‘That was shocking to me’: College coaches on the NFL draft’s best fits and biggest drops

NCAA Football

The NFL draft elicits a range of strong opinions, but college coaches have a distinct viewpoint.

They have seen these players up close, both in games and studying them on film, often for multiple seasons. While their job is not to project how players will fare in the NFL, they can spot strengths and weaknesses, patterns in drafting and who works best with certain teams.

I spoke to a few college coaches before last week’s draft and to more than 25 in the days after, including head coaches in every Power 5 conference and some top assistants, to identify surprises, best fits and value picks, trends and how certain position groups could perform in the NFL.

Most coaches spoke anonymously, although I did join a video news conference for Stanford‘s David Shaw on Monday. Some draft picks left coaches shocked, but they also appreciate the challenge NFL teams face in making evaluations, especially during a pandemic.

“College coaches have to remember the high school coaches don’t get it sometimes when we don’t recruit their guys,” a Power 5 head coach told me. “We have a feel for which ones we like better, which ones are better, but the high school coaches only see what they have. And it’s the same thing as a college coach. I’m like, ‘Who is that guy? How could a Houston D-end be better than our D-end?’ But maybe he is. We just don’t know.”

Here’s an evaluation of the 2021 NFL draft through the eyes of college coaches. (Note: Coaches are identified by the roles they held during the 2020 season.)

‘The Tyreek Hill effect’

The recent surge of wide receivers drafted continued this year, as many teams prioritized smaller, speedier targets. Ten receivers were drafted in the first two rounds, and the first nine are listed at 6 feet or shorter. Five of them — Alabama‘s Jaylen Waddle, Ole MissElijah Moore, Purdue‘s Rondale Moore, Western Michigan‘s D’Wayne Eskridge and Louisville‘s Tutu Atwell — range from 5-foot-7 to 5-foot-10 and weigh between 155 and 190 pounds. Of the first nine receivers drafted, only LSU‘s Ja’Marr Chase (No. 5 overall, Cincinnati Bengals) eclipses 200 pounds.

College coaches attribute the trend to another receiver who stood shorter than 6-foot and weighed less than 200 pounds: Tyreek Hill, a Kansas City Chiefs fifth-round pick in 2016 and a five-time Pro Bowler and three-time All-Pro.

“For a while, everybody wanted big receivers, but here’s what you saw in this draft: Speed matters,” an SEC head coach said. “Tyreek Hill is a problem, and it may be a direct response to the Tyreek Hills of the world.”

A Big 12 coordinator added: “In space, what’s it matter if they’re 6-4?”

A Power 5 head coach said the New York Giants‘ first-round pick of Florida‘s Kadarius Toney (6-foot, 193 pounds) shows how the focus has shifted.

“Kadarius was a Wildcat guy. Kadarius was, ‘He’s in the game, get ready for fly sweep, or get ready for a trick play,'” the coach said. “He was an elite guy that way. But for a guy like that to go in the first round, I hadn’t seen that before. That’s the Tyreek Hill effect.”

Coaches expected the SEC’s top three receiver prospects — Waddle, teammate DeVonta Smith and Chase — to go in the top 10. An SEC assistant said the Miami Dolphins would take Waddle or Smith, if available, and an SEC head coach said Philadelphia “got a steal in DeVonta,” likening the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner to former Eagles star DeSean Jackson. An SEC defensive coordinator added, “The Giants wanted DeVonta bad. They were pretty livid when Philly moved in front of them.”

Chase opted out last fall, and the Bengals had been pegged to draft a tackle to protect quarterback Joe Burrow. But coaches weren’t shocked that Chase was the first receiver taken.

“People forget how talented Ja’Marr Chase is,” said a defensive coordinator who faced him in 2019. “He’s a special, physical receiver.”

Despite the first-round surge of smaller receivers, coaches said the two Moores — Elijah and Rondale — had the talent to go earlier. Elijah Moore, a Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2020, finished second in the SEC behind Smith in receiving yards (1,193).

“He’s freaking dynamic,” an SEC coach said. “People look at Waddle, Chase and Smith, but you forget about that guy. He’s pretty good.”

Rondale Moore earned consensus All-America honors in 2018, the first Big Ten true freshman to do so, but injuries limited him to seven games over the past two seasons.

“I actually thought, he’s going to be a surprise late first-rounder,” a Big Ten assistant said. “That game he played against Ohio State is one thing, but he’s like that all the time.”

Added a Big Ten coach: “He’s one of the most dynamic players I’ve ever seen live, but seven games in two years — the first round’s about guarantees. When he’s healthy and he’s playing, it’s guaranteed he’s going to be one of the best players on the field.”

Teams not adding smaller receivers in the early rounds loaded up on taller cornerbacks. Of the 14 cornerbacks drafted in the first three rounds, only one, Florida State’s Asante Samuel Jr., is listed as shorter than 6-foot, and five are listed as 6-2 or taller.

“Everybody is looking at taller cornerbacks,” an ACC head coach said, “because so many people are trying to stop the run and putting enough people in the box with the safeties, and man-to-man coverage has never been more important. Length at cornerback is so important.”

Mac Jones and other first-round debates

Like the rest of the football world, college coaches watched the quarterback draft drama unfold with great interest. They expected Clemson‘s Trevor Lawrence and BYU‘s Zach Wilson to go 1-2 but also wondered who would be next.

Coaches understood the San Francisco 49ers‘ pick of North Dakota State’s Trey Lance at No. 3 (“They’re not going to run a traditional offense with that kid,” a Power 5 offensive coordinator said) and why the Chicago Bears moved up to draft Ohio State‘s Justin Fields at No. 11 (“There’s a lot of pressure on the organization to win, and Justin’s talented enough, but man, they paid a large price,” a Power 5 coach said).

Alabama’s Mac Jones, who went No. 15 to the New England Patriots, generated the most polarizing debate.

“Mac Jones was the most ready out of those quarterbacks,” an SEC head coach said. “You talk about somebody who could throw into a tight window, somebody who could make all the throws. Everybody talks about the arm, but his arm is big enough.”

A Big Ten offensive coordinator agreed, calling Jones “the best guy I saw. That might be the best pick of the first round. … The ball was always where it should be, when it was supposed to be there, and the receiver always had a chance to do something with it.”

But another Power 5 coordinator who studied Jones and Alabama’s offense saw a historically elite group surrounding him, plus some physical limitations.

“I was not surprised that he dropped,” the coach said. “He was just throwing routes versus air to the best players in the country with an unbelievable running back, awesome blocking. I don’t see his game translating. He might prove me wrong, and if anybody can do it, it’s the Patriots.”

Coaches also debated the first defensive players drafted: South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn to the Carolina Panthers at No. 8 and Alabama cornerback Pat Surtain II to the Denver Broncos at No. 9.

“I was shocked Surtain was not the first corner taken,” a Power 5 offensive coordinator said. “He was an eraser.”

But an SEC coach who faced Horn described a versatile corner who could cover the slot and the perimeter and who became dominant last season.

“He caught people’s attention with the 40 time,” the coach said, “but the tape matches the speed, and that’s why he was drafted so high.”

The first round featured two AAC defenders in Tulsa linebacker Zaven Collins (Arizona Cardinals) and Houston defensive end Payton Turner (New Orleans Saints). Collins won national defensive player of the year honors in 2020, but he also added 11 pounds between his pro day and his NFL weigh-in.

The challenge with Collins, AAC coaches say, is where to put him in an NFL defense.

“I don’t know that he’s fast enough to be an outside linebacker,” one coach said. “Maybe he’s a 4-3 defensive end, or he could be an outside linebacker who plays over the tight end in an odd scheme. I’m not quite sure what he is. He’s a really good football player, and he’s a giant guy who can really move.”

The Saints’ pick of Turner surprised some coaches. At 6-foot-6, Turner was noticeable and put up solid numbers the past two seasons (nine sacks, 18.5 tackles for loss). But an AAC coach questioned whether Turner could excel playing the wide-9 technique — lining up far outside tight ends and speed-rushing the quarterback — in the NFL.

“That was shocking to me,” another AAC coach said. “He’s big and he had been there, but he was never a player that you were like, ‘This guy’s a sure thing.’ [Former Houston defensive lineman] Ed Oliver, you knew.”

The first round somewhat surprisingly included two running backs in Alabama’s Najee Harris (24th, Pittsburgh Steelers) and Clemson’s Travis Etienne, who reunites with Lawrence in Jacksonville. An ACC head coach noted that Etienne excels as a receiver and said the Jaguars made “a really smart pick,” while other coaches like Harris’ outlook more.

“He’s bigger and sturdier,” an ACC defensive coordinator said. “To me, that’s more like [Derrick Henry] from the Titans. If he hurts a knee or an ankle, he’s going to be back and be fine. The guy from Clemson, everything’s based on him with speed, and he’s smaller. You’ve got to be able to take all that grind in the NFL.”

Coaches generally liked the late first-round picks, especially Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II (26th, Cleveland Browns), Minnesota wide receiver Rashod Bateman (27th, Minnesota Vikings) and Miami defensive end Gregory Rousseau (30th, Buffalo Bills). A Big Ten offensive coordinator said of Bateman, “The guy can fly,” and he expects him to thrive in Baltimore‘s play-action passing game.

There was more debate about Penn State outside linebacker Odafe Oweh, who ran a sub-4.4 40 at his pro day but didn’t record a sack in seven games last year after notching five in 2019. The Ravens picked Oweh 31st overall.

A Big Ten offensive coordinator said of Oweh, “This guy is really dynamic, and he can do everything,” while a Power 5 coach was less convinced, saying, “He runs a 4.3 but didn’t get a sack last year. You’ve got to be a football player, too.”

Pac-12 is the overlooked league for prospects

The Pac-12’s quest for greater exposure took a new twist during the draft. The league’s delayed start to the 2020 season, many notable opt-outs, teams limited to as few as four games and only two postseason entries (Oregon and Colorado) prevented the NFL from getting complete on-field evaluations.

“This COVID thing really impacted our conference more than any other conference,” Shaw said. “Take a guy like [Stanford quarterback] Davis Mills. ‘Gosh, why did he come out? Not enough football.’ Well, if he plays six more games on the pace that he was, that’s 3,600 yards conservatively. … It would have helped to have more opportunities, more film.”

Mills is among the Pac-12 players who coaches thought could have been drafted higher. He started only 11 total games for the Cardinal but averaged 301.6 passing yards in 2020 and completed two-thirds of his attempts in his final two seasons.

Seven quarterbacks went before Mills, selected by the Houston Texans early in the third round.

“He didn’t have a ton of games under his belt, but I think he’s pretty damn good,” a Pac-12 coach said. “He can make all the throws: quick game, intermediate in-breaks, intermediate out-breaks, and he can throw it down the field. He’s got size, touch, a talented guy.”

Washington safety Elijah Molden became the defensive version of Mills on draft weekend. Coaches couldn’t believe Molden was still available at the end of the third round, when the Tennessee Titans drafted him No. 100 overall.

A three-time All-Pac-12 selection, Molden had four interceptions and three forced fumbles in 2019 and played well during Washington‘s four-game season last fall.

“I would have pegged him second [round] or higher,” a Pac-12 offensive coordinator said. “He was the most impressive player on a defense [with] a bunch of really good players.”

Another offensive coordinator who faced Molden added: “I don’t think we completed a pass on him. He made so many tackles in the run game, he was a good blitzer, he had the measurables. No idea why he dropped.”

Coaches felt similarly about Stanford’s Paulson Adebo, another Pac-12 defensive back drafted in the third round. Shaw said both Adebo and Stanford offensive tackle Walker Little (second round to Jacksonville) might have been first-round picks if they didn’t opt out of the 2020 season.

Other Pac-12 players drafted later than expected included USC defensive tackle Jay Tufele (fourth round, Jaguars), Stanford wide receiver Simi Fehoko (fifth, Dallas Cowboys), UCLA wide receiver Demetric Felton (sixth, Browns), USC defensive tackle Marlon Tuipulotu (sixth, Eagles), Oregon cornerback Thomas Graham Jr. (sixth, Bears) and Oregon State running back Jermar Jefferson (seventh, Detroit Lions).

A Pac-12 coach called Tufele “a second-round guy, but he went in the fourth,” while adding that Felton is “a steal in the sixth round,” especially if he can complement elite speed with better hands. Jefferson had 15 100-yard rushing games for the Beavers and finished with 2,923 yards and 27 touchdowns in 27 games.

“He can be a more productive back than guys who were drafted ahead of him,” a Pac-12 defensive coordinator said.

“He’ll find a way to stick,” a Pac-12 head coach added.

There were some Pac-12 selections who met or even exceeded draft forecasts. A Pac-12 coordinator said Oregon safety Jevon Holland (second round, Dolphins) and USC wide receiver Amon-Ra St. Brown (fourth round, Lions) went where he expected. Oregon State cornerback Nahshon Wright (third round, Cowboys) was a surprise Day 2 pick.

“The physical traits created a lot of interest,” a Pac-12 coach said of the 6-foot-4 Wright. “It’s hard to teach that type of length.”

Day 2 surprises and best value picks

Notre Dame linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah‘s long wait became a story of the first two nights of the draft. Owusu-Koramoah, the 2020 Butkus Award winner and a unanimous All-American, fell to the Browns midway through the second round, most likely because of a heart issue.

Coaches who faced the Notre Dame star were as surprised as anyone to see him fall.

“The Browns got a steal,” a Power 5 coach said. “He’s a first-rounder. That was one of the best linebackers I saw in the league. He could knock the s— out of you, and that kid could cover.”

An ACC coach added, “One of the best players we faced.”

Two linebackers drafted shortly after Owusu-Koramoah, Missouri‘s Nick Bolton (Chiefs) and Ohio State’s Pete Werner (Saints), also drew good reviews. An SEC coach loved Bolton’s sideline-to-sideline speed, while coaches in the Big Ten expect Werner to absorb and execute complex NFL schemes well.

One coach heard that an AFC team had considered drafting Werner in the first round.

“He’s a heck of a player,” a Big Ten coach said. “[Ohio State] asked him to do a ton, and you never saw him out of position.”

The Big 12 was the only Power 5 league not to produce a first-round pick, although coaches felt TCU safety Trevon Moehrig (second round, Las Vegas Raiders) deserved to be one. Moehrig earned second-team All-America honors in 2020 and was a two-time first-team All-Big 12 selection.

“Little surprised he didn’t go sooner,” a Group of 5 coach said. “He’s a corner playing safety. He’s got that kind of coverage skills, that kind of speed, and he’s a really good tackler.”

Coaches like the outlooks for both SEC quarterbacks drafted on Day 2: Florida’s Kyle Trask (second round, Tampa Bay Buccaneers) and Texas A&M‘s Kellen Mond (third, Vikings). A former SEC head coach thinks Trask might become the third-best quarterback in the draft, behind Lawrence and Wilson, while other coaches say he will benefit from working with Tom Brady in Tampa.

Mond has time to develop behind Kirk Cousins after blossoming as a senior under coach Jimbo Fisher and during the pre-draft process.

“He climbed up people’s boards after the Senior Bowl,” an SEC coach said. “He played his best ball at the right time. You may not hear from him early, but two years down the road, Kellen Mond’s going to be a quality backup who at some point will get an opportunity to run a show.”

Defensive linemen didn’t dominate the top of this year’s draft like in the past, but coaches cited several midround sleeper picks. Pitt‘s Patrick Jones II (third round, Vikings) and Rashad Weaver (fourth round, Titans) both jumped out. An ACC coordinator thought Weaver was better than several defensive ends drafted before him.

Other midround line selections eliciting praise included TexasJoseph Ossai (third, Bengals), Iowa‘s Chauncey Golston (third, Cowboys), Oklahoma‘s Ronnie Perkins (third, Patriots), Tulane‘s Cameron Sample (fourth, Bengals), Ohio State’s Tommy Togiai (fourth, Browns) and Iowa’s Daviyon Nixon (fifth, Panthers). An SEC defensive coordinator said Texas A&M defensive tackle Bobby Brown III (fourth round, Los Angeles Rams) has the potential to be an NFL starter.

A Big 12 coach said of Ossai, “If he could play where he doesn’t have to drop a whole lot, he’ll be a plus player. He was [Texas’] hardest guy to prepare for. That’s a good pick for [Cincinnati].” Coaches think New England is a good spot for Perkins, who had 5.5 sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss in six games after being suspended for the first five because of a failed drug test.

Some Big Ten coaches were surprised to see Nixon, an Outland Trophy finalist and the league’s defensive lineman of the year in 2020, tumble to the fifth round.

“A great pick by Carolina, and if he plays consistently, they’ve got a really good player,” a coach said. “He was just inconsistent. The flash plays were unbelievable, but then there were times where he disappeared.”

Coaches appreciated the Falcons’ historic pick of Florida tight end Kyle Pitts — “He’s generational,” a Power 5 offensive coordinator said — but they saw value throughout the position during the draft. Several ACC coaches mentioned Boston College‘s Hunter Long (third, Dolphins), while both Penn State’s Pat Freiermuth (second, Steelers) and Miami’s Brevin Jordan (fifth, Texans) are seen as effective downfield weapons when healthy.

Georgia‘s Tre’ McKitty (third, Los Angeles Chargers), SMU‘s Kylen Granson (fourth, Indianapolis Colts) and Ohio State’s Luke Farrell (fifth, Jaguars) all drew positive reviews.

“The kid from BC, the kid from Penn State, McKitty, the kid from Miami, the kid from Ohio State, those guys can all be good,” an ACC defensive coordinator said. “If you compare them to the kid from Florida, they all look terrible. But he’s one of the best tight end prospects ever.”

Day 3 of the draft featured several notable running back picks, including Oklahoma State‘s Chuba Hubbard, the nation’s leading rusher in 2019, who went to Carolina in the fourth round. Coaches expect MemphisKenneth Gainwell, who opted out last season after piling up 2,069 all-purpose yards as a redshirt freshman in 2019, to succeed as a pro.

The Eagles drafted Gainwell early in the fifth round.

“I thought he would go a little higher than he did,” an AAC coach said. “He’s probably the best of those running backs that have come out of Memphis, and all of those guys have had pretty good careers. He’s uber-talented, very versatile. The best, most explosive, of those guys.”

Late-round steals and notable undrafted players

College coaches accustomed to finding under-the-radar recruits for their rosters appreciate what NFL teams do toward the end of the draft, and even afterward with free-agent signings.

Several mentioned Cincinnati safety James Wiggins (seventh round, Cardinals) as a late steal. An AAC coach noted that Wiggins’ size (5-foot-11, 209 pounds) might concern teams but added, “He was such a great open-field tackler. You say, ‘OK, we got him,’ and all of a sudden he’d make a tackle.”

Iowa linebacker Nick Niemann (Chargers) kicked off a sixth round that featured several players who stood out to college coaches. They included Georgia center Trey Hill (Bengals), Houston wide receiver Marquez Stevenson (Bills), Wisconsin cornerback Rachad Wildgoose (Bills), Auburn wide receiver Seth Williams (Broncos), South Carolina wide receiver Shi Smith (Panthers) and North Carolina wide receiver Dazz Newsome (Bears).

Newsome and Williams saw wide receivers on their teams selected earlier, but coaches say both project well.

“Very, very dynamic slot receiver,” an ACC coach said of Newsome. “He went very late. He was excellent, so I thought that was a really good value pick.”

A Power 5 coach added of Williams: “He’s fast but not nearly as fast as [Anthony] Schwartz, but a better receiver.”

Of Smith, an SEC defensive coordinator said, “I was a little surprised he went as low as he did. He was a really talented kid in this league.”

Several coaches mentioned BYU defensive tackle Khyiris Tonga (Bears) as a strong seventh-round addition, especially if he can cut his weight.

“For an odd-front team, put him on the center, he is so strong and quick-twitched that he can last in the league,” a Power 5 coordinator said. “To get him in the seventh round was a plus.”

Coaches were surprised to see several players go undrafted, including Alabama linebacker Dylan Moses, TCU safety Ar’Darius Washington, USC wide receiver Tyler Vaughns and Florida State defensive tackle Marvin Wilson, a longtime resident of Mel Kiper’s Big Board. Wilson and Moses didn’t clear the medical rechecks.

“He could have left last year and been a third-round pick,” an ACC coordinator said of Wilson.

A Big 12 coach believes Washington, who signed with the Ravens, should last in the league “for a long time.” A Big 12 coordinator expects the same for Kansas running back Pooka Williams Jr., who rushed for 2,382 yards and 12 touchdowns in college and signed with the Bengals.

“I know he’s not very big, but if that guy can’t play in the NFL, I don’t know who can,” the coach said.

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