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NFL draft winners and losers: Why Trevor Lawrence's dimes vs. The Citadel actually matter

Eric Edholm
·11-min read

This was the last weekend of college football (we think) where the heavyweights won’t mostly be on the outside looking in. So it was a tough weekend of action, one that was marred by the late cancelation of Baylor-Houston.

Undeterred, we still unearthed a few prospect gems you might want to check out. And yes, we even revisited a few very well-known ones. Including one special quarterback who leads off our 2021 NFL draft winners for the week.

Winners

Trevor Lawrence — yes, even against The Citadel

There’s always the question of grading an elite prospect on an elite team facing lesser competition: Does it matter?

The answer is yes.

If you would be open to knocking a player such as Trevor Lawrence or a team such as Clemson had they struggled against The Citadel, then we have to be prepared to give them proper due for looking good against overmatched teams, even if that’s what’s expected.

Lawrence made some gorgeous throws against the Bulldogs — NFL throws, and high-level ones at that. In fact, we’re not even going to put his stats here; forget those for a minute.

Watch these two throws and tell me this is not a special talent.

Yes, level of competition matters. No, you don’t want to overvalue a performance such as this. But scouting prospects is a great deal about evaluating traits. And Lawrence is oozing with traits. These dimes came against good coverage, too, so perhaps we’re not even giving The Citadel enough credit, relatively speaking.

There’s always a chance that Lawrence doesn’t go No. 1 overall in 2021, and the situation has changed with the Big Ten returning and Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields getting to showcase his skills.

But from our vantage point, it has been a long time since a quarterback entered his final college season with Lawrence’s combination of arm, size, athleticism, high-end diagnostic skill and the toughness he showed in the two playoff games last season.

Throws such as the two he made against Clemson are the kinds of things NFL evaluators will remember more than they will the uniform of the team against which they came.

UCF WR Tre Nixon

Let’s revisit the 2017 Ole Miss football team a moment, shall we? And no, this isn’t about Hugh Freeze’s cell phone.

It’s about the extraordinary wealth of talent the 6-6 Rebels — who lost by 63 to Bama that year — had on their roster. In addition to some solid defensive prospects and two quarterbacks who ended up on NFL rosters, the skill-position depth and talent was also remarkable.

DK Metcalf, A.J. Brown and Van Jefferson were on that club, all now playing major roles on their respective NFL clubs. DaMarkus Lodge, who also was on that team, was on the Bengals’ roster this offseason. And those Rebels also featured future NFL players at running back (Jordan Wilkins), tight end (Dawson Knox) and tackle (Greg Little).

Located way down on the depth chart was redshirt freshman wideout Tre Nixon, who later would transfer to UCF after catching only one pass at Ole Miss. I has taken some time, but Nixon is starting to show that the 4-star Rivals rating he earned in high school is befitting of his ability.

Nixon was a standout in the Knights’ 49-21 win over Georgia Tech, catching four passes (on five targets) for 80 yards and two scores. His first TD capped a drive Nixon set up with a pretty 49-yard catch and run on a deep post, and his second was an over-the-shoulder beauty after he beat press-man coverage.

Entering the season, Nixon was earning Day 3 summer grades from scouts and will have to answer questions about his slender build (6-foot-2, 180 pounds) and whether he has the speed to be a deep threat in the NFL.

His well-polished footwork was on display last season, as well as in the 2020 opener. His quick feet and crafty route running allow him to separate, and Nixon’s short-area quickness is good for a player with his length.

After living in the shadows of that talented Ole Miss crew for a year — and for the past few years with 2020 Buffalo Bills third-rounder Gabriel Davis at UCF — Nixon could be in line for his best season yet in an explosive offense engineered by coach Josh Heupel and QB Dillon Gabriel.

Intriguing TE prospect on 2021 draft radar

For as much as the 2020 NFL draft class at tight end left us wanting more, the 2021 class at the position is shaping up as a windfall.

Only one tight end was selected in the first 90 selections this past spring, but be shocking if five or more populated that same range next year, depending on which underclassmen declare. The clear frontrunners at that spot, in whatever order: Florida’s Kyle Pitts, Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth, Miami’s Brevin Jordan (who had a great game Saturday against Louisville), Iowa State’s Charlie Kolar, Utah’s Brant Kuithe and Wisconsin’s Jake Ferguson.

They’re all technically eligible to stay in school for another year — and COVID-19 has changed things a bit — but we bet that majority of that group considers leaving.

And another name you can throw into that group is Boston College’s Hunter Long. Not as well known nationally as most of the others, Long nonetheless caught the eye of East Coast evaluators a year ago in his limited pass-catching opportunities (28 catches for 507 yards and two TDs on 40 targets).

Seriously, he averaged 10.8 yards after the catch in 2019. The year before, on four catches, he averaged 13.8 yards after the catch. On Saturday, in his 2020 debut, the irony was that Pro Football Focus charted him for 0 yards after the catch. But when you make grabs such as this — one of seven vs. Duke — it’s easily forgiven.

The 6-foot-5, 256-pound Long caught a touchdown and totaled 93 yards receiving in the opener. This is a tight end who can get vertical, and though he should gain more separation, Long’s great length, concentration and strength allowed him to make these two really tough throws in traffic — the second of which he was interfered on.

Long made several contested catches against Duke, like this beauty.
Long made several contested catches against Duke, like this beauty.
Watch Long's left hand be grabbed before the catch — and he still hauls the pass in.
Watch Long's left hand be grabbed before the catch — and he still hauls the pass in.

Long’s blocking is also respectable, as he gives good effort and can be effective in helping the run game. What’s his draft stock? Yet to be determined but he has the chance to push himself into that Harrison Bryant-Jace Sternberger spectrum as a draft prospect.

A once-elite recruit reemerges at Miami

When Greg Rousseau opted out for the 2020 season, it left the Miami defense thinner than expected up front, even with terrific Temple transfer Quincy Roche picking up some of the slack. But the Hurricanes have had a nice surprise from a one-time big-time recruit.

Jaelen Phillips has taken the long road to get to Miami, but the 6-foot-5, 266-pound Phillips might finally be starting to fulfill his potential. In Saturday night’s victory over Louisville, Phillips made his impact felt early. He registered three tackles (one for loss) and three QB hurries. Those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

Even with an offsides penalty near Louisville’s end zone, Phillips looked quick off the snap and was difficult to block, reminding folks of what a physical unicorn he truly is.

In the recruiting class of 2017, Phillips was Rivals’ No. 2 defensive end prospect (and No. 6 regardless of position). That was ahead of a few guys named Chase Young and K’Lavon Chaisson.

Phillips’ UCLA career got off to a hot start, but it cooled quickly, compounded by injuries, including a scooter accident that required multiple wrist surgeries. At one point, Phillips medically retired after leaving the Bruins following Chip Kelly’s arrival.

Now Phillips is reborn at Miami, and the fourth-year junior could be on the 2021 draft radar if he keeps making progress.

Here’s what Miami defensive line coach Todd Stroud said of Phillips just before the start of the season:

“I would put Jaelan Phillips in the 99th percentile of any player I’ve ever coached as far as physical attributes,” Stroud said. “He weighs 270 pounds right now, and he runs like a safety. His ability to run, jump, and twitch is exactly what you want at that position. The athlete meets the hype.”

Losers

Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas

If you entered this season looking to endorse a sleeper QB prospect, you might have come across Thomas’ name. The 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior has been a winner (23-3 record as a starter) and a producer, passing the 5,000-yard and 50-TD marks in his brilliant Mountaineers career.

Unfortunately, he’s gotten off to a slow start this season under new head coach Shawn Clark — technically Thomas’ fourth head coach if you include interim coaches. Thomas has thrown interceptions in both of App State’s games and was unimpressive in Saturday’s loss at Marshall.

Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas is off to a bit of a slow start in 2020. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Appalachian State QB Zac Thomas is off to a slow start in 2020. (Photo by Frank Jansky/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Most of his production came off scripted throws and to schemed-open receivers, although Thomas threw a pretty fade for a touchdown in the first quarter, something not many college QBs seem to do well these days.

This wasn’t by any means a poor performance for Thomas, much less a draft-stock-killing one. It’s just that his creativity and efficiency both have left something to be desired through two games, and the arm questions are fair. He has time left to prove he’s a draftable prospect, but there’s work to be done on that front.

Oklahoma State WR Tylan Wallace

All things considered, for a first game coming off his ACL injury last year — and with OSU needing to play three quarterbacks Saturday — Wallace did what he had to do to help the Cowboys get a victory over Tulsa in a sluggish performance.

After being shut down in the first half, playing to a stalemate against Tulsa’s length in the secondary, Wallace broke out with two 24-yard grabs and first downs. All four of his catches Saturday came from a freshman QB playing his first game.

The first half raised concerns about Wallace’s ability to separate from tight man coverage, beat press off the line and handle DBs with length at the catch point. He gets credit for grinding his way to a good statistical game, but Wallace still has some unanswered questions in what could be another incredibly deep draft year at wide receiver.

Western Kentucky EDGE DeAngelo Malone

After a strong showing in the opening loss to Louisville, Malone seemed to have a curiously quiet affair in the home loss to Liberty.

The 2019 Conference USA Defensive Player of the Year did little as a pass rusher outside a few nice pressures (one on a surprising bull rush that he’ll flash on occasion), but that’s not shocking. After all, Liberty runs a quick spread passing game, mixing in a lot of read-option and play-action looks. Not ideal proving grounds for a pass rusher such as Malone.

Where Malone struggled was against the run, namely maintaining gap integrity, staying blocked too long and missing some tackle opportunities that he normally makes. In fact, through two games (139 snaps), Malone has missed as many tackles (five) as he was credited for last season in 839 defensive snaps.

The NFL has Malone very much on its radar as he was earning top-100 grades this summer, even as high as the Round 2 range. His pass rushing talent and athleticism are very enticing, however, there are still some warts in his game that need fixing. A few were on display Saturday.

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