Zach's Draft Corner: What to Watch, Who to Watch
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
The college football season has finally arrived! While I’ve previewed plenty of players in my season previews, additional research/film study of various players have led me to realize that I have overlooked a couple of key players at the various positions. As such, before I walk you through your viewing schedule for Labor Day weekend, here are a few more prospects to keep your eye on this season.
Brian Lewerke, QB - Michigan State University, Junior
The 6'2", 212-pound Lewerke works in a slow, balanced offense at Michigan State, so he went pretty unheralded when people were looking at stats (2793 yards, 59% completion, 20 touchdowns, 7 interceptions in 2017). However, the tape shows a very strong quarterback who can accurately hit every level of the field. Lewerke stands in the pocket to deliver good passes, but has very good mobility to escape the pocket when needed. He is also very intelligent, making the correct reads and generally making good decisions. His issues come when he seemingly gets a little too hyped for big games, leading to inconsistencies. He can sometimes get hung up on "Madden" throws (i.e., I will just try to get it into this way-too-tight window, no problem), even though safer throws are there if he continues through his progression. He is sometimes too aggressive, but if he can learn to be a little more selective, he has as good of a chance as any to be QB1 next April.
Miles Sanders, RB - Penn State University, Junior
Always an elite return guy behind Saquon Barkley, 2018 is his show for Penn State. Sanders is a big play running back with elite speed, especially for his size (5'11", 224 pounds). He is less patient than Barkley, which can be a good thing, as he is more willing to just hit the hole and go. Penn State’s running game should be in good hands, so long as Sanders doesn’t drop it. His biggest issue is with ball security, as he had 4 fumbles as a freshman on 60 touches, and 1 fumble on 42 touches in 2017 as a sophomore.
D.K. Metcalf, WR - Ole Miss, Redshirt Sophomore
You may have seen the eye-popping statistics hauled in by A.J. Brown and overlooked his teammate, the 6'3", 225-pound Metcalf. Nobody would blame you, but you might be missing the better prospect at receiver. Chiseled like a Greek God, Metcalf is truly an outside receiver, while Brown plays mainly in the slot. Metcalf has elite athleticism, but is also surprisingly nuanced given his inexperience. While he doesn't run a full route tree, he puts a lot of variations in his routes that are beyond his years (e.g., different levels when cutting, varying speeds, etc.). He is also a great blocker for a receiver. In 2018, I want to see him run more breaking routes to see if he can get separation from his breaks in addition to his route nuances and athleticism. If he can do that, Metcalf is a special talent.
Kelvin Harmon, WR - North Carolina State University, Junior
Another receiver that I previously overlooked, 6'3", 213-pound is another big receiver with first-round aspirations. Harmon is a very complete receiver, having great size, enough straight line speed to be effective at his size, quickness in and out of his breaks, and strong hands at the point of the catch. The one thing that sets Harmon apart is his elite footwork throughout his routes and after the catch. He may not be quite as athletic as Metcalf, but he has proven to be more well-rounded in his route running and his jump-ball skills. The 2019 season may very well be the “Year of the Receiver.”
Yodny Cajuste, OT - West Virginia University, Senior
Cajuste doesn’t stick out on tape because he won’t overpower anybody. However, the 6'5", 322-pounder will always be in the right position and will effectively block almost anyone. Cajuste is an exceptional pass protector, allowing zero quarterback hits and only 12 hurries on 446 pass protection snaps in 2017. He is also good-to-great as a run blocker, though West Virginia doesn’t run quite as often. Cajuste will take one guy out of the play on runs, but won't be the mauler who overpowers the first guy and gets to the second level to get another. He still has plenty of value, and could even work his way into the first round next year.
Jerry Tillery, DT - Notre Dame University, Senior
At 6'7" and 305 pounds, Tillery has Deforest Buckner size and is well suited for 3-4 end or 3-technique in a 4-3. Though he is a super athletic tackle, he sometimes tries to win almost too much with technique. Given his height and athleticism, there are times when you want to see him use his speed to get around a guard rather than try to win a battle of technique, especially when it is obvious he is overmatched. He can stay too high sometimes, but usually stays surprisingly low for a guy his size. He needs to improve technique if he wants to truly move up into the first round conversation, but he has the physical ability to do so.
Anthony Nelson, DE - University of Iowa, Junior
Another giant on the defensive line, the 6'7", 271-pound defensive end is so long that he doesn't seem very athletic or explosive. However, when you really look at the tape, he'll make your jaw drop. Coming into his junior season, Nelson has more career pressures than anyone else in the Big Ten, while also finishing 7.5 sacks in 2017. In addition to his athleticism, he has really honed his technique over the years. Even further, he is reliable in run defense. His long arms and overall length allow him to maintain distance from even the biggest offensive tackles, making his style something that most tackles don’t typically see. He doesn't have the sheer athleticism of a guy like Nick Bosa, but he still finds a way to influence almost every game. He will be an unheralded day 2 pick as a LEO, but will have a long and successful career as a guy who can play in any situation and succeed.
Dre Greenlaw, LB - University of Arkansas, Senior
Traditionally undersized at 6'0" and 230 pounds, Greenlaw has been incredibly productive with over 250 career tackles thus far. Unfortunately, he does not have much talent surrounding him on the Razorback defense. He may see a dip in production this year, as he will be learning a new system with a new coaching staff this year. However, he is a reliable tackler, has the speed to go sideline to sideline, and has the tenacity and wherewithal to rip at the ball before the defender goes down. He's a guy to watch, and if he improves his play strength, he could see himself climb up linebacker rankings.
Kris Boyd, CB - University of Texas, Senior
He might measure in at only 6'0" and 190 pounds, but Boyd has great length for his height, and is functionally a couple inches taller than his listed height due to his long arms. Boys has great athleticism too, with speed and quickness that will fit in the pros. Boyd has strong technique everywhere above the knees, including making plays on the ball, mirroring his hips with the receiver, and pressing the receiver at the line. His one issue, which is big, is his footwork, especially in his backpedals and transition. He just seems awkward, like he hasn’t grown into his legs. If he can really hone his footwork, this is a first-round talent.
The sheer amount of college games on at any given time can be completely overwhelming. Every week, in the TV Guide section of my column, I will choose the top two games at any given time slot and outline the various prospects you can watch in those games. That way, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and hit the “Previous Channel” button on your remote to toggle between games chock full of pro prospects. Here is your guide for week one (all times Eastern).
Thursday, August 30
Northwestern at Purdue, 6:00 PM, ESPN
Since the first week of college football doesn’t overlap any meaningful professional games, the Power Five conferences have spread out opening week to five nights of college goodness. There are not too many matchups of great teams on the first Thursday, but there is some intrigue here with Northwestern at Purdue. Most of the intrigue lies with Northwestern, where Paddy Fisher (redshirt sophomore linebacker, #42) is contending for a first round draft position and the top overall linebacker in the class. Fisher leads a Wildcat defense that also includes Montre Hartage (senior cornerback, #24), Joe Gaziano (junior defensive tackle, #97), and Nate Hall (senior linebacker, #32) as draft-eligible prospects with a legitimate chance of hearing their names called in April. On offense, Northwestern is led by Clayton Thorson (senior quarterback, #18), who is coming off of a torn ACL in 2017. Scouts love Thorson’s intangibles, but his already weak physical traits make the injury a serious threat to his draft stock. The 2018 season will be very important for Thorson to prove he belongs, and a strong start against Purdue is necessary.
While Purdue is typically seen as a weak team in the Big Ten, they do have some talent of their own. Jacob Thieneman (senior safety, #41) leads a defense that will hope to limit Thorson’s passing attack, while Kirk Barron (senior center, #53) and Dennis Edwards (senior guard, #64) anchor an offensive line that hopes to improve on a promising first year under head coach Jeff Brohm.
Friday, August 31
Utah State at Michigan State, 7:00 PM, Big Ten Network
This game will be a good first look at some of the prospects on Michigan State, including the above-mentioned Brian Lewerke (junior quarterback, #14). Lewerke leads an offense with some dynamic and balanced weapons, including Felton Davis III (senior wide receiver, #18), L.J. Scott (senior running back, #3), Matt Sokol (senior tight end, #81). On defense, Khari Willis (senior safety, #27), David Dowell (junior safety, #6), Justin Layne (junior cornerback, #2), Raequan Williams (junior defensive tackle, #99), and Joe Bachie (junior linebacker, #32) all have hopes of being drafted from a talented Michigan State team that could compete for a Big Ten East Division title this year. Unfortunately, nobody on Utah State has legitimate hopes of being drafted this year, so the game should not be very competitive. Once halftime rolls around, feel free to switch over to…
Western Kentucky at Wisconsin, 9:00 PM, ESPN
Wisconsin’s first test should also be pretty easy, as Western Kentucky also boasts zero legitimate prospects this year. As such, Wisconsin’s elite offensive line should provide plenty of running room for Jonathan Taylor (sophomore running back, #23), as well as a clean pocket for Alex Hornibrook (junior quarterback, #12) to throw to Quintez Cephus (junior wide receiver, #87). Wisconsin’s defense should also have a field day, where T.J. Edwards (senior linebacker, #53), Andrew Van Ginkel (senior linebacker, #17), Olive Sagapolu (senior nose tackle, #99), and Ryan Connelly (senior linebacker, #43) should be able to handle Western Kentucky without issue.
San Diego State at Stanford, 9:00 PM, Fox Sports 1
San Diego State at least has a few prospects to watch on defense and special teams. Ronley Lakalka (senior linebacker, #39) and Parker Baldwin (senior safety, #33) lead a San Diego State defense that should be dominant once they reach Mountain West play, while John Baron II (senior kicker, #29) is one of the best kicker prospects in the nation. Stanford’s vast array of weapons will be a good test for the Aztecs, but two talented prospects will likely not be enough for San Diego State.
On the more interesting side, Stanford’s powerful offense will get its first action, with Bryce Love (senior running back, #20), JJ Arcega-Whiteside (Junior wide receiver, #19), Kaden Smith (junior tight end, #82), Nate Herbig (junior guard, #63), Jesse Burkett (senior center, #73), A.T. Hall (senior tackle, #75), Brandon Fanaika (senior guard, #71), and Trenton Irwin (senior wide receiver, #2) all hoping to get their seasons off to a productive start. On defense, Bobby Okereke (senior linebacker, #20) and Alijah Holder (senior cornerback, #13) should easily dispose of a weaker San Diego State offense. Jake Bailey (senior punter, #14) is one of the best punting prospects in the nation, but may not see much run in his first week of action.
Saturday, September 1
Oregon State at Ohio State, 12:00 PM, ABC
Our first college football Saturday. It’s a wonderful thing. To kick off our day, we have the Urban Meyer-less Ohio State taking on Oregon State. While Oregon State lost their only true prospect in Xavier Crawford to transfer, Ohio State has enough talent to make this game a must-watch. Nick Bosa (junior defensive end, #97) may very well be the first overall pick next year, while Parris Campbell (senior wide receiver, #21), Dre'Mont Jones (junior defensive tackle, #86), and Robert Landers (Junior Defensive Tackle, #67) all have first round aspirations with a strong 2018 campaign. Outside of Campbell, Ohio State’s remaining receivers (Johnnie Dixon (senior wide receiver, #1), K.J. Hill (Junior Wide Receiver, #14), Binjimen Victor (junior wide receiver, #9), and Austin Mack (junior wide receiver, #11) all have the athletic profile to get drafted, but need to show the production to go along with it to have a real chance. Michael Jordan (junior guard, #73) and Isaiah Prince (junior tackle, #59) anchor an offensive line that will look to clear room for Mike Weber (junior running back, #25). On the back end of the defense, Kendall Sheffield (junior cornerback, #8), Damon Arnette (junior cornerback, #3), and Jordan Fuller (junior safety, #4) hope to continue Ohio State’s recent tradition of strong play in the secondary.
Florida Atlantic at Oklahoma, 12:00 PM, FOX
You may think that all of the prospects here play for Oklahoma, but Lane Kiffin has put Florida Atlantic on the map. Devin Singletary (junior running back, #5) may be even more dynamic and productive than Bryce Love, and will compete for the title of best running back in the country. On defense, Jalen Young (senior safety, #18), Azeez Al-Shaair (senior linebacker, #2), and Shelton Lewis (senior cornerback, #3) will certainly have their hands full with the explosive Sooner offense, but each are talented in their own right and hope to slow Oklahoma down.
For Oklahoma, Rodney Anderson (junior running back, #24) hopes to cement his status over Singletary as the top running back. “Hollywood” Marquise Brown (junior wide receiver, #5) certainly brings the glitz and glamor to the wide receiver position, but it’s unknown how much Baker Mayfield’s replacement (Kyler Murray) will affect Brown’s ability to produce. Ben Powers (senior guard, #72), Bobby Evans (junior tackle, #71), and Dru Samia (senior tackle, #75) anchor a line that should open plenty of holes for Anderson and Murray to run. While the Big 12 isn’t known for its defense, Prentice McKinney (senior safety, #29) and Caleb Kelly (junior linebacker, #19) are both talented enough to hear their names called next April.
Washington vs. Auburn in Atlanta, 3:30 PM, ABC
If you can only watch one game this Saturday, this game right here is one of the two candidates you should consider. On one side, you have the new powerhouse of the PAC-12 in Washington. Boasting one of the strongest bookends in the country, Trey Adams (senior tackle, #72) and Kaleb McGary (senior tackle, #58) are behemoths that will hope to prove their mettle against a strong Auburn defense. Myles Gaskin (senior running back, #9), Jake Browning (senior quarterback, #3), and Drew Sample (senior tight end, #88) will face their toughest test of the year, and a strong game by the Husky offense could be a huge boost to all of their stocks. The strength of Washington’s defense lies in their secondary, with Jordan Miller (senior defensive back, #23), Taylor Rapp (junior safety, #7), and JoJo McIntosh (senior safety, #14) all being strong prospects to hear their names called early in next April’s draft. Greg Gaines (senior Defensive tackle, #99) will look to replace the production of Vita Vea on the defensive line. Other potential prospects that could be drafted late with a strong 2018 season include Tevis Bartlett (senior linebacker, #17), Jaylen Johnson (senior defensive end, #92), Chico McClatcher (junior wide receiver, #6), and Shane Bowman (senior Defensive tackle, #96).
For Auburn, Jarrett Stidham (junior quarterback, #8) and Darius Slayton (junior wide receiver, #81) will face one of their toughest challenges of the season in the strong Washington secondary. Prince Teno Wanagho (junior tackle, #76) will look to give Stidham enough time to find any holes possible in that secondary. Though they are largely a lost breed in today’s NFL, Chandler Cox (senior fullback, #27) is one of the top fullbacks in college football, providing a valuable blocking and receiving weapon out of the backfield. While Dontavius Russell (senior defensive tackle, #95) and Derrick Brown (junior defensive tackle, #5) are the true strength of the Auburn defensive line on the interior, Marlon Davidson (junior defensive end, #3) and Nick Coe (Redshirt sophomore defensive end, #91) are hoping to get their names on draft boards, and a strong performance against the Washington tackles could do just that. Auburn certainly does not have the top-end talent that Washington does, but they boast plenty of names that could work their way into draft consideration with strong 2018 campaigns, including Ryan Davis (senior wide receiver, #23), Javaris Davis (junior defensive back, #13), Jamel Dean (junior defensive back, #12), Jeremiah Dinson (junior defensive back, #20), Nate Craig-Myers (junior wide receiver, #3), Will Hastings (senior wide receiver, #33), Darrell Williams (senior linebacker, #49), Mike Horton (junior interior OL, #64), Marquel Harrell (junior tackle, #77), Deshaun Davis (senior linebacker, #57), Montavious Atkinson (senior linebacker, #48), and Kam Martin (junior running back, #9). As a bonus, true sophomore linebacker Big Kat Bryant (#1) has one of the best names in college football (that is not a nickname).
Tennessee vs. West Virginia in Charlotte, 3:30 PM, CBS
Tennessee has accumulated plenty of talent with their prestigious history, but the woeful coaching has not developed that talent much at all. Right now, Tennessee has two prospects that will certainly be drafted in Jauan Jennings (junior wide receiver, #15) and Nigel Warrior (junior safety, #18), the latter of which has just about as perfect a name as you can get for a safety. Outside of them, Keller Chryst (senior quarterback, #19) hopes to regain the promise he showed as the quarterback of Stanford. Darrell Taylor (junior linebacker, #19), Quart'e Sapp (junior linebacker, #14), Todd Kelly, Jr. (senior defensive back, #24), Kyle Phillips (senior defensive end, #5), Jonathan Kongbo (senior linebacker, #99), Shy Tuttle (senior defensive tackle, #2), Micah Abernathy (senior defensive back, #22), Daniel Bituli (junior linebacker, #35), and Alexis Johnson (senior defensive tackle, #98) round out a defense that all came into college highly recruited, but have yet to show the cohesion necessary to make them true prospects at this point. Madre London (senior running back, #31), Chance Hall (junior tackle #76), and Drew Richmond (junior tackle, #51) are the offensive equivalents. Tennessee could certainly have plenty of talent drafted if the new coaching staff can turn around the program, so they are still important to watch.
The true talent in this game, though, lies with West Virginia. Will Grier (senior quarterback, #7) is competing for QB1 in this draft, with Yodny Cajuste (senior tackle, #55) garnering some first round talk himself. David Sills V (senior wide receiver, #13) and Gary Jennings (senior wide receiver, #12) make a strong set of receivers that should see plenty of production with Grier at quarterback. However, with the lack of talent on defense in the Big 12, Tennessee may be this group’s toughest opponent. A dominating performance could do wonders for their perception throughout the season.
Michigan at Notre Dame, 7:30 PM, NBC
This is the other candidate for the game you should watch if you can only watch one game this Saturday. Michigan begins their hopeful season towards Jim Harbaugh’s first Big Ten title, and it will be led by perhaps his most talented quarterback since he took the helm for the Wolverines in Shea Patterson (junior quarterback, #2). Karan Higdon (senior running back, #22) is very productive when healthy, and the 6’8” Zach Gentry (senior tight end, #83) should be a reliable safety blanket for Patterson while he adjusts to the Michigan offense. Michigan also boasts one of the most talented defenses in the country, with Rashan Gary (junior defensive tackle, #3), Devin Bush (junior linebacker, #10), Chase Winovich (senior defensive end, #15), Lavert Hill (junior defensive back, #24), Khaleke Hudson (junior linebacker, #7), and Tyree Kinnel (senior defensive back, #23) all being locks to be drafted next year outside of a catastrophic injury.
Michigan will be immediately tested by a talented Notre Dame defense, led by a trio of first-round hopefuls in Jerry Tillery (senior defensive tackle, #99), Julian Love (junior cornerback, #27), and Te'Von Coney (senior linebacker, #4). Drue Tranquill (senior linebacker, #23), Nick Coleman (senior safety, #24), and Shaun Crawford (senior cornerback, #20) all provide valuable support for the Fighting Irish, and are late round prospects. On offense, Notre Dame has some talent, with Alex Bars (senior tackle, #71), Sam Mustipher (senior guard, #53), Nic Weishar (senior tight end, #82), Alize Mack (senior tight end, #86), and Dexter Williams (senior running back, #2) all hoping to start 2018 strong and work their way into draft consideration. Notre Dame also boasts one of the strongest pairs of specialists in the country, with Tyler Newsome (senior Punter, #85) and Justin Yoon (senior Kicker, #19) each competing for the top spot at their respective positions.
Louisville vs. Alabama, 8:00 PM, ABC
This matchup will certainly boast plenty of talent. Unfortunately for Louisville, most of that talent plays for Alabama. Jaylen Smith (senior wide receiver, #9) and Micky Crum (senior tight end, #83) are strong weapons for the Lamar Jackson-less Louisville, and G.G. Robinson (junior Defensive tackle, #94) will be drafted next April if he decides to declare. This matchup, though, is worth watching because of Alabama.
The Crimson Tide have, quite possibly, the most talented defense in the country. Deionte Thompson (junior safety, #14), Anfernee Jennings (junior Outside linebacker, #33), Raekwon Davis (junior Defensive tackle, #99), and Mack Wilson (junior linebacker, #30) all could be drafted in the first round, with Isaiah Buggs (senior Defensive tackle, #49), Terrell Lewis (junior linebacker, #24), and Quinnen Williams (Redshirt sophomore defensive end, #92) all having mid-round grades at this point in their career. On offense, Jonah Williams (junior tackle, #73), Ross Pierschbacher (senior guard/center, #71), and Lester Cotton (senior guard, #66) hope to all come off the board before the end of the second round, and should open plenty of running lanes for Damien Harris (senior running back, #34). Irv Smith, Jr. (junior tight end, #82) has potential, but is relatively unproven. Also, keep an eye out for the hero from the National Championship Game, Tua Tagovailoa (True sophomore quarterback, #13). He isn’t eligible to be drafted, but he is fun to watch.
Navy at Hawai'i, 11:00 PM, CBS Sports Network
Time for the nightcap. Not a ton of talent here, but if you want more football, here you go. Navy’s Zach Abey (senior wide receiver, #9) makes his transition from quarterback with hopes of getting drafted next year. Meanwhile, personal favorite Jahlani Tavai (senior linebacker, #31) from Hawai'i looks to stuff Navy’s unending running attack.
Sunday, September 2
Miami at Louisiana State, 7:30 PM, ABC
Without any pro games, we have Sunday night football for college! Another candidate for best matchup of the weekend, Miami and LSU can get all of our attention on Sunday. Miami has perhaps the best defense in the ACC, led by Joe Jackson (junior defensive end, #99), Jaquan Johnson (senior safety, #4), Shaquille Quarterman (junior linebacker, #55), and Michael Jackson (senior cornerback, #28). Michael Pinckney (junior linebacker, #56), Tito Odenigbo (senior Defensive tackle, #94), and Gerald Willis III (senior Defensive Lineman, #9) all could garner late round grades with strong 2018 campaigns, and a good game against LSU would be a fantastic start. On offense, Ahmmon Richards (junior wide receiver, #82) and Travis Homer (junior running back, #24) are the explosive playmakers, with Tyree St. Louis (senior tackle, #78) being a candidate to become a quick riser with more exposure. Malik Rosier (senior quarterback, #12) has a chance to be a late round selection if he can learn to protect the football.
For LSU, as has become their tradition, a defense with uber-talented individuals is the name of the game. Greedy Williams (Redshirt sophomore cornerback, #29), Devin White (junior linebacker, #40), and Rashard Lawrence (junior defensive tackle, #90) all have first round talent, with Breiden Fehoko (junior defensive end, #91) and Edwin Alexander (junior nose tackle, #99) being likely mid-round selections. Garrett Brumfield (senior guard, #78) is one of the better guards in the class, and Foster Moreau (senior tight end, #18) could be an interesting late round pick. The key to LSU’s ceiling this year, though, is Joe Burrow (junior quarterback, #9), a transfer from Ohio State. Frustrated with Ohio State’s desire to make him a runner, Burrow was the most talented passer on the Buckeye roster last season. After graduating early in the spring, Burrow transferred to LSU and might be the best passer they have had on their roster in a very long time. If Burrow can solve LSU’s quarterback woes, the Tigers might be a dark horse National Championship candidate.
Monday, September 3
Virginia Tech at Florida State, 8:00 PM, ESPN
We end week 1 with a Monday night party in Tallahassee. Virginia Tech does not have the level of talent that they are used to, but still have some prospects worth watching in Ricky Walker (senior Defensive tackle, #8), Yosuah Nijman (senior tackle, #69), and Divine Deablo (redshirt sophomore safety, #17).
Florida State, however, has just as much talent as they are used to. Demarcus Christmas (senior defensive tackle, #90) and Brian Burns (junior defensive end, #99) are a dangerous duo on the defensive line, and Levonta Taylor (junior cornerback, #1) and A.J. Westbrook (senior safety, #19) form a strong secondary. On offense, Derrick Kelly II (senior guard, #74) and Alec Eberle (senior center, #54) are two of the better interior linemen in the country. Jacques Patrick (senior running back, #9) and Nyqwan Murray (senior wide receiver, #8) are solid skill position players, and both are draft-worthy. And your "Damn, I'm old!" moment of the week? Asante Samuel Jr. is a true freshman cornerback at Florida State.
You can follow Zach on Twitter here!
Stay tuned to 49ersHub for more great draft coverage