News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft All-Upside Team: Trey Lance starts at QB, Levi Onwuzurike and Joseph Ossai star on defense

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.

QB Trey Lance, North Dakota State

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.

RB Demetric Felton, UCLA

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.

That’s the kind of weapon certain offenses around the league will covet.

WR Simi Fehoko, Stanford

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…

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.

WR K.J. Stepherson, Notre Dame

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.

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.

TE Brevin Jordan, Miami (FLA.)

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.

T D’Ante Smith, East Carolina

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.

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.

T Walker Little, Stanford

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.

G Jalen Mayfield, Michigan

Mayfield’s highlight reel of pancakes is right up there with pretty much any offensive lineman’s in the class.

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.

G Quinn Meinerz, Wisconsin-Whitewater

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?

C Kendrick Green, Illinois

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.

DI Levi Onwuzurike, Washington

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.

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.

DI Milton Williams, Louisiana Tech

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.

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.

EDGE Joshua Kaindoh, Florida State

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.

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.

LB Dylan Moses, Alabama

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.

LB Cameron McGrone, Michigan

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.

CB Trill Williams, Syracuse

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.

CB Kelvin Joseph, Kentucky

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.

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.

S Jamien Sherwood, Auburn

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.

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.

S Andre Cisco, Syracuse

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.

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