QB prospects dominate midseason winners and losers

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The college football season has delivered a slew of surprises so far. As a result, what. we thought about the 2022 NFL draft has dramatically changed.

Nowhere has there been more upheaval than at quarterbacks. Those expecting another five-QB first round in 2022 like we had in 2021 might be disappointed with the crop of QBs in this cycle, even if it hasn’t been all bad news on that front.

We take a look at the rough midpoint of the season at prospects at every position who have helped their causes the most — and those who have come up short to date.

Winners

Pitt QB Kenny Pickett

Let’s get this part out of the way: Pickett’s 8 1/4-inch hands are going to be an issue for some teams. Not all teams, but some. It surely will cause internal debate with a few clubs. If you’ll notice, he wears two gloves when he plays, just like another smaller-handed QB, Teddy Bridgewater.

Then again, 8 1/4 inches are about as small as we can recall. Nine is a common floor for some teams worried about ball security, especially for worse-weather franchises.

But Pickett is doing everything you could ask and more — albeit vs. a subpar schedule to date — as perhaps the most unexpected senior riser this college football season. He is completing 72% of his passes, with a 19-1 TD-INT ratio. Even vs. a few cupcakes, it’s an improved performance.

Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) runs out of the pocket against Georgia Tech during the first half of an NCAA college football game, Saturday, Oct. 2, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)
Pittsburgh quarterback Kenny Pickett runs out of the pocket against Georgia Tech in October. (AP Photo/Mike Stewart)

Pickett might be the most improved quarterback in the country. His arm strength looks vastly different over the past two years, and now he has pushed himself into the Day 2 discussion (with his eyes on Round 1) after entering the year with mostly early- and mid-Day 3 grades.

Ole Miss QB Matt Corral

The loss to Bama was a bummer, but hardly a draft-stock killer. He fumbled once and didn’t generate a lot of big plays early in the game. There’s little shame or stigma attached to that. Kyler Murray had a pretty uneven game vs. Bama in his final college outing and still went No. 1 overall.

Corral has been fantastic outside of the Alabama defeat. He has four straight quality SEC matchups coming up and also has a terrific showdown with Liberty’s Malik Willis on Nov. 4. In a year when there might not be a head-and-shoulders QB1, Corral has put himself in a position to be considered as the first passer drafted if he keeps rolling.

Liberty QB Malik Willis

The hype train for Willis was strong this offseason, and yet there were real concerns among evaluators about needing to cut down on ball-handling errors and how he might improve his timing and ball placement.

To date, Willis has answered the call. He has been spectacular outside of a late fumble in the loss at Syracuse, his surprising three-pick game last week against Middle Tennessee State and a propensity to take too many hits and sacks.

Along with that comes these skills: terrific arm talent plus tremendous scrambling ability. Willis is incredibly hard to defend, and some creative NFL minds who are willing to revamp their offense to suit his skills could be handsomely rewarded.

Michigan State RB Kenneth Walker III

Walker received little fanfare outside East Lansing when he transferred to the Spartans this offseason, having looked good in two years at Wake Forest, albeit as a second fiddle there. With Michigan State, Walker has become the man.

He’s now a Heisman Trophy candidate and a bonafide NFL prospect. If he can show more pass-catching skill in the second half of the season, Walker’s rise in the draft will be fun to chart — assuming he declares following this breakout season with 913 rushing yards and nine TDs in seven games.

Walker is a bruising back with outstanding tackle-breaking ability, similar in ways to 2021 second-rounder Javonte Williams.

Penn State WR Jahan Dotson

Dotson might have been relatively quiet against Iowa, but he still caught eight passes. He is otherwise quite the noisemaker for the Nittany Lions, and we need to remember this in light of QB Sean Clifford’s injury.

Jahan Dotson has been a star for Penn State this season. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Jahan Dotson has been a star for Penn State this season. (AP Photo/Barry Reeger)

Dating back to last season, Dotson has 95 catches for 1,378 yards and 14 TD grabs in a 15-game span (along with a punt-return TD). The 5-foot-10, 178-pounder is going to need to run fast — really fast — at the scouting combine to compensate for his lack of size, but that’s the expectation in the scouting world.

We believe Dotson is a top-40 or 50 pick when it’s all said and done.

Kentucky WR Wan’Dale Robinson

Mostly a running back by trade at Nebraska, Robinson has been transformed into a Randall Cobb-ish role with the Wildcats — and it has been a resounding success. His production has simmered the past few games, but he remains a valued piece of the offense that opponents have tried to take away weekly.

Robinson looks like a starting slot receiver in the NFL with great yards-after-the-catch ability who can also be used as a runner and punt returner.

Colorado State TE Trey McBride

It’s a decent year for tight ends, finally, and McBride continues to rise on the list. On the surface, his five-game production looks decent to good: 42 grabs for 458 yards (10.9-yard average) and one TD. But the Rams have struggled to consistently throw the ball this season, and McBride is their one reliable target.

We were impressed with his outing at Iowa, fueling a near upset. McBride caught six passes for 59 yards, earning four first downs, and doing so against a stifling Hawkeyes defense inflate those numbers.

McBride is working himself into top-75 consideration, boasting a nice all-around game. His run blocking needs work and development, but the effort is there.

Central Michigan OT Bernhard Raimann

Still very new to football, and extremely new to the offensive line, Raimann looks to be a prospect rising in a major way. The 6-foot-7, 305-pound converted tight end is in Year 2 of playing left tackle, and he’s ascended from an undraftable prospect entering the season to one who could land in Day 2.

Raimann has put two excellent tapes against SEC competition (Missouri, LSU) and has the length (nearly an 81-inch wingspan), athleticism and upside to keep boosting his stock, especially if he lands at the Senior Bowl.

Mississippi State OT Charles Cross

Get to know Cross, who is only a redshirt sophomore but has been terrific so far this season after flashing a year ago. He cut down on his penalties and he remains raw from a technique standpoint. 

But it’s hard to find prospects who have the combination of athleticism, length, explosiveness and violent play as the 6-foot-5, 305-pound Cross. If he keeps it up, he could be a top-20 pick.

Michigan EDGE Aidan Hutchinson

We loved him before this season, and scouts did too. The question was how he’d respond from a season-ending leg injury in 2020 that forced Hutchinson to change his draft plans and stay in school another year.

The answer, it turns out: just fine.

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) warms up before playing against Nebraska in an NCAA college football game Saturday, Oct. 9, 2021, at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln, Neb. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

Michigan defensive end Aidan Hutchinson (97) warms up before playing against Nebraska. (AP Photo/Rebecca S. Gratz)

Hutchinson opened the season by giving Washington’s talented left tackle, Jaxson Kirkland, the business and pretty much has been doing the same no matter who the Wolverines edge is facing. Nebraska couldn’t block him last week either.

The 6-foot-6, 265-pound edge rusher has all but locked up a first-round landing spot so far.

Florida State EDGE Jermaine Johnson II

The Seminoles used to crank out pass-rush talent seemingly every year at one point, but Johnson might be their best pro prospect out of Brian Burns. He has been collapsing backfields consistently this season, using his long arms (34-plus inches), underrated pop and surprising flexibility to make his hay.

We also took note of the fifth-year senior’s ability to contain athletic quarterbacks such as Louisville’s Malik Cunningham and set hard edges against the run. The Georgia transfer has found a perfect home to showcase his emerging skills.

Alabama LB Henry To’oTo’o

Better than Christian Harris so far, To’oTo’o has arrived from Tennessee and stepped right in as a leader for Nick Saban’s defense. Although To’oTo’o wasn’t as impactful in the loss at Texas A&M, he possesses the quickness and instincts to be viewed as a three-down LB prospect at the next level.

Penn State S Jaquan Brisker

Brisker has become the Nittany Lions’ coach on the field in a lot of ways and a do-it-all safety with mass appeal. He checks off the boxes for size and athleticism, but his instincts separate him from the pack.

He has always been known as a big hitter, but Brisker also has come down with more big plays this season. He silenced Wisconsin with a game-sealing INT late near the goal line and had another pick last week that set up a TD at Iowa.

Brisker came into the season earning mid-round grades but now looks like a top-50 candidate.

Losers

Oklahoma QB Spencer Rattler

Perhaps our expectations were set too high following Rattler’s strong play down the stretch last season, but there’s no other way to say it: He just hasn’t met them, fair or not. That led to Rattler being benched (for the second time in two seasons) last week against Texas, only to watch his backup — ballyhooed freshman Caleb Williams — lead a furious comeback win.

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler has endured a rough start to the season, and his draft stock has fallen because of it. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler has endured a rough start to the season, and his draft stock has fallen because of it. (AP Photo/Jeffrey McWhorter)

OU head coach Lincoln Riley has yet to name a starting QB going forward, but we all can see which way the wind is blowing. But much like Jalen Hurts at Alabama, Rattler can impress NFL folks with how he handles his demotion and what he does from here on out.

Will Rattler transfer? Declare? We have no idea. But the idea of him being a top-10 pick in 2022 has gone out the window.

USC QB Kedon Slovis

Slovis hasn’t played consistently at a high level since his eye-opening freshman season of 2019, and now scouts — a surprisingly high number of whom held him in high regard this offseason — don’t know what to make of him after he (temporarily) lost his job.

Although Slovis regained some respectability with a few decent performances against Colorado and Utah, his stock remains in limbo. Another prospect whose short- and long-term prognoses are difficult to project.

Iowa State QB Brock Purdy

A dud against Iowa. A sharp performance vs. UNLV. Some shaky moments against Baylor. A good outing vs. Kansas.

Purdy’s up-and-down trend, which dates back to last season, is frustrating as heck to chart. For a player regarded as possessing keen instincts and a clutch, winner’s mentality, Purdy sure has been inconsistent and at times unreliable.

We see him as a future backup capable of winning games here and there in the NFL, but little more. In other words, he’s a Trevor Siemian clone.

Indiana QB Michael Penix Jr.

Entering this season, we saw an NFL quarterback. Now we really don’t.

Penix suffered a shoulder injury that really has impacted his stock, and it wouldn’t be a shock if he’s played his final snaps as a Hoosier, even if head coach Tom Allen hasn’t divulged what the plan is for Penix if he can get healthy before the end of the year.

Injuries have greatly marred the NFL draft stock of Indiana's Michael Penix. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

Injuries have greatly marred the NFL draft stock of Indiana’s Michael Penix. (Photo by Scott Taetsch/Getty Images)

But before that, he looked jittery and unreliable, no more so than in the loss to Cincinnati. Had the 2019 or 2020 version of Penix been out there for that game, maybe Indiana wins that one.

Clemson WR Justyn Ross

The 6-4, 205-pound Ross is one of the more physically blessed receivers in college football, but it’s been a tough return from a serious neck injury that knocked him out for all of 2020. Ross certainly has been held back by Clemson’s lack of a passing attack this season, but it doesn’t negate the fact that Joseph Ngata has been the Tigers’ more consistent threat in 2021.

Ross is a first-round talent all day long, but his medical evaluation remains very murky.

South Carolina EDGE Jordan Strachan

The Gamecocks landed Strachan as a Georgia State transfer, after he wrecked the Sun Belt Conference with 10.5 sacks and three forced fumbles in 2020. It was viewed as coup leading up to the season, pairing Strachan with Kingsley Engabare to make — on paper — one of the more intriguing rush duos.

But Strachan, who received some later Day 2 grades this summer, has been a reserve in every game this season, averaging 18 snaps. He’s also likely closer to 220 pounds than his listed 250, scouts tell us, and probably must make it in the NFL as a linebacker. This season he’s mostly played with his hand in the dirt — when Strachan gets on the field, that is.

Ohio State CB Sevyn Banks

Considered the next up-and-coming DB gem to come out of Columbus, Banks has the traits scouts desire but not yet the great tape. The prospect who earned some top-50 type grades entering the year has been held back by a balky knee and has struggled when he’s played. 

Like Shaun Wade a year ago, Banks’ final chance to impress scouts has not played out the way many expected.

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