilson, CB, Florida
24. John Ross, WR, Washington
25. Corey Davis, WR, Western Michigan
26. Jordan Thomas, CB, Oklahoma
27. Dawuane Smoot, EDGE, Illinois
28. Cam Robinson, OT, Alabama
29. Cordrea Tankersley, CB, Clemson
30. O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama
31. Curtis Samuels, WR/RB, Ohio State
32. Devonte Fields, OLB/EDGE, Louisville
33. Charles Walker, DT, Oklahoma
34. Corn Elder, CB, Miami
35. Jourdan Lewis, CB, Michigan
36. Desmond King, CB, Iowa
37. Adoree Jackson, CB/WR/PR, USC
38. Mitch Trubisky, QB, UNC
39. Mike Williams, WR, Clemson
40. Taco Charlton, DE, Michigan
41. Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, UCLA
42. Cameron Sutton, CB, Tennessee
43. Chidobe Awuzie, DB, Colorado
44. Sam Hubbard, EDGE, Ohio States
45. Ryan Ramczyk, OT, Wisconsin
46. Demarcus Walker, DE, Florida State
47. Charles Harris, EDGE, Missouri
48. Bucky Hodges, TE, Virginia Tech
49. Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
50. Jake Butt, TE, Michigan
Next in line:
Cooper Krupp, WR, Eastern Washington
Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
Mason Rudolph, QB, Oklahoma State
Luke Faulk, QB, Washington State
DeShone Kizer, QB, Notre Dame
Steven Taylor, OLB, Houston