Some reflections, both in general and based on what I saw at the weekend…
Spencer Rattler (QB, South Carolina)
Another six sacks conceded by South Carolina’s shocking offensive line and that only tells half the story. Rattler was constantly harassed, pressured or hit. Despite this, he still managed to complete 23 passes, show off his natural arm talent, scramble and create to extend plays and break off big runs (including an impressive 16-yarder under duress). South Carolina’s O-line is giving up exactly five sacks per game, tied for worst in the whole of college football along with Colorado’s shambles of a line. In comparison, Washington is giving up 0.6 sacks a game, Oregon 0.7, Duke 0.8, Michigan one sack, Miami 1.2, Florida State 1.3, Ohio State 1.7 and even Kentucky has improved to 1.6 per game. Rattler isn’t getting any attention because the Gamecocks are mostly dreadful but he’s finally developed into the player his talent suggested he could be. He should be getting so much more draft focus. He looks and plays like a mini-Mahomes and he has the talent and ability to be a plus starter at the next level. Seeing him still find a way, somehow, to look as good as he does under constant pressure is a major feather in his cap. He’s a collector’s item — a QB who will actually face less pressure in the NFL.
Caleb Williams (QB, USC)
Back-to-back defeats and a second game where Williams had moments of adversity. However, he is everything teams are looking for in terms of improvisation, creativity, pure arm talent and star quality. It’s surprising that USC haven’t done a better job building a better supporting cast around Williams, who remains a cast-iron guarantee to be the #1 pick. I only currently have three players graded with legit, high-end round one grades — Williams, Marvin Harrison Jr and Brock Bowers.
Quinn Ewers (QB, Texas)
It’s another shoulder injury for Ewers and although reports suggest he won’t necessarily miss the rest of the season, it has to be a possibility. Against Houston he combined the routine, easy short-passing game Steve Sarkisian utilises with the natural flair he possesses to get the ball downfield. He played well, avoiding errors. The way he flicks his wrist and the ball flies out of his hand is, it has to be said, very impressive and almost Rodgers-esque. He is erratic at times but still highly talented. However, this is back-to-back years with shoulder injuries. He’s been playing lighter at sub-200lbs too. Scouts and certain GM’s (including John Schneider) are probably going to love the arm talent and potential with Ewers. However, the injuries are officially a thing to contend with. Tony Pauline recently reported Ewers is 50/50 on whether to turn pro in 2024.
Riley Leonard (QB, Duke)
Mere weeks after suffering a high ankle sprain, Leonard took the field against Florida State on Saturday. He had no business playing. He was clearly hobbled, couldn’t properly step into his throws, couldn’t function anywhere close to his best and he didn’t finish the game. His final play was a nasty hit that left him clutching his injured ankle. Protect your players. He still had one incredible side-arm throw that screamed ‘high draft pick’ but he otherwise functioned as if he was playing in a walking boot (and probably should’ve been). Teams/coaches need to look after their players in these situations. Leonard shouldn’t have played. I still like his upside potential a lot though and he clearly has the talent to go early in the draft.
Michael Penix Jr (QB, Washington)
One of the knocks on Penix is the difficulty with which to project his NFL potential given how little pressure he faces at UW. As noted earlier, Washington is giving up less than a sack per game (0.6). Against Arizona he faced plenty of pressure and adversity and I’m afraid he struggled. Arizona took away Washington’s timing, flustered the quarterback and he simply lacked any kind of poise, improv or ability to adapt. The offense ground to a halt. For all of the dazzling stat-bombs over the last few weeks, this is the kind of game scouts focus on. He can play pitch-and-catch against a bad Michigan State defense all day. He won’t get that in the NFL. He’ll be pressured, hit and he’ll need to make quick, precise reads. He won’t have a clean pocket or be playing in a system he’s mastered over a number of years. He’ll be playing in this environment a lot and this performance suggested he’s not entirely comfortable when life is muddied in the pocket and the timing is thrown off. The arm talent is still wonderful and very enticing but this game is a bit of a reality check.
Will Howard (QB, Kansas State)
Bizarrely he was spelled against TCU and split drives with Avery Johnson but when he was on the field he was accurate, made key throws look easy and he showed off great running ability for his size. I really like Howard. I don’t know if he’ll ever be a top-end starter but there’s something there and he’d make an intriguing top-100 pick.
Brady Cook (QB, Missouri)
I don’t know if he’ll declare or not in 2024 and I’m not suggesting he’ll necessarily be a high pick one day but Cook can play. He is consistently playing an attractive brand of football — combining dynamic running with accurate throws to all levels of the field. Every time I watch Mizzou he catches the eye.
Jack Nelson (T, Wisconsin)
I don’t care where you play him. Left or right tackle, guard. The guy can play. He locks on and finishes blocks. He’s powerful and aggressive. He’s a good player who I think deserves a second round placing at least.
Troy Fautanu (T/G, Washington)
One of the big reasons Washington give up so few pressures is the scheme, the other is the play of Fautanu. I was way more impressed than I expected to be watching him on tape. He’s just so comfortable with his technique and plays with great control. He can lock on to finish blocks, he can shadow speed rushers and hold his own versus power. He reminds me a lot of Alijah Vera-Tucker (former USC, now with the Jets) and similarly could be used at guard or tackle at the next level given his size. I really like him.
Tyler Guyton (T, Oklahoma)
Big, athletic, brilliant. He is this year’s Darnell Wright and is destined to be a first round pick. Every time I watch Oklahoma the big right tackle stands out. He has a great chance to be a top-12 pick.
Graham Barton (T, Duke)
His lack of length (approx 32-inch arms) will be an issue at left tackle, where he excels for Duke. Many are tipping him to kick inside to play center. What I’d say is this — his performance at tackle is top-level in college football. If he can play as well as he can blocking the blindside, he has the potential to be a star at center and deserves a strong grade (top-40). Jacob Monk, who actually did play center for Duke on Saturday, is also worth keeping in mind. I think he can play anywhere along the interior and deserves early round three consideration.
Theo Johnson (TE, Penn State)
For a player listed at 6-6 and 264lbs, he moves so well. He has a gliding presence running routes and he makes a number of catches appear effortless. He’s very good at adjusting his body to gain a good catching position and he’ll be able to box-out defenders at the next level. Johnson also has soft hands, major blocking potential with his frame and he looks like he has speed to burn. Expect a strong combine. For me, he’s a potential second round pick.
Dallas Turner (EDGE, Alabama)
I can’t get excited about Turner — and that’s generally how I feel about the entire EDGE class. He looks small and quick and there are flashy moments. Does he look like a dominating edge rusher destined to go early in round one like many are projecting? Not to me. I currently have North Carolina’s Kaimon Rucker rated marginally higher (Rucker has a pass-rush win percentage of 21%, Turner’s at 20.1%). Teammate Justin Eboigbe might lack Turner’s flash but his size intrigues me more and he’ll be available later on.
Jer’Zhan Newton (DE/DT, Illinois)
I think he might best suited to playing 3-4 end but you can’t get away from the fact that he causes consistent, major disruption. Against Wisconsin he was a constant threat, either overpowering blockers to shove them back into the pocket or winning with a twitchy pass-rush move or a stunt. He was eventually ejected from the game for an unfortunate targeting call on a sack but that shouldn’t change how well he played up until that point. Newton’s pass-rush win percentage is 16.7%. He is the most disruptive defensive lineman eligible for the 2024 draft and it’s not really that close. He is a pure playmaker up front who should test well at the combine. Length and size will be monitored, however.
McKinley Jackson (DT, Texas A&M)
The Aggies didn’t play this week but I still wanted to touch on Jackson again, one of my favourites in this class. He’s just a hulking, brutish defensive tackle who equally plays stout and physical but still creates ample pass rush from the interior. He’s a heart and soul leader of the team and would fit perfectly into the Seattle’s D-line rotation. He’s their kind of guy, I think.
Howard Cross (DT, Notre Dame)
You have to give it Cross. As an undersized interior defender he holds his own and consistently finds a way to disrupt plays. His effort and intensity is impressive, he plays with quickness and penetrating ability. Whether he’ll be overwhelmed at the next level at his size is a question mark but there’s a lot to like here and his testing numbers will be interesting. He has a pass rush win percentage of 14.3%.
T’Vondre Sweat (DT, Texas)
Despite his enormous frame (he could stand to lose a few pounds, frankly) Sweat still manages to play a complete brand of football. He can be a stout nose tackle and he can also disrupt more than you’d expect as a pass rusher, registering a highly impressive 19.1% pass rush win percentage so far this year. Supposedly the light switched on for him in 2023 and he’s taking advantage. The talent is obvious. Keep him this motivated and he can be a good player at the next level.
Tyler Davis (DT, Clemson)
He’s kind of a forgotten man in the class really but whenever you watch Clemson’s D-line you do notice him. He’s very active and difficult to block. He might lack the star quality of a Dexter Lawrence or Christian Wilkins but he could make a very solid pro with a round three pick.
Cedric Gray (LB, North Carolina)
Linebacker is one of my least favourite positions to study unless a player shows off a very clear and obvious combination of agility, quickness and violence. I was enamoured with Logan Wilson in 2020 because for me it looked obvious what kind of career he was destined to have. I really liked Fred Warner in 2018. Alternatively, Jarrad Davis — who I also felt very strongly about — has not lived up to expectations. I haven’t seen any linebacker yet to get that excited about apart from Jeremiah Trotter at Clemson (who I really like). I have a block of names graded for early day three (pre-testing, which will change things based on athletic potential which is critical at this position). Gray is the only one between Trotter and the rest, nestled into round three. He can drop well, he fills gaps with a forceful attacking nature. He can shift around the field and tackle. I think he looks like a capable if unspectacular starter.
Jeremiah Trotter (LB, Clemson)
Every time I watch Clemson he seems to do something cool. He’s excellent defending the run, he looks like a good athlete who can drop. He has NFL bloodlines and is a former 5-star recruit. If you think linebacker is a vital need in the off-season and want to invest in the position, Trotter — for me — is a good bet.
I’m still struggling to find legit first round players for this draft. I currently have a breakdown of three legit R1 talents (high first round picks), nine other players I’d draft in round one (because you have to take someone) and 35 players marked with round two grades. That’s only 47 players, with 64 set to be taken in the first two rounds. Currently I think the draft is particularly weak at tight end, defensive end and safety. There’s depth at quarterback and defensive tackle. There’s also some good offensive linemen who will be available in the first three rounds. There are still players I need to watch but I’ve not missed anyone being rated highly by anyone else. I can’t say this is currently shaping up to be a deep draft but there’s still plenty of football to be played, not to mention the inevitable impact of the Senior Bowl and combine.
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