Now that NFL teams are busy trying to fill holes through NFL free agency, attention will soon turn to the 2021 NFL Draft and the value that can be added through a deep, talented draft class. It's here where teams will start to identify the best available draft sleepers and high-upside players.
The thing about “upside” is that it’s a nice catch-all term for whatever the heck you want because no one actually knows what it means.
NFL draft analysis would be a lot easier if we could really identify those guys with fulfillable upside. But no, “upside” is often used to describe an athletic player who is not yet particularly good at football. Below is a team full of players who fit that bill for one reason or another.
Lance was quite obviously good at football in his short time at North Dakota State, but he notably lacks in the accuracy department compared to the other top quarterbacks in the class. Over his career, his accuracy rate on passes targeted 10-plus yards downfield is only 36.3% — that’s nearly 20 percentage points lower than the leader in the draft class, Justin Fields (56.1%). Lance’s arm and legs are nothing short of special, though. What his tools could be is the reason why he’ll go early in the draft.
— NFL (@NFL) March 12, 2021
Felton makes the list because of what he’s capable of as a receiver. He finally became the bell cow in UCLA’s offense this past year, logging 132 attempts through six games. He earned a respectable 80.3 rushing grade on that hefty workload, but it’s his slot receiver pedigree that offers some untapped potential. He ran receiver routes at the Senior Bowl practices and legitimately looked like one of the most capable in attendance.
Demetric Felton froze ‘em????
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 27, 2021
That’s the kind of weapon certain offenses around the league will covet.
Fehoko is a physical monster. From a size-speed standpoint, he’s the closest thing to D.K. Metcalf in the class. While Stanford’s pro day is later this week, Fehoko has reportedly run in the 4.3s before at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds. And he can do this on a basketball court…
???? when’s the NBA draft? Are they havin a combine? Jk lolz. pic.twitter.com/hGxpsmnOP1
— Simi Fehoko (@Simi_Fehoko) January 22, 2021
Still, Fehoko didn’t have a 100-yard game for Stanford until his penultimate contest. Then, in their season finale, he blew up for 16 catches and 230 yards. He’s got game-breaking explosiveness but is nowhere near polished.
Way back in 2016 and 2017, it was then-freshman and sophomore K.J. Stepherson who was starting over the likes of future draftees Miles Boykin and Chase Claypool. He put up 462 yards as a true freshman before off-field issues began to derail his career. After multiple arrests for marijuana possession and shoplifting, Jefferson was kicked out of Notre Dame before eventually landing at Jacksonville State for an uninspiring 2019 campaign.
He’s one heck of an athlete and has a natural feel for the position that those within the Notre Dame program rave about. He just needs to stay focused and dedicated off the field.
Well his name is K.J. Stepherson and this is what he looked like as a *true freshman* pic.twitter.com/VGxQXK66Sd
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) February 22, 2021
Slot WR Kadarius Toney, Florida
Toney came to Florida as a high-school quarterback before converting to receiver, and he was a pure gadget player in the offense for much of his career. He broke out to a degree in 2020 with 70 catches for 977 yards, but he is still far from a polished route-runner.
The 6-foot receiver has also been utilized almost exclusively in the slot, where he took 86.4% of his snaps this past season. Can he make the transition from a gadget role to a complete No. 1 option? Time will tell.
Behold All Of #Florida WR Kadarius Toney's Touchdowns From The 2020 Season
PFF Stat: 39% Forced Missed Tackle Rate (1st Among WR)
2020 Stats (11 Games): 70 Rec, 984 Yards, 10 TD, 161 RuYards, 1 TD, 1 PR TD pic.twitter.com/0YS1PfGJjz
— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) December 29, 2020
Jordan is not yet 21 years old and has already racked up the third-most career receiving yards of any tight end in the draft class (1,358). He’s been accumulating YAC ever since he was a true freshman and has a class-leading 845 yards after the catch for his career. A big reason for that is because he’s more “big athlete” than actual tight end. Despite his speed, he was featured far more underneath, with a career average depth of target of just 7.8 yards. At 6-foot-2, 245 pounds, he could be a weapon as an H-back in the right offense.
• UAB vs. Miami, 8 p.m. EST
A prospect to watch closely tonight is Miami TE Brevin Jordan (6’3, 245, Jr.).
A do it all player at the position. He has natural hands, a mature route runner, and has lots of YAC ability. pic.twitter.com/iRBFxH0IQ3
— Jordan Reid (@Jordan_Reid) September 10, 2020
Smith certainly has the body to play tackle at the NFL level. At the Senior Bowl, he checked in at 6-foot-5 with 35 ¼-inch arms and 10-inch hands. Those are measurables that get you in the door for the NFL almost immediately, and you get even more intrigued when you see the way Smith moves at 294 pounds.
.@ECUPiratesFB LT D’Ante Smith will be a tremendous Day 2 value pick for some team. Many OTs being mocked higher than @B1GSmoove don’t have nearly his tools. Hard to get around someone with 35 1/4 arms (85 1/8 wing) and light feet. Great rep here vs. skilled rusher Quincy Roche. pic.twitter.com/afFFnZxl68
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 26, 2021
Smith never quite dominated the way you’d expect, given his level of competition. His 71.0 grade back in 2019 was his career-high, and he still gave up three pressures in his lone game this year against UCF.
We’ve seen Little play football for a grand total of 72 snaps over the last two seasons. Before that, he was a highly-touted recruit who produced the highest Sparq score of any incoming offensive linemen in the 2017 recruiting class. In slightly more than a year and a half at Stanford, Little had already developed into one of the better pass-protecting tackles in the country. Over his final seven career contests, he allowed just one pressure.
Little could very well have developed into the elite tier of tackle prospects and we just haven’t seen it.
Really like some of the things I've seen from Walker Little as a run-blocker, especially on double teams. Couple examples here.
– Pins & collapses the 3T's hip on the Deuce
– Nice fit & job stacking the 5T for the TE before releasing to pick off the shooting LB pic.twitter.com/vZzaFFuPin
— Brandon Thorn (@BrandonThornNFL) May 8, 2019
Mayfield’s highlight reel of pancakes is right up there with pretty much any offensive lineman’s in the class.
Jalen Mayfield doesn’t move defenders with momentum, he moves them with coordinated strength from the ground up
Knocks this 4T 5yds off the ball pic.twitter.com/vOYv7Yxrb9
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) January 28, 2021
What he can do physically for an offensive lineman who hasn’t turned 21 years old yet is obviously impressive, but it’s his consistency in pass protection that’s lacking from a draft perspective. He allowed 27 pressures as a sophomore in 2019 before playing only two games this past season.
We haven’t seen Meinerz face any sort of top competition outside of his week of practices at the Senior Bowl. While he was certainly impressive in his limited time there, it’s still a small sample size. The scary thing is, that lack of playing against top competition might make him under-drafted still. Meinerz is every bit a freak athlete with a 32-inch vertical and 4.86-second 40-yard dash at 320 pounds. His 4.47-second shuttle and 7.33-second three-cone are elite figures at the position, as well. If he had a season’s worth of tape in the SEC, would Meinerz be a first-rounder?
Wisconsin-Whitewater’s Quinn Meinerz at his pro day surpassed the 90th percentile historically among iOL in the 40, vertical, broad, short shuttle and 3-cone.
His stock skyrocketed after a dominant Senior Bowl and just got another boost with his pro day.pic.twitter.com/mtlFFtBz7s
— Anthony Treash (@PFF_Anthony) March 10, 2021
Green’s tape is arguably the most explosive of any interior offensive lineman in the class. He flies off the ball and can run with unsuspecting linebackers when he wants to — it’s why he tied Landon Dickerson for the Power 5 lead in big-time blocks last year despite only playing eight games and being jostled between left guard and center. What he can do physically at 315 pounds is different.
-Get After It pic.twitter.com/6C8sc3lc2m
— Duke Manyweather (@BigDuke50) March 8, 2021
Onwuzurike has arguably the best first step of any defensive tackle in the draft class, and it’s how he does the majority of his damage as both a run defender and pass-rusher.
Washington's Levi Onwuzurike vs. Notre Dame's Aaron Banks pic.twitter.com/NEMOUzET1B
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) January 27, 2021
That’s not a viable long-term strategy in the NFL, though, as no one — not even Aaron Donald — can get by based on first step alone. You have to have a Plan B in your arsenal, and so far Onwuzurike hasn’t shown much of that. After earning a 90.8 overall grade as a part-time player in 2018, he went backward to 82.5 in 2019 in a full-time role before opting out this past season.
As far as early pro-day figures are concerned, Williams has been a massive “winner.” At the EXOS Combine, Williams reportedly ran a 4.63 40-yard dash, vertical jumped 35 inches and did 32 bench reps — all at 286 pounds. Those are egregiously freaky numbers that don’t come around every day. They also started showing up on tape more and more as 2020 went on.
— Fran Duffy (@EaglesXOs) February 16, 2021
Williams finished with a 90.8 overall grade on 493 snaps this past season after completely remaking his body throughout his Louisiana Tech career. The competition level will keep him from getting drafted too high, but there’s a lot to work with in the future.
From a purely physical standpoint, Kaindoh is the closest thing in this class to likely first-rounder Gregory Rousseau. Listed at 6-foot-7, 265 pounds, Kaindoh is a former five-star who never quite lived up to that high billing for the Seminoles. His 24 pressures as a sophomore in 2018 would ultimately be his career-high. With the flexibility and athleticism he possesses at his size, though, Kaindoh has such a leg up on others in the class if he can develop some pass-rushing moves.
— Stadium (@Stadium) October 18, 2020
EDGE Joseph Ossai, Texas
Ossai’s allure comes not only from his freakish athleticism but also from his limited experience as a pass-rusher. In his first year as a starter in 2019, Ossai was more of an off-ball linebacker who dropped into coverage more often than he rushed the passer. This past year as a full-time edge, his production took off with an 81.1 run-defense grade and an 80.5 pass-rushing grade. After putting up a 41.5-inch vertical and 10-foot-11 broad jump at 256 pounds at the Texas pro day, Ossai may not last long come draft time.
At Texas pro day today, OLB Joseph Ossai is showing off his explosiveness with a 41.5-inch vertical at 256 lbs.
His best game at Texas was arguably the 2019 Alamo Bowl against Utah: 9 total tackles, 6 for loss, with 3 sacks.
— Titans Film Room???????? (@titansfilmroom) March 11, 2021
Moses’ explosiveness has been hyped since before he ever even stepped on Alabama’s campus. You couldn’t find a 2020 mock draft without his name in the first round before the 2019 season, but after an ACL tear followed up by a disappointing senior year where he earned a 56.4 overall grade, Moses is more “project” than “finished product” at this point. You see the physical tools in spurts, but his feel for the position leaves a lot to be desired.
Alabama's Dylan Moses beating Mekhi Becton off the edge at 20 years old…
dude is specialpic.twitter.com/6FyPGlMSVp
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) June 25, 2020
McGrone has some of the best range of any linebacker in the class. Watching him hunt ball carriers on wide runs, it’s easy to see how he could be an impact player in the NFL. The problem has been that his range has never quite translated in coverage. He’s earned coverage grades of 47.5 and 46.5 in his two years as a starter and failed to record a single pick or pass breakup.
I love watching Michigan LB Cameron McGrone… Guy seems to always be flying around. 2019 was first year as full time player taking over Devin Bush’s LB spot
Saw him live twice last year and came away really impressed pic.twitter.com/I7Yh07qzjC
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) July 13, 2020
Williams’ “upside” comes from the fact that: 1). He was the 16th-ranked player on Bruce Feldman’s Freak’s List in 2020, and 2). He was played out of position for what his skill set would bring to the table at the NFL level.
At 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, Williams has prototypical outside cornerback size, but he played in the slot in his last two years at Syracuse. After an encouraging freshman campaign that saw him earn a 69.2 coverage grade outside, it’s head-scratching that Syracuse moved him to the slot in the first place.
No highlight box needed. It won't take you long to find Trill Williams. pic.twitter.com/NzLVYip5Yp
— Andy Herman (@AndyHermanNFL) March 4, 2021
You see the flashes with Joseph. Any team drafting him early will undoubtedly point to the Alabama game where he allowed zero catches from three targets, hauled in an interception and earned an 85.9 coverage grade.
#Kentucky DB Kelvin Joseph received plenty of buzz this week. Kiper placed him 25th overall on his Big Board.
*Former 4-Star From LSU
*4 INT in 2020
*Opted Out Final 2 Games
Per PFF, Joseph had a stellar performance vs Bama.
24 Coverage Snaps
0 Rec Allowed
1 INT pic.twitter.com/a6m0qyeojB
— Steve Frederick (@_SteveFrederick) February 14, 2021
That wasn’t nearly indicative of the player we saw week in and week out for the Wildcats after transferring from LSU. He only earned a 70.7 coverage grade on the season before opting out of the final two games. With only 757 career snaps to his name, Joseph fits the “boom or bust” moniker.
Slot CB Rachad Wildgoose, Wisconsin
Wildgoose has some of the best man-corner physical tools in the class, even though Wisconsin seldom played man over the course of his career. On the 162 career snaps he played in man coverage, Wildgoose allowed only 11 catches from 33 targets for 185 yards and 10 forced incompletions. Combine that with his plus athleticism along with his physical playstyle, and you have an intriguing mid-round cornerback prospect.
✅ 4.4 speed
✅ Big Ten toughness
✅ Hits like this behind the LOS
— IKE Badgers Podcast (@IKE_Badgers) March 10, 2021
Sherwood is an uber-athlete at the safety position. At 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, Sherwood moves the way you’d expect a safety three inches shorter and 30 pounds lighter to move. That means when he comes downhill, he packs a punch.
Jamien Sherwood (#20) plays every play like this, always comes downhill with bad intentions. pic.twitter.com/l8TPb6iYxv
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) February 19, 2021
It’s that physicality that makes him one of the best tackling safeties in the draft — he's missed just 11 of his 129 tackling attempts in his career. Any man-heavy scheme could take advantage of his blend of size and athleticism to match up with tight ends with ease.
Cisco has been a roller coaster throughout his Syracuse career, with more combined picks and pass breakups than games played. The lows have been just as bad, though, with eight career touchdowns allowed and 27 missed tackles on 166 career attempts. With 4.3 speed at 200-plus pounds and still only 20 years old, Cisco can be a steal if you can coach out the lows on his tape.
Andre Cisco’s tape is a bit of a roller coaster (gives up some big plays/takes risks), but he can really click & close — dude has some legit speed/explosiveness.
— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) July 22, 2020