The NFL Draft is typically highlighted by prospects coming out of Power 5 programs. However, there are plenty of NFL stars who played for mid-major programs in college. Khalil Mack (Buffalo), Kevin Byard (MTSU), and Aaron Jones (UTEP) are just a few names. Only one non-power 5 prospect was selected in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft; Jordan Love out of Utah State. In the class of 2021, Trey Lance, the quarterback from North Dakota State (an FCS program), is already perceived as a first-round talent. However, there are many more names that, while a first-round selection is unlikely, can become day two or early day three selections in next year’s draft. There are five specific prospects whom I think, with a strong 2020 campaign, can climb up draft boards by next April.
Shane Buechele, Quarterback: Southern Methodist
Buechele, a transfer from the University of Texas, quietly had a great season for the Mustangs in 2019. He finished with nearly 4,000 yards of passing and 34 touchdowns to only ten interceptions in his thirteen games. He has had some injury troubles throughout his collegiate career, but is a potential NFL quarterback because of his arm strength. In all thirteen games, Buechele threw a touchdown pass of 30 yards or more. Although he is losing the AAC’s best receiving weapon in James Proche, Buechele still has Reggie Roberson and Kylen Granson as his primary targets to help him achieve more success in 2020.
He is a very accurate quarterback and has a strong mentality to never give up on plays. The Mustangs run somewhat of a west coast offense which favors Buechele’s big arm and willingness to move in the pocket. Many of SMU’s red zone touchdowns last season involved Buechele rolling to the right and making a strong and accurate throw on the run. In the middle of the field situations, Buechele often threads the needle on his pass attempts and takes the high risk – high reward play. He only has average size at 6’1”, but has proven to play bigger than his size when navigating the field.
While Buechele may not become a top five quarterback in next year’s draft class regardless of how the season plays out, he could very well cement himself as an early day three quarterback and land himself in a good situation on draft night.
Kenneth Gainwell, Running Back: Memphis
The 2021 running back class is headlined by Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, and Chuba Hubbard. However, the fourth spot on this list is up for grabs, and Gainwell, the redshirt sophomore from Memphis, has the potential to pencil his name in. Memphis has had a few day two running back draft selections in recent years, including Darrell Henderson and Anthony Gibson. Kenneth Gainwell could be the next name on that list.
In his first season as a starter, Gainwell averaged 6.3 yards per carry and finished with 1,459 rushing yards on 231 carries. He is most known for his blazing speed and ability to evade tackles. Gainwell had at least a 30-yard rushing touchdown in seven of his thirteen games last season. In addition to being a burner on the ground, Gainwell adds a strong amount of power in the necessary situations, specifically on third and short rushing attempts.
Traditional running backs are not as valued in the NFL as they used to be, but Gainwell is not your prototypical running back. In 2019, he tallied 51 receptions for 610 yards and 3 touchdowns. Memphis has become a great factory for hybrid running backs who can catch passes both lined up in the backfield and in the slot as a receiver. Gainwell will take this skill to the next level and be a dynamic threat in multiple facets for an NFL offense. With another strong campaign in 2020, Gainwell could very well hear his name called early in the 2021 NFL Draft as long as he declares.
Warren Jackson, Wide Receiver: Colorado State
If I had to choose the most underrated player in college football, I would choose Warren Jackson. The 6’6”, 220-pound receiver for Colorado State is an incredible athlete with all the tools to become the Rams next great playmaker in the NFL, following in the footsteps of Michael Gallup and Preston Williams.
Jackson dominated in 2019, hauling in 77 receptions for 1,119 yards and eight touchdowns. He was awarded the first team 2019 All-Mountain West Conference and was a Biletnikoff Watch List Player last season. What makes Jackson such a promising prospect is his physicality and his hands. Jackson was among the best in college football at coming down with the 50/50 balls in 2019. Because of his frame, Jackson is nearly impossible to out-jump or to bring down once he makes the catch. His route running tree is also very impressive, as he is a deep threat as well as a primary target in the middle of the field.
Jackson also brings a strong effort to run blocking and will willingly sacrifice his body to allow the running game to thrive. Sometimes, however, this strength does not translate to freeing himself at the line of scrimmage on a route. Usually, Jackson does not have problems with straight man or against zone coverage and consistently gets himself open against mostly inferior Mountain West cornerbacks.
In the NFL, Jackson will quickly emerge as a reliable red zone threat and can even become a team’s number one option if he improves his ability to create space against press man coverage. With another solid 2020 campaign of at least 1,000 receiving yards, Jackson will earn himself a spot on the 2021 Senior Bowl roster and can even become a day two selection like Michael Gallup was in 2018.
Patrick Johnson, Edge Rusher: Tulane
Johnson was the toughest of the five names for me to put on this list, as he is by no means a complete prospect. He took a step backwards in 2019, only totaling 35 tackles and four sacks. These totals were much weaker than his numbers in 2018, which included 50 total tackles and 10.5 sacks. Although there are some consistency issues, there is little holding Johnson back to having a monster season and putting his name in the edge rusher conversation for the 2021 NFL Draft.
Johnson is a two-time second team all-AAC player, and for good reason. He is an intelligent pass rusher who combines speed with awareness. Johnson’s side is tough to throw to, as he is a tremendous pass disruptor. Johnson has deflected nine pass attempts in the past two seasons and projects to add to that total next season. His speed on the edge is something to be valued, and he has a knack for coming up with sacks or tackles for losses in big spots. He had a momentum shifting sack in Tulane’s bowl game versus Southern Mississippi last season.
Johnson has also shown the ability to drop back and cover a tight end, which shows promise if teams want to deploy him as an outside linebacker in a 3-4 scheme. His 6’3”, 250-pound frame is ideal for a speed edge rusher at the next level. If he can become more consistent and develop some more sound pass rushing mechanics, Johnson’s name could rise up draft boards and he could become a Maxx Crosby-like selection for a team in need of speed on the edge.
Shaun Jolly, Defensive Back: Appalachian State
Shaun Jolly is undoubtedly the best defender in the Sun Belt Conference, so it was a must to include him as the defensive back who could be an early non-Power 5 draft selection. Jolly plays cornerback for Appalachian State, but is mostly used as a zone coverage corner, so a move to safety in the NFL is not out of the question.
Jolly had a huge season in 2019, hauling in five interceptions and returning two of them for touchdowns. In addition, he amassed 45 total tackles, eight pass deflections, and a fumble recovery. Jolly was among the best defensive backs in the country last season in denying receivers the ball, especially in the middle of the field. His ball instincts are off the charts, as he was notorious for breaking up receptions in the middle of the field. The zone coverage role that Jolly fills allows him to jump into the passing lanes or to help double cover a deep route so effectively.
In addition to Jolly’s ballhawk skills, he is a fundamentally sound tackler. In 2019, he missed just two tackles. Jolly’s skills in coverage combined with how few mistakes he makes should force NFL scouts to take notice of the Sun Belt product. He is probably the favorite to win the Sun Belt Defensive Player of the Year and could even attain some national media coverage if Appalachian State has another season in the top 25. With a good 2020 season, Jolly could become a top defensive back prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft.
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If each of these players have solid seasons in 2020, a day two or maybe even a day one selection could be waiting for them in the 2021 NFL Draft. All five have NFL-caliber talent and bring certain skills to the table that most prospects do not, and should be valued in the draft next April.